M&G reduces former spy to a vagina on legs

The front page of the July 31 edition of the Mail & Guardian showed a teaser for a story inside under the headline The apartheid spy who shagged almost everyone, with a photo of the woman in question, Olivia Forsyth. Assuming a woman’s sex life is fair game, the article inside the paper provided no evidence to back this sensational claim up and instead took up the reins of a slut-shaming bandwagon.

The article, headlined Scant sauce in ‘honeypot’ memoir, reviewed Forsyth’s forthcoming book, Agent 407: A South African Spy Breaks Her Silence. The blurb read: “An ex-police agent who masqueraded as a student activist has dished the dirt, but it isn’t very dirty.”

Phillip de Wet, who reviewed the book, seemed deeply disappointed with it. According to him – and “salacious 1980s gossip” – Forsyth “shagged almost everyone”, yet failed to “dish the dirt” in it. This didn’t stop De Wet from taking the reader through a lascivious account of the “dirt” and how thwarted he felt to be denied more sauce on it.

The book, he wrote, failed to provide detail on her spy duties, including her role in police raids. These incidents took place during apartheid’s most violent period and led to many people’s lives being destroyed.

But De Wet seemed most excited by how much sex Forsyth allegedly had, and disappointed when he couldn’t pin down the exact amount. His descriptions swung from Forsyth having sex with “everyone” to there being only “some [who] had been literally intimate with the enemy”.


He didn’t know whether there really was a “lapel button” for those who hadn’t had sex with her. But what he did know is that, “in the second half of 1988, there was at least an imaginary badge of honour bestowed on some in leftist circles at Rhodes University, reading: ‘I did not sleep with Olivia Forsyth’.”

Forsyth said she was not allowed to exchange sex for information. Yet De Wet appeared overwhelmed with relief when, in the book, the “no-sex promise is mercifully broken with the revelation that sex did play a role in her journey from apartheid spy to ANC collaborator-cum-detainee”.

According to De Wet, only two groups of people would be keen to read the book: “those checking to see whether they were kissed and told on, and those looking to see who of their comrades can be made fun of for having fallen prey to the apartheid honeypot”. Both, he said, would be disappointed.

How Forsyth might have used sex to gain information, an interesting detail to some, is not included in her book. These are simply rumours and, without adhering to journalistic principles, De Wet treated these rumours with mirth and mockery.

Was the fact that Forsyth was a spy whose actions put innocent people in jail – and who now appears to be on a public relations drive – not enough of an angle? And if you decide that an apartheid spy’s sex life is news, why not find at least one interviewee to provide the gritty evidence of this?

De Wet’s handling of the piece was not the only aspect of it that angered several M&G staff members.

The story’s front-page headline, its street-pole poster, main headline and blurb told potential readers to put away their credit cards because Forsyth was a slut and her book didn’t reveal enough “dirt” on how she performed her slutty duties – not because the book failed to provide details of her spying activities generally.

De Wet and those who commissioned and edited the article reduced Forsyth to a vagina on legs, worthy of being listened to only if she “dished the dirt” on how she used her body to put innocent people in jail. Without providing evidence of how her sex life buttressed the apartheid regime, they invited the reader to suspend any critical thinking and trust a sniggering De Wet.

More dangerously, they carelessly used loaded phrases such as “badge of honour”. This is reminiscent of rape culture, in which men are celebrated for having sex with a woman – irrespective of whether or not she consented.

Herein lies the core concern: it was too easy for the male journalist and the editors who produced this misogynistic article to punt an unsubstantiated story about a “slut” in a patriarchal way, rather than produce an accurate review of an apartheid spy’s book.

They failed to truly consider the privileged position from which they work: they are men in a society that mercilessly sexualises women – and then crucifies them for acting sexually. If the protagonist had been a man, the story would probably have been handled differently.

The greatest irony is that focusing on Forsyth’s sex life did not highlight the terrible things she did as an apartheid-era spy – one of the intentions behind the story, according to the people who produced it. It simply shone a spotlight on their bigoted male politics.

Victoria John is an education reporter for the M&G


See also

Subscribe to the M&G

These are unprecedented times, and the role of media to tell and record the story of South Africa as it develops is more important than ever.

The Mail & Guardian is a proud news publisher with roots stretching back 35 years, and we’ve survived right from day one thanks to the support of readers who value fiercely independent journalism that is beholden to no-one. To help us continue for another 35 future years with the same proud values, please consider taking out a subscription.

Related stories

The cyclical politics of help

Black women and trans artists are worthy of support but it should not come with terms and restrictions

No holy cows in hate cases

Misogyny and hate speech cannot be left to institutions to deal with internally

Journalist gives EFF one week to prove apartheid spy claims, or pay up

Thandeka Gqubule says she has obtained declassified documents proving that Stratcom was spying on her

Violence begets violence

A rape survivor endures a long, bitter struggle to overcome the hate of what he aches to be

Veteran journo slammed for ‘creepy’ interview with New Zealand PM

Charles Wooley has been criticised for calling Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern “attractive” and discussing the conception of her baby.

Homophobia and misogyny are kin

"Several aspects of this violent misogynistic episode, and how it has played out publicly, show us yet again that South Africa is no place for women."
Advertising

New education policy on gender violence released

Universities and other higher education institutions have to develop ways of preventing or dealing with rape and other damaging behaviour

Cambridge Food Jozini: Pandemic or not, the price-gouging continues

The Competition Commission has fined Cambridge Food Jozini for hiking the price of its maize meal during April

Sekhukhune’s five-year battle for water back in court

The residents of five villages are calling for the district municipal manager to be arrested

Vaccine trial results due in December

If successful, it will then have to be manufactured and distributed
Advertising

press releases

Loading latest Press Releases…

The best local and international journalism

handpicked and in your inbox every weekday