Opinionista • Nel Marais • 25 February 2019
Dr Nel Marais served in South African intelligence structures from 1984 to 2000. He is the founder of Thabiti, an international risk advisory company that focuses on sub-Saharan Africa.
Apartheid’s intelligence structures had virtual carte blanche – they tabled the information that led to the incarceration, disappearance, torture and murder of opponents, whether these enemies were real or perceived. This would have been impossible had they not been aided by hundreds of informants, both within and outside the liberation movements, whose identities remain a secret. In many cases, their deceit continues to impact on political, social and business relations.
In 1994, shortly after President Nelson Mandela had become South Africa’s first democratically elected head of state, he had a very blunt discussion with his security chiefs — many of them survivors from the former apartheid structures, although all the whites had by then acquired ANC cadres as their second-in-command colleagues.
As was his nature, Mandela’s request was straightforward, but the implications were Byzantine. He wanted to know, first, who had served as sources of information for the former intelligence structures in South Africa — Military Intelligence, SA Police (Security Branch) and the National Intelligence Service (NIS).
In addition, he wanted information on the exact circumstances that had led to the death in detention of ANC cadres, including Ahmed Timol and human rights activists such as Neil Aggett. He told his spymasters to determine what had happened to the “apartheid millions” that had reportedly left South Africa in the months after FW de Klerk had unbanned the ANC and other political organisations.
(This is another story for another day. Suffice it to say that this investigation has never been able to come to a definite conclusion, notwithstanding the expensive co-operation of private international investigative organisations.)
The sad reality is that Mandela never received full answers to his questions. The former heads of the apartheid intelligence structures have argued in private that non-disclosure was the “right thing to do’’, validating their view by statements such as the following:
“You can never disclose the identity of a source, not even to new political masters. Source protection is sacrosanct and no country’s intelligence structures will be taken seriously if they divulge the identities of sources, former or present.”
This is what they did — by refusing to fully obey their president’s instruction and by testifying before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) without ever exposing their sources. Many argue that this has contributed to an incomplete process of reconciliation and that the current fault lines that subsist in South Africa’s nation-building process cannot be divorced from a TRC that only went “half-way”.
The political sensitivity and the wide impact of this issue are underlined by news reports in February 2019 that the Nelson Mandela Foundation has warned that the state has to take the recommendations of the TRC seriously if the country is to move forward.
The foundation said the fact that there had been no formal response to the TRC recommendations was “symptomatic”. It added that very little full disclosure had taken place, that reparations had been inadequate and poorly implemented and prosecutions had not been forthcoming.
“In this context, we welcome recent indications that the state is revisiting the TRC recommendations, but urge all decision-makers to prioritise the needs and listen to the voices of those who were intended to be the beneficiaries of the recommendations,” it said.
The statement followed a letter former TRC members had written to President Cyril Ramaphosa in early February 2019, in which they asked him to appoint a commission of inquiry into alleged political interference that they believed had stopped the investigation and prosecution of cases referred by the TRC.
Some claim that a process of disclosure would simply lead to false accusations and the deliberate discrediting of individuals within an already fractious ruling party. However, any thorough process of examination and cross-examination should quickly expose those trying to misuse the process.
No source was ever known to only one person, for instance, his or her handler, as recruitment was a fairly laborious process that involved layers of oversight. Maybe more troublesome is the fact that a small percentage of sources were recruited under false flags or based on coercion. However, those who were the victims of such operations should also be afforded the opportunity to come clean.
This brings us back to the question of the identity of former sources — who were they and what did they do?
In the world of spy fiction, sources live glamorous lives and use modern technology to transmit critical intelligence that saves the world from being destroyed by mad dictators.
As far as South Africa’s liberation history is concerned, however, the reality was very different. Hundreds, maybe thousands of ANC cadres and sympathisers — sometimes only perceived to be such by members of the security forces — were harassed, jailed, interrogated, tortured and killed, based on the information of sources and informants; sometimes accurate, but often mere fabrications concocted to get paid or to keep source handlers from doing the same to the families of sources.
This is, of course, also true for many ANC informants who identified security force members and their families living in townships. Many of these people became assassination targets. In the former Natal province, ANC informants played a central role in identifying “targets”, working for, or with, the Inkatha Freedom Party.
Former intelligence operatives will insist that their sources were all “high-level” or provided intelligence that prevented attacks on civilians or infrastructure. There were such examples, but in practice, very few gave more than extra names to add to the “terrorist directory” that became a de facto licence to kill for the security forces.
There should be no confusion. The human sources who are so carefully protected by their former masters were co-responsible for many atrocities that occurred inside and outside South Africa’s borders. Neither should anyone doubt that the contagion persists among us today.
A few ANC leaders know who some of the apartheid sources were, as a few former source handlers have been willing to quietly name them, often to feather their own “new South Africa” nests. Those named remain vulnerable to political manipulation, especially when the ruling party wrestles with internal divisions.
Ex-handlers may also be benefiting, with many stories wafting through old and new boys’ clubs of former informants opening profitable doors for former white masters. There are indications that this extends to the highest levels of large companies, where a form of blackmail, based on past relationships, dictates business dynamics. We have little doubt that certain recently exposed examples of corruption and State Capture, including Bosasa, are linked to the fact that the identities of former sources remain unknown.
Allegations and fake news are used to discredit ANC leaders too, an example being the ridiculous accusations that were levelled against President Cyril Ramaphosa earlier this month. In 2003, a former National Director of Public Prosecutions, Bulelani Ngcuka, had to go through a traumatic public inquiry after similar accusations had been aimed at him. These attempts to politically discredit ANC leaders are and were possible because we simply don’t know the truth.
Although this remains a largely untold story, foreign intelligence services assisted NIS in many ways, often to the detriment of the ANC. Probably better documented is the support the ANC received from the former services in the Soviet Union, Cuba and the Democratic Republic of Germany (East Germany).
ANC representatives in Europe were especially vulnerable to recruitment for financial and other reasons. The point is that it is time that this co-operation should be exposed as fully as possible, as some of these services (and their governments) may still be benefiting from past relationships. It does not take much to imagine the difficulties a senior government official might have in terminating his links to G2 (Cuba), MI6 or the CIA if he had spied for them before 1994. This likely also applies to former anti-apartheid activists in Europe and elsewhere.
There might be a final point to make, which relates to the integrity of the negotiations process in South Africa. Former apartheid spymasters have already claimed that they played a cardinal role in the negotiations that led to the new South Africa, for instance by having initiated “secret” talks with Mandela while he was still in jail and by meeting other senior ANC leaders clandestinely.
According to them, they were central to the “South African miracle”.
What they have not been so forthcoming about to their fellow South Africans is the fact that the State Security Council (SSC) still received regular presentations from NIS on the ANC, PAC and SACP long after they had been unbanned. NIS personnel gave numerous briefings to the Ministerial Committee for Negotiations (MCN),1 which included senior NP ministers and trusted directors-general.
Presentations had little to do with security threats — they were about the ANC’s negotiation strategies and objectives. (Not all the MCN members were equally enthusiastic that intelligence officials were briefing them on constitutional matters, and some of the more reform-orientated ministers often showed their disdain for the presentations. In the interests of transparency, the author should state that he gave numerous briefings to this committee, and to the State Security Council.)
Based on human intelligence sources, the De Klerk government often reconfigured its negotiation tactics and the demands it took to the table. ANC contacts have indicated that they had similar access to NP delegations during Codesa.
The miracle of the “uniquely South African solution” sold to the world was, therefore, in large part a mirage, with manifold dynamics and outcomes premised on highly unethical actions and the exploitation of people (sources) who were paid, entrapped or simply blackmailed to co-operate.
Is it not imperative that these things are now revealed? This is part of our history and as a nation we need to learn from this, otherwise future intelligence efforts can never really serve the nation and democracy.
We would never expect parents of a murdered or raped child to accept that an investigation or trial wouldn’t be possible because of political expediency. Why then should the families of pro-ANC activists who disappeared or were killed extrajudicially, based on the information of sources, accept a political cover-up?
Perhaps the greatness of our nation will depend on how our very own traitors are treated. DM