The mysterious disappearance of an anti-fascist campaigner

The disappearance without a trace in 1945 of celebrated political reporter, columnist and ace investigative journalist George Heard is one of the most enduring unsolved mysteries of South African journalism.

Heard, 39 at the time of his disappearance, had reported extensively on the rise of the Ossewabrandwag (OB) – the Ox Wagon Sentinel, a secretive anti-British and pro-Nazi Afrikaner paramilitary organisation that opposed South Africa entering the Second World War. His relentless exposés of the OB, as well as the activities of a pro-Nazi ‘fifth column’ in South Africa played a key role in a crackdown of the OB and its militant wing, the Stormjaers. Thousands were placed in internment camps for the duration of the war.

Among them were B.J. ‘John’ Vorster, who later became prime minister of South Africa, and Hendrik van den Bergh, who went on to head up the feared Bureau for State Security (BOSS). Heard also exposed a cabal of pro-Hitler supporters in the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) who were so powerful that they were able to limit Prime Minister Jan Smuts’s access to the national broadcaster. Some senior members of the SABC were dismissed, and several were sent to internment camps as a direct result of Heard’s reporting.

A gifted public speaker, Heard earned the ire of the Rand Daily Mail’s board of directors – who were nervous of his ‘leftist’ reputation – when he began addressing public rallies supporting the war effort against Nazi Germany. Although he abhorred the repression of Stalin’s communism, he nevertheless made speeches vigorously backing the campaign to aid Soviet Russia, by then an ally, to strengthen the second front it had opened against Adolf Hitler’s armies. But, while the communists in South Africa claimed him as one of their own, he was in reality a left-liberal democrat.

His speeches exposing the appallingly low wages paid to black mine workers would also have angered and embarrassed the Chamber of Mines and stuffy Rand Club-influenced board. Given an ultimatum to stop his public speaking, he chose to resign and enlisted in the navy as an ordinary seaman rather than accept the offer of a commission by friends in government.

At the time of his disappearance on 8 August 1945, Heard was a lieutenant and second-in-command on the frigate Good Hope, which was docked in Cape Town. The war in Europe had ended a few months earlier and the end of the war in the Far East was only weeks away. Heard, who was due to be demobbed and looking forward to re-entering the world of journalism, was last seen leaving his ship for shore leave. Then, despite being seen around Cape Town over the next few hours, he vanished into thin air.

Heard had a shrewd grasp of politics and an intense dislike of fascism and Nazis. Heard shot to national prominence in 1937 after he pulled off a major scoop for the Rand Daily Mail when he reported a remarkably accurate forecast of Finance Minister N.C. ‘Klaasie’ Havenga’s upcoming budget. He was charged under the Official Secrets Act and when he appeared in court he refused to be sworn, telling the court: ‘… I must decline because I cannot give evidence.’ His sentence of eight days in prison for contempt was suspended so he could appeal, but before his appeal could be heard the government, perhaps fearing embarrassment if Heard’s clearly high-level source was revealed, withdrew the charges. 

After that people flocked to him with confidential information, his son Tony, a former editor of the Cape Times, wrote in his autobiography, Cape of Storms.

But it was George Heard’s commitment to the Allied cause and his unequivocal stand against Hitler’s Nazi Germany for which he became best known as a journalist. Under Sunday Times editor Langley Levy, Heard reported widely on the growing threat of a ‘fifth column’ of pro-German subversives active in South Africa. Their activities included dynamiting power and telephone lines, and railway tracks. 

An example of his hard-hitting reporting is the story headlined ‘Storm troops mean new racialism’, published on 14 April 1940. It began thus: ‘Modelled on the example of Hitler’s Germany, and deriving something from the experience of the strike commandos in the Rand Revolt of 1922, the new “armies” of South Africa have become actively militant in their aims, semi-military in their organisation. The Ossewa Brandwag and the resuscitated Handhawersbond (League of Defenders) are familiar specimens of the new kind of unofficial “army”, but they are not by any means the only ones.’ A month later, on 26 May 1940, in what former Sunday Times editor Joel Mervis called a ‘masterpiece of investigative journalism’, an explosive exposé by Heard revealed how the OB was secretly organising to overthrow the government. Headlined ‘Brandwag is a menace to South Africa’, with the strap head: ‘Private uniformed army is being raised’, it laid bare the OB’s plans to ‘create a rival organisation to the Union Defence Force’. 

Still the mystery of Heard’s death lingers on: Tony Heard and his older brother Raymond, also a journalist, have spent years trying to get to the bottom of their father’s death. Tony says that at one stage his father was warned by a contact that his name was on a ‘death list’, but it did not deter him. He says that they have uncovered circumstantial evidence strongly suggesting that their father was assassinated by ‘a known OB killer’ named Felix van Breda, who was later hanged for another murder. They have ‘strong suspicions’ of who ordered the hit, but have never been able to confirm it. ‘I have been told of an intelligence report that says George was taken to Joburg and his body was put down the Apex Mine in Tembisa on the East Rand,’ says Tony Heard (Interview, April 2018). 

Joel Mervis wrote: ‘So ended the life of a talented courageous journalist. He was already assistant editor of the Rand Daily Mail when he enlisted and inevitably would have become editor of the Rand Daily Mail or the Sunday Times. Who can doubt that his skill and forceful personality would have made a very special impact on newspapers?’ 

References 

Bennett, Benjamin. 1973. Some Don’t Hang. Cape Town: H. Timmins. 

Heard, Tony. 1990. The Cape of Storms. Johannesburg: Ravan Press. 

Mervis, Joel. 1989. The Fourth Estate. Johannesburg: Jonathan Ball. 

Expected Budget Concessions: Big Increase in Provision for Old-Age Pensions 

George Heard, Sunday Times, 13 March 1937 

A substantial increase in the provision for old-age pensions will be one of the outstanding popular features of the Budget which the Minister of Finance, Mr N.C.Havenga, will present to Parliament on Monday.

I have reason to anticipate that an amount of about £750,000 will be earmarked for this purpose and that the maximum pension payable to aged persons will be raised from £30 to £42 a year.

At the same time the means test will be greatly relaxed, and it is probable that the pensionable age in the case of women will be reduced from 65 to 60.

Handsome provision will also be made for the payment of pensions in cases of invalidity.When he makes his statement on Monday Mr Havenga will be in a position to dispose of a total sum of nearly £10,000,000.His surplus for the year now ending is likely to be in the neighbourhood of £5,250,000.While on the present basis of taxation, even allowing for substantially increased expenditure, he will have an excess on next year’s accounts of at least £400,000.

Tried to Stop war Message by Gen Smuts 

George Heard, Sunday Times, 10 December 1939 

Ever since the outbreak of war, strenuous efforts have been made within the South African Broadcasting Corporation to frustrate the decision of Parliament and the policy of the Union Government.

When General Smuts became Prime Minister of the Union he prepared a message to be broadcast to the South African nation.In this message he set out clearly the reason that he induced Parliament to declare war on Germany.

The statement was, from every point of view, an objective one; yet strenuous efforts were made to prevent it from being broadcast.The authorities raised all sorts of objections and difficulties, and it was only after counsel’s opinion had been taken that the message was allowed to go on air.

Counsel’s opinion was that the South African Broadcasting Corporation could not refuse to broadcast the Prime Minister’s statement.The authorities were compelled to accept the inevitable and General Smuts’s statement was broadcast to the nation.

The question that arises, however, is why the Broadcasting Corporation objected to General Smuts’s statement … 

Brandwag is a Menace to S.A. 

George Heard, Sunday Times, 26 May 1940 

Behind the plain words addressed to members of the Ossewa- Brandwag by a Bloemfontein Defence Force Commander the other day lies a grave warning for all South Africa.

We shall ignore it at our peril.

In every corner of the Union to-day the Ossewa-Brandwag is engaged in a campaign whose only object can be to subvert the constitutional authority of this country.

Its ‘recruiting’ officers are everywhere – in the Railways, in the Post Office, in every Department of State.Already they have done incalculable mischief.

On the Railways they have persuaded dozens of young men not to join up with the new Railways and Harbours Brigade.In other departments they have dissuaded Defence Force recruits from taking the new oath to serve anywhere in Africa.

There was a time, perhaps, when these surface manifestations of the activities … could be lightly disregarded, but that time has passed … 

Menace of the ‘Fifth Column’ in South Africa 

George Heard, Sunday Times, 21 April 1940 

The time has come for South Africa to start war against Germany.For more than seven months Hitler’s ‘fifth column’ has been operating almost unhindered in every part of the Union.Already it has gained great strategic objectives.It now threatens to encompass in South Africa what its counterparts have already accomplished in Austria, Czechoslovakia, Poland and Norway.

Throughout the country today, in so-called ‘cultural’ organisations, in factories, in great State undertakings, in school rooms, in private houses along the Reef and elsewhere, the agents of the ‘fifth column’ are conducting their subversive activities, aided and abetted by their new-found South African allies.

The ‘fifth column’ is the inspiration for all the anti-British propaganda which is now sweeping the country: it is the instrument for perpetuating Nazi trade with the Union.It is the author of countless attempts – many of them all too successful – to undermine the loyalty of thousands of simple-minded South Africans … 

Storm Troops Mean New Racialism 

George Heard, Sunday Times, 14 April 1940 

The ‘private army’ with its storm troopers and its fighting commandos is rearing its ugly head among the people of South Africa.

Modelled on the example of Hitler’s Germany, and deriving something from the experience of strike commandos in the Rand revolt of 1922, the new ‘armies’ of South Africa have become actively militant in their aims, semi-military in their organisation.

The Ossewa-Brandwag and the resuscitated Handhawersbond are familiar specimens of the new kind of unofficial ‘army’, but they are not by any means the only ones.

Throughout the country to-day, aspiring politicians and ‘culture’ leaders are gathering around them the nucleus of a ‘fighting’ commando, pledged to defend the interests of Afrikanerdom and to confound its enemies.

The unifying connection between these mushroom ‘armies’ is not easy to trace, but the underlying purpose is essentially the same.The military outlook is identical …