Jonathan Ancer asks why people spy in 'Betrayal: The Secret Lives of Apartheid Spies'

"You have to let them into your confidence and let your guard down to get into their world. How do you betray them?"

28 August 2019 - 11:15 By Mila de Villiers
Jonathan Ancer, author of 'Betrayal: The Secret Lives of Apartheid Spies'.
Jonathan Ancer, author of 'Betrayal: The Secret Lives of Apartheid Spies'.

Journalist, cruciverbalist, and double-agent doyen Jonathan Ancer's latest book, Betrayal: The Secret Lives of Apartheid Spies (Tafelberg Publishers) has just hit the shelves of SA's book stores.

Investigating the Brutuses and Judases who operated during SA's heinous period of enforced segregation, inequality, violence, and crimes against humanity, Betrayal asks what it takes to deceive those closest to you.

Ancer explores the themes of treachery, repentance and forgiveness throughout the book in an attempt to comprehend why. people. spy.

The minds of Those Who Spy aside, one can't help but wonder whether a certain Mr James Bond or George Smiley initially piqued Ancer's interest in all things espionage?


Psyches > spy kids

"Not really," the author, dressed in a casual blue shirt and pair of chinos, warmly laughs during our conversation at Melville's Eastern Food Bar.

Ancer is in his hometown of Joburg for the Gauteng leg of his book promotion, with the launch of Betrayal due to take place at downstairs' Love Books during the evening.

"I've got a very long answer," he heartily continues. "I was more interested in Craig Williamson as a person, not necessarily Craig Williamson as a spy."

Ancer's first book Spy: Uncovering Craig Williamson (2017, Jacana Media) devotes 267 pages to this notorious "super-spy". Williamson, elected as NUSAS's vice-president in the 1970s while studying at Wits, was responsible for numerous apartheid crimes including state-sponsored overseas bombing, assassinations and kidnappings.

SA activists Ruth First and Jeanette Schoon were two of Williams's victims. Both were assassinated by parcel bombs. Schoon's six-year-old daughter Katryn was also killed in the blast.

Ancer recalls interviewing Williamson in a coffee shop in Johannesburg's larney Hyde Park Corner while writing Spy.

"I watched him disappear into Hyde Park, and it seemed quite symbolic. I've now finished this project but what about all the other spies who disappeared into the democratic sunset?" he cogitates. 

This revelation prompted him to to undertake a "quest to track them down". 

The "them" in speaking being Dieter Gerhardt, Gerard Ludi, Jennifer Miles, Craig Williamson, Karl Edwards, Roland Hunter, Robert Whitecross, Gordon Brookbanks, Olivia Forsyth, Joy Harnden, Vanessa Brereton, and Mark Behr.

And no, it wasn't the "James Bond aspect of spying", Ancer reiterates.

His intrigue with spies can be attributed to the question of how one goes about getting to know people - people who you're ideologically not in tune with, at that - in order to infiltrate them. 

"You have to let them into your confidence and let your guard down to get into their world. How do you betray them?" Ancer questions with obvious perplexity. "How do you also see them as real people and see that they might have a cause, but still betray them?"

A rodent by any other name 

The "universally accepted" motives for spying can be narrowed down to the acronym "MICE", Ancer writes in the first chapter of Betrayal. (Although it would have been more apt if it were "rat", he quipped during the evening's launch...)

Money, ideology, coercion, ego/excitement: the four main reasons which propel people to betray the trust of their friends; their confidantes; their comrades.

"It's a combination of all these things," Ancer responds in question to how this rodent-related acronym can be applied to the 12 traitors he researched. "It's not just one simple thing.

"I thought about it," he continues. "There are some longer acronyms." 

Dieter Gerhardt, for example, devised a semi-mathematical formula providing the reasons that "motivate people to be treacherous: A + M + R + B + F + S + I > T.

A is access, M is money, R is resentment, B is blackmail-ability (or coercion), F is flawed character, S is self-satisfaction (ego), and I is ideology. Not all of these elements have to be present", Ancer notes in his chapter on Gerhardt, former commander in the SA Navy who spied for the Soviets during the Cold War. 

Da, you read that correctly: a so-called red spy was operating in the strategic heart of our shipping and submarine routes in the midst of the country's rooi gevaar paranoia. Nostrovia

"One common thread is a sense of belonging," Ancer continues. "A sense of power."

Being behind the scenes, belonging to a secret club, being able to manipulate events and be influential all contribute to an innate sense of power, he introspectively relays. 

Behr their anguish in mind

Ancer concludes "Dieter Gerhardt: The Grey Man" with an anecdote related to British-intelligence-officer-turned-Soviet-spy, Kim Philby, in which Australian journalist Murray Sayles asked Philby how he reacted to the charge that he was a traitor. 

"To betray, you must first belong," Philby responded. "I never belonged."

"Perhaps Dieter Gerhardt had never belonged either," Ancer deliberates. 

This afterthought - a personal attempt to comprehend why traitors betray - begs the question whether Ancer had any preconceived notions about the spies he writes about prior to meeting with them.

If he did, did those notions remain the same? Or had they since been dispelled? 

With Mark Behr, yes.

Despite never having met Behr (who passed away in November 2015), Ancer had a good friend who knew Behr from Stellenbosch; who was betrayed by Behr; who despised Behr. 

Behr, an apartheid spy in Stellenbosch during the turbulent 1980s, confessed to his betrayal on July 4 1996 at a writers' conference in Oslo - in his capacity as keynote speaker.

Having gained worldwide recognition for his debut novel The Smell of Apples (published in 1993) Behr was an established name in the local and global literary sphere by the mid-90s and his confession was met with international outcry. 

The more Ancer got to "know" Behr (through speaking to people and reading what he had written), he theorised that Behr had "actually grappled with what he had done.

"He really tried to ask for forgiveness ... he wanted forgiveness ... understanding," Ancer continues, in a mixed tone of compassion and an attempt at comprehension. 

"He was always just seeking the spotlight," Ancer explains, acknowledging that he found Behr's confession/apology to be heartfelt. 

"I think there was anguish there," the author pensively posits.  

After having spoken to Judge Edwin Cameron - a friend and former partner of Behr - Ancer "got the sense that for Mark it was a stain and that he was embarrassed about it".

Remorse: the poison of life? 

"Dread remorse when you are tempted to err, Miss Eyre; remorse is the poison of life," Charlotte Brontë wrote in her seminal novel, Jane Eyre

This dictum can be applied to Joy Harnden, a rather unassuming young woman who was coerced into joining the Special Branch by fellow Rhodes student, the apartheid spy Gordon Brookbanks. Despite not being politically active at the time, working as a double agent for the state gave Harnden a sense of belonging.

Ancer believes that Harnden is genuinely remorseful about her decision to cross the Rubicon. (The consequences of her betrayals resulted in, among others, the murder of ANC activist Iggy Mthebule.)

Ancer and Harnden met more than once and "all three times she sobbed during the interview.

"I know spies are good actors but I really got the sense that she was hurting and that she's remorseful about what she did."

Ancer was convinced by Harnden's contrition when, during one of their meetings, he asked her what she would tell her children about her past.

Her response unnerved him:

"She wipes away the tear falling down her cheeks, and says: 'I haven't had children because I didn't want my child to know what I had done'."

"I felt quite sympathetic for her, I felt for her," Ancer sincerely says. He adds that this doesn't excuse what she did, since she had neither apologised to - nor seeked out - those she hurt.

That Harnden "really grappled with it" contributed to the impression she had left on Ancer. "And also because she's so. fucked. up." Ancer's face contorts into an expression of pain-meets-pity upon uttering the last few words as he prolongs the first "u" in "fucked-up".

Swain? More like swine...

Harnden's experience isn't an isolated case of male spies exploiting women's trust to further their personal/political agendas.

Ancer quotes a US state official in chapter three: "The Cuban Missus Crisis'", dedicated to one Jennifer Miles*, attributing a reluctance to enlist women as spies to the assumption that "girls are hard to control and often report gossip".

(*Not an NP double agent per se, this blonde bombshell - from Kimberley, nogal - spied on the Americans for Cuba during Castro's reign in the 1960s.)

Genderised prejudice aside, SA did deliver a fair share of female spies and Ancer does write about instances where women were coerced into spying by men on the pretext of showing a romantic interest.

As the most prodigious wit to emerge from the west put it: "Deceiving others. That is what the world calls a romance." (Thank you for the adage, Mr Wilde.)

Karl Edwards specifically comes to mind. Edwards, a part-time employee of the inhumane Bureau for State Security, was sent to Rhodes to "become a vigorous member of the leftist community", infiltrated the student movement and was elected head of the Eastern Cape branch of NUSAS.

"Edwards was a particularly nasty bit of work," Ancer nods in agreement. 

"[Activist] Jo-Anne Richards went out with Edwards. Her heart was broken. He really betrayed her," Ancer heavily says. "She was betrayed politically, but also personally. I couldn't work out which one was more upsetting for her..." 

Former human rights lawyer Vanessa Brereton was coerced into joining the Special Branch by this selfsame spy and serial womaniser. 

"I hope he's reading this book and cringing," Ancer firmly states. "It's clear he can't be trusted."

That Brereton was (literally) seduced into the world of espionage does not excuse her betrayal, Ancer resolutely expounds. 

That Brereton was giving the state information to act on was "particularly shameful," he concedes, describing a lawyer pretending to act in her clients' interest as the "ultimate level of betrayal".

That Brereton fled the country as opposed to being prepared to acknowledge that she was responsible for atrocities was "an act of cowardice," Ancer vehemently declares.

Although not coerced into spying, Toni Bernstein, the daughter of activists Rusty and Hilda Bernstein, unknowingly dated Joburg-based double agent Gerard Ludi, and was even considering marrying him until his duplicity was exposed. 

Ancer takes a quick sip of his cappuccino, confessing that he's "a bit sick of coffee" (the preferred poison of authors during daytime interviews) and looking forward to "something stronger" to help see him through the evening's launch. 

Apparently conversations in front of crowds equates lank angst... 

"I'm actually quite shy!" he titters before the conversation veers back to Craig Williamson. 

Craig: a character study 

In his second chapter on Williamson, Ancer sketches a scenario in which Williamson buys a copy of Spy: Uncovering Craig Williamson. The cashier realises the purchaser is the man portrayed on the cover.

"'You?'

Williamson nods.

He's pleased that he's been recognised."

"I do think he's pleased to be recognised," Ancer slowly nods. "He's pleased with the attention; that he's important." 

While Ancer was writing Spy, sources he contacted would always respond with a quizzical "Why Craig Williamson?"

"The only person who never asked was himself," Ancer continues, adding that he was prepared to be denied an interview. "But he didn't, when we met he was okay to see me. He wanted to put his perspective of the story out there."

He furthers that Williamson always answered his questions, and always answered them frankly.

What this trait says about him, Ancer postulates, is that he enjoys the limelight. "He likes to be important."

Throughout Betrayal Ancer reminds the reader that the traitors - barring Dieter Gerhardht, Roland Hunter and Jennifer Miles - whether directly, or indirectly, were responsible for atrocities committed in the name of the National Party's institutionalised racial segregation policy. 

Nonetheless, these perpetrators were viewed in a different regard by those closest to them.

Ancer singles out Theo Cromhout, who met Williamson as a young boy in Mpumalanga in 1984 and regarded the double-agent as a father figure.

Cromhout's story is a tragic one of familial loss. 

"This was someone who had been there for me ... He was there for my mom's death, my dad's death and my sister's death ... He did good by me but he did bad by a whole lot of other people. I'm conflicted, because while I cannot ignore the bad things he did, the person I knew was sincere and caring," Cromhout discloses. 

"I could see his point. It got me thinking 'people are not all good and some people are not all bad'.

"But Williamson did bad things and you can't excuse him just because he did some good things," Ancer candidly asserts. 

Spies, lies, and final sentences

Roland Hunter became an "accidental" spy for the ANC when this reluctant army draftee found himself in the centre of Military Intelligence. Hunter forthrightly shared his discomfort with the symbiotic relationship deceit shares with espionage avec Ancer, stating that:

"This is the thing about being a spy: you lie. You lie to your family, to your friends, to the army ... you lie. I was very conscious of it. It was hell."

It seems only fitting then that the final sentence of Betrayal reads:

"Repentance demands introspection, and this requires spies to do something they are unfamiliar with: to tell the truth."

Sjoe.

"I was particularly proud of that sentence," Ancer gleefully laughs. "I was thinking long and hard how to end it, it just wasn't ending, I thought 'aaaaaaaaaaah!'" he exclaims in mock-frustration, raising his hands parallel to his head, "this is the way to end it!" he gaily gesticulates. 

Cloak-and-dagger activities: expectations vs realities 

Gordon Brookbanks came to realise that being a spy was duller than expected, citing the typing of reports and regular debriefing sessions with his handler as the main cause of his ennui. 

Dieter Gerhardt is the only exception to our glamorised perception of what spying actually entails, says Ancer. 

Gerhardt had little cameras, micro-dots, sent information to the Russians, could read upside-down and was able to confuse a polygraph test. 

"He was the real deal," Ancer relays in near-awe.

"The other spies just bumbled along," he continues. "Roland [Hunter] was just shoving papers down his shirt, thinking 'if I go on Friday it's the least time they're likely to check'," Ancer says, a hint of amusement in his voice.

"The glamour for the spies is that sense of self-importance," Ancer the Authority continues.

"Special Branch would say to people like Joy Harnden or Olivia [Forsyth] 'you're so important, you are changing the course of this country, you are going to save the country'."

Betrayal: the theme song 

An alumni of Wits (1990-1992) and Rhodes (1995-1996), Ancer belonged to NUSAS and the ECC "to the tail-end [of apartheid]. I wasn't really involved."

If he were to have been betrayed "I think I would have been devastated ... Betrayal is a big, big thing. It's an emotional dagger in your heart," he somberly furthers.

The fact that ideology is inherently involved in this era-specific betrayal adds to Ancer's despondency. 

"You're fighting for something, it's an incredible feeling ... and then one of you is actually betraying you." He mournfully shakes his head before perking up.

"There's a beautiful Johnny Clegg song called 'Warsaw 1943'. It's about this guy who's arrested by the Nazis," he elaborates with obvious enthusiasm. 

Said guy betrays a friend of his and is about to be executed the following morning. "He sings this song," Ancer continues, "'I didn't betray you, I didn't betray the revolution, I just didn't want to die alone'.

"This was kind of the soundtrack to the book ... in my mind," the author muses.

(And no, Ancer doesn't literally listen to music while writing. "I'm quite old school," he grins.)

Craig Williamson, Dr. Evil incarnate.
Craig Williamson, Dr. Evil incarnate.
Image: David Goldblatt

The antithesis of 'groovy, baby'

'What's your favourite Austin Powers movie?' is met with a loud guffaw-cum-hearty laugh.

"I only know one and I don't think I've watched it!" he cries, in-between bouts of laughter. (The one being the second film in the series, punnily titled The Spy Who Shagged Me.)

"There's that one amazing photograph of Craig Williamson that David Goldblatt took," Ancer suddenly says. "He's sitting there and he's got this cat on this lap and he's busy sort of patting it." (Think Dr. Evil & Mr. Bigglesworth.)

Ancer proceeds to look it up on his phone.

"It was part of an exhibition he [Goldblatt] put on," he says absentmindedly as he scrolls through his phone. 

"It was such a ..." Ancer continues scrolling and distractedly muttering to himself until he finds the photo, only to lose it again. "No ... now it went ... sorry," he apologetically says before locating it again, and passing his phone across the table. 

"It captures his evil," Ancer grimly says, a piercing look in his eyes as he silently views the photograph.

Spy vs. spy 

Ancer professes that he's quite pleased with himself for having tracked down the spies he writes about. "In a way I tracked them down by spying on them." 

Yep, Mark Zuckerberg's social media empire of pseudo-dopamine-inducing-self-esteem-boosts led Ancer to more than one mole.

Jennifer Miles was especially hard to find - "try finding someone who's surname is a unit of length!" - but find her, he did.

Ancer tracked her down via Facebook by searching for "anyone who's from Kimberley", enquiring if they had connections with somebody called Miles. Ancer laments the "atrocious" state of the national archives, from which he eventually found newspaper clippings pertaining to Miles. 

Speaking of newspapers - six weeks after returning to SA, Miles was appointed as a journalist at none other than this fine establishment of ours. Yes, Miles's stint as a journalist saw her spending a year at the Sunday Times, writing a series of sex and snot en trane stories. 

"I think my  jaw hit the floor when I heard that!" Ancer laughs in disbelief. The fact that somebody could be exposed as a spy and end up being employed by a newspaper "floored me!" (The first article she wrote was a piece on which country has the most romantic men, and PSA, Mzansi manne: you fall short!)

Where comic relief meets the KGB

One has to commend Ancer for his chapter titles. Chapter two, about Gerard Ludi, features this spy's encounter with a banded drone on a plane back home from Russia, and is aptly subtitled "The Special Branch Agent and the Cagey Bee".

"I loved the 'Cagey Bee!" Ancer says, cracking up. "Oh, I laughed!" he mirthfully continues. "The book had to be written just for that chapter title!" 

And for that, we thank you.


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