State spies are ever with us

Wednesday. The Durban sky is soft and dusky, the sun gently inching its way upwards from the east. There’s a sense of peace over the half-awake city.

It’s a beautiful time to be in the water. To think, meditate. Take stock before planning the day ahead.

I must be getting old. This used to be the time I would be crawling into bed, wasted, keen for a few hours of sleep. A greasy breakfast and a spliff on the way to work and I would be right as rain. A little remorseful and filled with self-loathing on occasions, but generally ready to go again.

These days it’s the hour for my morning coffee and loin girding. A quiet time to plot while waiting for my joints to warm up enough to get moving, for the day to kick in.

I hit the kitchen to get a coffee going. The kettle’s empty. I open the tap. It’s also dry.


I head out the kitchen door. Usually the eThekwini municipality posts notices ahead of planned interruptions to the water supply. There haven’t been any in the street since the last one, just before Easter.

Then again, the eThekwini municipality ran out of paper for printing council notices a few weeks back, so maybe there’s no paper for posters. Stranger things have happened in Durban. The city bus fleet ran out of diesel last month. The promenade built for the 2010 World Cup is being swept away by the ocean every time there’s a spring tide.

There’s another possibility. The more organised of the whoonga addicts who scavenge in the area for survival have been cutting the external copper water piping off the sides of the buildings. Selling it to scrap dealers for drug money. They cut the handrails of the footbridge across the N3 highway just below Tollgate Bridge last month. Perhaps they hit us overnight.

The water pipes are intact. So is the stopcock. It’s not amaphara, as the living dead who shuffle along Durban’s streets in search of the cheap cocktail of low-grade heroin and rat poison are known. I head back inside. I’ll walk to the garage and buy water.

Something wraps itself around my ankles, almost tripping me. I’m about to boot whatever it is when I realise it’s the partially blind and totally deaf stray cat that lives at the back of the building. Catastrophe, as it’s known, is meowing fiendishly, trying to coerce breakfast out of me. Catastrophe is ancient. On her last legs. I head back inside for a sachet of tuna chunks in jelly to shut her up. The body corporate isn’t impressed but if I don’t feed her she’ll die. Like I say, I’m getting old. Soft.

The mobile goes. It’s an “influencer” I know, a business cat who has been a supporter of former president Jacob Zuma since the late 1990s. The cat’s an information peddler who tails the big sharks in Daddy’s camp like a pilot fish, catching the scraps. He’s punting a “transcript” of the spy emails used by the Zuma camp way back when to build an argument that he was the victim of a political conspiracy. Trying to use the disclosure that 40 journalists were used by Stratcom to discredit Winnie Madikizela-Mandela to build the argument that Daddy is the victim of a similar conspiracy.

It’s a dirty move — and a thin argument — but not unexpected. These cats are vicious — and desperate — so anything goes right now. As it always did.

What little feeling of wellbeing that came with the beautiful morning disappears.

The issue of spies in the media — make that the apartheid spy issue generally — is one of the unresolved issues from our transition. Another one that should have been dealt with then and put to rest. It wasn’t, so here we are. Again.

Even before Stratcom began its operations, newsrooms were full of spies. They spied on their colleagues. On organisations. Some were willing. Some were coerced. Some were blatant. Racists on the payroll, willing participants in defending white privilege. Others were more subtle. More skilful. More dangerous. They operated. Never had to account for their actions. Face the music.

Not only the newspapers and the journalism schools were infiltrated. So were the universities. The trade unions. The civic organisations. The underground. None of the spies or spymasters was really called to account. To take responsibility for what they did.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission should have been used to out apartheid’s spies. Exposing what strings were pulled by whom and why. It wasn’t, because the political will to do so did not exist. Nobody really wanted to know.

The infiltration of the media didn’t end with apartheid. Neither did the planted story, the whisper in the editor’s ear, the “dossier”.

The “influencer” — using the death of Madikizela-Mandela and the retrospection it brought to trash people’s names, while the real spies enjoy their old age — is laughing in all our faces.

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Paddy Harper
Paddy Harper
Storyteller.

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