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Smutty take obscures the true role sex played

It was a big surprise to see a picture of Olivia Forsyth on the cover of the Mail & Guardian.

I knew her slightly, as one of the student activists at Rhodes University in the early 1980s.

Although I was at the University of Cape Town, the white left around the country was a small band of people who knew each other. Working in the Eastern Cape later in the decade as a journalist, I got to know the Grahamstown crowd well.

I start on this personal note partly to declare my own connection to the story, but also to make a point about the paper’s reporting of her book, which has stirred such controversy.

The group around Rhodes University was small and embattled. The Eastern Cape security police had a reputation for being particularly brutal and, although white activists were generally spared the worst of their excesses, the conflict with the security police had a personal note that was absent in the bigger centres. You might easily have to deal with a security cop searching your student digs, and later bump into him, smirking, at the corner shop.

Small wonder, then, that the white left banded together very closely. So the sense of betrayal when Forsyth, who was for a time at the very heart of this group, emerged as an apartheid spy was enormous. Even now, so many years later, people who lived through these times have reacted with real anger to the news that Forsyth has published a book.

The stories of how she used sex as a tool in her spying are many, and I have often heard the probably apocryphal story of the button men could wear to say they had not slept with her. I think there is a factual basis to these stories but, more significantly, the narrative was a defence mechanism against the betrayal and hurt that people felt. Writing her off as a slut made it easier to cope – it also reflects some unprocessed values about women’s sexuality.

Coming to the M&G‘s review of her book, it seems to me that her use of sex is a legitimate part of the discussion. And if the book, which I have not read, has silences about the topic, that in itself is significant and worth highlighting. Sometimes, the things that are left out of a story are most revealing. Both at the level of how she operated, and at that of the story people have constructed about her activities, sex is a relevant topic.

But the question is how you handle it. First, it would have been useful to try to distinguish between what actually happened, what has been said since, and how she talks about it. The report would have been strengthened with some harder evidence of what actually happened, either from the book or from direct reporting. Sidelong references are not enough. It would have been useful to hear more clearly how she rationalises this side of her activities, if at all.

There is one quote from the book which claims she was forbidden to use sex in this way, but then some very cursory references are made to affairs that she apparently acknowledges. No attempt is made to show how she deals with them: Are they presented as a means to her spying ends, or in other terms? Is there any acknowledgment of personal relationships?

Instead, the whole is presented in a disturbing locker-room tone, full of smutty innuendo.

The core of the piece seems to be regret that there is not more salacious detail in the book. The presentation accentuates this tone: the headline (with a dreadful mixed metaphor), bemoans the lack of “sauce” in this “honeypot” memoir, and there is reference to “shagging nearly everyone” and dishing “dirt” that “isn’t very dirty”.

It is not an approach the M&G is known for, and there is merit in the criticism that it is built on some very old-fashioned patriarchal ideas of women and their sexuality.

The piece uses sex as the most prominent of several points of criticism to write her and her book off: besides not giving us enough detail on the affairs, she writes badly, lied to everybody, and didn’t even do much spying of any consequence.

Apartheid spies like Forsyth do not deserve much respect, but it would have been interesting to hear how she rationalises her activities. Despite some efforts at the end to talk to people who dealt with her in various contexts, the piece lost the opportunity to explore this question.

The Mail & Guardian‘s ombud provides an independent view of the paper’s journalism. If you have any complaints you would like addressed, email [email protected]. You can also phone the paper on 011 250 7300 and leave a message

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