An invaluable insight into apartheid’s ‘spooks’

Posted on January 6, 2011


Apartheid’s Friends — The rise and fall of South Africa’s Secret Service                               by James Sanders (John Murray)

(First published:  December, 2006)
James Sanders is a researcher of note.  He proved this with his doctoral thesis at London’s School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) which was published by Frank Cass in 2000 as South Africa and the international media 1972-1979.

It was his SOAS reputation as well as his concentration on South Africa that landed him the position as the researcher for the late Anthony Sampson, on both the Mandela biography and on the last edition of Sampson’s dissection of the British Establishment, Anatomy of Britain.

His research for author J.D.F. Jones was a triumph in that it provided material for the hailed biography, Storyteller, that demolished the carefully self-nurtured image of Lourens van der Post as some kind of secular saint of the twentieth century.

With Apartheid’s friends, Sanders has again displayed his ability as a researcher, and one who can also write lucidly.  But there are none of the startling revelations that caused such a stir with Storyteller.

However, this account provides the first relatively comprehensive look at the manipulations and mindsets behind the mayhem, bloodshed and, finally, moves toward compromise of apartheid’s security establishment.  And always in the wings and sometimes pulling the strings of the actors on centre stage, Sanders reveals the host of foreign “spooks” and their governments who attempted to intervene and steer events to suit their own purposes.

He also draws together the manner in which the media was used and abused by the likes of Eschel Rhoodie and his cohorts and gives a general overview of material that surfaced at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) about journalists who were full-time spies or “sources” for the security establishment.

But he does not follow this up, apart from mentioning that former security policeman Vic McPherson presented the TRC with a list of 37 journalist “contacts” of the Pretoria Special Branch.  In the excellent notes section at the back of the book, he also mentions that former Sunday Times editor Tertius Myburgh was considered by many to be an agent.

This, along with the questions he raises about retiring DA leader Tony Leon’s military service, seems somewhat selective, given the wealth of evidence about other leading personalities, both in the media and without.

Myburgh may well have been an agent, but the evidence that exists also indicated that he may merely have been a government supporter who abused his position to promote the regime.  This is the same explanation given to me by former Rand Daily Mail (RDM) journalist Chris Olckers whose name also appeared on the McPherson list and who confessed to providing information to the security police.

Myburgh certainly did nothing to expose the state’s death squads and acted as a cheerleader for the murderous assaults on neighbouring states.  But he also gave the late Hans Strydom and Ivor Wilkens carte blanche with their expose in 1978 of the Broederbond which severely damaged the government.

Other journalists also “did deals” swapping information for access to exclusive stories.  But there is considerable evidence that some did much more or were, in fact, as another former RDM staffer Tony Stirling confessed shortly before the died, part of “security”.   Sanders  is perhaps best placed to delve further into this important area in the future.

This book, however, will, for years,  trigger a multitude of debates.  It s is also very much a cautionary tale about the dangers posed by the  arcane world of security establishments which tend to hide behind the oxymoronic term:  intelligence.

Despite his evident fascination for it, Sanders shines a fairly uncompromising light on a sordid world where bumbling incompetence and treachery often go hand in hand with cynical and occasionally insightful attempts to amend policies and practice.

In this he draws a distinction between the rank and file spooks who tend still to wallow in myths of James Bond-like derring-do and the upper echelons.  He shows clearly that leading figures in the apartheid security establishment such as Mike Louw, Maritz Spaarwater and Niel Barnard played crucial roles in brokering the initial talks that led to Codesa.

They — in particular Louw and Spaarwater — are portrayed in positive light in a tale packed with detail of the horrific practices sanctioned by the apartheid regime, a regime of which they were very much a part.

A more penetrating study of when they and others like them saw the writing on the wall and began supporting a deal with representatives of the oppressed majority is definitely called for.  Sanders has provided the spadework.

Above all, this is an invaluable reference for any serious student, not only of the security establishment, but also of South Africa’s darkest days and the transition of 1994.  At the same time, despite the plethora of detail in the narrative, it makes for a riveting read and a stark reminder of the horrors that were perpetrated — and condoned — under the previous regime.

Posted in: Book Reviews