Close to the fire

Craig Williamson speaks to David Beresford

FACING him in his bare little office north of Johannesburg it is difficult to believe that Craig Williamson was apartheid’s “super-spy”. With the bulk of a trencherman and slightly protruding front teeth, he has the amiable appearance of an overweight Bugs Bunny and is almost as entertaining.

The past is catching up with Williamson. It is now 17 years since The Guardian blew his cover as one of South Africa’s most successful secret agents.
Over the last few weeks he has re-emerged as a leading voice in the potentially explosive debate over the Truth Commission—the instrument intended to lay bare the atrocities of the apartheid era by forcing confessions from the perpetrators in return for indemnities against prosecution.

Williamson is a high profile target for inquisition. In an apparent attempt to get on-sides with the ANC he recently “confessed” to them his involvement in some of the worst atrocities of the apartheid “dirty war”—including the murder of Ruth First, the first wife of the South African Communist Party chief, Joe Slovo, who died recently.

At the same time he is outspoken in his criticism of National Party politicians for failing to protect their “foot-soldiers”. Recently he engaged in sharp public exchanges with the former foreign minister, Pik Botha, over what, exactly, was the role and responsibility of the National Party cabinet.

Recounting the story of his career as a secret agent, Williamson gives an insight into the perceptions of those who fought in savage defence of the South African pigmentocracy; or, as he would prefer to put it, in the struggle against Soviet hegemony.

He was born in 1949, of Scottish descent, the son of a tyre and rubber dealer. Educated at Johannesburg’s liberal-minded St John’s College, he discovered his career path when he side-stepped the exigencies of military service by volunteering for the police. After serving for four years he entered the law faculty at the University of the Witwatersrand. His police commanders persuaded him, with promises of financial support, to continue working for them as a spy.

The speed with which Williamson—with his record of police service—rose through the ranks of political activists on the campus was a pointer to the naivety of the South African left where security was concerned. In 1975 he was elected treasurer and then vice-president of the National Union of Students (Nusas), a major thorn in the side of the Nationalist government.

At one point, as acting president, he led a delegation to protest to the minister of police over the detention of fellow members of his executive. “I was told to behave myself when I saw the minister, because my promotion to lieutenant was on his desk,” Williamson recalls with a grin.

In 1976 he “fled” South Africa to Europe and joined a key funding agency, the Geneva-based International University Exchange Fund (IUEF), becoming its deputy director. It was a prize position for a South African agent, giving him an insight into the flow of funds from the left, not only within the anti-apartheid community, but to radical causes in Latin America—information bartered with intelligence agencies in those countries.

In addition to intelligence-gathering, he proved adept at manipulation. An example he recalls was a major Unesco anti-apartheid conference in Paris in 1979. Williamson chaired the steering committee. “I blew the whole conference out of the water by insisting in the final resolution that apartheid and Zionism be equated as racism. That was it; the Americans, the British, everyone walked out of the conference. The Soviets thought it was tremendous—equating Zionism and apartheid was part of their foreign policy objectives.” His bosses were equally ecstatic.

The story of how Williamson was blown as a spy is something of a comedy of errors. Confusion over financial documents which an ANC courier mislaid led, by chance, to speculation that he might be an agent. He moved to squash it—succeeding, he recalls, in getting a letter signed by the present deputy president of South Africa, Thabo Mbeki, giving assurances that he was not a spy. But then a Bureau of State Security (Boss) agent, Arthur McGiven, defected in Britain, telling his story to The Observer. McGiven, who had previously worked with Williamson, failed to identify him as an agent, but there was a risk that he would do so. (Williamson discloses that South Africa sent a team of agents to Britain in an unsuccessful attempt to “deal” with McGiven.)

Panicked by these developments Williamson’s long-time handler, General Johan Coetzee, who had by then risen to head the security branch, flew to Zurich with Williamson and met the director of the IUEF, Lars Gunnar Ericsson, at a pavement cafe. He bluntly introduced himself as South Africa’s spy-boss and Ericsson’s deputy as his star agent. “It was a horror story (for Ericsson),” laughs Williamson.

The general used both persuasion and blackmail to try and recruit Ericsson into helping protect his man’s cover. He argued that Ericsson, as a social democrat, was essentially on the same side in the “anti-communist struggle”. At the same time he threatened to release incriminating documents showing Ericsson had misappropriated IUEF funds. Ericsson defied him and went public, paying heavily for it. The IUEF was subsequently closed and Ericsson died a broken man after the general carried out the blackmail threat, leaking the incriminating documents in Holland.

Williamson returned to South Africa in 1980, becoming the operational head of police intelligence, running the force’s domestic and foreign operations. In 1985 he ostensibly retired from the espionage business, but in fact joined military intelligence as a lieutenant colonel.

Williamson has not himself applied for indemnity. He was invited to join the group of some 3 500 police and two former cabinet ministers who made collective application shortly before the April elections, declining on the grounds that it was likely to prove invalid.

He was offered a guaranteed parliamentary seat in the new parliament by the National Party, but refused because of the threat posed to a political career by the looming truth commission. “I was too close to the fire,” he shrugs.

He does not believe that the Truth Commission will disclose much that is new. “There may be a few people who they didn’t know had died as victims of the system. It might have been thought they had a motor accident,” he says. “But basically everybody knows what was done.” The unanswered questions relate to who did it. And it is those questions which make him indignant.

The agents of the state believed they were fighting in a global war against the Soviet union and its allies, who were using the anti-apartheid movement as surrogates, he argues. “I didn’t do it for monetary gain or because the guy was fooling with my wife,” he says. “A psychosis of war developed. When you fight a war the enemy tries to kill you and you kill them.”

He wants indemnity, but without confession. The war was fought by the state and the state should take collective responsibility.

But does he have regrets? “Yes. We got so involved that we couldn’t see the wood for the trees,” he concedes. “I think we did some unacceptable things with hindsight Espionage and intelligence; they call it the big game and it is a game. The problem is it does have some nasty results sometimes.”

Outside his office it is a sweltering day. “Do you know why it is so hot?” he asks. “Someone forgot to close the gate when they let Slovo in.” It is a sally which says much of the debate on forgiveness and contrition in South Africa.

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