How a tomato-chucking academic made apartheid history

Unisa’s Sally Hutchings protested against apartheid in 1987 using the contents of her fridge, which ultimately gave her the last laugh and made her a bumper sticker icon.

It ended with a photograph: a smiling Sally Hutchings, 36, at then Jan Smuts Airport leaving her police escort and, with toddler on hip, walking to the plane that would complete her deportation from South Africa. But it began with a bag of ripe tomatoes, when Hutchings expressed her anti-apartheid displeasure with a gesture that’s arguably one of the oldest in the protest book, and instantly became the envy of liberation movements and activists.

She had succeeded in embarrassing then state president PW Botha’s government armed with two humble tomatoes. It was October 1987 and Hutchings and her husband Graham were British citizens working as academics at South African universities, Hutchings in the department of statistics at the University of South Africa (Unisa) and her husband in the chemistry department at the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits).

Six years into their stay, they were feeling the increasing angst in the country. “In 1987, you did feel we were getting into a very dangerous situation, there was a very tense atmosphere. People were very afraid, and there was a lot of anger and I was a part of that anger,” recalls Hutchings.

Recently passed regulations also had a direct impact on Hutchings and her colleagues. These laws prohibited anti-government activities at universities. One day, Hutchings heard that Botha would be visiting Unisa the next day, on 30 October. She felt she had to do something.

1987: Sally Hutchings, the woman who threw a tomato at President PW Botha, was subsequently deported for her action. She is photographed here leaving South Africa from what was then Jan Smuts Airport (now OR Tambo). (Photograph by John Hogg)

Premeditated tomato crime  

“I had heard the day before that he was coming, so I guess it was premediated,” she laughs, recalling how she almost forgot her stash of tomatoes in the fridge at her home in Parktown North, Johannesburg, on the morning of the day in question. 

Botha, known by his nickname of Die Groot Krokodil, walked into Unisa’s main hall, which was then known as the Old Mutual Great Hall, at about 10am that morning. The inside of the building is structured so that the first floor overlooks the entrance and this is where Hutchings positioned herself, armed with her arsenal of tomatoes.

“I could see him coming in below, he was quite an easy target,” Hutchings remembers. She threw two tomatoes. “Contrary to reports, I did actually hit him, possibly on his foot,” she says.

She suspects that Botha realised he had been struck but chose to ignore it. She handed her staff card to a bodyguard who was standing close by. “It had my office number on it and I said to him, this is where you will find me.”

Nabbed by the cops

As she walked away, the bodyguard grabbed her by the wrist. Hutchings was then taken to an office in the Unisa complex, where she was interviewed by the police.

“He asked me all sorts of questions. The obvious things. Was there anybody else involved? Why had I done it? And I answered him. It was all very civilised,” she says.

She was taken to the Pretoria Central Police Station where “one of the administrative staff, who was minding me, asked if I would like some lunch. And she said we could get some sandwiches, but we better not put any tomatoes in them, she said,” laughs Hutchings. 

The apartheid government didn’t see the humour in Hutchings’ act of defiance and decided to deport her.

The man who signed the order was then acting minister of home affairs FW de Klerk. Just six years later, he would share the Nobel Peace Prize with first democratic president Nelson Mandela.

“Should the object [thrown] have contained explosives, the lives of the state president and other persons could have been in jeopardy,” De Klerk is reported to have said.

The ‘tomato affair’ goes viral 

Soon the “tomato affair” had divided the nation and piqued the interest of the international press.  

“Tossed tomatoes become hot potatoes in S Africa” declared a headline in the United States-based Los Angeles Times newpaper. The local press took sides, too, and duked it out in a series of editorials.

“To deport a woman for half-heartedly tossing a ripe tomato at his feet does seem disproportionate,” wrote Business Day newspaper. “True, it’s not nice to throw tomatoes, but there was a time in this country when a politician was lucky if nobody hurled the furniture.”

Afrikaans-language daily paper Beeld, which at the time was ideologically aligned with the government, countered: “South Africans are becoming fed up with foreign ‘Joe Citizens’ and their pals, who seem to think that it is their calling to come to South Africa to teach us how we should solve our problems.

“We think the tomato thrower has received just rewards for her action,” the paper wrote, commenting on Hutchings’ new status of persona non grata. “We don’t mind constructive criticism,” Beeld continued, adding that “such bad manners would not be acceptable in any other country … [and] we are only too thankful to be rid of her.”

“Oh God, it was all over the news and it was so funny, wasn’t it?” remembers anti-apartheid activist Peter Kidson, who soon came up with an amusing idea to exploit the tomato affair. 

Kidson had a history of playing pranks, including spray painting the building of The Star newspaper in what was then Sauer Street in Johannesburg. He and his friends painted the question: “Tsafendas, where are you?” when Botha was elected, in reference to Dimitri Tsafendas, apartheid prime minister Hendrik Verwoerd’s assassin in 1966.

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They decided they would jump on the bandwagon of the bumper sticker craze of the late 1980s and design one appropriate to the situation. Borrowing from the famous “I love New York” idea, where the word “love” is replaced with a picture of a heart, Kidson came up with “I tomato PW”. It was a hit.  

He put one on his car. People stopped him in the street and laughed about it. Kidson went on holiday to Cape Town and covered the bus stop close to Tuynhuys, the state president’s residence in that city, with “I tomato PW” stickers.

“We drove past half an hour later and they were all gone, obviously the guards didn’t find this so amusing,” he says.

Hutchings’ last laugh

But Hutchings did have the last laugh. At the time of the tomato affair, she and her husband and their young family were just weeks away from relocating to Britain, and the South African government paid for the flights of her and her toddler, Matthew.

From their home in Yorkshire, the Hutchings kept an eye on how South Africa was inching toward democracy. 

“I remember walking along a street with a colleague and him asking me how I felt about South Africa. This was in 1988-1989. And I said we are holding a candle of hope, that things would be okay,” says Hutchings, who found work in the British Civil Service. Her husband became a professor of chemistry at Cardiff University. 

Hutchings returned to South Africa shortly after 1994. She arrived at the same airport from which she was deported in 1987. What she found was a country far different to the one she had left behind. 

“Coming back through Johannesburg international airport, the atmosphere was absolutely wonderful after those dark times of apartheid. And to go back and to find such a happy place, it was just so fantastic.” 

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