Tony Heard (1937–2024)

03 April 2024 | Copy and Photo Supplied. Read time 6 min.
Tony Heard was awarded the Pringle Award (by the South African Society of Journalists) and the Golden Pen of Freedom Award (by the World Association of Newspapers), for the courage demonstrated in interviewing and publishing the OR Tambo interview in 1985.
Tony Heard was awarded the Pringle Award (by the South African Society of Journalists) and the Golden Pen of Freedom Award (by the World Association of Newspapers), for the courage demonstrated in interviewing and publishing the OR Tambo interview in 1985.

20 November 1937 – 27 March 2024

Cheers ‘Pops’

We are saddened to announce the passing of Tony Heard, who died peacefully on the morning of 27 March 2024, after a short illness. He was 86, and is survived by his beloved partner, Jane; his children, Vicki, Janet, Pasqua and Dylan; and their partners, John, Steve, James and Emma; his brother, Ray; grandchildren, Jessica, Tyler and Ella; and other family members. Tony was a fiercely independent thinker who has left an indelible footprint in journalism and beyond, with a lifelong commitment to non-racialism, media freedom and social justice. As a family, we mourn his passing and we thank him for his courage, his unwavering love, kindness, idealism and unique storytelling. He has caught his final wave: may he rest in peace.

Early days

Anthony Hazlitt Heard was born to George and Vida Heard in Johannesburg on 20 November 1937. His brother, Raymond, was born two years earlier. After their anti-fascist journalist father vanished without trace in August 1945, Tony then seven, and Ray, then nine, attended boarding school at Treverton College in KwaZulu-Natal, before both attended Durban High School. Tony matriculated in 1954. The two were beach boys from Durban, 1940s, both strong swimmers and surfers (which stuck with Tony throughout his life). Their mother, Vida, was also a journalist, and carved a successful career in the male-dominated industry while at the same time raising her two boys solo, without knowing the whereabouts of her husband, whose body has never been found.

From cub reporter to acclaimed editor

Soon after matriculating, Tony joined the Cape Times as a junior reporter, and studied part-time for a Bachelor of Arts followed by philosophy honours at the University of Cape Town. He also completed a shorthand and typing course at Pitman’s College in London. He became parliamentary reporter in 1958, then political correspondent. He covered the historic anti-pass Langa march led by PAC leader Philip Kgosana on 30 March 1960, which turned into a pivotal moment in his life. The march took place “nine days after mass police shootings at Sharpeville and Langa had brought the wrath of the world down on Dr HF Verwoerd’s government”.

Tony learnt the meaning of courage as he witnessed how two men – Kgosana, who led a peaceful march of 30 000 protesters, and Colonel Ignatius (Terry) Terblanche, who had been given orders to open fire – reached quick agreement to avoid a bloodbath at Caledon Square police station.

The two had negotiated “in my own hearing”, recalled Tony, that Kgosana would pull back the crowd on the grounds that he would be promised an interview with the justice minister. But there was a betrayal by the “cold-hearted” apartheid government and Kgosana was subsequently arrested when he returned to police head quarters for the interview.

Tony joined the Financial Mail as Cape editor in 1964, went to London in 1966 as senior correspondent in the SA Morning Newspapers Group office, and returned to South Africa in 1967 to take up the position of leader-page editor of the Cape Times.

He was appointed editor of the Cape Times in 1971. During his time, Cape Times reporters covered the brutality of the apartheid state. In one standout example, Chris Bateman and Tony Weaver exposed the killings of Gugulethu activists by police on 3 March 1986, in what became known as the “Gugs 7”.

In 1985, Tony took leave and went to England to quietly interview the banned ANC leader, Oliver Tambo. The full-page interview was published on Monday, 4 November, in the Cape Times on the op-ed page under the headline: “A Conversation with Oliver Tambo of the ANC”. The historic interview (the ANC had been banned for a quarter of a century) and an act of defiance by Tony in the name of finding peaceful solutions to problems in South Africa, made international headlines – and Tony’s phone rung off the hook. The significance of the moment was momentous: the ANC leadership had been given a voice in the mainstream press in SA for the first time since their banishment.

Tony was arrested at the office around noon on Friday, 9 November, taken by a “stockily built, taciturn” Lt Mostert and a polite, tall, athletic fellow”, Lt Liebenberg. He was charged with contravening the Internal Security Act, which made it illegal to quote a banned person with a minimum of three years in jail. Lawyers prepared an elaborate defence with the help of counsel Sydney Kentridge. He appeared in court more than a few times, and the story continued to generate world interest. The months passed, and the case eventually fizzled out, and the company was fined a paltry R300, with Tony being let off. Tony was controversially dismissed as editor in 1987 after he had refused to accept a R1 million package deal that he remain on the payroll for two years to write a history of the company but constrained from criticising the company.

Thereafter, he worked as a freelance journalist as an internationally syndicated freelance columnist, with contributions in the Los Angeles Times, among other reputable newspapers.

Committed to building a new SA

From 1990 to 1994, Tony was a media consultant to the rector of the University of the Western Cape, the late Professor Jakes Gerwel. In the new South Africa, under the presidency of Nelson Mandela, he served as special adviser to Kader Asmal, the Minister of Water Affairs and Forestry (1994–1999) and Minister of Education (1999–2000). In 2000, he was appointed on renewable contract as special adviser to the Minister in the Presidency (the Mbeki era), quitting at the end of January 2010, months after Jacob Zuma became president (in 2009). He worked as an advisor in the Department of Minerals and Energy between 2011 and 2016.

The last eight years – in the water, writing, and in love

In a defining moment of triumph, Tony submitted a successful motivation to then mayor Patricia De Lille to get De Waal Drive renamed Philip Kgosana Drive. The road was renamed in 2017, giving longevity to the historic moment of the Langa March in 1960, and also to Tony for the impact of covering that day as a young reporter.

Tony is a disciple of non-racialism, tolerance and reconciliation. In a mission not yet accomplished, Tony has subsequently been in touch with the Kgosana family with a proposal to get Caledon Square renamed after the late Colonel Terblanche, who had defied orders from above to shoot on the crowd and paid the price for his defiance and courage by never getting promoted.

Tony continued to work as a freelance opinion writer for various publications, including Daily Maverick, City Press and News24. He continued to work as a freelance editor and wordsmith until 2023.

Tony was a lapsed surfer but remained an avid swimmer right up to and including 2023 – in the sea, tidal pools and any swimming pool he could access, mostly Kelvin Grove. He swam throughout the year, and in winter, he would kit out in his wetsuit and goggles, and do length after length in cold water for about 30 minutes at a time, about three days a week – much to the bemusement of passersby.

He spent most of his time with Jane, with whom he celebrated a 25th anniversary on 6 March 2024. He also spent time with close family and friends and enjoyed travelling and having family celebrations together, and walking. He also loved spending time behind the wheel, driving around the Cape, and often stepped in as a family Uber driver in times of need. He has two children, Vicki and Janet, from his first wife, Val (neé Hermanson), and Pasqua and Dylan from his marriage to the late Mary Ann Barker. 

Recognition for his courage

In 1985, Tony was awarded the Pringle Award (by the South African Society of Journalists) and the Golden Pen of Freedom Award (by the World Association of Newspapers), for the courage demonstrated in interviewing and publishing the OR Tambo interview.

He was Visiting Nieman Fellow at Harvard University (1987–1988) and twice Visiting Fulbright Fellow at University of Arkansas (1989, 1992).

In 2010, he spent months as a Wilson Center Public Policy Scholar.

In 2022, he was honoured in the annual Sikuvile awards by receiving the Allan Kirkland Soga: Lifetime Achiever Award by Sikuvile for his contribution in exposing the apartheid state as a journalist. At the ceremony in Johannesburg, he held up his award as he walked off the stage, shouting three words: “Never give up.”

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