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Jonathan Ancer’s Spy “destined to become a minor classic about apartheid’s ruinous path,” writes Peter Vale

SpyIn 1972 Craig Williamson, a big, burly, bearded man, walked onto Wits University and registered as a student. He joined the National Union of South African Students (Nusas), and was on the frontline in the war against apartheid. At one march he was beaten up, arrested and spent a year on trial. Williamson rose up through the student movement’s ranks to become the Nusas vice president.

After being harassed by security police and having his passport seized, he decided to flee the country to continue his activism with the International University Exchange Fund (IUEF), an anti-apartheid organisation in exile. He was eventually appointed the Fund’s deputy director. As the IUEF’s money man, Williamson had access to powerful ANC and Black Consciousness leaders. He joined the ANC and formed his own unit to carry out clandestine work to topple the National Party government.

But Williamson was not the anti-apartheid activist his friends and comrades thought he was.

In January 1980, Captain Williamson was unmasked as a South African spy. His handler, Colonel Johan Coetzee, the head of South Africa’s notorious security branch, flew to Switzerland to bring him and his wife back home. Williamson was described as South Africa’s superspy who penetrated the KGB. Williamson returned to South Africa and during the turbulent 1980s worked for the foreign section of the South African Police’s security branch.

Two years after he left Switzerland he returned to Europe under a false name and with a crack squad of special force officers to blow up the ANC’s headquarters in London. He was also responsible for a parcel bomb that killed Ruth First in Mozambique and the bomb that killed Jeanette Schoon and her 6-year-old daughter Katryn in Angola. He left the security branch to join Military Intelligence and finally the State Security Council.

Apartheid’s spies didn’t have to appear before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and a lot of information about the spies has been buried, burnt or shredded. This episode of our country’s bitter past remains murky…

Here, Peter Vale, a professor of humanities and the director of the Johannesburg Institute for Advanced Study at the University of Johannesburg, reviews Ancer’s remarkable book for the Mail & Guardian:

One can judge a book’s bleakness by the photograph on its cover. The Mephistophelean figure holding a teacup is Craig Williamson: police informant and apartheid spy and assassin. Prize-winning journalist Jonathan Ancer’s goal is clear from the get-go. He wants to expose the man on the cover in all his infamy to set himself free. It’s no surprise, then, that there’s no place in these pages for the political philosopher Hannah Arendt’s idea of the “banality of evil” — those who perpetuate terrible deeds are mostly thoughtless functionaries.

For Ancer, the man on the cover of the book — not apartheid, nor his handlers — was responsible for a two-decade career of falsehood, cover-up, betrayal and murder. They were Williamson’s choice, and his alone.

Class, rather than race

So who is (or was) Williamson? Born into an English-speaking Johannesburg family, he was schooled at one of the city’s great institutions, St John’s College.

Gently, Ancer opens to the idea that class, rather than race, may have been at the core of Williamson’s inability to tell right from wrong. Awkward and always overweight, the boy was bullied and, in turn, learned to bully.

Other writers might have been tempted to position a propensity for violence at the centre of their narrative. Ancer is near playful when discussing Williamson’s school days.

But trawling through old copies of the school magazine, Ancer discovers that, when Williamson’s politics emerged, they were of a raw, racist strain, which was integral to the search for a white South African patriotism after World War II.

In 1966, Williamson won a school debatecum-mock election by drawing on the racial ideology espoused by the (now long-forgotten) Republican Party, a right-wing splinter group of the National Party (NP).

If this was the direction of his politics, his “gap year” confirmed it: this national served not with apartheid’s South African Defence Force, as was the case for most young white men, but with the South African Police (SAP).

It was 1968. Maintaining domestic order and the travails of white-ruled Rhodesia were uppermost in the thinking of prime minister John Vorster, apartheid architect Hendrik Verwoerd’s successor. Their NP embarked on an offensive to charm English-speakers, an approach that drew on the pervasive anti-communism of the time.

So, young Williamson’s choice of national service in the SAP, which was then at the sharp end of racial repression, didn’t seem untoward, even in Johannesburg’s supposedly more liberal, white, English-speaking northern suburbs.

Student politics

After his year in the SAP, he enrolled to read politics and law at the University of the Witwatersrand. There Williamson began his decade-long career of subterfuge.

He immersed himself in student politics, first in the Wits Students’ Representative Council and, later, the leftist National Union of South African Students (Nusas).

During these years, Williamson interacted with (and reported on) several generations of student leaders from almost every English-speaking university.

Interviewed by Ancer, several of them report that suspicions about Williamson abounded, but the liberal impulse to believe, forgive and understand stayed any serious investigations of a double life.

After Nusas, and purportedly without a passport, Williamson was catapulted (accompanied by his medical student wife, Ingrid) into the Geneva-based International University Exchange Fund (IUEF). This Nordic-funded body fronted for liberation movements around the world, but particularly in Southern Africa.

This was when the police informant turned to espionage by passing information to apartheid’s notorious Special Branch.

Continue reading Vale’s review here.

This review first appeared in The Conversation.

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