Llewellyn Kriel
Llewellyn Kriel

When I was a spy – part two

As instructed, I kept my alter ego secret — in fact, few people today have any idea I was once a secret agent. Let alone what a bad spy I was. Six weeks after the hurly-burly of starting a new life in a new world, I was contacted at Jan Smuts House and two colleagues of “Mr Meyer” took me for a long drive. They knew all there was to know about my choice of subjects, lecturers and which societies I’d joined — including Nusas (the National Union of South African Students). They briefed me on what they wanted and how I was to get the reports to them — a simple drop-off for “Mr Meyer” in a plain manila envelope for collection at reception at the Graham Hotel.

I submitted two very brief and pedestrian reports — “minutes” would be a better description — in a single drop-off three weeks later. In the intervening period there had been only two student meetings. Both had been dull-to-cliched — one about a wage dispute at Kimberley Hall and how important it was to express solidarity with the catering staff, and the other was to agree to express more solidarity, but this time with two Nusas office bearers who had been arrested and later released at Pietermaritzburg University in Natal.

It took a whole week before my bank balance mushroomed by R70. So much for the megabucks I was going to amass.

And that, faithful reader, was that.

I attended meetings, took part in a protest sit-in on the sidewalk down High Street [Sidebar: We were angry about the Riotous Assemblies Act this time and wanted to show it, but the act stipulated a gathering was a “riotous assembly” if participants were within 1m of each other. So we all had lengths of string carefully measured to 1.2m and sat down. Fuck you, you apartheid oppressors! “We shall overco-o-ome. We shall overco-o-ome …” We were all arrested under some ancient Albany District bylaw dating back to 18-voetsek for obstructing a public thoroughfare and fined R10 each.] I distributed Nusas pamphlets and felt feverishly revolutionary. But I didn’t submit any more reports.

And then there was studying and jolling and Rag Week and jolling and ladies residences’ annual balls and jolling and submitting assignments and jolling and really getting into gymnastics trials for Eastern Province championships and jolling. And sometime in April one of the guys who had taken me for that nice long ride called to mention that I hadn’t submitted any reports for a while. I fobbed him off with some really lame excuse about my workload and how I would try, but I couldn’t give him any guarantees. I suppose he was nous enough to recognise the symptoms and, judging by the rubbish I’d given them so far, read the “words of the prophets that were written on the subway walls”. I didn’t hear from anyone again. The sounds of silence. And that was okay by me.

I didn’t have some profound Kafkaesque change of heart; no great Damascene epiphany. I think I felt deep down that what I was doing was wrong, that I was being used in ways I didn’t like.

Besides, being involved in Nusas was kinda groovy, vindicating almost. A little bit of Bob Dylan and a little bit of Joan Baez, the times they were a’changing and the chimes of freedom were flashing and in this crazy other-dimensional upside-down world of academia, my opinion mattered and I was encouraged to question everything — even God — this was right and God was on our side again.

Oh, and I’d fallen deliciously, deliriously in love with a gorgeous Canadian expat in Atherstone House, so …

I have no idea how important my two reports had been. The paltry payback as a measure of their “value” spoke volumes. I hope I didn’t cause any harm, but I have no way of knowing. I comfort myself in the conviction that, in the greater scheme of things, they were probably worthless.

But that doesn’t diminish the shame I still feel. Had I known better, would I have acted differently? Without a doubt. Was I stupid, naïve, wrong, weak, arrogant, greedy? Of course! Had I believed in the apartheid dream? No way. Am I a bigot and a racist? Maybe; maybe not. I say, no, but you might not agree. Those lines are very blurred these days.

Years later I read Omar Nasiri’s Inside the Jihad: My Life with al Qaeda, a Spy’s Story. I instantly recognised so much of myself in the account of his recruitment, and that scared me. I had grown up knowing apartheid was wrong. I knew, deep down, that no man was better than another and that racism was a morally repugnant pigment of the imagination. My last stand-up-knock-down fist fight at school was with a rabid racist over the colour of God’s skin. He said it was unquestionably white, so I smacked him down. It seemed to be the only language he understood.

But that hadn’t stopped those comforting lines of black or white from washing into grey. I had said “Yes” and taken my 30 pieces of silver.

I don’t think I could have joined al Qaeda, but my adolescent foibles, my idyllic idealism, my unblinking trust, my unconsidered romanticism were not that different from the forces being unleashed in young people everywhere. Every day, in every way by cunning, skilled manipulators. That really scares me!

Am I sorry? Well, that is a tough one. In my old age I’ve become very philosophical about the multitude of mistakes I’ve made. I’ve erred too many times to leave them to fester unattended. I’ve learnt that the value in my mistakes — in your mistakes — is to learn from them. The error is not in making mistakes. It is in not learning from them.

If acorns don’t fall, oak trees don’t grow.

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    • afriuhuru

      …n then u were a spy,a good story!

    • http://llewellynkriel.co.za Llewellyn Kriel

      Reviewing this two-part blog, the issue of apology has risen strongly. I need to place on record that I made a grave mistake in acting as I did. I know that now. As said in Part One, this is not about excuses. I am guilty as charged. It is in mitigation, I have argued as I have above.

      But beware the all-too-ready apology that has come to characterise so much that is wrong, reprehensible and agonisingly trendy in SA today. There is a prevalent mindset that seems to say: I can do anything I damned well please. I steal and blame it on poverty. I solicit bribes and blame it on low wages. I don’t do my job and blame it on my education. I refuse to tell the truth and blame it on the Bill of Rights (or claim I was misquoted). I rape and blame it on my parents. I kill and blame it on a violent society. I use a vehicle as a weapon and blame it on alcohol.

      These are my rights, my democratic rights, and, for any number of reasons, I am entitled to act as I want, where I want, whenever I want.

      And, in the unlikely event that I am caught, all I’ll say is “Sorry”. And, abracadabra, everything is fine and dandy once again.

      THAT I cannot and will not do.

    • Momma Cyndi

      You should write this in a book entitled Memoirs of an Incompetent Spy 😛

      The heady days of tertiary! I only got to university much, much later in life but I sure did enjoy college. It opens the mind.

    • MLH

      Many people flirt just a little with political danger in their late teens or early 20s. Then we grow up. If you’re still around in 20 years, ask the most rabid ANCYL members what’s changed in their lives since their student days. Being an art student, I was completely A-political, but I remember walking past students on the steps of St George’s Cathedral and thinking: that’s where my tax money is going. My tax money at that time probably barely kept one of them in breakfast toast!

    • http://Facebook Chris van der Spuy

      Hi Liewellyn (I recognise your name but cannot put a face to it)
      You seem to take your incompetence/amateurishness as some kind of ‘out’. Like, “if I was ineffective my guilt was less”.
      My own experience was that as a Politics major with an Afrikaans surname I was assumed to be a ‘spy’.
      I approached Nancy Charlton, a lecturer whom I held in very high regard, who confirmed to me that this belief was widespread. I have never forgotten her words: :if you are (a spy) I just hope you report the truth (i.e. don’t manufacture stories to justify your pay). I was pretty devastated.
      It was clear to me that I could protest as much as I liked but it would make no difference. The’people of conscience’ sat as prosecutor, judge, jury and executioner; and there was no appeal.
      That was the insidious nature of what you did.
      You cannot erase what you did; and God knows it sucks! But let those amongst us who is without sin cast the first stone.
      Just PLEASE save us the mealie mouthed whining and using the shortcomings of our present DEMOCRATIC government to somehow dilute what you did.

    • Paddy

      After finishing my 2 year conscription I was approached in a similar manor and offered free university at Wits if I became a spy. I flew to the UK a week later.

    • Paula Leyden

      I would agree that sorry can be too glib – it was one of the ways in which, in my opinion, the TRC failed. It allowed people who had perpetrated a gross and abusive system to come before it and say sorry and all was forgiven. Many of the SADF and SAP members who had tortured, murdered and maimed in the name of Apartheid walked away laughing. I saw some of them sitting in front of the TRC barely disguising their laughter. And sitting there, what’s more, with their lawyers being paid for by a state they had no regard for. So, yes, just an apology will not do. Despite its weaknesses it did however create a forum for people to place on record their actions, it has given us a record of a grotesque system. As an alternative to writing this as part of some kind of online personal memoir you might have considered going to the TRC which was after all a forum set up for that purpose. To set the record straight for people like Momma Cyndi who seem to believe that no one who was classified white knew what was happening under Apartheid…… despite the fact that they certainly knew how to vote, in ever increasing numbers, for the National Party government.

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    • http://none Lyndall Beddy


      The TRC was a propaganda farce, which buried the truth, not investigated it.

      Read the book “People’s War” by Anthea Jeffreys.

    • http://none Lyndall Beddy

      Paula AND Momma Cyndi

      The vast majority of white and black did not know what was going on then, do not know what is happening now, and have been indoctrinated into myths and propaganda.

      If we follow historical precedents the SA population will only really know the true picture in about 2 generations time when historians have dug out the facts from where the politicians have buried them.

    • http://thoughtleader.co.za/llewellynkriel Llewellyn Kriel

      I remember the arguments like-minded friends and I had with our Afrikaner school friends, Paula. Viewed through the microscope of moral imperative, they agreed apartheid (or what we knew of it) was indefensible. We’d ask who they will vote for when they’re enfranchised, and the answers were, maddeningly, always Nat. “Why? If you don’t agree with their policy?” we’d ask. “Because my father votes Nat and it’s the only white party – besides, who else is there?” would be the predictable reply.

      That same mechanistic, almost myrmidon mindset will prevail next year, I’m afraid. Irrespective of how angry voters are today about the manifest failures of ANC dogma and policy. That’s why I continue to dream of real democracy. That’s why, with the limited time I have left, I cannot see its advent in the RSA. Please prove me wrong.

    • http://none Lyndall Beddy

      Paula and Momma Cyndi,

      The TRC investigated about 1000 deaths from the 40 years apartheid era in the war between the Communist ANC and Socialist Nationalist Party BUT NONE of the 20,000 deaths in the war between the Communist ANC and Zulu Royalist IFP, including NONE of the horrific necklacing deaths and NONE of the killing of Black Civil Servants (police, teachers even doctors) as “collaborators”, despite MANY requests by Chief Buthelezi that these be also investigated. A few of the deaths in the ANC camps were investigated, but according to Tony Leon in his autobiography the mikes malfunctioned or the witnesses were told they had run out of time in most of these cases.

      HOW can that be called an attempt to Reconcile or uncover Truth?

      Read the book “People’s War” by Anthea Jeffreys.

    • http://none Lyndall Beddy

      One of the reasons it takes so long to disclose accurate history is the laws of slander and libel. Few historians are rich enough to fight massive court cases. They therefore have to wait for the people involved to die before they can write the truth.

      In Western Law you can’t libel the dead.

    • Momma Cyndi

      Paula Leyden

      I cannot know how old you are or what your knowledge of those days was based on. I can, however, tell you that it was not ‘ever increasing numbers’. The legislation was changed in order to ratify two of the elections as so few people had voted that it wasn’t actually a legal government.

      The situation wasn’t as cut and dried as you seem to think. Yes, apartheid was an awful crime and conscription was a crying shame. That was set against communism and constant reminders of what had happened in other African countries. Until the Iron Curtain came down, it wasn’t as much about apartheid as it was about complete fear.

      You also don’t seem to know about the media being muzzled. It isn’t 100% accurate but if you ever get a chance to read “Total Onslaught: SA press under attack”, do so. It may give you a slight insight into the complete power over information that the state had. The very reason that the new attempt at media muzzling makes me very anxious

    • http://none Lyndall Beddy

      Paula and Momma Cyndi

      The media was not muzzled at all – what could not get published in SA got published overseas, most of it distorted and one sided and sensational.

      And Blacks did not have the vote in their Black Homelands, where the vast majority of them were born, because their chiefs did not believe in democracy, which is why they all flooded into SA looking for work and to escape.

      The 1913 Land Act that there is such a hoo-hah about dealt with land of the minority tribes. The British had established Protectorates for all the major tribes under their Kings when they divided up SA during British rule; and those (Lesotho, Swaziland and Botswana) were excluded from the Union of SA in 1910. Unfortunately, as it turns out for whites, the historical rivals the Zulu and Xhosa Homelands were left inside SA because the British thought them too warlike too govern themselves.

      Who did get dispossessed of land were the Fingo, who had been given private ownership land outside of Homelands by the Brits, which land was taken away during apartheid, when the Nats told the Fingo they were Xhosa because they spoke Xhosa and they therefore had to live in a Xhosa Homeland.

      However the Fingo only speak Xhosa because their own languages, tribes and chiefs were killed by the Zulu Kings Shaka and Dingaan in the Mfecane, and they had fled to the Xhosa as refugees.

      The rest of the dispossessed “land” was actually urban housing, and has already all been paid out.

    • http://none Lyndall Beddy

      I don’t think that they teach South African History at the Department of African and Asian studies of Sussex University or Moscow University, where Mbeki studied. However he does appear to have studied the myths of Ancient Egypt, the History of American Slavery, and American writers very intensively.

      Besides the Fingo , having been detribalised in the Mfecane of the mid 19th century, relate well to the detribalised Blacks of the Diaspora.

    • http://none Lyndall Beddy

      The Dutch/Afrikaner inherited the results of the British Segregation policy into tribal homelands half a century after the colonisation of Natal and the powers of the Xhosa and Zulu chiefs were well entrenched by then. What is more, they still are, despite 20 years of ANC “Democratic” rule.

      But the Brits had only provided Homelands for the majority tribes – the Xhosa, Zulu, Swazi, Twana and Sotho. The 1913 Land Act dealt with the problem of minority tribes who had not been accomodated into Homelands by the Brits.

      The statement by Sol Plaatjies about being “a pariah in the land of his birth” his often quoted by the ANC. Sol Plaatjies was exactly from such a minority tribe, the Baralong if I recall correctly.

      Moreover Sol Plaatjies was himself an expert on the minority tribes and the differences in their cultures and totally scornful of the Black American Pan African Mythology which existed even then, 100 years ago when the ANC still called themselves Natives not Africans, and the Americans still called themselves Coloreds not Blacks.

    • http://none Lyndall Beddy

      Historic “redistribution” will be no benefit to the majority Xhosa and Zulu and has already made a minority tribe, the Bafekeng, the richest tribe in South Africa. Just like dishing out 3 million RDP houses made the 17 million that did NOT get them dissatisfied, and didn’t even necessarily satisfy even the 3 million that did, who complain about location, quality, and lack of amenities and services.

      Dishing out free land or housing only works if EVERYONE can get the same, and there was never enough land or enough money.

    • http://none Lyndall Beddy

      Thabo Mbeki is not the only Intellectual who learned Black American Pan Africanism in exile. I have heard both Mathole Motshekga and Shaddrack Gutta propound the same theories on SAFM, and have, in fact, spoken to both of them on SAFM.

      In one After 8 debate a few years ago I tried to explain the historic division of land in SA to Prof Gutta, only to have him dismiss me, once off the line, on the radio as some nut talking about “some deserts and forests”.

      Luckily all SAFM programmes are recorded for historical prosterity.

    • Momma Cyndi

      Lyndall Beddy

      I was not talking about what was published overseas, I meant what we heard here. The media was majorly muzzled. Even overseas they had no clue. I remember a friend showing me a picture of workers taking a rest on the grass of Union Buildings and the article being about them being ‘slaughtered’.

      The feudal system has always been popular with the rulers of Africa. A great reason for the poverty of Africa. Until the people of Africa don’t want to be serfs, there isn’t much anyone can do about it

    • the truth

      For those old enough to rememebr….. TV only started in 1976 – the year before my first child was born and while my husband was doing his compulsory national service stint in Namibia (Ondangwa). There was blanket censorship in regard to the ANC and I saw exactly two snippets of the 76 uprisings on TV before that too was censored. My husband’s letters to me were censored with a thick koki or sections were cut out with a razor blade. If you signed a petition (like we did when the nats tried to stop airing the world at war episode showing the concentration camps) you got a call saying that you were being watched. We were not allowed to go into townships, mix socially or intimately with black people and vice versa. If one lived in Gauteng then one would have been more aware of what was happening in Soweto but people in the rest of the country saw and knew very little. We lived in an iron fisted police state and in fear of the police and the military. I had never heard the name of Mandela until we got more deeply into the struggle and I only saw a photo of him once the censorhip ban on him was lifted. I lived in an area where the only parties were the NATS and the UP. Not PROG. So I spoiled my vote every year. So yes, there was a lot we did not know, and in some respects, we too were powerless. Read up on the history of censorship iin SA. It is instructive. We’ve never had it so good as we do now.

    • http://none Lyndall Beddy

      Momma Cyndi

      I live here, not in the Diaspora or Exile. I had contacts in the ANC, the PAC, and the Liberal Press – so I had some knowledge of what was going on.

      I hope all this redistribution of land to the “rightful owners” means the Zulu King is going to give back to the Shangaan and Fingo the land taken off them in the Mfecane.

      People used to feudalism/ autocratic monarchies tend to revert to type – Napoleon made himself the new French King, Stalin the new Tsar, Mao the new Chinese Emperor.

      The difference in SA is that the Dutch and French Hugenots were Calvinist Protestants who believe the root of Christianity is in Judaism and have always protected Jews and the persecuted; unlike the Anglo Catholics of England and Roman Catholic countries who had state religions and were used to monarchies and aristocratic elites and whose roots are in Rome and “the divine right of kings”.

    • My Experience

      Sounds like I was at Rhodes about the same time as Mr Kriel. We knew there were spies on campus and even knew some of thier names. The general feeling though was of protest with demonstrations which were monitored by the police and plain clothes people. I think we all had our own BOSS files. I was what was known then as a liberal, voted PFP and protested against apartheid. BUT – we were definitley kept in the dark about what was really gooing on.

      I observed the fires in Soweto in ’76 from our office in Jhb but had no real insight about what was really going on. The year before I was in Antarctica for 14 months. We were speaking to refugees fleeing Angola on ham radio after SA troops were forced to retreat. Our folks back home could not believe what we were telling them. So in conclusion we were mushrooms – kept in the dark.

    • http://none Lyndall Beddy

      Momma Cyndi

      The 1913 Land Act dd not start the Homeland Policy – that had started 70 years before when the British colonised Natal and established the Xhosa and Zulu Homelands. Then the Brits colonised the Transvaal and Orange Free State Republics and established Homelands for the Swazi, Sotho and Twansa.

      BUT the British only provided Homelands for the Majority tribes and ignored the minority tribes altogether, which is one of the reasons for the post independence conflict in the Sadek region.

      In Kenya the Masaii begged the Brits to give them a seperate country from their traditional enemies the Kikuyu (the Mau Mau) but the Brits ignored them. In Rhodesia/Zimbabwe the Brits did give the Matabele a Homeland, but not protected status for the same reason this was not given to the Zulu and Xhosa – the Matabele had been warring against the Shona tribes, just like they had warred against the minority tribes in SA (the refugees from which tribes became the Basuto).

      The 1913 Land Act was to create Homelands for the minority tribes for whom the Brits had created no Homelands – like the tribe Sol Plaatjies belonged to.

    • http://none Lyndall Beddy

      Momma Cyndi

      South Africa was “The Land of Birth” for “South African Natives” from minority tribes, like Sol Plaatjies.

      But the vast majority of Blacks who now call themselves South African were born in Homelands and ran away – just like Nelson Mandela and Jacob Zuma.

      This is not rocket science – just historically accurate facts as opposed to Black Diaspora myths.

    • http://none Lyndall Beddy

      Britain, France and Europe got out of Africa as fast as they got in, with hardly any preparation of locals for “democracy”. Britain. especially, had no interest in Africa once it had lost its Empire in India.

      The original Dutch Colony of the Cape was colonised by Britain for Cape Town as a safe harbour for ships on the India route. Natal was colonised for the same reason – for Port Natal (now Durban). The Boer Republics of the Orange Free State and Transvaal were colonised for the gold.

      The colonisation of Central Africa after the Conference of Berlin in 1885 was both to put an end to the Arab Slave Trade, and to control the waters of the Nile and prevent Egypt’s water supply being cut off.

      The rest of the expansion was for the “Cape to Cairo” plan of Milner and Rhodes. There was no point after India and Egypt got independence.