Does shining a light on the dirty work of covert operations play a role in helping us understand our past, and prepare us better for the future? Picture: CLEANPNG
Does shining a light on the dirty work of covert operations play a role in helping us understand our past, and prepare us better for the future? Picture: CLEANPNG

“@Derek_Hanekom is a known enemy agent.” When judge Dhaya Pillay instructed Jacob Zuma in August to delete this tweet because it was defamatory, Comrade Vladimir Masilela might have agreed. Masilela is one of the fictional heroes of Barry Gilder’s recent novel The List, and is a former head (like Gilder himself) of state intelligence services.

“‘Enemies’ is not a good word,” Masilela says to a new recruit. “We don’t have enemies, [and] opposition to the government is not a legitimate reason to apply the very powerful and sensitive tool of your trade that the law allows you.”

Three months later (in real time rather than fiction), Pillay neatly dispatched Zuma’s contention that Hanekom was an “enemy agent” because he met with the EFF to talk about getting rid of the then-president:

“To link ‘enemy’ to opposition parties would be the antithesis of all that we stand for as a peace-loving, multiparty democracy,” she ruled, reminding Zuma anyway of what the constitutional court had said to him in 2017: his oath of office had been to the constitution, and not to a political party.

Our new intelligence community will never be able to recruit people if they feel that in a couple of years’ time their names would be splashed about.
Gordon Brookbanks

Read together with several recently published books, the Hanekom judgment raises troubling questions about the legacy of spying in SA, the baggage carried by words such as “impimpi” and “verraaier”, “askari” and “enemy agent”, and the way the betrayal implied by these words continues to infect not just our public discourse but our very democracy.

How, asked Jacob Dlamini in Askari, his path-breaking 2014 book, can we even talk about “collaboration under apartheid” or the multiple betrayals that came with turning and double-turning, when we had a negotiated settlement, and none of the “lustration” that happened, for example, in some countries of the former Soviet Bloc?

In more recent books, and in the Hanekom judgment, several South Africans attempt to answer this question.

In his testosterone-fuelled skop-skiet-en-donner memoir, Bradley Steyn decides to tell all (well, maybe) about the way he and other “independent intel contractors” (a euphemism for hired thugs) for the apartheid state were recruited into the ANC in the early 1990s, to fight a white supremacist insurgency. Steyn was predisposed to this new work: a teenager in 1988, he was on Pretoria’s Strijdom Square when Barend Strydom killed eight people, and would have been one of the dead himself were he not white. The untreated trauma of this, he writes, is what led to his descent into criminality — state-sanctioned and otherwise.

Does shining a light on the dirty work of covert operations play a role in helping us understand our past and prepare us better for the future? This, certainly, is the conventional wisdom, and it is one that drives Johann van Loggerenberg’s exposé of espionage and criminality in the tobacco industry. In a foreword, the Financial Mail’s Sikonathi Mantshantsha commends it as part of the process to “reverse” the “rot”, and “to ensure public institutions thrive to deliver on the democratic dividend for which so many have sacrificed so much.” Van Loggerenberg, of course, was one of those named in a counterintelligence plot that facilitated the “capture” of the SA Revenue Service.

In Betrayal, journalist Jonathan Ancer crisply recounts the stories of several white spies, from both sides, during the apartheid era. Some, like Mark Behr, felt the need to come clean as part of the process of reconciliation; some weep with remorse, like Joy Harnden. Others, like Olivia Forsyth, cannot free themselves from their compromising webs of deceit, or, like Craig Williamson, hold defiantly to the “I was at war” defence, only portioning out information as they feel the strategic (and self-interested) need to.

The List by Barry Gilder. Picture: SUPPLIED
The List by Barry Gilder. Picture: SUPPLIED

Gordon Brookbanks, now a history teacher at a top Cape Town school, tells Ancer he will never reveal the informers and spies he handled:

“That to me is a professional ethic. There are ethics in this business. We signed the Official Secrets Act — and you die with the Official Secrets Act … Our new intelligence community will never be able to recruit people if they feel that in a couple of years’ time their names would be splashed about.”

But there are consequences to this. Mandla Langa writes, in his foreword to The List, that “what we have not addressed will certainly rise up to menace us”. Langa knows, from personal experience, about the ingredients in what he calls “the bitter bread of the new SA”: his brother Ben was killed in 1984 by his own comrades under false suspicion of being an askari, a tragedy Langa fictionalises, broadly, in his own 2014 novel, The Texture of Shadows.

But Barry Gilder himself is more slippery on the subject, and in this way is perhaps the most accurate of the lot, in his depiction of the way the inheritance of betrayal continues to poison our body politic. In an afterword to The List, he writes that in his previous book, a memoir, there was much he was unable to tell, and promised, then, that “my next book will be a novel and all the secrets will be in there, accompanied by the standard disclaimer”.

The disclaimer is there, of course: The List “is a work of fiction”. But what are we to make of the book’s premise itself — that there was indeed a “list” apartheid intelligence operatives gave Nelson Mandela in 1994, and that on this list are people still in the highest echelons of the ANC government? Gilder’s novel is powered by the contention that, while some of these people might have been put on the list as a form of divisive disinformation, there are others who are in power right now, groomed by “a whole matrix of local and international forces”, including former apartheid agents, to prevent real revolutionary transformation from happening in SA.

A “whole matrix of local and international forces” (words said by the auteur figure in the book, Jerry Whitehead) sounds suspiciously like the plan Zuma alleged at the Zondo commission, of dark forces — including three international intelligence agencies — that had been trying since 1990 to undo the revolution by getting rid of him. The plot of The List suggests that Gilder and Zuma are on opposing sides in the ANC’s internecine war.

Still, the idea of a “list” finds expression in both their narratives: Gilder’s novel, and Zuma’s testimony at the Zondo commission. They sing from the same hymn book, and it is a deeply disturbing one, for it suggests that the culture of the ANC (and thus our government) is infected beyond cure by a poison the negotiated settlement could not, by its very definition, lance.

But perhaps the fault of SA’s transition was not that it had a negotiated settlement that precluded “lustration”. Rather, it was that both sides were led to such a great degree by their intelligence operations that they were unable, within the negotiated settlement, to depoliticise these functions and rein them in.

The List, written before the events that brought Zuma down in 2018, ends in a violent coup by the “decaptured” people (that is, Zuma types) who have lost power, and the “whole matrix” behind them, co-ordinated by a shadowy former spookmaster named Otto Bester. Zuma’s opponents believe he was planning something similar before he resigned — and that there are still such elements in the highest offices of the party.

Could Zuma himself be the “enemy agent”, then, rather than Hanekom? And if I write such words might I too land up in court? Where will it end? And can it end by telling the “truth”?

Both sides were led to such a great degree by their intelligence operations that they were unable, within the negotiated settlement, to depoliticise these functions and rein them in.
Mark Gevisser

That’s where the blind lady with the scales comes in. Justice is meant to be objective and evidence-based, and when a law appears to have been broken or people are in dispute about what actually happened, she is summoned to determine where the “truth” really lies.

And so Pillay did — in Hanekom’s favour. This was because she found, using the objective measures at her disposal (including a close socio-historical reading of the phrase “known enemy agent”) that Zuma was lying: not only to the public with his tweet, but to the court itself, by claiming — against his very own evidence — that he did not intend to suggest that Hanekom had been an apartheid spy.

Still, Pillay signalled her discomfort at the parties’ resort to “lawfare”; when parties resort to the courts to fight the battles they cannot win politically or administratively, as has been happening increasingly in SA.

Pillay cited Dennis Davis and Michelle le Roux’s excellent new study, and noted that lawfare “will, over time, constrain the capacity of litigation to remedy disorder efficiently”.  The case before her is “a skirmish in the overall war for dominance and control of the ANC by one or other faction” — while “the courts will solve the dispute”, it will “take much more to resolve the conflict”. 

But Hanekom has made it clear he wants the case to play its role in solving the conflict too. As he put it in a statement following the judgment, in the week of xenophobic violence and looting that shook Johannesburg in early September: “We must stand united against the peddling of lies and instilling of fear.”

Much as Thabo Mbeki did when he appointed the Hefer commission to clear Bulelani Ngcuka of “impimpi” allegations in 2004, Hanekom is firing a shot across the bows of Zuma’s stated intent, at the Zondo commission on state capture, to fight political battles by claiming that his critics were, and perhaps still are, “enemy agents”.

Hanekom seems to have cleared his name. Pillay made the point that Zuma’s allegations are doubly egregious given that Hanekom’s own espionage activities — passing on the ANC spy Roland Hunter’s reports on SA’s funding of the Renamo insurgency — landed him in jail, and played a major role in bringing about the Nkomati Accord.

More importantly, Hanekom is using lawfare and the very real threat of punitive damages (Pillay has ordered a trial to determine how much Zuma should pay) to try to stop further wild allegations by Zuma and his ilk, at the Zondo commission and elsewhere. Gen Siphiwe Nyanda and, more recently, the former public protector Thuli Madonsela, have said they are following suit.

But will they succeed? Zuma made it clear, in his affidavit, that it makes absolutely no difference to the record how the court rules, as it is impossible to know whether someone is an agent or a double-agent or even a triple-agent, given the spirals of deceit and betrayal the very work of intelligence requires.

“Insofar as Hanekom seeks to suggest that one’s membership of one party precludes them from being agents of another, he misses entirely the very nature of agents,” the former ANC intelligence chief lectured the judge.

“Agents by their very nature operate clandestinely. It is precisely through seeming loyal and the appearance of commitment that enables agents to be effective.” This, then, is the horror-house that is the ANC today. Just by saying you are innocent you might be proving your guilt.

In Askari, Jacob Dlamini writes that he was intrigued by the number of people who whispered to him how stunned he would be to hear who the “real” apartheid collaborators were. But no-one would give Dlamini the names: “for these whisperers, it always seemed enough to them to pass on the secret without really saying who the collaborators were. It was as if they knew that the power of the secrets they were purporting to share resided, not in the content of the secrets themselves, but in the mere hint that there were secrets.”

That is the energy that drives Gilder’s fiction in The List. It’s an energy that’s great for fiction, as any lover of Le Carré knows. For democracy, not so much.


The Monthly Review by Mark Gevisser

Mark Gevisser will host a discussion with Derek Hanekom, Jonathan Ancer and Ferial Haffajee on the meaning of “enemy agent ” in SA history and politics.

Judgement in the matter between David Hanekom and Jacob Gedleyihlekisa Zuma, D Pillay J., 6 September 2019.

Betrayal: The Secret Lives of Apartheid Spies, Jonathan Ancer (Tafelberg)

The List, Barry Gilder (Jacana)

Undercover with Mandela’s Spies: The Story of the Boy who Crossed the Square, Bradley D Steyn and Mark Fine (Jacana)

Tobacco Wars: Inside the Spy Games and Dirty Tricks of Southern Africa’s Cigarette Trade, Johann van Loggerenberg (Tafelberg)

Lawfare: Judging Politics in SA, Dennis Davis and Michelle le Roux (Jonathan Ball)