Former president Nelson Mandela attends the sixth Nelson Annual Mandela lecture in Kliptown, near Johannesburg, in this July 12 2008 file photo. Picture: REUTERS
Former president Nelson Mandela attends the sixth Nelson Annual Mandela lecture in Kliptown, near Johannesburg, in this July 12 2008 file photo. Picture: REUTERS

Former Umkhonto we Sizwe operative and apartheid police spy Bradley Steyn is likely to find himself in a firestorm when his memoir, Undercover With Mandela’s Spies, is released.

Due out in May, the book aims to uncover the “dirty secrets of a dirty war fought by both the ANC and the government of the day”, the National Party headed by FW de Klerk.

Important political events during this period were De Klerk’s announcement of the decision to enter into transition negotiations to end apartheid, the release of Nelson Mandela from prison and the unbanning of the ANC and other liberation movements.

Steyn, who works in the private security industry, has seen more fire than most. As if walking from one real-life thriller to another, a 17-year-old Steyn is reported to have been a witness to the Strijdom Square massacre. Eight people died on that fateful day in Pretoria, 16 escaping with injuries.

November 2018 marked 30 years of the killings. The names of the victims and survivors had not been fully revealed until 2018. The announcement by him and the department of arts and culture of plans to unveil a plaque commemorating the massacre coincided with the anniversary.  

The truth was swept under the rug at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Steyn says of his decision to pen the memoir, adding that this was the only way black people could find “true opportunities to heal” from the atrocities of apartheid and address “the pains of the past”.

“I believe that the people of South Africa need to know the truth,” says Steyn, who is now based in the US. “The majority of the people don’t know the truth.”

But tragedy seems to have nasty habit of stalking Steyn. As he and the victims of the massacre were preparing to mark the 30th anniversary, personal tragedy struck. His brother-in-law was murdered at his farmhouse in Mpumalanga. This he revealed tearfully in a video he posted online at the time. The video went viral, attracting contrasting comments. Although Steyn received support from people affected by crime, others lambasted him for his former links to the ANC.

Co-written with Mark Fine, an author of apartheid romance fiction, Undercover with Mandela’s Spies is billed by the authors as a “true-life thriller”. 

But why wait that long to tell his version of history? Operating in the clandestine world, Steyn says he had to “wait for some people to die” as his name was on a hit list of people wanting him killed. And although Steyn says his former handlers in the ANC gave him their blessing to write the book, he believes some won’t be happy about it. But “the story’s bigger” than the danger and threats he faces, he says.

According to him, the story had to be told.

Publishing books on Mandela is a delicate issue. The withdrawal of Vejay Ramlakan’s book Mandela’s Last Years in 2017 had people talking. The Mandela family disowned the book. And while the publishers initially stuck to their guns, the outcry and media publicity forced them into submission, a move which publishing experts condemned as censorship. Mandela’s grandson Mandla Mandela accused Ramlakan, Mandela’s former doctor, of abusing his privileged relationship with Mandela.

The Nelson Mandela Foundation, responsible for protecting and promoting Mandela’s legacy, will probably refuse to offer comment whatever controversy erupts from the publication of Undercover with Mandela’s Spies.

Withdrawing published books from circulation has harmful consequences for readers and publishers, says publishing studies expert Beth le Roux.

“Generally, it is thought to stifle creativity,” she says. “For publishers, there may also be financial and legal consequences, as they lose their entire upfront investment if they can’t make sales on a book, and they may be sued in addition.”

Political analyst Ralph Mathekga says he isn’t surprised by the publication of controversial stories from this period. “Such controversial material will come as the history of the liberation movement is told,” Mathekga says.

But the greatest challenge for Steyn, after waiting so long to put pen to paper, is whether he remembered his time and experiences with “Mandela’s spies” accurately. Some of his sources, he says, are the department of arts and culture archives and his former “handlers in the ANC”.

“For the first time, I’ve found courage to talk about things people don’t want to talk about and face,” Steyn says. And although he’s “proud and excited” by the feat, he’s also nervous, he says. 

Le Roux believes censorship belongs to the dark old days, but powerful people and families can exert enough pressure to stop publications they disagree with, she says.