In the latter part of the
1970s, South Africa was rocked by a major political scandal involving
the Department of Information, which was allegedly misappropriating
State funds for secret projects. The Information Scandal (or lnfogate
or Rhoodiegate or Mulderqate), as it came to be known, was to culminate
in the resignation of Cabinet Minister Dr Connie Mulder and the
State President, B.J. Vorster.
One of the main players in this
colourful drama was Eschel Rhoodie and his story really begins in
Pretoria eight years earlier.
At the beginning of 1971, Eschel
Rhoodie, then Press Officer of the South African embassy at The
Hague, clandestinely negotiated an agreement with a Dutch publisher
by the name of Hubert Jussen whereby Jussen agreed to help with
the establishment of a new magazine - To the Point. To the Point
was to be secretly financed by the South African government and
was intended to counter some of the unfavourable press coverage
South Africa was receiving oversees. This secret scheme had the
approval the Prime Minister, B.J. Vorster; the chief of the Intelligence
Services, General Hendrik van den Bergh; the Minister of Information,
Dr Connie Mulder; and Mr Gerald Barrie, the then head of the Department
of Information. To the Point was launched before the end of the
In July 1972, Rhoodie was appointed
to the post of Secretary of Information. He was young, dynamic,
enterprising and impatient - particularly with the bureaucratic
process. These were the qualities that enabled him to get things
done. With the advantage of hindsight, one might say, these were
the things, which enabled him to get things done too well.
Shortly after his appointment
to what would be called the 'Dirty Tricks' Department, Rhoodie recruited
as his deputies Les de Villiers and his own brother, Deneys. Initially,
To the Point was the only secret project in operation, but the Bureau
of State Security had plans for a number of other schemes and long
list of 'spooks' (secret agents) willing to see them through. It
wasn't long before a second project was instituted. This time it
was the creation of an organisation designed to counter South Africa's
sporting isolation. The result was the Committee for Fairness in
Sport. Then came a scheme involving a group of influential businessmen
abroad. The 'Club of Ten', as the group was known, had the difficult
task of tackling the media, the United Nations, other institutions,
individuals and countries for their double-dealing and hypocrisy
where South Africa was concerned. Not an easy task! A number of
influential individuals operated more covertly to improve South
Africa's image abroad.
From 1973 onwards, by which
time Rhoodie was working in close cooperation with 'the power behind
the throne' - General Hendrik van den Bergh, the head of the Bureau
of State Security (BOSS) - new schemes and projects were constantly
being introduced. They were all run by Eschel Rhoodie's Department
of Information and they were all paid for with government money.
Due to the delicacy of the situation, money was often handed over
in cash - without any receipt.
In February 1974, Prime Minister
Vorster gave official approval to covert action at a meeting in
Cape Town attended by Rhoodie, Mulder and the Finance Minister,
Nico Diederichs. Since it had become evident that the conventional
methods that governments used to express opinions - in the form
of films, brochures and hand-outs -were no longer effective, Vorster
accepted that it was necessary to wage an all-out psychological
assault on foreign opinion. New rules and systems were to be applied.
Only objectives would count and the end would justify the means
- any means. Towards the end of 1975, project Annemarie was conceived.
(Annemarie was the name of Rhoodie's teenage daughter.) This was
for the introduction of an English-language newspaper to counter
attacks on the government by the English press - particularly the
Rand Daily Mail. The man chosen to front this operation was Dr Louis
Luyt, the fertilizer millionaire.
The first salvo in what was
to become something of a newspaper war was when Luyt attempted to
buy up shares of SAAN (South African Associated Newspapers). To
give credibility to his take-over attempt, he went on television
to explain his new-found interest in publishing. He also took the
opportunity to announce that he had two prominent overseas publishers
supporting his bid for SAAN. Despite Luyt's overtures to some of
SAAN's major shareholders, his takeover attempt was blocked. Luyt
then announced that he intended to create his own independent newspaper,
which would go on to the streets in the second half of 1976. The
name he chose for this newspaper was The Citizen.
The cost of running the newspaper
was estimated to be around R l30 000 per month, but it was expected
that the paper would pay for itself as time went on. At the Rand
Daily Mail, the news that another English-medium newspaper was to
arrive on the scene was greeted with disbelief. The Rand Daily Mail
itself was losing money and was being supported by the moss circulation
Sunday Times. Nevertheless, the Rand Daily Mail took Luyt seriously
since he had never made empty threats. The owners of the Rand Daily
Mail were also acutely aware that 25% of their readership had only
a loose association with the newspaper and could be convinced to
change. A struggle for survival was anticipated. Meanwhile, a loan
of R 12 million was set aside to finance project Annemarie on the
understanding that once the newspaper became financially self-supporting,
this money would be returned to the State's coffers.
Unfortunately, the scheme was
beset with problems. By the time the first edition of the newspaper
was on the streets on 7 September 1976, Luyt, Rhoodie and their
associates had already been forced to surmount a number of crises.
Even after the newspaper went into full production, matters didn't
By March 1977, the situation had become serious. The Citizen's growth
was failing well short of expectations, and relations between Luyt
and Rhoodie had deteriorated - almost to the stage of open hostility.
But the worst was yet to come...
At the beginning of 1976, there
had been general consensus in the government and the opposition
that the Department of Information was doing a good job. Even then,
however, trouble was brewing behind the scenes. The money used by
the Department of Information was obtained through the Department
of Defence, since it was assumed that a few million rands would
hardly be noticed in a budget that exceeded over R1 billion. Unfortunately,
the defence account neglected to add the Department of Information
money to the amount requisitioned from the Treasury. By the time
the mistake was made apparent, there were no funds available. To
make matters worse, the Minister of Defence, P.W. Botha, was unhappy
about his department being used to finance a secret project. The
first rumblings of internal discontent and scandal were surfacing.
By July 1977, rumours and speculation
concerning financial malpractice in the department of Information
became so serious that an audit of the department's books was ordered.
There was also talk of The Citizen and the Department of Information
being linked. Towards the end of 1977, Luyt decided to withdraw
from the newspaper. (The Citizen was formally transferred to its
new publishers, Jussens and Van Zyl Alberts, in February 1978.)
In November 1977, Les de Villiers, one of Rhoodie's deputies, also
resigned from the Department of Information, a job he had held for
17 years, and joined a public relations firm, Sidney Baron, in New
York. Finally, in the face of mounting criticism, in May 1978, Dr
Connie Mulder had to answer for his department in Parliament. In
response to questions tabled in the House, he declared categorically
that The Citizen was not financed by government money. (It was as
a result of this lie that he would eventually be disgraced and disbarred.)
In the autumn of 1978, the Information
Affair reached crisis proportions. The Minister of Finance, Owen
Horwood, instituted an inquiry under the auspices of Judge Anton
Mostert to probe exchange-control violations. On 2 November 1978,
despite protestations from the new Prime Minister, P.W. Botha, and
Minister Horwood, Justice Mostert called a press conference to divulge
details of the 'scandal'. On Wednesday, 3 November, under the heading
‘It's all True’ the Rand Daily Mail wrote:
South Africa's biggest bombshell burst yesterday when Mr Justice
Anton Mostert made public startling evidence which has confirmed
reports in the Rand Daily Mail and Sunday Express of massive misuse
of public money through Department of Information secret funds.
Judge Mostert released evidence, which shows beyond doubt, that
The Citizen newspaper was financed through State funds. And in evidence
under oath, Mr Louis Luyt named the former Prime Minister, Mr Vorster,
the Minister of Plural Relations, Dr Connie Mulder and General Hendrik
van den Bergh, former head of the Bureau of State Security, as key
figures in the secret project to finance the newspaper.
In the same month, Prime Minister
Botha instituted a judicial commission of inquiry into the whole
affair under the chair of Mr Justice Roelof Erasmus. Eschel Rhoodie,
who had already had his passport withdrawn, was summoned before
the commission, gave testimony, then vanished.
Mulder, meanwhile, was being
vilified by the media. He was first stripped of his Cabinet post,
then his leadership of the National Party in the Transvaal, and
was finally forced to resign his parliamentary seat. In a similar
fashion, State President Vorster also resigned his presidency under
a cloud of suspicion after being severely censured by the Erasmus
Commission. In the commission's interim report, Rhoodie was accused
of misappropriating State funds. P.W. Botha and a number of other
prominent government figures, were completely exonerated with regard
to any involvement in the secret projects of the information scandal.
(The final report of the Erasmus Commission was published in June
Although in the eyes of the
public the Citizen newspaper was largely discredited, Johnny Johnson,
the then editor vehemently denied the accusation that the paper
was little more than a National Party organ. In an editorial on
6 December, 1978 he wrote: The Citizen was started and funded with
Government money. That is the finding of the Erasmus Commission.
But the Government did not direct The Citizen's editorial policy.
That is the assurance I have already given as editor-in-chief of
this publication. And it is an assurance, which I repeat today,
when the newspaper is at the centre of a new storm of controversy.
The Citizen - and I cannot emphasize this strongly enough - was
not, and is not, a government propaganda medium of the National
In February 1979, journalists
finally tracked Rhoodie to ground in Ecuador. By this time he was
South Africa's Most Wanted Man and the government had instituted
legal proceedings against him. In March 1979, Rhoodie moved to Great
Britain where he attempted, albeit unsuccessfully, to gain political
asylum. In a BBC television interview with David Dimbleby on March
21, 1979, he strongly denied the accusations made against him, reiterating
his claim that he was being made a scapegoat for the whole affair,
and maintained that senior government figures, including the then
Prime Minister, P.W. Botha, were both aware of and sanctioned the
secret projects he had conducted as head of the Department of Information.
Shortly afterwards, Rhoodie
moved to France, where he was eventually arrested by the French
authorities and incarcerated for 88 days pending extradition to
The trial of Dr Eschel Rhoodie
began at the Pretoria Supreme Court on 22 September 1979. He was
charged with seven counts of fraud, alternatively theft, involving
a total of R63 205 of government money. Despite the fact that it
was shown during the trial that he controlled a series of slush
funds in Switzerland, Holland and Britain to finance the Information
Department's secret projects - a total of between R18- and R20-million,
of which ‘not a cent was missing' - he was found guilty on
8 October of five charges of fraud and sentenced to an effective
six years' imprisonment. On 9 October he was granted bail of R90
000 pending an appeal.
A year later, in October 1980,
Dr Eschel Rhoodie was acquitted on all counts involving State monies
by the Appeal Court in Bloemfontein. The following day, he gave
a press conference and issued a ten-page statement in which he expressed
his abhorrence and outrage at the treatment he had received at the
hands of the South African government. Amongst other things, he
'I have always maintained I was innocent and that the case against
me was a political one. That is why I strenuously resisted the government's
efforts to extradite me from France. It was a handful of powerful
politicians who used the apparatus of the State, not to mention
a vast sum of taxpayers' money, to destroy me and my family, socially,
politically and financially. There were other victims too, outside
my family, but they must speak for themselves. These politicians
launched a vendetta against the Rhoodie family in 1978, in an all-out
effort to crush us, primarily to protect their own involvement in
the government's secret propaganda war of 1971 to 1978. I reject
totally the Erasmus Commission's whitewash of those ministers.'
It was estimated that the South African government spent R500 000
to establish that Dr Eschel Rhoodie was innocent of the fraud charges
brought against him.
In March 1982, Dr Eschel Rhoodie
and his wife Katie emigrated to the United States. His book The
Real Information Scandal, which was published in October 1983, contained
sweeping allegations of big-name involvement in secret information
projects. He further maintained that dozens of senior government
officials were aware of the secret projects his department actively
pursued, and that R75million had been allocated over a five-year
period to finance these projects. Official figures released when
the scandal broke accounted for only R64-million.
Dr Rhoodie lived in the United
States until his death in the mid 1990s. A second book: P.W Botha:
The Last Betrayal 1978-79 was published in 1990.