How author was forced to confess
Novelist Mark Behr knew he couldn’t keep his spy activities secret forever, re ports Justin Pearce
Threat of exposure at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and in the media was hanging over the head of author Mark Behr when he confessed to having spi
ed for the South African Police at Stellenbosch University in the Eighties.
Several journalists knew he was a spy prior to his confession last Thursday a
t a conference in Cape Town.
SABC journalist Jacques Pauw has been planning to include Behr in an upcoming regular Sunday television programme on the truth commission.
Behr, the award-winning author of The Smell of Apples, was chair of the Stell
enbosch branch of the National Union of South African Students (Nusas) in 1988 .
Behr never intended confessing to his spy activities at Stellenbosch, believin g the issue could be more fully explored in his writing.
“The truth was so big it could be described better and interrogated better thr ough fiction,” Behr said this week, speaking to the press for the first time s ince his confession last week. “It is not possible to speak about culpability in a single statement or confession.”
Behr is currently working on his second novel, which he says is on the theme o f “betrayal”.
Behr made his confession only with extreme reluctance, after friends persuaded him the truth would sooner or later come out anyway. He did so in the course
of his keynote address to a conference entitled “Faultlines—- inquiries aro und truth and reconciliation”.
Pearlie Joubert, a close friend of Behr during his student days, said she had known for five years of Behr’s spy activities. After the offices of Vrye Weekb lad were bombed in 1991, Joubert, then employed by the newspaper, went to make a statement to the police. She recalls that one of the policemen recognised h
er as a friend of Behr, and told her, “Mark Behr used to work for us.”
Behr told the Mail & Guardian he started talking to friends about his spying a ctivities shortly after his receipt of the M-Net award for fiction earlier thi s year turned him into a public figure.
“With my novel becoming successful, the likelihood of it [his spy activities] being talked about in public became greater and greater,” Behr said, adding hi s friends had persuaded him to come clean.
One close associate said Behr had been motivated partly by conscience, but als o by fear of exposure.
“I did not speak earlier because I did not know how to begin speaking,” Behr s aid. “At the beginning, I did not know what to say because it would have been so damaging to Nusas and Sansco [the South African National Students’ Congress ].”
But Behr’s confession in Cape Town raised more questions than it answered. He left for Norway, where he holds a research post, on sunday.
On the telephone from Oslo, Behr would divulge little more, though he said he had promised more details to Pauw for the television documentary.
He said he had “some non-commissioned rank” in the SAP, but would not say what . He said he reported to the Security Police in Stellenbosch and that the info rmation he passed on was “mostly analytical stuff—- analysis of national po litics and how student organisations fitted into that”.
Asked whether his activities had ever caused the arrest of fellow activists, B ehr replied, “I don’t think so.”
He would reveal nothing about the nature of his police work at Stellenbosch, a nd on his claims to have supplied information to the ANC, he would elaborate n o further than saying he gave the organisation “bits of information I had acce ss to”.
He would not name the member of his family who he says introduced him to the j ob with the Security Police, and would not reveal whom he reported to either i n the Security Police or later in ANC intelligence.
He hinted he had never been serious about his work for the police.
“From very early on I realised what I was doing was wrong. I thought I would d o less damage if I continued and manipulated the situation.”
Once elected to the Stellenbosch SRC, Behr gained a high profile on campus by organising trips to visit the then-banned ANC.
“I thought those things would send signals to the state and to National Party leadership about discontent among white South African youth,” he said.
Behr said he was not going to say any more “because of this accusation I am tr ying to gain the centre stage”. He has been lambasted by former activists for using the conference platform to make his confession, thus drawing attention t o himself and creating publicity for his next novel.
Behr dismissed this suggestion, saying, “I will be working on the novel for at least two years still.”
He believes the scale of his activities does not justify going before the Trut h and Reconciliation Commission, though he says he will supply information to the commission if requested.
Behr’s confession is the latest manifestation of a maverick political style wh ich has often aroused the suspicions of his associates. In the paranoid atmosp here of the Eighties, doubts about Behr’s agenda went as far as Nusas head off ice.
“Head office was suspicious, and acted accordingly,” said Helen Perry, who was Nusas’s Western Cape regional organiser in 1989. “We also made it clear to th
e ANC we were not happy with his security.
“But nothing was absolutely conclusive—- if there had been, we would have b een down on him like a ton of bricks.”
Perry said Behr’s over-willingness to have the SRC meet the ANC was among the things that aroused Nusas’s suspicions. Nusas’s suspicions were widely shared in the Stellenbosch branch.
It is also unlikely Behr was very effective as a spy. Stellenbosch University itself did an excellent job of suppressing Nusas on campus, banning its activi ties and expelling then-chair Leslee Durr.
“I can’t see how he could have had much impact. Nothing was discussed behind c losed doors,” said former activist Theo Erasmus.
Another activist from the time said she knew of at least one instance of someo ne in Behr’s circle doing ANC underground work, and Behr knowing nothing about it.
Police spies were hardly necessary on a campus where the university establishm ent kept a close eye on Nusas activities. Behr’s former comrades cannot point to any particular act by the police which they could pin directly on his activ ities.
Where Behr did have an impact on the organisation was encouraging its shift in a direction more acceptable to the Stellenbosch establishment. In 1988 Behr w
as elected to the SRC on a Nusas ticket, an unprecedented and controversial mo ve. Before Behr’s arrival, Nusas at Stellenbosch did not even try to engage wi th the political mainstream on campus, concentrating instead on its relations with the b roader democratic movement.
Activists recall Behr tried to steer Nusas in a direction that would make it m ore acceptable on campus. These attempts were greeted with mixed reactions. Ma ny in Nusas thought there was nothing to be gained from engaging with the righ t-wing administration and mainstream student organisations. Yet Behr was an el oquent speaker and a powerful advocate for the organisation, who stayed clear of the rad ical image Nusas had acquired on campus.
Some see his attempt to change the image of Nusas as a deliberately divisive s trategy—- others see it as the work of a flamboyant individual interested o nly in self-promotion, accusations which were echoed when Behr confessed from the conference platform last week.