Book review: The secret pilgrims

Songs and Secrets (Jacana)

Songs and Secrets (Jacana)



At a lekgotla of the recently integrated intelligence services of the former National Party (NP) government and the now-governing ANC in 1995, there was tension in the air. The agents were still stuck in mutually suspicious groups of black versus white. The ice was broken, however, when a “usually quiet and reserved” white male member of the service emerged in a miniskirt to perform a little musical number “in a rather tuneful falsetto”.

Barry Gilder, then the recently appointed general manager for the South African Secret Service’s foreign offices, responded by playing a song on his guitar — not one of his own compositions, he notes, nor indeed a struggle anthem, but “a Paul Simon or Bob Dylan song”.

Gilder, now retired, tells in his memoir of his progress from youthful “Nusas troubadour” (the National Union of South African Students, the white student left-wing organisation) in the 1970s to exiled freedom fighter to — let’s not put too fine a point on it — spy, first for the movement then for the new ANC government. Spy, in this case, also meaning spy chief, state administrator and, in a way, politician.

He went from student singer-songwriter to the Umkhonto we­Sizwe camps and from there to espionage training in the Soviet Union. He tells amusingly of practising strategic revolutionary planning on the model of a “Country K”, as his instructors had named it, which had a capital called “Adigrad”.

Back in South Africa after the release of Nelson Mandela, Gilder comments that he could see that what lay ahead — the passage from “liberation to governance”, as the book’s subtitle has it — would be complex way beyond the level of anything schematised by Country K.

And yet, in so many ways, Gilder remains the young cadre doing his duty in the cause of world revolution. At the same time, it’s hard not to notice the contrast between Gilder’s attitudes to two important occasions in the life of the intertwined parties of the ANC and the South African Communist Party.

In 1989 he was overjoyed to be going to Cuba for the SACP congress. This was just before open negotiations started between the NP and the ANC, but most of the SACP participants in Cuba were unaware of the secret talks then in progress; they ringingly reaffirmed the party’s traditional commitment to armed insurrection.

(Interestingly, Thabo Mbeki, who was very present at the ­congress and wearing his SACP cap, nogal, did add an ambiguous codicil about negotiations to the ­congress resolutions.) A few months later, in a sequence entertainingly described by Gilder, he and ­others jammed into a Harare hotel room to watch on television as FW de Klerk unbanned the liberation ­movements.

The other important occasion was the seismic Polokwane conference of the ANC in 2007 when, as it turned out, the ground would be swept from beneath a blinkered president Mbeki’s feet. This time, put off by all the shenanigans in government and the ruling party and foreseeing an unpleasing spectacle, Gilder just went for a long sail on his yacht.

Gilder tells his long, complex and, in fact, quite extraordinary story with much verve, zipping between revelatory anecdotes and a staccato outline of the bigger picture.

Putting things in perspective
Into his own picaresque story Gilder inserts round-ups of key political events, a bit like the “newsreels” in John Dos Passos’s USA trilogy. Still, this is a very personal telling of a large tale with large historical components — or, shall we say, large and small and medium-sized historical components.

And, as some of Gilder’s reflections imply, we (as South Africans) are not entirely sure which is which just at the moment. The way Gilder switches between the present and the past tense in his narrative, sometimes rather jarringly, suggests that the present and the past are not sitting comfortably together.

Among Gilder’s passing anecdotes in Songs and Secrets is one in which Stellenbosch academic Willie Esterhuyse instructs Mbeki, then Oliver Tambo’s right-hand man, on procedures for the use of a dead-letter box or “DLB” and other aspects of spying tradecraft. This was at an early stage in the talks about talks that eventually led to the Convention for a Democratic South Africa (Codesa) and Esterhuyse was involved at the very beginning.

His story is as fascinating as ­Gilder’s, although Endgame is less of an autobiography as such: an Afrikaner philosophy professor, deeply tied to the ruling elite, and his progress to undercover negotiator with the enemy.

As the DLB incident indicates, there was an air of espionage in the first contacts between the ANC and those who spoke for (elements of) the Afrikaner establishment, as opposed to liberals who had already met the ANC in Dakar and elsewhere. Indeed, as Endgame details, the government’s secret agents were key players in getting the talks going: the securocrats were in fact far ahead of PW Botha, who helped to begin talks but then dithered. After a certain point, he had to be kept out of the loop. And he had not even had his stroke yet.

Endgame is educative on how different streams were necessary in the talks process — how there were talks within talks or talks alongside talks, as in the “track-two talks” that paralleled the larger meetings and could fill gaps when the public ­process broke down.

It’s a complex tale and heartening to remember that, after three decades of war between the NP and the ANC, agreement on ending it could at last be reached.

There were so many teeterings, too, even once talks had officially begun — the Operation Vula snafu, for instance, about which Gilder also has something to say.

In the light of stories such as these and the understanding they offer of South Africa’s truly remarkable “first” transition, it’s hard not to get angry with politicians who, today, trash the Codesa settlement as some sort of back-door compromise that cheated the ANC out of real power and therefore stunted South Africa’s progress towards utopia. (It is like they have got bored with blaming every screw-up on apartheid, so now they blame Codesa and the Constitution.) Even Jacob Zuma, who was at Codesa, said at the ANC’s policy conference last month that the process produced “sunset clauses” but no “sunrise clauses”. One wants to reply: Well, why didn’t you put them in, then?

In fact, most South Africans thought it was sunrise. Now, confused in a sweltering noon as the blinding heat of the battles over power and policy beats down on us, we can be forgiven, perhaps, for yearning for the neat outlines of Gilder’s Country K.

Shaun de Waal

Shaun de Waal

Shaun de Waal has worked at the Mail & Guardian since 1989. He was literary editor from 1991 to 2006 and chief film critic for 15 years. He is now editor-at-large. Recent publications include Exposure: Queer Fiction, 25 Years of the Mail & Guardian and Not the Movie of the Week. Read more from Shaun de Waal


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