Obituary: Eschel Rhoodie

Eschel Rhoodie, journalist, civil servant and business consultant: born Caledon, Cape Province 11 July 1933; Secretary of Information, South Africa 1972-78; married (one son, one daughter); died Atlanta, Georgia 17 July 1993.

ESCHEL RHOODIE, a key figure in South Africa's 'Infogate' scandal in the Seventies, died as he lived - unrepentant. Neither before nor after his days of disgrace could he see anything wrong with what he did secretly with taxpayers' money. People, he felt, ought to have been more grateful for his ingenuity in creating dubious and dishonest schemes to protect his country against the world's 'total onslaught'. His doctorate in philosophy did nothing to shake his view that the end justified the means.

There is irony in the fact that he died on a tennis court in Atlanta, Georgia. It was on a tennis court in South Africa that he finally forfeited what remnants of peer respect he still commanded. Confronted by a press photographer when he was ahead by two sets to nil in an important match one Saturday in 1978, he gave the unwanted intruder a V-sign. Later he was to swear that the gesture was Churchillian. Unfortunately, his fingers said otherwise. For his stern Calvinist colleagues, such public vulgarity from a God-fearing public servant was more reprehensible than fiddling taxpayers' money.

But of course, Rhoodie was not cut out to be a public servant. He was by instinct too flamboyant and extravagant. Tall and handsome in a sallow way, he enjoyed a party but didn't take alcohol. Manipulation and mental power-games were his opiate. Physical fitness was a fetish. He loved intrigue as much as he loved his country; perhaps a shade more.

As Secretary for Information - a euphemism for propaganda chief - he was granted a licence to indulge his flair for bizarre plots. His secret slush fund ran to hundreds of millions of rands. It was to be spent on such things as starting a government-supporting English-language newspaper to counter the independent and largely hostile English-language press; on bribing small-time state presidents and other functionaries; on trying to buy the Washington Post.

Rhoodie became a crucial member of a Cabinet coterie that was eventually to be destroyed by disclosure of their scheming: the prime minister, John Vorster, the Information Minister, Connie Mulder, the sinister Bureau of State Security chief, General Hendrik van den Bergh, a man generally believed to be the power behind Vorster. And Rhoodie himself. He fled the country, roamed the world in fruitless search of sanctuary, was arrested in France and brought back to face trial. The charges were eventually dropped and Rhoodie went into self-imposed exile in Atlanta.

I was editor of the Sunday Express at the time of the Information Scandal. In true Watergate fashion, we had a Deep Throat too, carefully cultivated by the renowned investigative reporter Kitt Katzen. I remain honour-bound not to reveal the informant's name; a tantalising restraint, for disclosure of the identity would reveal hidden truths about Infogate.

It is fair to say that the Sunday Express, following leads provided by Deep Throat, stalked Rhoodie for months before the full scandal broke. It traced his footsteps in the Seychelles, a tropical paradise island to which he had travelled several times, accompanied by an entourage of cronies who enjoyed his lavish hospitality. It was a classic case of mixing pleasure with business, for he carried with him not only a suitcase of beach clothes but a bagful of bribe money to secure South African interests.

Then, on a Sunday in 1978, Katzen's persistence paid off: the Sunday Express was able to reveal that the government had used taxpayers' money to secretly fund the Citizen newspaper. The revelation opened floodgates. For a solid week, in a tour de force of investigatve reporting, Mervyn Rees of the Rand Daily Mail ripped aside the curtain of Cabinet secrecy to reveal as sordid a story of deception and corruption at high level as South Africa has ever known.

One day, when it was all over, Eschel Rhoodie expressed a wish to meet what he saw as his tormentor-in-chief. We shared a cup of tea in my office. He was charming, suave, at ease. He displayed no bitterness about me, Katzen or the Sunday Express. It was all part of the rich fabric of life in the fast lane. But for his fellow plotters in high places, there was nothing but contempt. They had betrayed him, made him the scapegoat. He never forgave them.

History may depict Eschel Rhoodie as a bureaucrat who went bad. But, in reality, he was much more a latter-day buccaneer - stylish, energetic, imaginative and unscrupulous. The last was his fatal flaw.

(Photograph omitted)

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