Spies, suspicions and accountability

The “informer issue” has hung like a Damoclean sword over South African politics since the end of the apartheid era.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) had little hard information to work on but did not treat the issue as a priority either. The Amnesty Committee singularly failed to confront the issue by not making it a requirement for applicants to name their informants.

City Press, however, threw open the “Pandora’s box”, which this issue constitutes, in an article last Sunday. It is a clever piece of writing from a litigious perspective. At no point does it clearly and unambiguously name National Director of Public Prosecutions Bulelani Ngcuka as a spy. Instead, it reports that he “was once investigated” by African National Congress intelligence. We weren’t told the outcome beyond that by 1989 “there was a basis for suspecting” him of being source RS452.

This is not serious investigative reporting but a smear, in which innuendo and suspicion are used as the basis for character assassination.

Two general points about the issue of apartheid-era spies are relevant First, the fact that such an allegation can be directed at a senior state official should come as no surprise. A fact that emerged clearly from the evidence presented to the TRC was that every party in the liberation struggle was heavily infiltrated by agents and spies. This not only included direct combatants like the ANC and the apartheid government, but those drawn into the conflict, such as the governments and security forces of our neighbouring states. No group, however, was more infiltrated than the ANC, which is no surprise given its predominance in the struggle and the extent of the apartheid state’s resources and reach. But it worked both ways and the apartheid regime was likewise infiltrated to the core by agents like Roland Hunter, who operated deep within military intelligence’s directorate of special tasks.

The point is that by the 1980s spies and agents were a dime a dozen throughout Southern Africa. They were everywhere and the allegations now being directed at Ngcuka could as easily be directed at thousands of other South Africans.

The second issue relates to the vague and empirically weak nature of the term “apartheid agent”. It is a term that has to be carefully unpacked in the context of the struggle. The classic perception of a spy or agent is of a person who willingly sells out a cause for financial gain. That person is held in low esteem and deemed worthy of punishment when the tables turn.

That there were such apartheid agents of all races is not doubted, but the evidence presented to the TRC suggests that these people were in the minority. Instead, the bigger picture that has emerged is one of coerced collaboration.

Take the case of the so-called askaris. They were more than spies and were considered to be the essential cogs in apartheid’s death squads. Yet, I know of no case where an askari acted of his or her own volition. Once captured, an askari’s option was to collaborate or die. Some, like Phila Portia Ndwandwe, resisted and were extra-judicially executed. Most chose to live and became killing machines.

Should we condemn and dismiss them as stooges and collaborators rather than as tragic victims of circumstances? And who of us who have never been confronted with such a life-or-death choice can say for certain how we would have acted?

Then there are the hundreds of detainees who broke down under torture, became informers and gave evidence against their colleagues in political trials. Some even sent colleagues to the gallows. Where should they be located in the hierarchy of apartheid agents? Have they been vilified in the same way as Ngcuka, a man who was sentenced to three years in prison for refusing to become a state witness?

Finally, what about those tens of thousands of black South Africans who served within the Bantustan structures? Surely, they were apartheid agents as much as anyone else? Some who held positions of leadership in these collaborationist institutions were found, by the TRC, to have been responsible for grave violations of human rights. Yet, many of these people still hold senior state positions.

The point is that the mere suggestion that someone collaborated in apartheid is problematic, and City Press of all papers should know that.

A more substantial piece of reportage on the issue was found in City Press’s editorial, accompanying their headline story.

The piece raised a number of questions about the issue, but these were, unfortunately, not the most important ones.

We have already formulated answers to “why these allegations are surfacing now”, and the answer to the question, “are these claims … part of an intricate power play within the ANC?”.

It would be more pertinent to find out whether the suspicions about Ngcuka were tabled at Cabinet level when his appointment was proposed?

If they were voiced, did the Cabinet reject them as unverified?

The country deserves an answer and President Thabo Mbeki should provide it.

Finally, the media and all of civil society need to think about how the polity in a democratic order can hold those structures tasked with collecting intelligence, and those who work within them, accountable?

How do we prevent those in the know from seeking to destroy the careers of people who get in their way when it suits them?

There is an issue worth debating.

John Daniel is a former Truth and Reconciliation Commission researcher and is currently director of research at the Human Sciences Research Council.

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