Spooky! It was the goofy lad

THE FIFTH COLUMN

Everyone having apparently gone Stratcom-befok in the past few weeks, I find myself thinking back to those long-gone days when we toiled at this newspaper under the shadow, and doubtless the watchful eyes, of the apartheid security state.

Moreover, recent shocking revelations by a media group totally independent of rationality show that the nefarious techniques of Stratcom are still being employed today. We definitely all need to introspect, reflect and ponder anew exactly who we were working with in the old days.

There was a rather odd guy in the accounts department who was not tall and who wore strange round glasses on his face. I see now that that alone should have raised a red flag (who deliberately wants to look like Bertolt Brecht?), but it was this guy’s lunching habits that caused some suspicion. He always had a very neatly packed pair of sandwiches in a Tupperware with his name on it, something absolutely no one else in the alternative media had. And he always ate alone. Wouldn’t that make you a bit suspicious?

Of course, it’s possible to develop suspicions about anyone, and in those days you were right to get a bit paranoid because there were so many Stratcom spooks around. So many, in fact, that some anti-apartheid student organisations were fully staffed by bloody agents — no real students, even philosophy PhDs, on the central committee at all. But those groups you could usually discern because they were all much older and fatter than the average student; about as old as a philosophy PhD candidate, actually.

At the paper, there were less telling signs, but I can see now that one should have been more alert to them. One subeditor we had was suspiciously keen to find accurate translations for Afrikaans words such as kragdadigheid. Another was most peculiarly attached to applying the possessive pronoun before a gerund.

Hell, the two editors themselves were not entirely free of a mildly compromising aura. One of them was altogether too ebullient, and the other was altogether too withdrawn.

Even the underground communist in our ranks could have been a spy. The fact that a few dof heavies from some bumbling death squad tried to murder him (they crept into our garage and punctured his motorbike tyres) does not, in retrospect, clear him of any Stratcom suspicion. I mean, they were fiendishly clever, those spooks — and wouldn’t it be just like them to divert any suspicion by killing their own agent?

The only person I think entirely untainted was a toothy lad called Iqbal. This cheerful youngster used to do the rounds of all the lefty organisations, giving free foot massages to exhausted journalists and wilting protesters, offering a word of comfort here, a quiet encouragement there. He later became Nelson Mandela’s podiatrist, I believe. (He was particularly good with corns and ingrown toenails.)

So I’d have said, as far as spies in the old days go, anyone but Iqbal. Then again, looking back, I begin once more to wonder.

PW Botha wagged his finger and banned us in 1988 but we stood firm. We built a reputation for fearless journalism, then, and now. Through these last 35 years, the Mail & Guardian has always been on the right side of history.

These days, we are on the trail of the merry band of corporates and politicians robbing South Africa of its own potential.

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Author Shaun de Waal
Shaun De Waal

Shaun de Waal has worked at the Mail & Guardian since 1989. He was literary editor from 1991 to 2006 and chief film critic for 15 years. He is now editor-at-large. Recent publications include Exposure: Queer Fiction, 25 Years of the Mail & Guardian and Not the Movie of the Week.

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