Read of the Week

Betrayal: The Secret Lives of Apartheid Spies

Jonathan Ancer


Review: Mzoxolo Budaza

Veteran journalist Jonathan Ancer is the author of Spy: Uncovering Craig Williamson, where he tries to understand the life of the apartheid state’s super spy.

His continued obsession with spies and their double or even triple lives gave birth to Ancer’s latest offering, Betrayal: The Secret Lives of Apartheid Spies.

According to the publishers, the book explores a number of questions including what it takes to betray close friends.

How do you lead a double life and not lose yourself?

Ancer makes it clear from the onset that the spies featured in his book are all white.

This, he says, is because of a number of reasons, including that black spies/informers paid a higher price for their betrayal and, as a result, aren’t alive to talk about it.

Another reason is that, unlike their white counterparts, who made conscious decisions to spy, black spies didn’t really have a choice because they were captured, tortured and forced to turn against their comrades or die.

In Betrayal, Ancer uses his journalistic skills to produce a fresh perspective on the lives of apartheid-era spies, most of whom infiltrated the white left on university campuses and elsewhere, and betrayed those they called their comrades. These spooks were, of course, not all spying on behalf of the apartheid state.

They range from Dieter Gerhardt, the SA Navy officer who spied for Russia, to Joy Harnden, whose double life might have resulted in the death of MK cadre Iggy Mthebule.

I found it interesting that Makhanda/Grahamstown, a small town in the Eastern Cape, was one of the Security Branch’s fertile recruiting grounds and that most of these spies had “studied” journalism at Rhodes University. They include Olivia Forsyth, who was described as a triple agent who was once held at the notorious Quadro Camp in Angola before eventually escaping from ANC custody, much to the embarrassment of the continent’s oldest liberation movement.

Then there is Gordon Brookbanks. He apparently became a spy, not because of politics or ideology but because it sounded exciting.

Ancer notes that Brookbanks “didn’t break cover because he questioned his ideological motives or the morality of apartheid but because he didn’t want to carry on being a spy”.

A few days after I read the chapter on Brookbanks, a Cape Times front page headline screamed “Apartheid spy teaching history at Westerford High”.

That spy was Brookbanks, and some parents were apparently uncomfortable with him teaching their children.

Ancer notes that some of the spies he spoke to didn’t think they betrayed anyone, “because they didn’t consider themselves to be part of the group they had infiltrated”.

Well-researched and written with a typical Jonathan Ancer flair, Betrayal is a must read for anyone who believes our past matters.