The Behr truth, in his own words
An edited version of Mark Behr’s speech, made at a writers’ conference entitle d ‘Fault Lines—- Inquiries Around Truth and Reconciliation’
It is with the profoundest regret that I acknowledge that as a student I worke d as an agent of the South African security establishment. From the end of 198 6 to 1990 I received money for reporting mostly on the activities of the Natio nal Union of South African Students, at the university of Stellenbosch. In 199 0 I brought this to the attention of the ANC in Lusaka and from then, until th e end of 1 991, I gave the ANC whatever information I gained access to.
At 22, I was approached by a relative who was a high-ranking officer in the So uth African Police. What motivated my acceptance of the offer was certainly ha ving my studies paid, but having been extremely proud of my officer status in the South African Defence Force, there must have been some political motive as well.
There could also have been a misguided design at becoming part of the masculin ist codes which I, since childhood, had both loathed and adored. Yet, in matri c I had written an essay which exhibited an awareness of the absurdity of the group areas and immorality acts. In the army, there was also a psychological i nsight that I didn’t want to be bound by a system of such violence.
Whatever my mental and political frame of mind at the time, I am certain that I knew from the outset that something was wrong with my involvement with state security. One had to be either an idiot or a psychopath not to be aware of th
at. What did elude me was the magnitude of what I was getting myself into. Thi s realisation came early on in my career as an agent when it became clear that progressi
ve student organisation was a salient part of a momentous struggle for justice . I knew that by working for the state I had made an active decision to suppor t one side of that battle. That I eventually found my position morally untenab le was due to several factors.
While Stellenbosch University was very white, and progressive organisation vir tually entirely so, many of those involved were dissident thinkers who were co mmitted to acting on the moral outrage they felt at apartheid. I soon liked so me of these people, they were original and courageous, and they affirmed my ow n shaky libertarian spirit .
Secondly, I began reading literature which had a profound impact on my world v iews, and forced me to acknowledge that power, rather than nature, often deter mines reality.
Finally, we occasionally had contact with activists from other campuses amongs t whom were people who had been detained and tortured under the very system th at my agency now supported. It was not possible for me to see this and remain unchanged by it.
While I soon believed in the moral correctness of this struggle, there came al so the overwhelming knowledge that going public with my treason would not only destroy my imagined contribution, but cause untold damage to Nusas, and to fr
iends. I remained silent, trying to negotiate and influence the circumscribed space I wanted to exist between being government agent as well as friend and c omrade.
However, with time, and particularly after I had been elected to the SRC, had initiated two trips to meet the ANC in exile, and after Stellenbosch had its s hare of protest in 1989, the police were convinced that I had become a force o f agitation. I was told that other arms of the security establishment, Nationa l Intelligence and Military Intelligence, were about to expose me politically as well as my history of closeted gay experiences.
It was decided that I would be involved in a fake shooting incident which woul d make my departure from campus believable without putting my credentials at r isk. Obsessed by the fear of both personal and political exposure, I acquiesce d, doing as instructed. I left Stellenbosch and remained uninvolved for months as I pondered my future.
Then I left South Africa under a pretence and consulted with the ANC. In this meeting a programme of action was decided, which I stuck to until I was inform ed by the security branch that in line with political developments in the coun try by the end of 1991, my work was no longer of value to them.
Why, if it is true that I had very early on realised the moral decrepitude of working for the state, did I continue? Backed by the power of the state I lack ed the moral courage and the will that would compel me to find the words to ad mit to what I was involved in.
I knew, as I know today, that to say that one has been paid for working secret ly against the struggle for justice in South Africa would reduce one at once t o one thing: an agent of the South African regime. I have always suspected tha t the only voice people will hear from that moment on is the voice of betrayal .
There was never, and there will never be a way of correcting what I know I did wrong: I must accept responsibility. Neither a statement like this, nor any w
ork of literature that I may produce, any words I may say, can ever remedy the hurt of those around me.
Like my betrayal, the speaking here today publically, again constitutes a self ish act aimed at some form of self-integration, ending or shattering an autobi ography of denial. I can only hope that this is a more warranted and justified form of selfishness.