Prize-winning author Mark Behr’s confession that he was a police spy is an aud acious attempt at seduction, argues Nic Borain
PEOPLE who worked secretly or otherwise to undermine the movement against apar theid should be given every encouragement to to say what they did and why. I a m all for listening to them and forgiving those who are genuinely contrite. Un fortunately the sincerity of Mark Behr’s confession is doubtful.
Even before one looks at the text it is difficult to believe that Behr is not engaged in another act of self-promotion. The initial signs are:
l He flew in from Norway, delivered his confession and fled back overseas with out facing those on whom he had spied;
l He addressed himself to a conference of people interested in writing, where he was the star speaker, rather than to the ex-Stellenbosch students he had be trayed and the anti-apartheid activists on whom he had informed;
l He revealed to close friends he was only coming clean because he was going t o be named as a spy by a witness at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission;
l He is publishing a book dealing with spying and betrayal early next year. On e must assume his high-profile confession is part of an advanced publicity cam paign.
To grasp just how unlikely is Behr’s sincerity, we need to examine the text of the 4 000-word confession and apology.
A number of things are missing from the text. He never mentions the arm of the state he spied for, who his handler was, how much he was paid or what informa
tion he passed on. If Behr really wanted to redress some of the harm he did – — a crucial aspect of confession and forgiveness — then these were the que stions he should have answered. Instead of dealing with the details of what he did and f
or whom, Behr spends the overwhelming majority of his words worrying about how he will be judged. The repeated lament is: “I have always suspected that the
only voice people will hear from that moment on … is the voice that cannot b e trusted, that is incapable of the truth.”
Aside from his exasperating self-absorption the problem with Behr’s words is t heir totalitarian thoroughness. Behr constructs his defence as a monolith. On reading the document we are left with the impression that there is nothing mor e to say except to forgive the poor chap, he is suffering enough already. Ther e is no chink in the words for us to enter and engage with him. He has pre-emp ted any po ssible criticism by exhaustively criticising himself. He apologises for the be trayals, for his motivation, for his lack of moral courage; he apologises for apologising; and then, in an infinite regress, he apologises for apologising f or apologising.
This is called “shutout”. We are left unable to engage with the truth. We can do nothing but acquiesce or reject him outright. If we reject him we place our selves with those who deny perpetrators the right to change heart; to seek a l anguage to express their grief and regret.
But to what are we being asked to acquiesce? If it was just forgivemess it wou ld be easy. You have to listen to the rhythms of the text, the cadence of Behr ‘s voice to understand the enormity of what he wants from us. “It is with the profoundest imaginable regret …”, “I soon believed in the moral correctness of this struggle I was reporting on …”, “… this might be … yet another r einterpret
ation geared for justification …”, “I lacked the moral fortitude to face the consequences of my treason …”, “I … would like to capitulate into silence
… there is also truth in silence as there might be in ceasing to live.”
Imagine a young version of the Reverend Jim Bakker — remember him? Then lis ten carefully to Mark Behr and you will hear something akin to the tearful tel evangelist minister who got caught sleeping with a prostitute — again. he i s beating his breast, calling down the wrath of God on his sinner’s head, begg ing us to join the Lord in forgiving him. The individuals in the congregation are crying with him, wishing they could be the ones to embrace him, to soothe away the c
ontradiction at the heart of this flawed titan of a man. Behr’s confession is a number of things. It is also an audacious attempt at seduction.
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission has begun bringing the painful stories of victims on to the centre stage of our history. As that process begins to t
ake effect we are presented with Behr claiming to have been the victim: “… o ne is born into, loved into, violated into discrimination”. Behr claims to be the victim of propaganda, of Christian National Education, of his family, of h istory, of fate, of his own moral weakness. With all due respect! This is a man who spie
d for the apartheid police in exchange for money. He apparently didn’t even su pport apartheid. Ten minutes listening to the truth commission will clear the heads of anyone seduced into believing Behr is the tragic hero at the centre o f our national drama.
I do believe there is something fragile and sacred in our process of confessio n and absolution. We all probably know white men who were, as conscripts, enga ged in atrocities in Angola and Mozambique. We have watched them writhe in the terrible privacy of their own fear and shame. These men cannot even imagine w
ords to describe where they have been and what they have done. We have all kno wn someone amongst them who has descended into the hell of drug addiction or suicide.
Behr had the unique combination of talent and opportunity to examine how young whites became culpable. His confession could have begun giving them a voice.
But he misses his one chance at salvation. In an orgy of self-pity and self-pr omotion he abandons the only people who really needed him to speak with sincer ity.
I hear that Behr’s confession was warmly received by many. Behr has consistent ly traded on his anti-apartheid credentials. I am appalled at the possibilty t hat he will now get away with trading on his credentials as the contrite perpe trator, as the prodigal son.
Behr phrases his confession in the literary context of the limitations of memo ry and language to describe truth. He has extensive access to platforms that p ropogate his vision of the truth and a unique ability to manipulate language t o do so efficiently. Behr is the fast-food chain in the market of truth. Perha ps in the neighbourhoods where they consume mediocrity three meals a day his v ersion of himself and history will prevail.
Behr could be forgiven for spying on the anti-apartheid movement, even if it w as for thrills and extra ready cash. But, quite simply, he would have to be so rry first. Not sorry for himself. Sorry for what he has done.
Nic Borain was secretary general of Nusas in 1985, and established a Nusas bra nch at Stellenbosch. He was regional director of Idasa Western Cape from 1988 to 1990, and during this time employed Mark Behr