8000 Days – Mandela, Mbeki and beyond

On November 5, 1985 an interview with Oliver Tambo, the president of the banned African National Congress appeared in full in the Cape Times. At the time it was against the law to quote anyone from a banned organisation and Tony Heard, the then editor, knew full well the risks he was taking in publishing the interview.

This book is not about Heard’s journey as a journalist and editor of the Cape Times: that story was told in Cape of Storms. This is the story of what happened in his second career after he had been booted from the editorship of the paper in August 1987 by Times Media Ltd, who gave no real reason for removing a principled and respected journalist and editor, merely saying that he had been in the position for 16 years and it was time for a change.

There is a poignant link though in the story of his unexpurgated interview with Tambo and his new book, which bears a cover of Heard giving then President Nelson Mandela a framed picture of Tambo and himself.

Being fired at 56 isn’t great, and in 8000 Days, Heard chronicles his concern about what he would do next. What happened next likely fell into place because of the respect in which Heard was held by the newly returned members of the ANC, who had won an election and needed to form a functional government.

Heard was not a member of the ANC, and yet in 1994 he was approached by the irrepressible Kadar Asmal at a party in leafy Rondebosch. Asmal was about to become Minister of Water Affairs and Forestry, then a strange portfolio for a man of keen intellectual and legal gifts. But, having put together a team – that included Heard – Kader went on to prove that water could be fun, while focusing on bringing water to people as a human rights issue. Ah, those were the days when ministers actually thought they were meant to be making a difference.

8000 DAYS
by Tony Heard
(Missing Ink)

Next he’s relating his experiences working under Mandela in the Office of the Presidency, and the quandaries he faced when he visited England – because of Mandela’s support for the IRA and his open and friendly style.

Heard also served under Thabo Mbeki, alongside colleagues who had to devise strategies to mitigate Mbeki’s peculiar obsession with trash-talking the link between HIV and Aids, a strange blip in the behaviour of a man who was a scholar and, as Heard says, would probably have been happier as an academic than a president. (Heard recalls: “Some days before Mbeki’s political fate was sealed, I had an SMS from Bheki Khumalo, who was right at Mbeki’s side at Polokwane: “The Chief has decided to leave it to the vagaries of the vote.”)

The story that Heard weaves in 8000 Days is by no means an exact chronicle of the times and politics of the years he spent as a presidential advisor. Nor does it pretend to be a definitive critique of the politics of the time. Rather, it gives a personal glimpse into how the first four presidential administrations functioned, and sometimes scraped by with the luck of the gods on their side.

From the ebullience of the Mandela days, through the scholarly and often egg-shell diplomacy days of Mbeki, to the caretaker presidency of the Kgalema Motlanthe after Mbeki’s ouster as leader of the ANC, to the horror of the arrival of the Zuma years, this is a book for the reader who enjoys good storytelling. It is a mild and humble evaluation of one man and his contribution to South African politics in the trenches of Parliament rather than in the corridors of the Fourth Estate.

There are moments in the book and incidents where the reader feels one would like a little more juicy detail, but Heard has not set out to be salacious. He is free in his criticism of those he deemed to be doing a bad job, but he also has the ability to see that most people are a mixture of good and bad, or competent and incompetent. Perhaps that is his journalistic experience that allows him to see the world as grey, and not black and white.

This story also mixes in moments of personal reflection, as Heard became a single father with a demanding job, about learning to sew buttons on school shirts, after the tragic death of his former second wife. In fact, for those of us who knew Mary Ann Barker, his retelling of the night she died is one of the most difficult parts of the book to read, but Heard tells it with economy of style and a lack of hysteria, while allowing the reader to sense just how much of a seismic shock this was to his younger children.

8000 Days tells a story about our recent history, peppered with human observations and some recommendations offered as ways to take back the country Oliver Tambo once dreamed of and discussed with a wayward brave editor. It’s a great book to read to remind yourself of the things – dear heavens – the things we have been through since 1994.

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