No thaw in the chilly world of spies
South Africa has its own history of audacious secret agents, femmes fatales and political assassins
'Now you see why I'm paranoid?" a former South African secret agent said. I was interviewing him for research into South African spies on both sides of the apartheid divide and the agent had insisted on using coded messages to arrange the meeting. I had thought it was a bit over the top until news broke about the attempted murder of Sergei Skripal, the former Russian spy who worked for MI6, which is what the former agent was referring to.
In a scene straight out of a John le Carré novel, 66-year-old Skripal and his daughter Yulia, 33, were found slumped unconscious on a bench in Salisbury, England, on March 4. They had been poisoned by a Russian military-grade nerve agent identified as Novichok. The Skripals and a British police officer who arrived on the scene were still in a serious condition in hospital this week.
British soldiers in protective suits and masks combed the cathedral city for clues as investigators spoke to witnesses, trawled through CCTV footage, and studied the Skripals' movements to try to figure out how the attack was carried out - and why.
The "why" is probably a little clearer. Someone was sending a message: betray us, and we will find you and we will kill you.
And British Prime Minister Theresa May believes that someone is Moscow. She called the attack an unlawful use of force by Russia and "an affront to the prohibition on the use of chemical weapons".Skripal, a former colonel in the GRU, Russia's military intelligence, had worked as a double agent for the UK's intelligence services in the 1990s and early 2000s, and had, apparently, named names, blowing the cover of Russian agents. He was arrested in 2004 and sentenced to 13 years in prison for spying for the UK but was freed in a prisoner swap in 2010. He retired to England to live a quiet life in Salisbury, but recent media reports suggest he had not been fully decommissioned.
A few months before the attack on Skripal I had approached another ex-South African agent, but he declined a request for an interview, saying he had no desire to be poisoned by polonium, a highly radioactive chemical that was used in 2006 to kill another former Russian agent, Alexander Litvinenko.
Litvinenko's tea had been laced with polonium-210, which is so deadly that pathologists conducting the postmortem wore protective suits and gloves, and hoods that pumped air through a filter. Another death linked to the KGB was the 1978 murder of BBC journalist and Bulgarian dissident Georgi Markov, who was poked with a ricin-tipped umbrella as he waited for a bus on Waterloo Bridge in London.
An investigation last year by BuzzFeed News titled From Russia with Blood connected Russia to 14 spy-related deaths on British soil.
The Skripal attack had May fighting back, expelling 23 Russian diplomats believed to be intelligence agents working under diplomatic cover. Relations between the two countries have plummeted to a frosty post-Cold War low, with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov responding that his government would expel 23 British diplomats, and UK Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson saying: "Frankly, Russia should go away and should shut up."It was not only Russian spies who were doubled, which is spook-speak for spies who switch allegiances and work for the enemy. During the height of the Cold War, Britain's secret services were crawling with double agents, most famously the Cambridge Five, a ring of highly placed moles in MI5, MI6 and the Foreign Office who were handing top-secret information to the KGB.
The latest incidents make it clear that espionage did not end with the Cold War. There is still a vast intelligence network around the globe with bottomless budgets, James Bond gadgets and agents well versed in the spy lingo of assets, dead-letter boxes, drops, false flags, one-time pads, sleepers, legends and wet work (spy slang for spilling blood).
Spies are everywhere and South Africa is no exception. In his book Secret Revolution - Memoirs of a Spy Boss, the former head of the National Intelligence Service, Niël Barnard, writes that no state can survive without espionage.
South Africa had countless cloak-and-dagger agencies set up to protect the apartheid state. Our history is full of betrayal and treachery. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission presented an opportunity to expose the murky secrets of the past, but spies did not have to come clean - so they didn't.
A spy who infiltrated the left-wing student movement in the early '80s said there were many apartheid agents as well as agents who worked for the liberation movement who had yet to be unmasked, and would probably always remain in the shadows.
An erstwhile senior figure in the intelligence world declined to comment about South Africa's former spies, saying: "There is no way in which I am prepared to provide detail which is clearly out of bounds. Do you really believe the CIA, KGB, MI6, BND [Germany's Federal Intelligence Service], Mossad etcetera would provide that information?"
Hennie Heymans, a former security branch member in the South African Police who handled spies locally and abroad, said: "We gave our informants the assurance that we would never blow their cover or divulge their identity. Our promise still stands."
However, there are a number of infiltrators whose true identities have been revealed one way or another. South Africa's spies are a diverse collection of characters; people from all sorts of backgrounds with different ideologies, motives and methods of getting their hands on secrets.
One of South Africa's early spies was Jan Taillard, a policeman who embarked on a mission to capture Nazi devotee Robey Leibbrandt. Leibbrandt, a policeman and heavyweight boxing champion who had fought in the Berlin Olympic Games in 1936, had become infatuated with Hitler. He returned to Germany in 1938, where he trained in the German army and hatched a plan to seize power in South Africa.In 1941 he smuggled himself back into South Africa, formed a paramilitary group and embarked on guerrilla warfare with the goal of assassinating General Jan Smuts. The police launched a manhunt to capture him but he managed to evade them. Taillard, working undercover as a Nazi sympathiser, infiltrated Leibbrandt's group and lured him into an ambush.
Leibbrandt was convicted of high treason and sentenced to death, but Smuts, remembering that Leibbrandt's father was a courageous Anglo-Boer War hero, commuted his sentence to life imprisonment. In 1946 the Sunday Times revealed Taillard's role as a police spy. Leibbrandt, who was freed from prison when the National Party came to power in 1948, vowed to kill Taillard. He didn't. Colonel Taillard retired from the police in 1957.
Two years after Taillard retired, Agent Q018 was working his way into the SACP. For four years he filed weekly reports to his security branch handlers about secret SACP and Congress of the Democrats meetings he attended. Q018 wasUniversity of the Witwatersrand student Gerard Ludi, who was responsible for sending a number of "reds" to prison. He also gave evidence against SACP leader and prominent advocate Bram Fischer.
One of the ways Ludi established his credibility was by initiating a relationship with the young daughter of a leading couple in the communist party.
An unlikely spy was Kimberley-born Jennifer Miles, who went on a four-month holiday to Cuba in 1967 and was recruited by Fidel Castro's Intelligence Directorate. She returned to South Africa and got a job with the department of foreign affairs. Miles was posted to the South African embassy in Washington, working as a secretary by day and, according to salacious reports, a "honey trap" by night. She was eventually unmasked and sent back to South Africa.
At about the same time as "our blonde spy", as Miles was dubbed by the Sunday Times, arrived back home, a bulky, bearded student walked onto the Wits campus and joined the left-wing National Union of South African Students. The student, Craig "Bunter" Williamson, rose through the ranks of the organisation, becoming its vice-president. But Williamson had something his lefty friends didn't - a rank in the police force. He was Agent RS167.
Williamson was also on the university's student representative council and one of four spies on the 12-member executive. The spies were snooping on the legitimate activists - and on each other.When his student career came to an abrupt end, Williamson claimed he was being persecuted by the security police and fled across the border to Botswana, making his way to Geneva. He found employment with the International University Exchange Fund, a progressive organisation that was funding refugees and dishing out cash to the anti-apartheid movement.
He was able to insert himself inside the anti-apartheid movement in exile. Although some people were wary of him, he did infiltrate the ANC to some extent and was given the name Newman. In 1980, almost a decade since he first walked onto campus, Williamson was uncovered as a spy. He was rumbled when another apartheid spy defected to England because his superiors discovered he was gay.
Williamson returned to South Africa, where the National Party government declared him its "super-spy". They boasted that he had infiltrated the ANC, SACP and the KGB. The Sunday Times ran a huge photo of him in front of the Kremlin with the headline: Our Man in Moscow. That was fake news. Williamson had gone to Russia, but as a tourist.
Heymans, who retired from the security branch more than 20 years ago and has become a police and military historian, said this week that spying was just as important now "as it was in the time of the Bible or in [Chinese military strategist] Sun Tzu's time".
According to Heymans, even though technology has advanced - with instant information and communication in real time - the core principles of espionage have remained the same. "We still have three sources of information: open sources, covert sources [agents] and technical sources."
Spying, ultimately, is about access to information (or intelligence). "Information is knowledge - and knowledge is power," said Heymans.
"Sometimes extreme measures are necessary to safeguard that information, which is why traitors in the intelligence game face death if they speak out or become assets for other countries."
Since Heymans' heyday, espionage is being waged on a new frontier - cyberspace, where moles are trolls and agents are bots, spreading misinformation and fake news, and manipulating elections and subverting democracy.
Meanwhile, the attempt on Skripal's life has sparked an international row between Russia and England, threatening the possibility of the Second Cold War (Cold War 2.0).
Ancer is the author of Spy: Uncovering Craig Williamson