Infogate: the scandal that led to Vorster resigning
Some key events from this week in history are reflected in the following reports from the archives of the Argus’s 160-year-old titles.
IT IS said that John Vorster – a noted chess player – wryly confided after losing a game to long-time Paraguayan dictator Alfredo Stroessner during an official visit to the South American state that he had only been beaten because he’d considered it politic to let his host win.
Vorster, who replaced the assassinated Hendrik Verwoerd as prime minister in 1966, was shrewd in politics, too – and, like Stroessner (who came to power in a coup in 1954, and remained until 1989), wasn’t keen on losing.
But in the late 1970s, Vorster played his moves badly.
In today’s setting shameless state capture and multi-million rand profligacy at the highest levels, there could well be room for a perverse and fleeting nostalgia for the events of 1979, and the climax in June when the Erasmus Commission delivered its verdict on the infamous Information Scandal.
Infogate, as it came to be called ( or Muldergate, after Information minister Connie Mulder) was an elaborate, at least six- year- old, secret scheme to funnel millions of rands of state cash into selling apartheid, and putting a gloss on the failing experiment of race-based social engineering. Some of the money was used to launch the pro-government Citizen newspaper. The Erasmus Commission’s report, described of at t he time as “a dramatic document of 72 pages” – which, by today’s prolix standards, seems crisp – “squarely put the blame for the multimillion rand Information debacle on Mr John Vorster, former Prime Minister and now State President”, as the Argus reported it on June 4, 1979, the day on which the report was tabled in Parliament.
Vorster resigned, “in disgrace”, on that very day.
Whatever was praiseworthy in the delving, or the shamed departing, the lancing of this corruption boil had little effect on the greater moral and political corruption of the system, which only became more depraved as it became more embattled.
Even so, the exposure of the Info scandal was a telling juncture.
One of the reports on June 4, 1979 was headlined, “Like action- packed novel”, and describes how the Erasmus Commission’s final report “lends a dramatic final chapter to the disclosures about the covert and questionable practices that had been going on for years around the Department of Information”.
It told of “flashy cars, expensive holidays, jet-setting, and deals in which millions of rands changed hands secretly”, and provided glimpses “into the relationships which existed between the most powerful men in the country, such as former Prime Minister Mr B. J. Vorster and his security chief, General Hendrik van den Bergh”.
It went on: “The report is also larded with quotable quotes such as were a feature of the previous reports. One says: ‘Advocate van Rooyen lit the lamp as a result of which this inquiry was instituted.’
“Explaining Mr Koos Waldeck’s restraining role and why it was thought that he had been retired unfairly, the Commission says: ‘He could not be influenced in this way. He did not die a pupa in its cocoon and so, to change the metaphor, became a fly in the ointment to his chiefs. He became persona non grata and had to be got rid of and ousted from the department simply because he applied the brakes.’”
Another report described how businessman Mr Jan van Zyl Alberts “was involved with the former Department of Information to the tune of more than R16 million”, and that “hundreds of thousands of rands went through the private bank accounts of Dr Eschel Rhoodie (Information Secretary) and his wife and two brothers”.
There was tender interference, too, the former minister, Dr Connie Mulder, trying to “interfere with the State Tender Board as a director of Perskor in connection with printing contracts”.
Readers learned that nearly R6.5m “is still missing after dealings with American publisher Mr John McGoff to try to buy first the Washington Star and then the Sacramento Union”.
There were revelations that a Mr Cas de Villiers, “head of the front organisation, the Foreign Affairs Association, was a ‘ladies’ man who threw tantrums, bought costly cars, became involved with his female public relations officer, spent money dishonestly and liberally, and once in Europe left an important official tour to ‘go holidaying with a woman.’”
The most damning focus, though, centred on Vorster, whom the Erasmus Commission found had known “everything about the basic financial arrangements for the Information Department’s funds and was consulted about the secret fund as well as secret projects”.
And because “he did not disclose irregularities that came to his attention; concealed them from the cabinet and delayed for this considerable period taking purposeful steps to put an end to this wrong state of affairs, he is jointly responsible (with Info minister Mulder) for the fact that the irregularities continued, including the Citizen”.
The prime minister, John Vorster, seated at the head of the table among his cabinet colleagues at the start of a cabinet meeting. This was before the ‘Infogate’ bubble burst, ending the careers of Vorster and Dr Connie Mulder, in foreground.