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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