Uncovering the spy known as RS452

Posted on February 19, 2011


In 2003, during an bitter feud among members of South Africa’s governing African National Congress, the director of public prosecutions, Bulelani Ngcuka, was accused of having been a spy for the apartheid state’s National Intelligence service. However, his accusers, former transport minister Mac Maharaj and current secret service head Mo Shaik, insisted that his designation as an NI spy had been RS452. But RS was a prefix used only by the police: the search for the real RS452 began. It culminated in London in a series of interviews with a woman who, as a lawyer, had once been considered an anti-apartheid stalwart in the Eastern Cape city of Port Elizabeth.

(First published, October 22 2003)
When Agent RS452 turned her back on spying, it was with a mixture of guilt, relief and self-loathing.

In a hesitant tone and seeming close to tears, Vanessa Brereton confessed to me over coffee at a pavement café outside London last week that she was Agent RS452. It was a secret she had buried deep inside herself, confiding in nobody since resigning from the security police in April 1991.

She spoke to me only because she had read on the Internet something I had written about the need to deal openly and comprehensively with our history. She agreed. She wanted an end to “all the lies and deceit”.

When she turned her back on spying, it was a move tinged with fear. The unbanning of anti-apartheid organisations and the move toward a non-racial political dispensation had freed her from her former mentors and masters. She was hailed in anti-apartheid circles and was unanimously elected treasurer of the Walmer branch of the African National Congress (ANC). Vanessa Brereton, like several others in her position, could have slipped easily into a prominent and possibly lucrative new role in the emerging “new” South Africa — and could now be desperately trying to halt probes into the identity of Agent RS452.

Instead, she chose to flee for several months, travelling the country before returning to Port Elizabeth to work as a contract lawyer in the local Legal Resources Centre (LRC), providing legal advice and aid to those who could not afford lawyers. But the memories of the recent past of betrayal and deceit continued to haunt her.

It was not a good time for her. “And I am only now starting to come to terms with what I did and what I was involved with,” she says. That process of finally coming to terms with the past began last week. Even her English husband and the “ready-made family” she married into five years ago, did not know about her secret past. Now they know and support her decision to speak out.

Slowly, often painfully, sitting in the small front room of the semi-detached family home outside London, Vanessa Brereton began to mine memories she had deliberately tried for so many years to obliterate.

She was one of a number of agents and informers who were part of Operation Crocus, a security police project aimed at collecting information about the “white left”. The man who recruited her and who was her spy handler was Karl “Zac” Edwards who started his undercover life in the Bureau of State Security (BOSS) as Agent R1653.

He spotted Vanessa Brereton at a party in Port Elizabeth in December 1984.

A newly qualified lawyer, she was, by all accounts, confident in her chosen field, but was socially insecure. “I know now I had a very low self image,” she admits.

Friends remember her as introspective and reserved. “She was quiet. A person who kept in the background,” says former political prisoner Mkhuseli Jack.

“A small, mousey young girl. With a limp,” remembers Professor Peter Vale of Rhodes University.

It was the limp that made Vanessa Brereton self conscious. Born with a congenital hip defect, she spent six months in hospital at the age of 11, emerging with one leg considerably shorter than the other.

There were other stints in hospital as well, but Vanessa Brereton excelled academically at the local Holy Rosary convent. Her school reports reinforce the general impression most of her contemporaries have of her.

Her parents were also intensely protective and the focus of her life tended to be very narrow although she read widely. She was the archetypal loner. But, throughout most of her secondary school career, she was in the convent’s championship quiz team and captained it for her final two years. “I think I always wanted to be someone special,” she says.

The Irish nuns at the convent helped her develop a commitment against apartheid and a strong fear and horror of communism. It was this latter fear that would be played on by Karl Edwards after he met her.

“He made me feel special,” she admits. He listened to her, appeared to take her opinions seriously and joked with her about her being “just a little old liberal”. They became lovers. “He was the first man in my life,” Vanessa says, “at 26, I was still so naive.”

This was scarcely surprising, given her background. And, within a patriarchal, rough and tumble, sports-mad world, Vanessa Brereton was only too conscious of her disability.

Karl Edwards ignored her disability. He was charm itself. Her opinions seemed to matter to him and she was smitten. “When I think back on that time I just can’t believe it,” she says. “Today, if I met someone like Karl Edwards, I think I would see right through him.”

But that was then and she did not see anything other than an exciting older man who made her feel special. He also pointed out that, if she considered communism to be a grave danger, she should actually be prepared to do something about it. The “communists” — in the form of Cubans — were already on South Africa’s doorstep in Angola.

He also argued that the disquiet in the country itself was being fuelled by unscrupulous and immoral white communists who used the privileges and advantages granted them by apartheid to sow discord and havoc among the majority black population. It was a simple and simplistic message, but Vanessa Brereton accepted it.

“Those were different times and it seemed to make sense,” she says. “Besides, I think Karl knew how to press all the right buttons.” He was her man and it made no difference when he confessed, after two months, that he was married.

When he suggested that she attend a meeting in a local church hall, she readily agreed. It was to be addressed by anti-apartheid campaigner, Molly Blackburn. Vanessa Brereton also agreed to report back and to volunteer at the meeting any help she could give.

So it was that the young lawyer was recruited to the human rights cause at the same time she started on her spying career as a registered informer.

Karl Edwards expressed his gratitude and admiration. Other meetings and reports followed. Expenses were paid for the time spent. “But for me it was never about money,” she says. She recalls feeling disquiet at the fact that Edwards often got her to sign blank expenses claims. She never knew what happened to them.

A year later, Edwards suggested that the relationship with the security police be formalised. At a “safe house” in the Port Elizabeth suburb of Mt Pleasant Vanessa Brereton was declared to be an undercover police constable with the designation Agent RS452.

She was paid her monthly wage in cash — and continued signing expenses claims for Edwards. By that time her legal practice was booming as human rights cases poured in. As a defence lawyer in political cases she was able to secure her reputation among the white Left on whom she spied. It also resulted in her being ostracised as a “communist” by a number of attorneys in Port Elizabeth.

Just as ironically, because she was Agent RS452, the security police did not attempt to sabotage her cases, by suddenly moving them to remote areas or creating other difficulties. The better her reputation as a political defender, the better her “cover” as a spy.

“As a lawyer she was very good,” says Dumisa Ntsebeza, who was the first president of the National Association of Democratic Lawyers, a body whose Eastern Cape meetings Agent RS452 reported on.

She progressed from constable to sergeant and finally to lieutenant. Her regular, clandestine meetings with Karl Edwards, both for personal and police reasons, continued and her only regular social contact was at almost weekly braais [barbecues] with other security police at various safe houses they used in and around Port Elizabeth.

She was effectively trapped in a frenetic and schizophrenic lifestyle. But she began to worry about the behaviour of some of her police colleagues. They burgled the homes of known anti-apartheid activists, removing items such as bedding or kitchen utensils.

“These went into police houses and it seemed to me that these people were no better than petty thieves.”

Karl Edwards and another security policeman, Sakkie van Zyl, also admitted to being involved in “cleaning out” the offices of attorney Krish Naidoo. Even chairs and telephones were taken.

Then came the Motherwell bombing of 1989 in which security police were killed by their own colleagues. An element of fear entered her life.

“But then two great events happened, one after the other,” she says. “First, the Berlin wall fell and signalled the end of what I had seen as the threat of communism. Then the anti-apartheid movements were unbanned and Nelson Mandela was freed.”

Her secret life could come to an end, but the memories of deceit and betrayal festered, driving her into depression. “But now, at last, I can start once again to live a normal life,” she says.