Underlying Ancer's book is a set of questions: was what they did for love of country, or ideology, or more prosaically, money? Picture: ZDENEK SASEK/123RF
Underlying Ancer's book is a set of questions: was what they did for love of country, or ideology, or more prosaically, money? Picture: ZDENEK SASEK/123RF

Jonathan Ancer’s book Betrayal: The Secret Lives of Apartheid Spies is a series of short thrillers, but these “short stories” are unified by an attempt to understand the notion of betrayal, thus its title.

The spy is that secret agent who must conceal his very self, present a false persona to the world, and manage a life that amounts to functional schizophrenia. The spy must lie — to loved ones, family, friends, to all and sundry.

Ancer probes the psyche of each spy he presents, interrogating their acts for signs of guilt, belonging, alienation, loss, or grief — all signs of betrayal. The betrayals are many, spies betray those they conspire to befriend. But these are all deliberate acts, not lapses of moral strength.

Underlying the book is a set of questions: how could they do what they did? How did they manage their relations and their interior lives? Was it for love of country, or ideology, or more prosaically, money?

The answers are by and large disappointing. There is no deep revelation of aspects of the human condition here. Ancer’s subjects are, with few exceptions, as banal as Hannah Arendt’s Nazis. Most were far from patriots, having little passion for their professions, which could not be professed. Many simply stumbled into a way out of nothingness and anonymity, drifting unconsciously from one nihilism into another.

Betrayal: The Secret Lives of Apartheid Spies by Jonathan Ancer. Picture: SUPPLIED
Betrayal: The Secret Lives of Apartheid Spies by Jonathan Ancer. Picture: SUPPLIED

Certainly the most interesting is Craig Williamson, the subject of Ancer’s previous book, who reappears here in defence of his past, unbowed, unreconstructed, arrogant as ever. Far from banal — indeed an evil man and a self-conscious nihilist — he got away with everything after pretending to confess at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

Interestingly, Ancer features three spies who worked against the regime, but the others were all working against the liberation forces. Roland Hunter is one of the more interesting figures, who ended up passing information on to the ANC “by accident”.

Olivia Forsyth is that classic white racist South African, supposedly now extinct — unless parading as an endangered species such as members of AfriForum. Fully behind the apartheid regime, she was the type that noisily switched when ’94 approached — but the switch was faulty — and appears to be devoid of intelligence, which she was charged with gathering. Forsyth is particularly reprehensible, trying to cash in on her murderous pastime with a book.

Vanessa Brereton’s case can be classed as hyper-betrayal — a condensation of various of its forms. She was a lawyer who sought out clients among activists, and betrayed their confidences and much more to the security branch. She made money from abusing attorney-client privilege, all because, she said, she was in love with Karl Edwards, who recruited her.

After some betrayals came to light, there were often unexpected meetings between betrayer and betrayed. ANC activist Janet Cherry had several of these encounters, one an almost wordless conversation with Brereton in a supermarket. The former spy fled before enough words could flow to make for a conversation.

The spies’ handlers were perhaps the most cynical lot. One, known as Oosthuizen, saw himself as a character in a John le Carre novel, and often recommended the spy writer to his charges. Williamson became the most significant handler after he was outed in 1980, recruiting Forsyth and many others.

Essentially a phallus assuming an identity as a spy, probably with sunglasses, handler and spy Karl Edwards took to seducing women into becoming agents. One has to wonder if he was screwing to bolster apartheid or recruiting to clock up conquests. A regular Don Juan of John Vorster Square, he became the lover of spy Joy Harden, “lawyer” Brereton, and presumably many others.

Ancer’s attempt to uncover the nature and dimensions of betrayal are a failure, not because he is at fault as a writer or psychologist, but because his subjects were/are nihilists, devoid of conscience, ideology or passion, never mind ethics. There was no betrayal, since these practitioners of murder-at-a-distance never adhered to beliefs that would make of apartheid a crime.

They ratted on friends with hardly a thought, never mind a second thought. They passed on information that got some locked up, tortured or killed, and yet they emerged into the postapartheid period with vapid apologies and second-hand remorse, performed for the media. Not a single suicide among them, which would be the true sign of remorse.

This speaks much of the psyche of white South Africans under apartheid. They were socialised to hate those whites who revealed a conscience, and hardened by a collective cynicism that took immense courage to resist. So, once again, there was no betrayal, merely an acting out of the apartheid ethos.

The Monthly Review by Mark Gevisser

Jonathan Ancer will be in a panel discussion hosted by Mark Gevisser alongside Derek Hanekom, Jonathan Ancer and Ferial Haffajee on the meaning of “enemy agent ” in SA history and politics.