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The white people who spied during apartheid

In his new book, “Betrayal: The Secret Lives of Apartheid Spies”, award-winning journalist Jonathan Ancer explores why it is that spies spy. This interest, and this book, follow on the publication in 2017 of his acclaimed book, Spy. Uncovering Craig Williamson, which delved into the life and treachery of a single apartheid spy.

If the first book was considered, this one seems a trifle hurried. Nevertheless, it does keep its focus on trying to “understand why spies spy”.

A three-page introduction and slightly longer conclusion are the bookends of 14 chapters of both uneven length and, it must be said, texture.

The “stuff” of the book consists of 12 dossiers on individuals who were spies either for – or in two cases, against – the apartheid system. The ones chosen are all white and, with only one exception, were all drawn from South Africa’s English-speakers.

This community seems to have had a particular fascination with the topic. But, then again, all South Africans seem to be fascinated with the way in which spying is entwined in the country’s politics.

The fact that spying is in the news again suggests an almost residual interest. This past week South Africa’s former defence minister Siphiwe Nyanda issued former President Jacob Zuma with a defamation lawsuit for calling him an apartheid spy. This followed another senior African National Congress (ANC) member and former minister Derek Hanekom also filing a defamation lawsuit against Zuma for calling him “a known enemy agent” on Twitter.


Ancer writes about Craig Williamson again. He masqueraded as an anti-apartheid activist in the 1970s and was unmasked as a government spy in 1980.

Williamson is the subject of two chapters. The first is a summary of what appeared in Ancer’s first book. The other chapter breaks new ground in the on-going Williamson saga.

In it, Ancer reproduces a rambling (and somewhat incoherent) e-mail which was sent to him by Williamson. He also reports on a meeting the two had in a Pretoria guesthouse, where they swapped ideas on what it takes to be a good spy.

There is an ungainly chapter, called “Student Spooks”, which tells of student spies who operated mainly at the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits) and University of Cape Town (UCT). Although thin on content, it throws around some names of weighty South Africans who, in one way or another, were caught in the web of successive generations of campus spies.

The characters in the 11 remaining chapters are the once rising star of the South African Navy, Dieter Gerhardt, who passed some really serious secrets to the then communist Soviet Union; Gerard Ludi, who infiltrated the South African Communist Party in the 1960s, and nowadays runs a guesthouse.

Others are Jennifer Miles, the Kimberley girl, who was infatuated with the Cuban Revolution, but ended up working for apartheid; Karl Edwards, now a Port Elizabeth grandfather, who fooled some (but not all) leaders of the student organisation, National Union of South African Students (Nusas), into believing he was a serious environmentalist.

Yet others were Wits graduate, Ronald Hunter, the National Serviceman who was caught in the midst of southern Africa’s “Cold War”; the “jockish”, Robert Whitecross, who double-crossed two students from the Rand Afrikaans University, Jansie Lourens (and her partner). There was also boozy Rhodes theology student, Gordon Brookbanks, who ended up designing the legislation for the post-apartheid intelligence community.

There was also the Pietersburg-raised, and double-agent wannabe Olivia Forsyth; Joy Harden, who was to drive a wedge between those two impeccable foes of apartheid – the End Conscription Campaign and the Black Sash, the human rights organisation advocating for social justice in South Africa; Vanessa Brereton, the promising human rights lawyer who betrayed the trust of her clients; and student leader Mark Behr, who faked his own assassination attempt on the way to becoming a celebrated Afrikaans writer.

Several of these accounts have been drawn from recent books, like Bridget Hilton Barber’s memoir. But most of the research has been gathered from interviews, court records and other sources. Taken together, they paint a mixed picture of why it is that Ancer thinks that these spies spied.

But many questions remain.

Heroism and tragedy

In Gerhardt’s case, even after reading the lengthy chapter, it is unclear if he was interested in the cause of freedom or he did it for the money.

Was Karl Edwards more keen on carnal knowledge, than the ideological end of the spy’s craft? For all the geopolitical hype around Olivia Forsyth’s escapades, was the thrall of her local handler the only thing that influenced her? Was Joy Harnden an outright opportunist, or simply the useful idiot who was suffering from a broken heart?

Two of the 12 stories do stand out.

The first is Ancer’s “accidental spy”. As a National Servicemen, Roland Hunter found himself administering the routines which supported apartheid’s ruinous war on the people of southern Africa. Without expectation of reward, he passed on the information to the ANC, then an exiled liberation movement fighting apartheid.

It almost cost him his life, but there seems little doubt that his bravery helped to save thousands.

If this is a story of heroism, the other is one of the tragedy that is surely born of the double-life which all spies live – and, yes, by which they die.

In his career as anti-apartheid activist and Stellenbosch Student Representative Council President, Mark Behr spied for the security police. Fearing exposure, he made a dramatic public confession, remorseful to the point of self-indulgence. He used every opportunity to speak about why he betrayed those who trusted him.

Although Behr become a US citizen, he regularly returned to confront the issue that eventually enveloped his life. On one such visit in November, 2015, after an end-of-year party, he suffered a heart attack and died. He was only 52-years old..

There is an inevitability about spies in South Africa’s national discourse. But, even after reading Ancer’s fascinating dossiers, we seem no closer to understanding why it is that spies spy.

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