Llewellyn Kriel
Llewellyn Kriel

When I was a spy

If tomorrow belongs to the youth, yesterday must be ultimate egalitarianism. Yesterday belongs to everyone. While the future is vague, diaphanous, ethereal, the past is unambiguous, immutable and solid. We can all change the future. None can change the past.

If, like me, you feel a little like a stranger in a strange land in national youth month, it is worthwhile to look back. It’s vital we do so not as voyeurs — that would be dangerous because we risk smugness. We were young, once. We were invincible, immortal, omniscient, we held life’s great “IOU”. Every one of us has been there, done that, got the T-shirt, the cap, the coffee mug, the scars, the regrets, the bruises and the secret shames.

This is about one of my secret shames. For a time, albeit brief, I was a spy for the National Party government, the architects and upholders of South Africa’s great shame, its crime against humanity — apartheid.

This is also about the frailty of youth, its fickleness, its naïveté and, yes, its great moral elasticity in the face of the omnipresent lure of filthy lucre. This is not about excuses.

Aside from two fantastic prepubertal years in Britain, I grew up in the small dorps that dot the remote reaches of what was then the northern Cape (now North West and Northern Cape). Bucolic little backwaters like Prieska, Vryburg, Mafeking, Postmasburg and Upington. These were places where innocence and imagination played together, where simple lives and simple minds were conjoined twins, where hierarchies and hypocrisies were comfortable bedfellows, secure in each other’s company. That’s just the way things were. Probably still are today. And probably not much different from a million other dorps, villages and hamlets the world over.

The happy symbiosis of yin and yang painted the backdrop to daily life. My dad was an Anglican minister in fiercely Dutch Reformed Protestant towns. We spoke English at home and Afrikaans everywhere else. The uncompromising moral values of a church-centred life had to adapt or die in the unambivalent schoolyards of racial segregation and white superiority. We sang Die Stem; the grass grew; we sang All Things Bright and Beautiful; the sun shone. We knew God had made all people equal, but the siren sounded at nine each night and “they” went to the location and “we” went to bed and everyone knew they had God on their side.

And then suddenly one day, filled with more gung-ho testosterone than a body ought to hold, we trooped off to serve “volk en vaderland” in the passage to manhood called national service. In many ways, conscription was the apartheid government’s Achilles heel. Ostensibly where boys became men with fire in their souls and rifles in their hands and backbones of unsullied righteousness, military service was the great melting pot that distilled clarity from the boiling broth of bullshit and put question marks where exclamation points should have been.

At least that’s what it looks like from here, today, four decades later. Back then we had men’s bodies and the priapic consciousness of 16-year-old boys.

After my compulsory year of Rumspringa and wild experimentation with self-discovery at the taxpayer’s expense, I was set for Rhodes University, somewhere in a galaxy far, far away.

We lived in Vryburg then and I was getting ready by doing all I could to grow my hair. One morning the phone rang. The caller introduced himself as Mr Meyer, and said he had some important business to discuss with me and would I be able to meet him at the local Wimpy for a drink that afternoon? Say, 2.30pm? He spoke English. I agreed. Wow, a real life business meeting and I was only 18!

As always, I was politely early, but he was waiting. An ordinary-looking man in his mid-thirties with sandy hair and a warm gemütlichkeit, he showed the perfect balance of self-assured authority and respect to make me feel, well, flattered. He ordered coffee and I had a crème soda milkshake.

He came directly to the point, which, needless to say, impressed the crap out of me. He worked for the Bureau of State Security, Boss, gave me a simple business card with the name “D Meyer” beneath the Ex Unitate Vires coat of arms of South Africa.

He buttered me up about my leadership, my intelligence, my faith, my patriotism, my diligence and my independence — all the things a headstrong, malleable, naïve, receptive platteland yokel wanted to hear. He knew so much about me — my sport and academic achievements at school, my promotion in the navy and my plans to study divinity and follow in my father’s footsteps. He seduced me intellectually and emotionally with consummate ease.

All they wanted were periodic reports about student meetings; who said what, when … you know, just innocent small things students of my “calibre” would be privy to. Nothing major, nothing dangerous, just reports on public meetings. I wouldn’t be betraying anyone; just making sure my friends didn’t get into trouble. Because there were people out there who meant our country harm and we couldn’t have that now, could we?

And I swallowed it up.

Then came the clincher — I would be paid R100 to R200 a report, depending on “value”! In 1973 that was serious money. A case of beers cost less than R6. A new motorbike was R1 000. Hell, Meyer told me, some students at Rhodes had bought cars with the money they’d earned. So I wouldn’t be the only one? I guessed that made it alright then.

He assured me no-one would know, they were very discreet. They would contact me at Rhodes once I’d settled in. And I would be doing my country a service.

And that’s how I became a spy.

Catch part two tomorrow in Thought Leader.

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