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.

Weekend Argus (Saturday Edition) - - FRONT PAGE - MICHAEL MOR­RIS

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”.

PIC­TURE: IN­DE­PEN­DENT NEWS­PA­PERS AR­CHIVE/UCT

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.

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