We’re so close to what my father died for. Yet so far


We’re so close to what my father died for. Yet so far

Lukhanyo Calata was only three years old when his father, Fort, was murdered by the security police in 1985. ANNELIESE BURGESS spoke to him about his quest to find justice for his father, what motivated him to become a journalist, and his unlikely friendship with FW de Klerk's widow.


LUKHANYO Calata is the political editor at Newzroom Afrika. I speak to him on the phone from his home in Joburg. He has a deep, mellifluous voice — perfect for the television broadcaster he has been most of his professional life. 

He always wanted to be a journalist, he tells me. “I remember as a child watching the news at night on television — first the English bulletin and then the Nguni. My mom and I used to play a silly little game where she would send me out of the room and I would have to identify the newsreaders by their voices," he tells me with a raucous laugh. 

“And as a child, there were often journalists at our house. I loved the cameras. I would ask to look through the viewfinder or take pictures. I always knew I wanted to tell stories, although initially I wanted to be a motoring journalist because I also loved cars." That deep, rolling laugh again.


After finishing school in Adelaide in the Eastern Cape, he enrolled at Damelin College in Gqeberha. “But me and that city … there just were no feelings. There was always this thing of knowing my father was killed on his way from Port Elizabeth. I  just could not be there."

He is referring to the night of June 27, 1985, when his father and three comrades were abducted at a roadblock by members of the Security Branch and the Vlakplaas death squad before being tortured and murdered.

Calata went on to study journalism at the then-Peninsula Technikon in Cape Town before working his way through various newsrooms and ending up at the national broadcaster in the perilous times of Hlaudi Motsoeneng.

In the years he was there, the oxygen to operate as independent journalists was systematically being squeezed out of the newsroom. Motsoeneng wielded the hammer but he was aided and abetted by frightened editors lower down the food chain.

“You know that Auckland Park building. You've walked those passages. If you don't understand who and what you are, that place can quickly go to your head. Just the views of Joburg from there can make you believe that you are this powerful person. And I think that is what happened to Hlaudi. It all just went to his head. And he did not understand the ethics and the laws of journalism. He wanted a brand of journalism that does not belong in a constitutional democracy."


Standing up, speaking out

True to his father's legacy of bravery, Calata was one of the SABC reporters who finally stood up to Motsoeneng's autocracy.

In 2016, he was the SABC's parliamentary reporter when he penned an angry letter in the media that criticised the corporation’s decision to stop covering protests. It was the final straw for him in a long process of increasing censorship from the higher-ups at the SABC.

“The day I wrote that statement was the 27th of June, which happened to be the day [my father] and his comrades had been murdered. I was expressing what I saw and felt about the SABC, and that I thought we were going down a dangerous path. And then that letter took on a life on its own."

Calata was fired. In Joburg, others who had spoken out against the SABC's censorship had also been fired, although he was unaware of it that morning.

But it helped strengthen the argument that Thandeka [Gqubule] and Suna [Venter] and Foeta [Krige] were already making. So then we all got lumped into this group called the SABC 8."

I ask him if his father's legacy had anything to do with his decision to speak out.

“Yes, there is always my father's memory. I always have this thing where I am aware that they gave the best of themselves for me. So I feel I owe them the best of myself. But what was I risking? Maybe getting fired from my job? Perhaps a year's suspension? I wasn't risking my life like he did for me. "

After his dismissal from the SABC, Calata wrote a book with his wife Abigail, a former journalist with Beeld newspaper. It is a moving and lyrical celebration of his father's life and legacy.


The long shadow

The memory and legacy of his father remain a powerful force in Calata's life. But if his memory is a light and a beacon, then the fact that nobody has ever been held responsible for his murder is a long shadow.

“In 2003, the government of the African National Congress was handed a report by the TRC [Truth and Reconciliation Commission] in which the amnesty committee had denied amnesty to six former police officers for their roles in the murders of my father and his comrades and had recommended that they be prosecuted.

“By that time, there had also been an inquest by Judge [Neville] Zietsman in 1994, 18 days after Madiba was sworn into office, which also found that members of the apartheid security forces were responsible for the murders of the Cradock Four.

“And between that inquest and the amnesty recommendation of 2003, the government of the African National Congress could have brought prosecutions against these guys, but they didn't."

Calata does not say ANC. He spells out the full name of the organisation his father died for every time he refers to it. As if to underline his anger. His disappointment. And his resolve to find justice.

Because that is precisely what he intends to do.

“We are going to sue the NPA [National Prosecuting Authority], we are going to sue the state, and we are going to sue the African National Congress. We will sue anybody who had anything to do with denying my father justice."

Hope for closure fades

Hermanus du Plessis was one of the six police officers involved in his father's death, according to the TRC. He was the last living suspect  who could have been prosecuted for the murder of the Cradock Four. Then, a few weeks ago, he died. 

There’s not a single day that has passed these 38 years that I have not thought about you, missed you and wondered what you would have made or said about so many things," Lukhanyo wrote in a moving letter to his father in Sowetan.

“Tata, a few weeks ago, the government, through the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA), informed us that Hermanus Barend du Plessis has died. He was the last suspect who we had a prima facie case against in your murder. He was one of the police officers who was there the night you and your comrades Matthew Goniwe, Sparrow Mkonto and Sicelo Mhlauli were murdered. The news of Du Plessis’ death has hit us all like an out-of-control freight train.

“My emotions are like a pendulum on an old grandpa’s clock. One minute I am crying because I now have to accept that no one will ever be arrested, charged, prosecuted, found guilty and sentenced for taking your precious life away from us. The next minute, I am engulfed by an all-consuming anger and rage. At that point, Tata, all I can think of is ensuring that I expose the truth and some of the ‘comrades' who’ve politically interfered in matters of the NPA to deny you and your true comrades the justice you so richly deserve." 

Lukhanyo Calata with his mother.
Lukhanyo Calata with his mother.

Sold out

A deep sense of betrayal runs like a vein through our conversation.

“Thabo Mbeki was president in 2003 when the TRC handed over its report. Bulelani Ngcuka was the National Director of Public Prosecutions [NDPP]. They were supposed to implement the recommendations of the TRC, but they didn't. And then all subsequent NDDPs failed to do so.

“What we've come to know, through the help of [former NDPP] Vusi Pikoli is that there was political interference in matters of the TRC that prevented the NPA from going ahead and prosecuting murders that were TRC-related."

He tells me of a recent conversation (a day before he heard of Du Plessis' death) with the Rev Frank Chikane, the former director-general in Mbeki's office at the Union Buildings.

“I asked him straight out: ‘Why did you not proceed with TRC cases?' 

“He looked at me and said: ‘Do you want the truth?’

“Of course I wanted the truth.

“He said there was simply no commitment from the comrades because they knew that if they prosecuted white people for TRC crimes, they would probably have to be prosecuted. So black members of the African National Congress protected themselves by selling out my father and his comrades and by ensuring that the people who killed my dad and took him away from me went to their graves without ever being held responsible for the crimes they committed against my father's humanity.

“That set off a whirlwind of emotions for me and that is why we are going to sue them, because the African National Congress betrayed my father just like the apartheid government betrayed my father, because no government is supposed ever to kill its citizens."

Unlikely friendship

The death in November 2021 of former president FW de Klerk — education minister in PW Botha's cabinet at the time of his father's murder — upset Calata profoundly, he tells me. Another person who was not held responsible for the long shadow his father's death has cast over his life.

“Judge Dennis Davis interviewed me then, and I told him that De Klerk's hands were dripping with my father's blood. Shortly afterwards, his widow, Elita, contacted me through the lawyers.

“We met in De Waal Park in Cape Town. We were sitting at a little concrete table; she reached across the table and took my hand."

I am not sure if I imagine a small crack in his voice as he seems to search for the right words to explain this moment.

“I don't know … here was this woman who used to share a bed with the man who decided my father's fate. But she was looking at me like someone seeing another human being and acknowledging me and acknowledging my pain. She was trying to reconcile with me. And how could I turn that down? How could I say no?

“And it didn't matter at that moment that she was De Klerk's wife. What she was in that moment was a grieving woman who was in obvious pain and was reaching out. And she was saying, ‘I see you. You are not a black person to me. You are just a person who is hurting.' In black culture, when your neighbour comes and asks for your help, you are meant to give that help. And that's what she did.

“And we started communicating, and we've forged an unlikely friendship because she's a white woman older than my mother. She has become someone I can call on the phone. We chat. She is Greek and doesn't carry some of the burdens and issues that white South Africans do.

“I'm hoping to be able to do something constructive with her. I am not sure yet what that could be, but you know, for us to be able to show that the colour of our skin doesn't matter. What matters is the intention of the heart.

“And I think Elita's intentions in reaching out to me were pure. And I'd like to show the rest of South Africa that this is the kind of South Africa that we want to build for each other, that I want to build for her. And that I think she wants to build for me."

My last question to this extraordinary young man is if he thinks the South Africa we find ourselves in is the country his father envisioned.

“Let me answer your question with something Constitutional Court Justice Albie Sachs said recently at an event I attended, and that made so much sense to me.

“We have a constitution that is the supreme law of this country. And that constitution gives us institutions like the Office of the Public Protector and the Constitutional Court. And it ensures we have media freedom and freedom of expression. So in that sense, this is the country that Albie Sachs fought for, and Fort Calata, Matthew Goniwe, Sicelo Mhlauli and Sparrow Mkonto died for. Because of that constitution. But we don't have the society for which they died."

♦ VWB ♦

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