Real-life spy drama reads like a novel

Towards the end of his memoir, The ANC Spy Bible: Surviving Across Enemy Lines, former intelligence boss Moe Shaik, has the following to say about the negotiated settlement that ended apartheid and gave birth to a democratic South Africa.

THE ANC SPY BIBLE: SURVIVING ACROSS ENEMY LINES by Moe Shaik (NB Publishers)

“The way we found our freedom meant there was no victorious side. We were all victorious, foes and allies alike,” Shaik writes. “We owe it to ourselves and to future generations to reclaim and celebrate the outcomes of the negotiation process as the true victory of all South Africans.

“The lived experience of the horror of apartheid and its war is seldom appreciated these days when we enjoy the fruits of freedom and peace.”

It is a sobering comment coming from a post-apartheid intelligence head who, as an ANC underground operative in the 1980s, and the kingpin of its infiltration of the Security Branch, has a unique insight into the compromises that had to be made during the transition to democracy and the cost they came at.

It is also timeous — as is the book — given the renewed apartheid denialism by its last president, FW de Klerk (who has since apologised). There is also the revisionism within the governing party and beyond regarding the transition to democracy, as well as the spy allegations by former president Jacob Zuma, Shaik’s boss in ANC counterintelligence and one-time friend, at the Zondo commission into state capture last year.


Shaik’s 247-page memoir, co-written with author Mike Nicol, began its existence as a novel. Under pressure to “own my scars,” it morphed into an autobiography, much as Shaik himself transitioned from an optometrist to activist, spy boss, diplomat and career civil servant.

As a result, and because of its fascinating content material and the first-person, matter-of-fact delivery style, it reads like a novel, telling the story of the spy war between the ANC and the Security Branch, and of Shaik’s role in it, in a captivating way.

It also provides harrowing detail as to the cruelty and depravity of the apartheid

security machine and an insight into political life in the 1980s and early 1990s, most of which Shaik spent underground, in detention or on the run.

Broken into four sections, The ANC Spy Bible kicks off with Shaik’s detention by the Security Branch in June 1985. Already an established activist, Shaik was instructed by his superiors in the movement’s underground to allow himself to be detained by the Security Branch to allow MK commander Ebrahim Ismail Ebrahim, in the country to assess the state of readiness for an underground offensive, to escape. Shaik — and later his brother Yunis — were sadistically tortured, but Ebrahim made it across the border.

Shaik’s detention under section 29 of the Internal Security Act had a second positive spin-off. It exposed him to a sympathetic Security Branch officer, who, in time, became the ANC double agent known as The Nightingale.

The Nightingale, who was to become Shaik’s lifelong friend, was the source of the Security Branch files that Shaik used to set up Operation Bible.

The improved counter-intelligence capacity allowed the ANC to stay a step ahead of Security Branch raids and covert attacks on activists, saving countless lives and cementing Shaik’s relationship with Zuma, his boss in ANC intelligence.

As Operation Bible progressed, so did the negotiation process, with the ANC leadership launching Operation Vula, setting up armed underground units while the talks took place, in which Shaik was deeply involved.

Vula was blown, and Shaik was forced to go underground as the Security Branch cracked down on its operatives, murdering several, including Mbuso Shabalala and Charles Ndaba, in a bid to force them to give up their leaders. Shaik remained on the run until the Vula operatives were indemnified by De Klerk, but only after a lengthy period of isolation and censure by their own leadership over the operation, which had been endorsed by the ANC president, Oliver Tambo.

The final section, From Here to Eternity, deals with Shaik’s role in the post-apartheid development of a new intelligence service and his subsequent role in the conflict between Zuma and then president Thabo Mbeki.

Shaik was to out director of public prosecutions Bulelani Ngcuka — in the process of charging his brother Schabir, with corruption over payments to Zuma — as a “probable” apartheid agent. The move saw Mbeki appoint the Hefer commission, which exonerated Ngcuka and saw Shaik humiliated during what he describes as the “‘worst period of my life”.

The book also provides intriguing insights into Shaik’s — and Schabir’s — relationships with Zuma.

“I feel Schabir could have acted differently and more appropriately in his business affairs,” he writes. “But I cannot fault him on his generous support of Zuma. In this he acted in accordance with the bonds of solidarity that defined us within the ANC.”

Shaik was, after Zuma’s election to the presidency, to serve as head of the South African Secret Service in 2009. Within two years he quit, sidelined by intelligence minister Siyabonga Cwele and Zuma over his appointment of a probe into the Gupta brothers along with fellow intelligence heads Gibson Njenje and Jeff Maqetuka. The final section of the book provides an inside view of how the intelligence services were politicised under Cwele and Zuma, including the axing of seven Cabinet members on the basis of a report fabricated by Crime Intelligence boss Richard Mdluli in 2010 and rejected by the seven.

On Zuma, Shaik says this: “I will never know when precisely Jacob Zuma lost his way. He was not always like this. Power changed him for the worse, it fed his insecurities causing him to believe he was a victim in the machinations of others. Trapped in this state of mind, he became increasingly transactional in the affairs of state, unable to see the error of his ways.’’

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Paddy Harper
Paddy Harper
Storyteller.

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