Nongqai series The Men Speak Dr Willem Steenkamp Part 2

ABSTRACT: Nongqai series The Men Speak Dr Willem Steenkamp Part 2 – my years in Intelligence. Willem is the son of former SAP-SB CO Maj-Gen Frans Steenkamp. He is himself a former NIS officer who did his doctoral thesis on the intelligence function. He is also a novelist, ambassador, attorney, entrepreneur and polyglot with wide experience of living abroad. Currently, Willem volunteers as the co-editor and business manager of Nongqai magazine.

In this, Part 2, he shares his experiences and insights into South Africa’s transition, as acquired during his years in the National Intelligence Service. He gives his personal view on why and how the political war was lost, despite the “armed struggle” battles having been won. This is due to the fact that South Africa’s internal conflict had always been a political rather than a military contest. The ANC’s “armed struggle” was just one part of their propaganda war.

For the “lost decade” under PW Botha, the South African government had opted for a strategy of “shoot” rather than “settle”. This erroneous prioritisation caused them to decisively lose the propaganda war and thereby the contest for political power.  The security forces may have won the battles, yet still, the war was lost. Because of poor strategic and policy choices that favoured short-term tactical gains, but entailed long-term strategic setbacks.


KEYWORDS: South Africa, Apartheid, SACP/ANC, “armed struggle”, Genl Jan Smuts, Dr HF Verwoerd, Adv John Vorster, Mr PW Botha, Pres FW de Klerk, Pres Nelson Mandela, Min Pik Botha, Genl HJ (Lang Hendrik) van den Bergh, Dr Eschel Rhoodie, Dr LD (Niël) Barnard, Israel, USSR, BfSS/NIS, SAP-SB, SADF

AUTHOR: Dr Willem Steenkamp





As promised in Part 1, in this second instalment of my fireside chat I will be focusing on the period in South Africa’s history from mid-1975 to the present. In this part I will be sharing my personal observations of key moments that constituted “forks in the road” for our people, during my time in intelligence. This period coincides with my own coming of age as young adult, allowing me to observe developments from close up, thanks to different positions fate had placed me in. Not as a decision-maker, but as a trained intelligence analyst, lawyer and political scientist, who happened to have had good vantage points from which to observe.  

As in Part 1, my story will be interspersed with what I have learnt from my research (academic as well as latterly in my position as co-editor of Nongqai). I also had the benefit of people who had witnessed important events, having shared it with me.

I will attempt to not bore you with too much detail about my own experiences (as I’ve said, this isn’t really about me – it’s about the unfolding of “Our Story”, the historical path trodden by the South African nation and the Afrikaners in particular, which has brought us to where we are now).

However, I do understand that many of you will be interested in me recounting at least some of those experiences, where such personal accounts may help illuminate what it was like to have been in the security services, and more especially, in intelligence. I will try to oblige, always with the overriding aim, though, to try and answer that core question: how did we get from where we were, to where we are now?

To start out, however, I will tell you a little bit about my ancestry and youth, because I believe that people are formed by the times they live in, by their education and experiences, but also very much by their family background (the genes and the culturalization passed on to them), which in many ways determines their attitudes, talents and their circumstances.

So, without further ado, let me start telling you about the Steenkamps, and – from my mother’s side – the (Boere) O’Reilly’s that I’m proud to have as my forebears.


2.1 The Steenkamps of Southern Africa:

The first Steenkamp to set foot at the Old Cape did so at the end of the 1600s. Jan Harm Steenkamp was a young sailor/soldier from what is now the border area between modern-day Germany and the Netherlands He was employed by the VOC, the Dutch East-India Company.

Jan Harm had made a number of voyages to the Orient, passing by the Cape. One such was on the good ship “Dregterland”. Below is his pay slip, which he had signed with an X because of being illiterate at that time.

Nongqai series men speak WPS Dregterland soldy

Jan Harm Steenkamp's pay slip on the good ship Dregterland.

Jan Harm eventually decided to bid the oceans farewell and to settle at the Cape, where in October 1714 he married Geesje Visser, the daughter of a local Vryburger, and acquired the farm “Het Slot” in the Agter-Paarl. Below is a copy of Jan Harm’s original Title Deed to that farm, as still held by the Deeds Office in Cape Town (I had it researched by one of my law clerks, when I myself practised as attorney in Franschhoek):

Nongqai series Men Speak WPS2 Het Slot title deed

Jan Harm Steenkamp's title deed to the farm Het Slot, 1714.

Unfortunately, Geesje (Gesina) passed away just some four years after their marriage. Jan Harm then married Jannetjie van Eck, with whom he had ten kids – she thus became the “stam-moeder” of the Steenkamp clan of Southern Africa.

Jan Harm died in 1744. His signet ring (used to seal official documents by pressing it into a hot wax seal) today forms part of the Bell-Krynauw Collection in Cape Town. The central element of his seal was a three-masted ship, typical of the era. I incorporated it as main element of my own coat-of-arms, as designed by and registered with the Bureau of Heraldry (see below).

Nongqai series Men Speak WPS2 CoA

The author's Coat of Arms, as designed by and registered with the Bureau of Heraldry - the core element is the three-masted ship as used on Jan Harm Steenkamp's seal ring.

Our clan spread North-West from the Cape, into the Karroo and eventually Namaqualand.

Nowadays it is something to be proud of, to see your surname carved into the rocks on Robben Island. You may be surprised to learn that “Steenkamp” was one of the first to be carved there, by a lonely convict. He was one of my distant forebears, Jan “Slaai” Steenkamp. (I’ll recount the story here for its interest value, but essentially to show the obstreperous Steenkamp character traits that have carried through to later generations, such as my great-uncle Oudok (as related in Part One), my father and – I must admit – to myself as well).

It happened not long after the 2nd British occupation of the Cape, in the early 1800s. Jan Slaai farmed in the North-West. As often happened during those days, a roaming band of Bushmen decided to appropriate some of his livestock. In keeping with the law (as he had known it before the British), Jan Slaai immediately set off to the local Veldkornet (who had retained his positions under the Brits). Jan Slaai asked permission to send a small commando (similar to the American Wild West “posse”) after the Bushmen, which was approved. Doing so was urgent, because the Bushmen (who were hunter-gatherers, not pastoralists) obviously weren’t stealing the livestock to keep and raise, but to eat.

Permission given, Jan Slaai then tasked some of his local farmhands (who were good trackers and shots) to try and recover the livestock.   They duly tracked down the Bushmen, encountering them at night around a barbeque fire. The little Khoi commando knew that it would be a seriously risky business to go argue the finer points of the law with the Bushmen in the dark and getting into a scrap with those doughty fighters with their poison arrows. Discretion thus got the better of their valour and they decided to shoot first and ask questions later.

Long story short, they returned with the ears of the Bushmen (as was the practice then) plus what remained of the livestock as proof of mission accomplished. Frontier justice, as it was then applied.

Nothing would likely have come of the matter, had Jan Slaai and his foreman who had led the little expedition not gotten embroiled in a heated dispute about a totally different matter soon afterwards. The foreman fled the farm and lodged a complaint against his former employer with the new British authorities. During their investigation the whole matter of the dead band of Bushmen came to light. The British viewed this as something much more serious that the tiff between Jan Slaai and the foreman, because the new authorities frowned upon the very idea of armed bands of civilians meting out justice in their territory.

The foreman, who committed the actual killing, naturally blamed Jan Slaai as the intellectual author of the alleged crime. Jan, in turn, defended himself by saying that he had obtained permission from the veldkornet. He also argued that, in any case, this new-fangled British notion that he should have gone and reported the theft to the nearest British authority (then located hundreds of kilometres to the South) was totally impractical. Because he rightly pointed out, by the time the British eventually arrived on the scene the stock thieves would be long gone and neither hide nor hair would remain of the animals.

The veldkornet, for his part (seeing the matter snowball and realising how the new wind was blowing), promptly denied that Jan had ever raised the matter with him. Which left Jan to carry the can and be made an example of.

Being a bearer of that obstreperous Steenkamp streak, Jan Slaai absolutely refused to pay the fine that the court imposed upon him. Which left the British with a dilemma, in that they couldn’t just drop the matter because they would then lose a lot of face. So, Jan Slaai was packed off to Robben Island. There he obstinately refused to recant and pay the fine. Which again became a problem for the British, in that it was costing them quite a bit to keep him there (what with the logistics problems that the island penitentiary had always presented).

Eventually Jan Slaai was bundled onto a boat and dropped off on the mainland, to find his way home. There being no trains those days, he basically had to walk all the way back. So that, one fine day, the family saw him come resolutely trudging down the ridge behind the homestead. According to family lore, his first words upon being reunited with his loved ones, was: “Waar’s my twak!?” (Where’s my chewing tobacco?)

My immediate forebears farmed on Elandsfontein, many kilometres south of Calvinia, towards Sutherland (the property is still being farmed by Steenkamps to this day).

Nongqai series Men Speak WPS2 Elandsfontein opstal foundation

The foundation of the original opstal on the farm Elandsfontein.

My great-grandfather Casper and my great-grandmother Harriet Sophia, nee Louw (of the nearby N.P. Van Wyk Louw clan) who both died young, are both buried on Elandsfontein. Their early deaths resulted in my grandfather, also Willem, growing up in the home of his deceased father’s younger brother, “Oudok” Dr W.P.  Steenkamp. Here’s a photo of my great-great-grandparents, together with their three sons, with my great-grandfather in the centre back and “Oudok” Willem next to him:

Nongqai series Men Speak WPS2 Steenkamp forebears

My great-grandfather, Casper, is at centre back, with "Oudok" Willem to his left.

2.2 My O’Reilly forebears:

Before I deal with my father’s generation of the Steenkamps, let me quickly introduce my fighting Irish forebears, the O Raghailligh (O’Reilly) of North-Eastern Ireland.

The O’Reilly clan were the rulers of the kingdom of Breffni (Breifne). Theirs was the only Irish kingdom to have minted its own coins, called Reillys. They were always known for their fighting prowess, especially their cavalry.

My branch of the clan had their family seat at Baltrasna Estate, near Oldcastle – located bout half-way between Dublin and Belfast.

Among the Baltrasna O’Reilly some of the best-known were Myles “The Slasher” O’Reilly, regarded as the “Braveheart of Ireland” for his defence of the bridge at Finca in 1646. Another son of Baltrasna was General Alexander “Bloody” O’Reilly who became famous as general and administrator under the Spanish crown. He improved the defences of Havana in Cuba, served as Spain’s captain-general (governor) of Louisiana in what is now part of the USA, and was appointed governor of Cadiz in Spain.

Below is a photo that I took of O’Reilly Street in Havana, marking the spot where Alexander came ashore to receive the city back from the British in 1763.

Nongqai series Men Speak WPS2 OReilly Street Havana

O'Reilly Street in Havana, Cuba.

In 1776 there was born at Baltrasna, Anthony Alexander O’Reilly, who was to become a colonel in the British Army (a rare achievement for a pure-blooded Irishman at that time). He served with first the 4th Dragoons and later the 21st Light Dragoons. Colonel Anthony came to South Africa by way of India, was deployed in the Eastern Cape and eventually passed away in East London in 1870 at a ripe old age. His son John Robert O’Reilly, born in 1811, was also to become an officer in the British Army.

John Robert married an Afrikaans lady, Henrietta Hendrickz. He was among the officers who had received farms along the then Eastern Cape border in the vicinity of Graham’s Town, to serve as a buffer zone against Xhosa incursions. British governor Lord Charles Somerset however expropriated these properties, once developed with the sweat of the likes of John Robert. Somerset promised to provide in turn new land further North, which of course was undeveloped.

John Robert wrote a very eloquent yet forthright letter to Somerset explaining exactly what he thought of the esteemed governor, then packed his wagon and set off after the Voortrekkers, eventually settling in what is now Northern Natal.

John Robert’s descendants became Boere Irish, speaking Afrikaans as mother tongue. My great-grandfather James William O’Reilly became a well-to-do farmer owning a number of properties, among them the farm Gordon (on part of which the town of Newcastle was established). This farm abutted Fort Amiel, where the British had their field hospital during the 1st Anglo-Boer War.

The graveyard for the Redcoats who had succumbed from their wounds at the Battle of Majuba is actually located on our family farm named “Rusoord” (I remember well, playing there among the Tommy gravestones as a child). Another of the family farms was Duckponds, which became Newcastle’s black township Madadeni (duckponds in Zulu) plus a pastorage farm in the Drakensberg foothills called Leeds, on the road to Memel.

John William was a successful and innovative farmer – he, for example, won the gold medal for the best angora ram at the first Rand Easter Show held in 1895, as attested to in this clipping:

Nongqai series Men Speak WPS2 clipping angora goat medal

Gold medal at the first Rand Easter Show for my great-grandfather's Angora ram.

When the 2nd Anglo-Boer War came round in 1899, my great-grandparents were decidedly pro-Boer. My great-grandmother Maartens had many a scrap with the local British forces, leading to the family eventually being packed off to the British concentration camp in Pietermaritzburg. Here’s a photo of my very “gatvol” looking forebears, taken at the camp, with my own grandfather Tom the youngster in the funny hat on the right:

Nongqai series Men Speak WPS2 OREILLY family in ABW concentration camp

A very "gatvol" looking O'Reilly family photographed in the British concentration camp in Pietermaritzburg where they were held during the 2nd Anglo-Boer War, with my Oupa Tom furthest right.

My mother would relate to me the conspiratorial atmosphere that prevailed around their farmstead during the 2nd World War, when my grandfather Tom would surreptitiously listen to the German Radio Zeesen in order to hear the “other side” of the news. I suppose that a confluence of Afrikaner and Irish blood, plus that stint in a British concentration camp, do go some way in explaining why one may discern a somewhat anti-English inclination among my O’Reilly forebears, even though they spoke perfect English (they were fluent not only in Afrikaans and English, but also Zulu – as was my father, who had also grown up in Natal).

2.3 Steenkamp and O’Reilly blood-lines unite:

Back to the Steenkamps – because my great-grandparents on the paternal side had died young, my grandfather Willem was not a property owner and had to make do with his civil service salary as a cattle inspector. He and my grandmother had seven children – one girl, Harriet Sophia (Hetta), named after my great-grandmother nee Louw, and six sons, of which my father was the 2nd youngest. Despite being academically gifted, my father chose to leave school commencing Standard 9 because of realising the financial constraints the family were suffering in the aftermath of WW2. So, he fudged his age and joined the police (he later obtained five distinctions, when he did matric part-time).

My father fell in love with my mother when he was stationed at Newcastle as young constable. He was transferred to Durban soon after their marriage, where I was their first-born some three years later, on 16 December 1953 (the first time that the Day of the Vow was celebrated as an official public holiday). I always teased that, as a poor police family, my mother had to wait for a holiday to fit my birth in.

My mother, a very intelligent and well-read woman, stimulated my love for reading from before school age – I still fondly remember the title of my first book: “Vaaljas die eensame donkie”. She also stimulated my interest in current affairs, which she herself followed keenly on the radio. By age four, listening with her and being blessed with a good memory, I could name the presidents and capitals of all the then emerging new states in Africa.

Below you can see me, in first grade at what was then the bi-lingual Montclair primary school in Durban.

Nongqai series Men Speak WPS2 as young schoolboy

Me as grade 1 pupil, Durban.

My father was at that time making a name for himself as young detective. His investigative skills made the headlines when he was handed the then stuck investigation into the high-profile murder case of Joy Aken, killed by Clarence van Buuren (the case was front-page news for months during the middle fifties).

The author Chris Marnewick later wrote a book about the case and there-in he calculated that my father had solved the matter within 29 hours and 5 minutes from having been handed the dossier.  (See the cover of Marnewick’s book on the Aken case and the murderer, Clarence van Buuren, below – if you wish to read more about my father as described by Marnewick, simply click on the cover and you will be taken to a copy of the book’s bio-chapter on my father).

Nongqai series Men Speak WPS2 Van Buuren book cover

Click on the book cover above, if you wish to read the bio-chapter about my father.

What I remember well from those early days, is my father’s official Harley-Davidson motorbike with sidecar, in which I sometimes rode with him to have my hair cut:

Nongqai series Men Speak WPS2 FMAS on bike with sidecar

As young detective, my father had a Harley-Davidson motorbike with sidecar as official vehicle.

The Steenkamp clan gathered in Pretoria on the day of my father’s passing-out parade as a young lieutenant at the Police College in Pretoria.  A memorable photo was taken that evening (what we in the family jokingly call the “ore-foto” because of how the then flash technology endowed them all with what appeared to be enormous, translucent ears!).

These Steenkamps were all servers of their country. My father (furthest on the left) came to head the SAP-SB; his brother Cor next  to him served in the police before going into  private business; the oldest brother Casper (named for my great-grandfather) was old enough to fight in WW2, where he was a sapper in North Africa; the 2nd oldest,  Willem, became deputy director-general of Bantu Education; and Jan (or Koos, as we knew him in the family – furthest on the right) became commanding officer of Durban’s citizen force unit, the Regiment Port Natal, with the rank of Commandant, and obtained his parabat wings at middle age.  Danie, the youngest (right front), was a member of the NIS and served as station head in Singapore and in Tel Aviv.

Nongqai series Men Speak WPS2 Steenkamp servants of their nation.

My dad (furthest left, back) and his brothers, servants of the nation.

Talking about parabats in the family – my cousins Barry (son of Casper) and Johan (son of Jan) both jumped into battle in the airborne raid on Cassinga in Angola.

Apart from my interest in all kinds of sport (my mother was a very good hockey and tennis player and top athlete) and my love of going fishing, I was an avid reader as child, continuing my interest in current affairs, history, and politics. I had soon exhausted the limited Afrikaans junior section at our local municipal library in Fynnland, on Durban’s Bluff. So, I collected all the family’s library cards, (particularly those of my parents, that would give me access to senior books) and would walk up the hill, ten minutes from our home, to ostensibly take out books for them.

The kindly old lady at the library soon enough saw through my ruse but did not object when I would leave with six books at a time, consisting of biographies and books on history and geography. What did astound her, was that I would be back two days later for more of the same – this was how I rapidly expanded my reading ability of English, my general knowledge and my love for history.

This general knowledge stood me in good stead when, in matric, I could lead our school team to the finals of the SABC’s national general knowledge quiz for high schools. It also helped in making me articulate with both pen and tongue, so that we won the national debating contest for Afrikaans high schools in my matric year, in 1971. Here below, I’m standing with my team-mate and the trophies in a press photograph of the time (credit: Die Nataller).

Nongqai series Men Speak WPS2 debate contest winners

My team-mate and I with the trophies for having won the national debating contest for Afrikaans high schools, 1971 (photo credit: Die Nataller)

I was fortunate to be awarded two bursaries – one a merit bursary by the University of the Free State (with no strings attached) for having won the debating contest, and the second a bursary from the Public Service Commission, which I eventually would need to work back by labouring in some government department after having completed my studies. With these bursaries, off I went in 1972 to study Law in Bloemfontein.


To understand how it came about that I joined the intelligence service (then called the Bureau for State Security – the BfSS) on 1 August 1975, a little bit of explanatory history is necessary.

After completing school in Durban at the end of 1971, I had enrolled at Free State University (as it is now called – at that time it was the University of the Orange Free State, and beforehand the University College of the Orange Free State, so that the Afrikaans acronym was initially UKOVS, leading to the students to be colloquially known as KOVSIES). The main campus is located in Bloemfontein, which city was also the judicial capital of South Africa during the Union and the later white Republic. It was the seat of the then highest court in the land, the appellate division of the supreme court (as it was known). Consequently, Bloemfontein and the Free State University Law Faculty enjoyed a very high reputation in legal circles. Because I wanted to study Law, Bloemfontein was thus my obvious choice.

Arriving at KOVSIES in January 1972 as a first-year student, backed (but also bound) by my bursaries – particularly the Public Service Commission one – an unexpected wrinkle appeared when I registered. Up to the year before, the local Law Faculty had followed what was then common practice in law faculties around the country, namely that an aspiring advocate had to first do a three-year bachelor’s degree (i.e., a B.A. or B. Com.), before then enrolling for the last two years for the Ll.B. degree (a Bachelor of Laws). Thus, five years in total. This is what my main bursary, that of the Public Service Commission, was based on: a five-year bursary for obtaining first B.A., then LL.B.

KOVSIES, however, that year upset the apple cart by wanting to elevate their Ll.B. to a master’s level, meaning that it would henceforth entail six years of study (3 for the initial B-degree, and then a further 3 for Ll.B.). They understood, though, that this could result in difficulties for students with five-year bursaries (like me), so they introduced also the option to do a five-year direct Ll.B., without the necessity of first obtaining a B.A. or B.Com. Obviously I opted for this direct 5-year option when I initially enrolled. Until the Public Service Commission intervened some months later, ruling: we gave you a bursary for B.A. Ll.B. and that is what you need to be enrolled for!

Unfortunately, they had only arrived at this conclusion halfway through the 2nd semester. Which meant that I urgently and very much belatedly needed to convince the university to change my registration. More importantly in practical terms, it also meant that I suddenly had to find another main course with which to fulfil the Arts Faculty requirement for the B.A., namely that you had to have two main courses each of three years duration (for the Law Faculty I had needed only one, namely Roman-Dutch Common Law, which fortunately could count as one of the two Arts main courses).

Because of my interest in current affairs, I opted for Political Science as my other main course, which I then had to start (and catch up with) even though practically half the academic year had already gone by. Fortunately, the head of the Political Science department also happened to be the dean of the Arts Faculty, prof. Herman Strauss. He was a wonderful person, very influential on campus, and he facilitated all the administrative arrangements. In the end I was also permitted to take extra subjects during each of my undergraduate years, so that I could make up for the extra year required for Ll.B. and could thus complete the course still in five years. This resulted in me obtaining my B.A. after three years with 16 course credits, instead of the usual 11.

By the time I had finished my undergraduate studies at the end of 1974 I was, however, thoroughly disillusioned with the whole teaching system, which seemed to me a huge waste of time. This was in part because the Law Faculty courses were, at that level, practically all presented as night classes only, in order to make use of senior practicing advocates of the high court as the lecturers (they were obviously excellent, but since they all had their day jobs as full-time advocates they could only lecture at night). Which left us students basically twiddling our thumbs (or playing billiards) during the daytime hours.

So, at the beginning of 1975 I decided that the obvious thing to do, was for me also to get a day job: meaning extra income to supplement my bursaries, and the opportunity to start working off my Public Service obligations (one year of work in a civil service department for every year that I had the bursary). Because I had to work in the Public Service at the discretion and pleasure of the Commission, and because of my legal qualification, I ended up being appointed as a prosecutor in the court of the Bantu Administration department in Bloemfontein (the erstwhile department then in charge of administering everything related to the Black African population of the country).

This mostly involved criminal prosecutions for transgressions of the pass laws (the bane then of the lives of all blacks, because it regulated where they could live or work) plus some civil law work as well, applying customary African law to family situations. South Africa then, and still today, acknowledges different legal systems, such as the Western model with its insistence on monogamy, plus then the Muslim and the indigenous African systems permitting polygamy – which explains why former President Jacob Zuma, for example, could have half a dozen legal wives.

To cut a long story short, I very soon realised that this kind of legal work did not appeal to me at all. Furthermore, I well understood that me working in the Bantu courts – even though it would shorten my years of working back my bursary to the Commission – was not going to meet my other need, namely, to get my compulsory national service behind me as well. For this, young white SA men had but three options: either to serve in a branch of the Military for two years, or join the police or the intelligence service.

Since the Commission only recognized the intelligence service, then called the Bureau for State Security (BfSS), as a pucca civil service department for purposes of my Commission bursary (the Police and SADF were excluded), the overlap I sought in order to be able to kill two birds with one stone, perforce meant that I had to join the BfSS.

Last but not least, the pay as prosecutor was lousy – R330 per month, which at the present exchange rate would be $16 (the Rand then had real value, being stronger than the dollar, thus the equivalent of $360 per month then) with the BfSS pay definitely somewhat better.

There were two additional reasons why I did not want to join the Police Force: firstly, because my dad was a senior officer (and I didn’t want any achievement of mine to be seen as if due to him). Secondly, my fiancé and I were planning on getting married in the foreseeable future. She had also studied with the aid of an academic merit bursary from the Welfare department, and also had to work for the public service in return. At that stage, the only department that would accept married women in full-time career positions was the Police. Luckily, Welfare did regard the Police as a government department for the purpose of her working off her bursary obligations. So, in January 1975 she had set off to the Police College in Pretoria for her compulsory initial police training.

Suffice it to say, with her also already in the Police and considering the then rule that husband and wife could not be employed in the same government department, the Police for me was, in that sense, also a no-no. As was the military, because I could see no value accruing to either myself or my country in me spending two years there scrubbing decks (I had been pre-assigned to the Navy).

Consequently, around mid-year in 1975 I applied for an official transfer from the Bantu Affairs Department to the intelligence service, the BfSS. After the necessary interviews, assessments, and security clearances, this was approved.

To my mind, this was a comprehensive solution: I could simultaneously work off my bursary obligation and national service, gain a better salary, and do work that was far, far more worthwhile and interesting than I had been doing in the Bantu courts, which I abhorred (or in the Navy, scrubbing decks!).


4.1 Our offices:

Thus arrived my first day of labouring at the BfSS, with me presenting myself at the Concilium Building, on the corner of what was then Andries and Skinner Streets in the Pretoria city centre – the head office of the intelligence service, whose then name the English-language press had mischievously abbreviated to BOSS.

I was soon to realise that the complex consisted of more than just the 11-story Concilium building into which the main entrance had led; Concilium was internally interconnected on each floor with the adjacent Alphen Building, the latter situated on the actual street corner.

For the first year or so I was assigned to analytical Division “B”, which occupied a floor on the street front side of Concilium. In later years, when I was with analytical Division “K” (later to become Division “N23” when the Bureau was re-baptized to the National Intelligence Service), my office was on the 2nd floor of Alphen, just left of the corner suite on the photo below (see arrow).

Nongqai series Men Speak WPS2 Concilium Alphen complex Pretoria

The Alphen / Concilium complex which housed the BfSS back in the day.

Eventually, with my last promotion to the position of staff officer to the Chief Director for Analysis (N1) and deputy head of the central editorial division, I found myself back in Concilium, on the top floor. “N” stood for “Navorsing” in Afrikaans, meaning research – thus, the analytical branch of the service, responsible for evaluating the incoming information collected by the Operations and Technological branches, and processing it into intelligence products for distribution to decision-makers.

When, towards the end of my service, my request was granted to be allowed to gain operational experience as a “field worker” (i.e., running agents and collecting information, rather than sitting behind a desk and analysing it) I was transferred from the “N” branch to “O”, meaning Operations. To what would soon become the Chief Directorate Covert Operations, or Chief Directorate “K” (the Afrikaans for covert is “kovert”).

My last division, responsible for clandestine collection (i.e., the real undercover spooks) was housed in a nondescript incognito building in another part of the metropole, under cover of a dummy company. It was located far away from Head Office, which latter we were most emphatically prohibited from setting foot in. But more about that part of my career as the story of my years with the intelligence service unfolds.

4.2 Initial orientation and style of working:

At the time of joining the BfSS in 1975 the institution was but a few years old. The approach to training, then, was essentially one of “on the job” learning at your designated desk, interspersed with initial security and orientation training sessions then held somewhat ad hoc in the 11th floor auditorium cum conference room, when that was not required for meetings or for other presentations.

This was a temporary arrangement. The BfSS, especially as the later NIS, would soon have dedicated training facilities located outside Pretoria on what we called the ”plaas” (farm). These facilities would eventually grow into the very well-appointed campus of the National Intelligence Academy. During those early years, though, the training division still had to make do with the makeshift facilities of the conference room, especially when it came to the training of analysts and administrative personnel. This in no way detracted from the quality of the training that the excellent instructors offered, content-wise.

The initial orientation and security training we “head office types” (analysts and admin) underwent during those first six months on probation, served also as further assessment and selection, to confirm and make definitive one’s appointment – although I never heard of any new analyst who had passed the initial screening and security checks conducted before you were first admitted, not being confirmed. You were, for all intents and purposes, accepted as part of the team from the word go, perhaps also because of the dire need for qualified people to man the analytical desks at that initial stage. As an example of how thin we were spread – when I arrived, I was allocated to the “Coloured and Indian” desk, as its second (and only other) member.

Being so under-manned also meant that – within one’s division – there would be cross-allocation of tasks when emergencies cropped up, so that you may get roped in to help your next-door neighbours on the “urban black” desk, for example.

And emergencies there were soon to be a-plenty, when – from the middle of 1975 on – the peace that had reigned in the security sphere (after the SAP-SB had definitively put a stop to the sabotage campaign in the mid-sixties), suddenly evaporated overnight. In any event, the trends we were tracking and trying to understand, such as student unrest in the urban areas, didn’t play out nicely separated into Apartheid racial compartments. If there was student unrest, then it would manifest across our notional desk divisions, spreading among students of all racial groups, so that understanding and commenting upon it required a common assessment by the combined desks working closely together.

It was also typical of General Van den Bergh’s management style that he regarded it as important to communicate with his staff, in order to keep us all abreast of key trends and developments. He was not averse to calling “all hands” meetings, where he would personally brief us. Some among his detractors may say that it was because he liked to hear his own voice so much, but essentially it was to enhance team spirit (especially during crisis times) and to ensure that we understood the bigger picture, so that we could better understand where an how our own desk’s little pieces fit into it.

What I’m going to explain next about compartmentalization and restricting access to information, should therefore be understood against the background of this collegial management style – we juniors were not kept in the dark, even though we fully understood the need to always protect sources and methods.

4.3 Access to information:

The initial orientation sessions of necessity at first focused on security, explaining the system of compartmentalization of access to information based on the “need to know” principle – meaning, that each one only had access to just such information (particularly about operational matters) as he or she needed in order to be able to perform their assigned tasks, and to no more.

This compartmentalization was, in the case of the analytical desks, most relevant to information of an operational nature, such as collection methods and the identity of sources. This was most closely guarded. It stands to reason that, even though analysts would never see the name of a source listed in a field report received from the collections directorates (just the source’s allocated number), one could usually pretty quickly figure out from the context who source number 123 in fact is. It was thus drilled into us that all information related to operational methods and identities needed to be very sensitively handled on a strictly need to know basis.

On the other hand, what was shared were assessments of broader trends and knowledge of current events perhaps falling outside of your immediate desk description, but which could serve as useful, or even essential, background information to better understand trends on your own desk topics. This was so, especially within the divisions. (The BfSS was a small organisation at that time, particularly so in terms of the limited number of analysts in each analytical division; the typical working procedure within such a division was perhaps typically Afrikaans – similar to how our forebears conducted the Anglo-Boer wars with “krygsraad” meetings of all hands, where matters were discussed and points of view thrashed out round the table, with all opinions heard).

This principle of compartmentalization applied both to access to physical spaces and to data. Access to restricted spaces was indicated by colour codes, where-as  to information it was tied in with the basic classification system for data, namely into four tiers: “open” or unclassified, “confidential”, “secret” and “top secret”. Doors to physical spaces were thus marked by colour – green would mean a space accessible to those with a confidential clearance, blue would mean a space into which only persons with a “secret” security grading may enter, and red would mean that you needed a “top-secret” security clearance to enter that particular space.  

Combined, the two systems meant that you had access to spaces and data of a certain level of classification within your own division, but to another (typically lower) level of classification in relation to the data being stored in the intelligence service as a whole. Very few people were given access to “top secret” information on a service-wide basis; most analysts below the level of deputy head of division would have access only to the level of “secret” within their own division, and perhaps “confidential” at the service-wide level.

One’s authorized levels of access was indicated (during the existence of the National Intelligence Service into which the BfSS had morphed in the late seventies), on the identity card that each and every one of us had to wear at all times. Back in my own NIS days (i.e., prior to 1994, where-after the services were again re-organised) these ID’s looked like this old NIS card of mine – actually, my last card before I transferred from Analysis to Operations. (Since the new South African intelligence and security services of today have new, different ways of indicating access and identity, I’m not giving away any secrets here by showing what my card of more than four decades ago looked like).

Nongqai series Men Speak WPS2 NIS ID card

My old NIS ID card of more than four decades ago, with its symbols indicating level of access.

On these old cards were indicated, to the left, the member’s initials and surname, as well as his service number. At the bottom right is indicated the letter designating your branch or Chief Directorate (in my case, “N” for analysis) plus then the number of your division (here, “N one-one”. This was derived from N1 being the designation for the Chief Director himself as head of the branch, with N11 (pronounced as one-one, not eleven) signifying that it was the division that served as the Chief Director’s personal support staff component and central redaction). 

The three smaller red XXX’s next to N11 on the card, indicates that I had access to all “top secret” data within my division. The three big red XXX’s above, indicated that I had been authorised for access to all “top secret” data held anywhere in the service. (“Secret” would be two blue XX’s and “confidential”, one green one).

In the intelligence service we did not use military-style ranks and we wore civilian clothes (at Head Office, a formal dark suit was obligatory, in case we suddenly had to attend a Cabinet briefing or some such event involving the top ministerial echelons). We thus didn’t wear any visible insignia of rank. 

Human beings being what they are, most people do have a natural desire to be able to fit others into some kind of pecking order of perceived seniority, status, or power (probably for self-preservation, so as not to inadvertently cross the wrong person). In the absence of visible military-style rank and insignia, these security clearance ID cards became the closest things to such visible indicators of stature in the old NIS.  If you saw someone with three big red XXX’s displayed on his or her card, you knew that that person – no matter his or her age – was someone with high access, from deputy divisional head upwards.

When I wore the above card in the early nineteen-eighties (while then still being only in my late twenties), I was by a great many years the youngest member of the National Intelligence Service to sport those three big red XXX’s. I mention it here and show the photograph of my old ID card, simply in order to demonstrate to you that I did in fact have access to the high level and sensitive type of information that I will be sharing with you as we unpack “Our Story” during those critical years, despite my then tender age.

But, in relation to where I started out in the second half of 1975, that still lay a few years into the future.

4.4 How things were then in the South African intelligence community:

To understand the why and how of the manner in which “Our Story” would unfold, I need to talk here at the outset about more than just how the old BfSS functioned. I need to explain to you, as well, how the security and intelligence community then hung together (or, in fact, in practice very much did not!).

On the one side (let’s call it the theoretical side), there’s the legal framework as then established by parliament’s Act on Security Intelligence and the State Security Council of 1969. But, on the other hand, there’s the very different practical reality that existed on the ground… A reality of stand-offs literally with bayonets fixed, of bugging each other’s premises, of Military Intelligence operatives breaking into the safe of General Van den Bergh (he had inherited their offices – and safe – in the old Alphen building, so they knew their way about).

All of this went hand-in-hand with an increasingly fundamental (and heated) difference between PW Botha and the military on the one hand, and the BfSS, Department of Information and Foreign Affairs on the other, about the strategic direction that South Africa needed to take in the face of the rapidly changing world scene, especially as it was then quite dramatically manifesting in Southern Africa.

This debate on strategic direction would come to supersede in national decision-making importance, the mere ideological issues about race and democracy that were playing out in civil society at the time, under banners such as “verkramp” versus “verlig”. As the security “deep state” rose in importance and influence (in parallel with, and because of the ever escalating threat level), this intra-security struggle for supremacy regarding strategy would increasingly determine the country’s direction, budgeting priorities, and public posture over the next two decades. This debated revolved around whether the best strategic option was to aim to settle, or to prepare to shoot things out.

Suffice it to say that there was intense dislike between PW Botha and Lang Hendrik van den Bergh – that is, between premier Vorster’s defence minister and his security advisor. PW Botha, notoriously thin-skinned, regarded himself (as Cape NP leader and cabinet minister) well above a mere civil servant, and thus resented Van den Bergh’s access to the prime minster. Especially so, because Pieter W Botha (whose nickname was “Piet Skiet” – Piet shoot) was firmly at the head of the “shoot” school of thought, which saw those counselling that a settlement be sought as appeasers.

The proverbial fat landed in the fire when the Military Intelligence operatives that had opened the safe that Van den Bergh had inherited, found inside a file on the self-same PW Botha. The latter was besides himself because of what he perceived as the temerity of this. What he clearly did not understand was that it was normal (and essential) practice the world over that intelligence institutions would have such files.

This was due to the fact that cabinet ministers were clear targets for hostile services. Being human, they could unintentionally get themselves into trouble – just recall the scandal around British minister John Profumo and the KGB-linked call-girl a few years before. Or another prominent South African cabinet minister also with the surname Botha, a few years later (which story I will come to in good time…).

What was a common practice the world over in such cases, is that these sensitive files would not be kept in the Central Registry, but in the personal safe of the head of the service.  J. Edgar Hoover of the FBI was a well-known example of having done this.  The purpose was in fact to protect the subject of the file, firstly so that its mere existence isn’t picked up by staff simply because of it being kept and indexed in a Central Registry, and secondly to better protect the sensitive content.

I don’t know what was in Botha’s file and have never seen its content mentioned, but in any event, PW Botha took extreme umbrage and insisted to Vorster that Van den Bergh be immediately fired. Vorster, always keen to keep his people united, found himself in the middle (not for the first time, and unfortunately not for the last either, as I shall later point out). He did not fire the tall general but was eventually forced to appoint a judicial commission under judge Potgieter to try and resolve the structure and divisions of labour within the intelligence community, about which so much inter-departmental strife had persisted after the founding of the BfSS.

Even this exhaustive and well-researched report did not, alas, put a stop to the in-fighting, turf wars, silo practices and empire-building within the security and intelligence community – particularly not the fundamental dispute about strategy between those who saw it as imperative that a settlement be sought in time (with Vorster himself having called the alternative to settling “too ghastly to contemplate”) and those in especially the Army (i.e., land forces – who we called the “brown shoes”) who saw a military stand-off as inevitable and wanted every effort and every budget cent to be directed at preparing for such a shoot-out.

When I arrived at the BfSS in August 1975, the efforts by premier Vorster and General Van den Bergh to facilitate a negotiated settlement in Rhodesia (as part of South Africa’s general détente outreach to black Africa), was at its zenith with the 26 August summit held in a train parked over the Victoria Falls bridge. President Kaunda and Vorster co-hosted the negotiations, attended by Rhodesian premier Ian Smith and internal black leaders.

Nongqai series Men Speak WPS2 KK HJvdB train

The Vic Falls Bridge Summit: Pres Kaunda, Foreign Minister Muller and Genl Lang Hendrik van den Bergh

Within weeks, however, actions taken unilaterally by PW Botha and the Army and which ran directly counter to what the BfSS were vigorously counselling, would decisively change the security and diplomatic environment in the region and effectively deal a death blow to détente.  I will discuss this critically important “fork in the road” in detail a bit later, but first I want to share with you some background about my formal training as an intelligence officer.


The training I received can be divided into three phases. Firstly, there was the initial orientation and security training undergone by all newcomers (back then, in the 11th floor auditorium). That was followed by the different levels of line-function training (in my case, with main focus on intelligence analysis – this was conducted at the training complex on the rapidly developing “farm”.  Lastly, the training I received abroad, at the German Bundesnachrichtendienst in Munich.

5.1 Initial security orientation:

As said earlier, the initial training at the then BfSS during those early years of the existence of the intelligence service, was presented in the auditorium on the 11th floor of the Concilium Building. The Training Division would, however, soon thereafter move to the “plaas” (farm) to the east of Pretoria, where over the years an attractive, well-equipped modern campus was developed for what was then already morphing into the excellent National Intelligence Academy.

The entry-level training courses were short and were attended “off your desk” (i.e., intermittently, interspersed with undergoing what was essentially “on the job” training). These initial sessions were aimed at general orientation and security, and were obligatory for all newcomers, no matter whether they were line-function intelligence officers or administrative support staff such as typists. Counter-intelligence was a particular focus, to sensitize each and all to the threat of a hostile service or entity trying to recruit them.

The typical methods and inducements used by hostile services were explained. This was mostly done with the aid of training films developed by the British and Americans, based on case studies of Western/NATO institutions that had fallen prey to such attempts at infiltration and recruitment (mostly by Warsaw Pact spy agencies, particularly the Soviet KGB and their military intelligence, the GRU, and the East German STASI).

Another aspect of the initial training focused on maintaining the physical security of the BfSS Head Office complex (i.e., Concilium/Alphen buildings). All male staff were obliged to perform night-time security duty at the complex, on a rotating schedule. This entailed manning (as a two-man team) the security operations room, to monitor the surveillance system that covered the property perimeter, and intervening as armed guards, should anything suspicious be noticed. This duty would befall one for a few nights every couple of months. Consequently, we all thus had to undergo weapons training, so as to be able to safely and accurately use the Israeli Uzi sub-machine guns which the security duty team had at its disposal.

The “farm” of course had a proper shooting range, complete with built dummy structures of buildings for practicing “room clearance” (i.e., for when hostiles had managed to enter the building and had to be eliminated within the built environment of offices and hallways). Also, “friendly” and “hostile” man-shaped movable and pop-up targets, to ensure that you learnt the necessary self-control regarding who to shoot at, and who not.

The main challenge that we all faced in this specific weapons training (and also when on actual security duty!), was the notoriously poor reliability and gun safety characteristics of the %$++!! Uzi.  It was famously light-triggered and delicate, prone to going off by itself at the slightest bump. We therefore joked that the best way to do such room clearance (if confronted with hostiles holed up inside an office or room), would be to grab the Uzi by its short barrel, swing it a few times over your head and then chuck it spinning into the room – it was a sure thing that the moment it struck the floor or a wall, it would go off by itself, letting loose its entire magazine, thus randomly spraying the entire interior with bullets and hopefully putting paid to the intruders…

That this wasn’t an entirely fanciful notion was demonstrated one morning at Concilium’s main entrance. It was standard practice that, between seven and eight in the morning when the bulk of the day-staff would be entering the building, one of the security team on duty, with Uzi and all, would be present there in the background – just in case some sly intruder tried to seize that opportunity with everybody crowding in, to try and make an entry. The particular guy on duty with the Uzi that morning was a manual labour assistant in the print shop (we had a full, sophisticated printing press in the basement). With all due respect, whereas he was excellent at his job, he wasn’t the sharpest pencil in the pack when it came to things like gun handling.

It happened towards the end of the rush, when only the laggards were still pitching up and the day’s business had already commenced. The guy pushing the secure steel trolley conveying classified documents from one section to another under lock and key, just happened to pass by. At that moment our printer’s assistant somewhat carelessly had put the Uzi down on the top of the counter that ran the length of the entrance hall. 

This treatment, not ungentle at all, was enough to immediately affront our dearly beloved Uzi sub-machine gun, which let off a solitary round in response (it had fortunately been set to single shot). Which struck the poor guy pushing the document trolley – luckily, in the buttocks. So that he spent some uncomfortable weeks recuperating but had not suffered any life-threatening injuries. Since he was somewhat of a hypochondriac, this provided our survivor hero with substantial fodder for sharing his lot with all and sundry – almost as if it was a godsend for him, giving him a certain stature, plus sympathy of course. And, for once, something real to complain about.

Nongqai series Men Speak WPS2 Uzi with webbing strap

An Uzi with webbing strap, exactly as we used.

Nongqai series Men Speak WPS2 Uzi with torchlight

Uzi with flashlight and battery mounted on its bayonet lug.

What was most awkward when doing the night-time duty, was that the Uzi then had to have a huge, bulky spotlight mounted on its bayonet lug. This spotlight was indeed very powerful, but the weight of it and its battery completely unbalanced the thing (at least the battery then served as an extra hand grip).

The bane of our lives at night were the stray cats that roamed that part of town as soon as darkness fell. They would regularly trip the necessarily sensitive perimeter sensors, requiring us to go out on eyeball inspection with the Uzi at the ready. The fact that no-one ever let loose a volley at one of those nefarious nocturnal nuisance-makers where they crouched, as if paralyzed, when caught in the glare of that powerful spotlight, attests to the responsibility, patience, and self-discipline of my colleagues.

5.2 Line Function Intelligence Training:

Once having finished with the general orientation and security training, we embarked on our line-function intelligence training.  This training was divided up into progressively more advanced levels, presented successively at intervals of a few months, so that practical experience could in between be gained on an analytical desk. It again started out with a now more detailed introduction to the broad basics of intelligence as craft, and then, as you progressed through higher level courses, focused on your field of specialization – in my case, intelligence analysis, meaning the evaluation of the degree of veracity of the information that had been collected by the operational branches and its processing and interpretation into finished intelligence products to be disseminated to decision-makers.

My Level 1 line-function course was still presented in Concilium’s 11th floor auditorium (i.a. to be able to use its screens and projection facilities).  Our training officer was a true gentleman who’s name I still recall clearly to this day – Henry Deacon. Apart from what we as trainees would be learning, the course also permitted our instructors (and thus, the service), to learn much about our individual aptitudes and abilities – an evaluation process that they were constantly engaged in, and which saw them reporting back on us to our bosses.

This initial level of line-function training was designed to be a further, more detailed introduction to the world of intelligence. It was designed to allow us to understand and appreciate the operational environment in which information was collected in that pre-digital age. This I personally found fascinating and stimulating (as I suppose most people would). I thrived because it was practical. It challenged one’s “can do” ability and capacity for lateral thinking (rather than the abstract academic stuff of one’s student days). 

I’ll recount here two instances from that training, with two objectives. Firstly, to show you the type of stuff we were challenged with, illustrating therewith the kind of training exercises employed and the underlying brain-centred approach of stimulating analytical thinking and problem-solving ability (which was a somewhat different approach to what I know the security police training, for example, typically consisted of).

My second objective with citing those long-past events is to present proof to you of why I ended up in positions of responsibility at a young age, which allowed me to observe important developments first-hand from particularly advantageous vantage points (thus, I’m quoting these training incidents here for  reason, not because I simply wish to blow my own bugle!)

In a nutshell, throughout my intelligence career I consistently came top of class, by quite some margin. Which was duly noted by the powers-that-be and helps explain why I was entrusted with sensitive tasks from early on in my intelligence career age. (This would be a reality that would later repeat itself at Foreign Affairs, where I also ended top of the class by a margin of nearly 11% above #2, and which soon led to me being entrusted with positions such as heading the diplomatic academy and then being nominated as ambassador at age 38 (more about that in Part Three).

There were two specific exercises during that initial training where I had caught the particular attention of Henry Deacon. One was a problem-solving test of creative, lateral thinking (we did a lot of such mind-stimulation exercises). It entailed each of us being issued with a bunch of identical cheap kitchen forks and two empty Coke bottles each. We were then challenged to construct, with those forks, a sturdy and reliably self-balancing bridge between the two bottles, which had been placed apart somewhat further than the length of an individual fork – easier said than done!

I must confess that I found this exercise quite a challenge, in part because I soon noticed that Deacon seemed to take a special interest in my experimentation with my set of forks. My level of perturbation would continue to steadily increase as I struggled, because he would look somewhat askance at my stop-start efforts, shaking his head.

Henry obviously knew the textbook solution, and the one I was trying to come up with was clearly far from it.

However, he became more intrigued as I progressed, with me persevering till I had my “bridge” set up and stable. Henry tested the cantilevered “bridge” which I had, by trial and error, created – and then remarked with some wonderment to me that I’ve found a new way of doing it. According to him, mine was actually sturdier than the supposedly unique solution described in the book…

The other test that still sticks in my mind, was of our powers of observation. It entailed flashing images of typical street scenes onto the auditorium’s big screen from a slide projector – but just for a fraction of a second. The projector was fitted with a reversed SLR camera lens shutter, allowing variable shutter speed settings to be used. In other words, adjusting for how long the lens is kept open to allow light to pass through. The way it was being used in reverse on the projector, it controlled for how long the slide image would stay on the screen. With typical shutter settings, this could be as little as 1/1000th of a second. In layman’s terms, for no more than the duration of that distinctive “click” one heard when pressing the shutter button of those old pre-digital cameras…

When Henry started this exercise, he had set the shutter at its fastest. He had warned us to be alert; that we were supposed to mentally take in the scene that would appear on the screen, and that he would then ask us questions about it – not explaining, though, that it was going to be on screen for just a flash. So, when that image (it was a street scene with motor cars) stayed on for less than the blink of an eye, everybody was somewhat befuddled when he asked us for the plate number of the frontmost car in the image. From his past experience with previous training groups, Henry had obviously anticipated this bewildered response and was equally obviously enjoying the dumbfounded reaction he had elicited.

Until I – precocious as ever – called out a plate number.

Now, I am blessed with a very good memory, and – at that stage of my youth – also with quite acute eyesight. So, I tried to recall the scene in my mind, and sort of “read off” the number from the image I had retained in my head. (I must admit that I loved training sessions and would get really involved, always piping up – and I didn’t see any harm in at least trying my luck!).

Henry was quite astounded that somebody was actually venturing an answer. He quickly checked his notes, and again with some wonderment exclaimed: “You know what, you’re actually right!” He sort of began to ask whether perhaps some previous course group had alerted me to this exercise and had given me the answer beforehand, but from my affronted reaction he could clearly see that it was not the case. So, he confirmed that, in his experience as training officer, I was the first person, up to then, to have been able to correctly recite the plate number off that “first flash”.

What this contributed to, was that my aptitude for field work was duly noted on my personnel file, which stood me in good stead when I later applied for a transfer from analysis to operations…

The next levels of more advanced training in the art and science of verification, evaluation, and interpretation of intelligence, I received on the “plaas” – the complex discreetly located in the agricultural area to the east of Pretoria. The modern Intelligence Academy campus had not yet been constructed when I did my line function training there. The lecture rooms of my time were flimsy prefabricated structures similar to what the Department of Education would erect at many South African schools as temporary classrooms.

The “plaas” was located at an elevation of about 1,600 meters above sea level, on a very exposed ridge subject to the freezing winter winds blasting through. So, those “prefabs” were cold. Damn cold. Especially when a cold front passed through, and the early morning temperatures dropped below zero. I remember us sitting there, shivering, our shoed feet wrapped up in our rugby jerseys (wintertime being rugby season, so for the Wednesday afternoon games of the mid-week inter-departmental league, we would bring our kit along to class, to have it to hand for a quick change in the afternoon).

The warmest spot was actually outside, on the north-facing side of the prefabs, where the building provided shelter against the chill of the southerly winds and formed a kind of reflective sun-trap off its light-coloured walls. There, the flock of the Farm’s overly numerous peacocks and peahens would then gather to sun themselves. Anyone familiar with the obnoxious honking sound that these creatures make (horrendously loudly at that), can imagine the effect inside those prefabs with their thin walls, when that bunch started sounding off right outside…

The first phase of the analytical process was to assess incoming information for its validity, and then accord it an alpha-numerical ranking on a six-point scale, so that others handling it later in the process would know how much credence to attach to it. This was done by considering the reliability of the source (if it was a human) and by evaluating the content against the matrix of other available information on the topic its content covered.

The perceived reliability of the source was expressed by means of an alphabetical scale from A – F (with A being proven reliable, and F being “of unknown reliability”).

The information as such was rated for credibility on a numerical scale, from 1 – 6, with 1 being proven by means of confirmation by other sources and information, to 6 which meant that the information could for the moment not be rated, due for example to it being a totally new input on the subject matter, with no basis for comparison with other related information. The table below explains in more detail how this works:


Source reliability




Consistent reliability proven

No doubt about the source’s authenticity, trustworthiness, or competency. Proven history of complete reliability.


Usually reliable

Minor doubts. History of having in the past provided mostly valid information.


Fairly reliable

Some doubts. Provided valid information in the past (but not always).


Mixed, tending usually to not being reliable

Significant doubts. Only sometimes provided valid information in the past.


Record of usually being unreliable

Lacks trustworthiness. Past history of peddling invalid information.


Reliability unknown

Insufficient information to evaluate reliability. May, or may not, be reliable.


Information credibility




Confirmed by independent Sources

Logical, consistent with other relevant information, confirmed by independent sources.


Probably true

Logical, consistent with other relevant information, but not confirmed.


Possibly true

Seems reasonably logical, agrees with some other relevant information, but not independently confirmed.


Doubtful whether true

Not logical but possible, no other information on the subject, not confirmed.



Not logical, contradicted by other relevant information.


Not possible to assess

The validity of the information cannot be determined.


Once the incoming item of information had been evaluated for its perceived validity, it had to be analysed and contextualized for its significance and meaning; in other words, it had to be interpreted and woven into the holistic intelligence picture. With this done, it had to be incorporated into the service’s intelligence products (i.e., printed briefing documents, somewhat like a special kind of “newspaper” for selected eyes only), produced with the purpose of being presented to national decision-makers to appraise them of threats and opportunities in timely manner.

Intelligence products can range from the daily kind, such as the CIA’s daily brief for the president of the USA, to annual threat assessments – what we called the N.I.W. (the National Intelligence Assessment, in English) which annually assessed the security situation of the country on a holistic basis, including inputs from all government departments – especially the diplomatic service, the Security Branch of  the SA Police, and Military Intelligence. By law, in South Africa’s case, the production of this comprehensive annual assessment of typically around 200 pages in length was an explicit legal obligation. It was coordinated and led by the Bureau for State Security and its successors.

The process of producing verified, interpreted intelligence is known in the profession as the “intelligence cycle”.  In my doctoral thesis (titled “The Intelligence Function of the Political System”) I developed a schematic representation of this, which is copied below.


Nongqai series Men Speak WPS2 intelligence cycle diagram

The Intelligence Cycle, as developed and depicted in my doctoral thesis on the intelligence function of the political system.

5.3 My Training in Germany with the BND:

The last intelligence training course I attended was presented by the (West) German Bundesnachrichtendienst, in Munich. In part it was a relationship-building exercise as well. These professional ties demonstrated how tightly “Apartheid” South Africa was then still held close by the West in the areas where it mattered, such as intelligence and defence – even if done covertly rather than openly (all of it driven, of course, by the West’s then fear of the Red Bear, there at the beginning of the eighties coming off the Soviet Union’s earlier gains in places like Vietnam).

This BND training was an annual thing, presented for a group of about a dozen NIS analysts at a time. The lectures were given in a well-appointed BND “safe house” in the suburban outskirts of Munich, with the lodging facility being another equally well-appointed safe house that was set up like a luxury guest house or boutique hotel, replete with discreet service staff and an excellent chef.

Nongqai series Men Speak WPS2 BND lecture room

In a lecture room in a BND safe house in Munich, with me at the back.

These annual training / liaison events were always presented for us South Africans during the famous Oktoberfest (which actually takes place in September, not October). The Germans would have us believe that this was due to prioritizing us among their partner services, to make it as special as possible for us. This probably was true, because the interpersonal relationships were indeed very cordial, but we also understood that inviting us at that time, with the city flooded by foreigners, would make us “lepers” stand out the least…

Nongqai series Men Speak WPS2 Oktoberfest jugs
Nongqai series Men Speak WPS2 Oktoberfest beerhall

Our favourite Munich Oktoberfest beer hall.

Inside the city we were treated to trips to the Royal Palaces and historical sites such as the Hofbräuhaus beer hall, from where Hitler had tried to stage the putsch that saw him briefly jailed in the twenties. There were also trips to the Alps and the famous castle of Neuschwanstein.

The very first day’s lunch, though, was a “must impress” effort, with all stops pulled out by our kind hosts. It was offered to us in the superb Bayerischer Hof Hotel’s private dining room, which they were proud to point out was the favourite haunt of Bavaria’s then famous and popular minister-president Franz-Josef Strauss, who had been an unapologetic open supporter of South Africa and a frequent visitor to our shores. The meal, unfortunately, was typical German cuisine of pork and potatoes, and (although prepared to perfection) wasn’t really a culinary tour de force as far as my tastes were concerned…

Perhaps the most memorable meal for me, during that trip, was a dinner in a restaurant in the old part of Schwabing, the artists’ and students’ quarter in the northern suburbs of Munich. Not only was it the best pepper stake I’ve ever had (to this day), but I was particularly struck by an invented tale that one of our BND hosts had re-told that evening.

The story (which it was said is often re-told among Germans to illustrate the vagaries of history, as well as to demonstrate that change is the only constant in life) was about a group of proudly patriotic German students who, at the dawn of 20th century, had cornered a wise old sage who was supposedly able to foretell the future.  They wanted to hear from him what the future held for Germany, which at that stage – at the beginning of the 1900’s – was very much on the up-and-up after its unification just three decades before.

The old man reflected a bit, seeing with how much positivism and enthusiasm they were anticipating a bright future for their country.

There will be ups and downs…” he eventually replied a bit warily, hesitating to share what he had seen.

Please tell!” the youngsters pressed him.

Well, by the beginning of the next decade, the early 1910’s, Germany will be even more wealthy and powerful than we’re now already, with a strong, growing navy and expanding colonies around the globe. People will be living well, and life will be good.

However, by the beginning of the next decade – the early twenties, that is – we will no longer have a Kaizer, we will have lost more than two million men and much of our territory to the Poles, the Czechs, and the French in a four-year war that will have engulfed practically the entire world, and we will have an impossibly huge war reparations debt to pay to those who had conquered us.

The students were naturally very uncomfortable hearing this, and wanted to know if things would then at least start picking up again?

Unfortunately, no” the sage replied. “By the early part of the thirties, our economy and that of the world will be in dire straits. A great depression will have descended on the planet. You will need a wheelbarrow full of Deutschmarks to buy a loaf of bread, and unemployment will be rampant. Furthermore, a madman Austrian corporal will be politically on the rise in Germany, taking over the country by nineteen thirty-three…

By this time, many of the students were beginning to very much doubt this supposed sage with his extraordinarily improbable-sounding predictions. “Then surely we won’t recover from that and will just be heading further down” one remarked.

No, no” the sage replied. “On the contrary – at the beginning of the forties, our beloved Germany will be Europe’s greatest power. We will have defeated the French and the Poles and will have our troops controlling everything from the North Cape in the Arctic down to most of North Africa.

This perked up the students no end. “So, from then on things will be great again, won’t it? We’ll just go from strength to strength!” the sage’s young inquisitors postulated.

Alas, no, my young friends” the sage replied sadly. “By the early fifties our great cities will be in total ruin, with our country again reduced in size, much more so than even the last time. We will have lost more than four million of our soldiers in that 2nd war and we will have on our national conscience that we had murdered more than six million Jews…

We will be under full military occupation, with the country divided into occupation zones by our conquerors, and with East and West Germany separated from each other.  We will have suffered massive economic destruction and devastating civilian…” By this time, though, before he could even finish, the last of the students had gotten up and stepped away from the supposedly clairvoyant old sage, in utter disbelief at the “totally ridiculous” future scenarios that he was trying to make them believe would actually transpire…

We know, of course, that every “prediction” in this fictitious story actually did come true. All that I can say today, is that (judging from my own life experience), the only constant that one can count on as a sure thing, is indeed ever-present and unpredictable change.

Which is why one must always beware of assumptions…

That somewhat ironic story had made me think deeply, back then. About the “constants” which we were then assuming to exist (there at the beginning of the eighties), and believed would be ever-lastingly “immutable”. Such as the Cold War lasting on and on, as the defining paradigm of our times. And, ever-lasting white rule in South Africa…

The training we received in Munich was very much marked by the anti-communist Cold War context. The Soviet Union and its spy agencies were public enemy number one, for both us and them. A lot of briefings thus dealt with the internal structure of the KGB, as well as the military threat emanating from the Warsaw Pact.

Just like the NIS, the BND was also a full-spectrum agency, meaning that it monitored and reported on all domains that could impact national security interests. It therefore also had specialised analytical divisions for assessing economic, military and political developments in the East Block – again, just as the NIS had its specialised divisions focused on analysing economic, military and political developments within our primary Southern African geographic sphere of strategic interest. In fact, the BND had primary responsibility for military intelligence at the strategic level in the German system.

Obviously, the Germans aspired to have their country re-united. What I remember vividly, is the official maps that they had stuck on the walls in the lecture rooms – these depicted Germany’s borders as they had been after the First World War, with the former East Prussia accordingly then still indicated as part of Germany…

The lectures weren’t varsity-style classes, however. There was a lot of conversation around these topics, with the Germans sharing their many run-ins with the Russians, giving practical content and a good dose of reality to our interaction. The Germans were perhaps best placed of all the NATO members to share this kind of real-world experience regarding the Soviets, due to their first-hand knowledge going back to the German need to prioritize the Eastern Front during the war.

The BND was actuality born out of the WW2 German Wehrmacht’s military intelligence division focused on the Eastern Front, Fremde Heere Ost (literally meaning “foreign armies east”), with FHO having been a part of the Abwehr, the wartime German military intelligence organisation.

FHO was during the latter part of the War under the command of General Reinhard Gehlen, who had the foresight to keep his men and archives together and then offer them to the Americans (who were the occupying force in Bavaria), as a package deal.  The Americans jumped at this and put the now “Gehlen Organisation – Gehlen Org” immediately to work to keep spying on the Soviets, doing so from the former Nazi Party headquarters complex at Pullach in the outskirts of Munich, which the Americans had turned over to Gehlen and his men.

Gehlen then set up a dummy corporation, called the South German Industrial Development Organisation, as cover for his group’s activities. His deal with the Americans was that he would carry on working for them as Gehlen Org, but that his organisation would revert to the German state once that was re-established. When the General Agreement of 1955 recognised the Federal German Republic (i.e., West Germany) as sovereign state, the Gehlen Org became its foreign intelligence agency under the name Bundesnachrichtendienst (literally: federal intelligence service).

A most revealing and informative part of our visit to Germany was a side trip the BND had organised for our group to West Berlin. We had to fly in on an American plane, keeping to the narrow air corridor that the Soviets had allowed over East German territory (West Berlin was then an isolated enclave deep within communist-controlled land and airspace). Of course, we were taken to the infamous wall, and to Checkpoint Charlie (the crossing point between the American and Russian sectors). Below is a photo that I took there at the checkpoint.

Nongqai series Men Speak WPS2 Checkpoint Charlie Berlin

Checkpoint Charlie, the main official crossing point through the Berlin Wall from the American occupation sector to the Soviet side.

The wall wasn’t merely a single wall demarcating the border. It was a broad barrier zone, set between two walls, designed to prevent East Germans from fleeing to the West (the East had been losing much of its population, before the barrier was suddenly constructed overnight, trapping those then still in the East).  

The area between the walls was ploughed, mined, strewn with vehicle traps, criss-crossed by barbed wire, and illuminated at night by floodlights. Watchtowers with machine-gun nests abounded. On the Western side, crosses were erected where East Germans had died, trying to flee across to the West at the spots so marked (see on the right in the photo below).

Nongqai series Men Speak WPS2 Berlin Wall

The Berlin Wall, where so many East Germans died trying to cross.

The West Germans had erected viewing platforms on their side of the outer wall, from which one could have a view across into East Berlin. The communists hated this and constructed a phalanx of their drab apartment “commie blocks” on their side as a kind of screen, where the party faithful were housed.

We visited one of these viewing platforms, where a most disturbing scene played out before our eyes. A young couple with a baby had also mounted this platform with us and were holding their new-born baby aloft so that an old couple on the East German side, obviously the grandparents, could see their grandchild.

They were waving at each other and crying. Suddenly a pair of VOPO’s (the communist Volkspolizei – “people’s police”) approached the old couple and set their Alsatian dogs upon them. The spontaneous rage, hatred, and loathing, but also helpless frustration of our BND colleagues (some of whom had themselves escaped from the East) upon seeing this, certainly touched a chord. We all then understood that much better what we were fighting for – to keep our homelands free of such barbaric communist tyranny.

A feature of the East Berlin skyline was the tall communications tower that the communists had built. This had earned itself the nickname “God’s revenge” from the Western side.

The reason for this nickname, was the error committed by the communists when they designed the tower – namely to include a huge metallic ball near the top. Every time the sun shone on this ball, it would cause a reflection in the shape of the cross to appear on the ball’s metallic surface. Despite the atheists’ best efforts, they could never succeed in eliminating this reflection of the cross.

Once back in Munich form Berlin, our BND colleagues tried their utmost best to influence us positively regarding South Africa purchasing arms from Germany (they would have known that the leader of our delegation happened to be the then head of the NIS military analysis division).

To this end, they took us to the factory manufacturing the Leopard main battle tanks and the Flakpanzer Gepard (Cheetah anti-aircraft tank, based on the Leopard body), where we literally could crawl in and over these behemoths. The one BND chap said to me: “Look, it’s certain – if South Africa buys 200 Leopards, no-one will even attempt to bother you”.

Fact is, that the Leopard simply wasn’t designed for Southern Africa’s hard, dry, dusty veldt (it was developed for the central European mud and snow) and therefore wasn’t, as such, ideal for our conditions or for our needs – and, in any event, we had more than 200 of our own Olifant/Centurion MBT’s already.

Which reminds me of another incident towards the end of this Munich training course. The head of the BND’s technological collection division (i.e., communications intercepts and the like) had come over to the safe house to present a lecture to us on the use of computers to intercept electronic communications on a massive scale (those years, intelligence services were still at the dawn of really starting to exploit the huge potential of computers as tools, not only for collection of information but also in the production of intelligence products).

This evidently very learned, though still quite youngish gentleman had come into the lecture room looking somewhat ill at ease, but very friendly and eager to please. His first words to us were something to the effect of: Look, guys, I’m very honoured to be here with you and I’m ready to do my best, but I find it ironic that I’m supposed to be lecturing you on this subject, and not the other way round, because your service is by far the recognised leader today in this field…

What he was referring to, was the success of the NIS in writing computer programmes for culling from the huge new stream of satellite-hosted communications and the gazillions of bits of information that was already then flashing around the world by those new means, only the messages that had security relevance – sifting the kernels from the vast amount of chaff. Back on our “farm” we had all noticed that not only was the Intelligence Academy campus growing, but that the landscape around was becoming festooned with what we called the “big ears” – array upon array of parabolic dishes pointed skywards.

It was nice to hear our technological prowess being acknowledged by our peers…


6.1 Starting out in Analytical Division “B”:

My career in intelligence analysis in the then BfSS started in what was at that time called Division “B”. This analytical division had responsibility for evaluating the internal security situation in the country. By law, the BfSS was charged with providing the government with intelligence on both internal and external situations affecting the security of the country. If we compare this to the British set-up, was like the MI5 and MI6 rolled into one. Or, taking the American example, like their CIA and FBI combined. It should be noted, though, that – unlike the FBI – the BfSS had no power to arrest, nor to detain anyone (only the S.A. Police had such powers).

Within Division “B” the desk that I was assigned to, was the one monitoring the security situation pertaining to the so-called Coloured and Indian population groups, being B.6. (The divisions were all numbered alphabetically, with “G”, for example, having been responsible for military analysis, and “D” for economic analysis, to name but two other).

The divisions themselves were small, closely-knit teams, so that one would in practice be exposed to the entire field which your division covered – particularly through the regular production meetings where intelligence products emanating from the division were discussed, round-table style, and refined before being sent up for inclusion in the BfSS’s then weekly intelligence review destined for the Prime Minister and key cabinet members. In this way, I was indirectly exposed to the entire internal security situation as covered by my division as a whole – such as unrest at black schools, for example.

South Africa’s internal security situation was clearly very much impacted by what was happening in the regional and international context. As explained earlier, there was purposely a cross-flow of general intelligence keeping us appraised about those situations, even though their subject matter might have fallen under the purview of other divisions, and even though the compartmentalization that was applied regarding sources and methods, meant that we did not deal with the detailed source reports on it as such.

General Van den Bergh believed in keeping everybody appraised of important matters through regular staff briefings, as well as by means of divisional heads conveying to their own staff the gist of what had been discussed at every day’s early morning heads of division meeting (called the Sanhedrin, from the SAP-SB example).

This meant that, during that in the latter part of 1975 we all in Concilium/Alphen were very much aware of the heavy infighting that was then going on between the BfSS and the Military about the latter’s ill-advised unilateral (and ultimately disastrous) attempt to capture Luanda, the Angolan capital in the run-up to that country’s independence from Portugal, which had been set for 11 November that year.

6.2 Operation Savannah – PW Botha bursting our “bubble of invincibility”:

On the road to where we as a people find ourselves today, the 2nd half of the year 1975 had brought us to one of the most important “forks”. Because, at this point, the strategic options of settling or shooting were no longer theoretical debating points, but became very real, concrete and immediate choices – with the conflict within the security establishment leading to disastrous consequences.

My first months as analyst (in the second half of 1975) were marked by the SADF’s “Operation Savannah” – their attempt to militarily intervene with an expeditionary force that invaded Angola at that time. The objective was to prevent the Soviet-supported MPLA movement from taking power there, after the Portuguese “carnation revolution” had put that territory on the path to independence. This ill-fated adventure into Angola was initiated by Defence Minister PW Botha and the Military against the strong opposition of the BfSS and our Department of Foreign Affairs. In  the end, premier John Vorster had to order it to be terminated during a heated meeting at the end of December that year. But by then the damage had been done.

This whole episode has since been shrouded in ambiguity and spin. Obviously, the National Party (NP) government had wished to paper it over. Nobody had wanted to wash the dirty linen in public.  This deliberate obfuscation was aided by the fact that PW Botha soon succeeded John Vorster after the latter was ousted in 1978 in what one can euphemistically call a palace revolution, or describe as an underhand coup d’etat if you are more forthright.

PW Botha and the SADF thus had control over how history was recorded, and effectively expunged Vorster, Dr Connie Mulder, Van den Bergh, Dr Eschel Rhoodie and the rest of the pro-settlement team from official history and simultaneously fudged their own role in the strategic disaster that was Operation Savannah (I want to emphasise strategic disaster: the blame for this is entirely for the account of PW Botha and his insiders; the soldiers on the battlefield had fought bravely and well).   

I believe that, for the sake of learning from history, it is essential to portray accurately what had actually happened. I was there, in the BfSS Head Office, when Savannah went down, and I will share with you what I saw really happen – in terms particularly of the highly charged atmosphere, the grave concern and anger, and the escalating infighting. Obviously, I could but observe the BfSS reaction, so that I will be the first to admit that my account reflects that angle.

As I’ve explained earlier (in Part One) the real debate about South Africa’s fundamental strategic options had evolved by the seventies into a choice between two approaches (at least within the security and intelligence community, which was becoming increasingly influential in national decision-making with their advice). What this debate within the security community evolved around was whether to aim for settling, or to prepare for a supposedly inevitable shooting match. This debate, because of the influence of the security and intelligence community over national decision-making, had in reality begun to overshadow the ideological and moral debate that was being waged in civil society about questions of race and democracy.

Up to the fall of the Portuguese Empire in 1974, this debate had been theoretical. It was possible for Prime Minister Vorster to simultaneously accommodate both viewpoints, policy-wise.

On the one hand, it had then made sense to enhance South Africa’s military capability. This was done through re-arming and developing a nuclear deterrent, and also by implementing a “forward defence strategy” (i.e., keeping the threat as far away from South Africa’s own borders as possible) while Rhodesia and the Portuguese colonies of Angola and Mozambique were still under white control.

On the other hand, it had made imminent sense as well to engage in diplomacy with the world, knowing that the road to acceptance abroad ran through black Africa. Thus, the policy of détente was actively pursued from the late sixties on, in large part to eliminate situations that could be used as justification to deploy international intervention forces against South Africa, but most pointedly to prepare the ground for negotiated settlements in Rhodesia, SWA/Namibia and eventually in South Africa itself.

Premier Vorster, in terms of his personality, was inclined to try and somehow accommodate opposing viewpoints. One of his principal goals always was to maintain Afrikaner unity.  The fall of the Portuguese Empire had however elevated the debate over strategy from theory to practical reality, where concrete choices would have to be made – choices that were going to be mutually irreconcilable (what I mean with this, is that a decision to actively start shooting, would inevitably undercut your ability to create an atmosphere conducive to negotiations for a peaceful settlement).

I’ve explained before that, as regards Mozambique, the “shoot” faction around PW Botha/Magnus Malan in 1974 (after the Lisbon revolution) had immediately prepared to militarily support white settlers there in a countercoup. The BfSS got wind of this planned operation to send elements of the SADF into Mozambique to go and help capture and hold infrastructure such the radio station in Lourenço Marques (now Maputo). Vorster was quickly convinced to put a stop to this (which I heard was done in the nick of time, somewhere close to Komatipoort). He subsequently issued a calm and reassuring statement that South Africa is ready to live with any kind of neighbour, portraying that the country is powerful enough to be able to handle any situation.  

As regards Angola, though, Vorster found himself caught in the middle between his defence minister with the itchy trigger finger on the one side, and his Foreign Affairs, Information, and Intelligence advisors on the other side, who were counselling restraint and a continuation of the détente policy of seeking settlements (which PW Botha saw as appeasement). Botha was pleading for assistance to be given to the UNITA movement of Dr Jonas Savimbi in the south of Angola, to avoid the Moscow-supported MPLA from controlling that part of the country and potentially permitting SWAPO to engage in cross-border raids. The SADF claimed that their Pentagon contacts had assured them of American logistical and diplomatic support, if South Africa would help contain the MPLA, Moscow’s proxy in Angola.

General Van den Bergh, for his part, was warning against trusting the Americans, and warning against any overt South African military involvement because of both its risky nature and the damage it was sure to do to the détente efforts and our image of invincibility, should things go wrong.

The uneasy compromise route that Vorster chose to follow, was to approve limited covert support to UNITA. Vorster therefore authorized, on 4 September 1975, that infantry-type weapons of communist origin be secretly bought on the international black market and supplied to UNITA (so as to make it all untraceable back to South Africa).  This approval included that training be covertly provided as well, plus logistical support.

As a consequence, SADF instructors set up a training base at Kuito. They also guided the preparation of the defences of the important UNITA-held town in south-central Angola, Nova Lisboa (now Huambo). It was in this latter context that the “mission creep” really took off, converting what was authorised as being limited to strictly covert support, into unauthorised active overt fighting in SADF uniform, for the world’s TV cameras to record.

The MPLA were making strong progress, advancing south and threatening Huambo. It was clear that UNITA, by itself, would not be capable of stopping them from over-running this important town. The result was that the SADF instructors providing training support at Huambo took the defence of the town into their own hands, and duly routed the advancing MPLA on 5 October 1975.

With the genie out of the bottle, the SADF now openly went on the offensive. The only people who were kept in the dark, were the good citizens of South Africa itself – the rest of the world saw the advances of Task Groups Zulu and Foxbat as they made their way north, rushing to try and seize the capital, Luanda, before the 11 November independence date (Portugal had effectively decided to hand the country over to whichever of the Angolan liberation movements was in charge of Luanda on that date, and walk away).

Zulu, rushing up the coast under the able command of Col Jan Breytenbach, would in the end advance more than 3,000km in 33 days. However, it had become clear that it was mission impossible to capture Luanda by 11 November, and the Portuguese did hand over power to the MPLA. Nevertheless, it was decided to heed UNITA’s pleas to capture as much territory as possible in the run-up to an approaching OAU meeting convened to discuss the situation in Angola. However, when a Cuban expeditionary force (their “Operation Carlotta”, decided upon by Havana on 4 November) arrived in the vicinity of Novo Redondo and blew three essential bridges, Zulu’s advance north was blocked on the 13th of November.

In the north of Angola, where a small force of some 50+ South Africans were rendering artillery support to Holden Roberto’s forces, the Cuban intervention had quickly turned the situation there critical. Those South Africans (and their guns) were evacuated by the SA Navy in the nick of time, in what was a touch-and-go operation that could very easily have ended in complete disaster, because of the total imbalance of force numbers and firepower.

A number of factors had converged to turn the entire Operation Savannah into a debacle of resounding implications. The U.S. Congress blocked any assistance to the SA forces, so that the promises upon which the SADF had relied, came to naught – exactly as the BfSS had warned would happen. Seeing South Africa overtly and aggressively intervene militarily in a neighbouring black state, the moderate African leaders (who had before made up half the OAU membership number) started jumping ship and coming out in favour of the MPLA. And, on the battlefield itself, the overwhelming numbers and firepower being brought to bear by the newly arrived elite Cuban forces were having their effect, together with logistical problems that were emerging ever more seriously for the South Africans.

I will not dwell longer on the details of the battles such as at Bridge 14 and the steady escalation, with the formation of battle groups Orange and X-Ray and the call-up of reserves by the SADF – that history is well recorded by others. I will limit myself to what I observed, within Concilium, because that is the dimension that has been papered over in the media and history books thus far.

So, what had been the reactions and concerns from the BfSS side?

As you can probably imagine, when your country suddenly finds itself engaged in full-scale conventional warfare, that is the main topic of attention and discussion among all those serving in its intelligence service.  Given the suspicions and mistrust that had then already existed from its inception, between the BfSS and SADF, the level of tensions quickly escalated. Officers of the BfSS military analysis division “G” reported back how curtains were quickly drawn over wall maps, when they visited their counterparts at Military Intelligence – as if the BfSS wouldn’t know from its own sources what was going on. These were, however, petty issues, compared to the real concern about the strategic dimension, and the prospects and future implications of this adventure.

What had most concerned the BfSS was the psychological dimension, should the SADF not achieve their goals and be obliged to withdraw as the perceived losers of this military test of strength they themselves had initiated. Up to then, South Africa had enjoyed the psychological benefit of having a perceived “bubble of invincibility” around it, particularly in the eyes of black Africans, both inside the country and in the rest of Africa.

The constant refrain in the corridors of Concilium was: what will happen if that bubble is burst? If we are seen as indeed not all-powerful, but actually vulnerable? Would Africans still favour peaceful negotiations for a settlement, or will they believe that we are, after all, no different to the other white powers such as France, Belgium, Britain and Portugal who withdrew when challenged by local uprisings?

The other grave concerns were about the fundamental miscalculations that had underpinned the SADF’s decisions, such as counting on American backing and not anticipating at all that the Communist Block would forcefully intervene, as they did with the Cuban expeditionary force? If they had this badly miscalculated, what else had they overlooked or simply gotten wrong? Would their logistics be up to supporting such an escalating confrontation with the well-equipped Cubans?

As regards the logistics, it soon proved that the picture was indeed dire – the SADF had very quickly run through its stock of shells for its antiquated 25-pounder field guns of WW2 vintage. The upshoot was that Genl Van den Bergh had to embark on a lightning visit to his contacts abroad to procure that emergency supplies of shells be urgently flown in covertly (because the Western countries were no longer wanting to be overtly seen to be supplying the SADF).

I very well remember the general’s briefing to us, his staff, after returning from that visit. He was livid and clearly extremely concerned about the real situation on the battlefield – so much so that, in order to lift spirits, he confided that his trip abroad had a very important side result, apart from the ammunition procured; he was able to obtain the last missing piece of technology that our scientists had needed for developing an own nuclear bomb…

What was evident was that the BfSS was rightly furious that its advice had been ignored, but that – with our troops committed and in danger far from home – every stop was nevertheless pulled out by the BfSS to try and assist team South Africa.  That said, over November and December the verbal infighting and difference of opinion as to what needed to be done to best resolve the dilemma, continued to exponentially intensify.

PW Botha wanted to double down. The BfSS position was that the entire situation risked getting out of control, with as probability the trapping of South Africa in a spiral of escalation and isolation whose ending was totally unpredictable. In any event, what would constitute success? Kill stats on paper and military dispositions marked on a map, or the very real and hugely significant political and psychological consequences? Even should we succeed in kicking out the Cubans and overthrowing the MPLA in Luanda, were we not like a dog chasing a bus? What will we do with it, should we succeed in catching it?  What would it cost us to try and hold it, if we somehow did manage to catch it?

I very clearly remember the atmosphere of extreme tension and aggravation that reigned towards the end of December 1975. Van den Bergh was working to bring the decision-making to head – he had rightly identified that the entire mess was due to inadequate initial decision-making that had been devoid of a proper intelligence base, whilst also being compromise-seeking, vague and incrementalist, resulting in the unilateral and uncoordinated chain of actions that had triggered the crisis.

The matter had to be brought to a head once and for all, with a clear and definitive decision taken that would be binding on all. Being Christmas, Vorster was at his holiday home at Oubos on the Eastern Cape coast. A helicopter pad was built there post-haste, so that the key decision-makers could be flown in for an emergency meeting. Included was Pik Botha, then ambassador in Washington. By all accounts, the meeting was a heated show-down, with the BfSS and Foreign Affairs making it clear that, in their assessment, the SADF was on a hiding to nothing. Vorster was obliged to come to a definitive decision. He chose to call a halt – the SADF had to withdraw from Angola.

On 27 March 1976 the SADF staged a ceremony, with the last troops and vehicles crossing back into SWA/Namibia (the withdrawal was complicated by the thousands of Angolan and Portuguese refugees who had latched onto the retreating South African forces as their security shield).

Ingrained in my memory is the radio broadcast that day by SWAPO, in Afrikaans: “kyk hoe het ons die Boere se sterte afgekap!” (look how we’ve cut off the tails of the South Africans!).

The disastrous strategic and psychological fall-out of this (mis)adventure was to become apparent all too soon, confirming the worst fears of the BfSS about the consequences of having our “bubble of invincibility” burst so visibly…

6.3 Soweto,16 June 1976 – the fruit of “kragdadige baasskap” and our burst “bubble”:

On 4 June 1976 the international news media reported that important consultations were scheduled to take place in West Germany in the latter part of June, between premier John Vorster and the U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. A call by Vorster on his German counterpart Helmut Schmidt was also scheduled. This would be the first such SA/USA meeting since the time of premier Jan Smuts, and was regarded as very significant – in fact, hailed in local media as a “break-through” for Vorster in his effort to keep promoting his policy of détente, on which he and his team had doubled down after the debacle in Angola. (The trip to Germany was set to follow on the resounding success of Vorster’s official visit to Israel in April 1976, which had publicly cemented strong ties with the Jewish state).

My own first-hand involvement with this important trip was that I had been appointed to be, on the Pretoria/BfSS side, the night-time liaison with the travelling team. The prime minister’s party consisted of key Foreign Affairs officials plus a strong BfSS component under the leadership of Genl Van den Bergh himself, which provided logistical/communications support (in addition to the general being a key member of the negotiating delegation itself). For the duration of their absence, I had to install myself each night in the communications centre atop the Concilium Building, and be ready to field queries from the delegation, channel these appropriately, and ensure that they be kept abreast of important developments on the South African scene.

The upcoming talks were seen as “make or break” for Vorster’s outreach to the world. U.S. President Gerald Ford had ordered a review of American policy towards Southern Africa. The resultant national security study memorandum NSSM 241 of April 1976 had indicated that the USA felt itself caught in a delicate balancing act between its aversion to racial discrimination on the one hand, and the practical necessity to engage constructively with the South African government as main regional actor, in order to solve issues such as Rhodesia and SWA/Namibia in a manner that would prevent further Soviet expansion into the region.

Part of the USA’s active outreach to the black population was the facilitation of a political counter-current to the Marxist SACP/ANC-alliance (you will recall that, in Part One, I had mentioned that it was the CIA who had provided the tip-off that led to the arrest of Mr Nelson Mandela). The strategy used by U.S. operatives in South Africa was thus two-handed – impeding the communist-inspired ANC, while simultaneously promoting the Black Consciousness Movement, which had taken its ideological que from America’s own civil rights struggle, as just such an anti-communist counter-weight among blacks. The BCM was actually born on the premises of the American library in Soweto, and by the mid-seventies it had grown into a powerful, if organisationally amorphous, motivating force among particularly the black township youth.

On the government side, the increasing pressure of finding (white) South Africa more isolated – particularly after the fall of the Portuguese empire – had caused some in government to respond to this heightened perception of living under growing threat, with ever more “kragdadige” demonstrations of “who’s boss” (baasskap).

One such example was the imposition by decree, on 1 January 1975, of a new policy regarding the languages of tuition to be used in urban black schools that required schools in Soweto to teach half of the subjects taught (including key subjects such as maths) through the medium of the Afrikaans language. When asked whether he had consulted blacks about this change (Soweto was part of greater Johannesburg, an overwhelmingly English-language area) the then deputy minister of Bantu Education, Punt Janson, had replied dismissively to the effect that: “No, I have not consulted them (blacks) and I am not going to consult them. I have consulted the Constitution of the Republic of South Africa…” (referring to the clause on the then official languages of the country, being at that time Afrikaans and English, which were to be equally treated).

Clearly Janson had not taken into account how the Afrikaans community itself had reacted in earlier times when the British had tried to implement anglicization policies in schools with Afrikaans kids…

The new language policy being forced upon urban areas such as Soweto, did not apply in the black homelands – it was part of the effort to demonstrate that, in “white” South Africa, blacks were only permitted to have (temporary) residence, and only subject to white rules, with the Afrikaners being the rulers. The Afrikaans policy was thus part of the greater Apartheid plan of dividing up the land, so that one must not mistakenly view the language issue as the principal cause of the unrest that was to grip the townships – it was but a symptom of the general black resentment against Apartheid.

It should also be understood that, by the seventies, the new generation of black youngsters born and growing up in townships were a different breed to their forebears who had moved there from the rural areas. The youngsters were becoming de-tribalized and encultured with the aspirations typical to modern urban dwellers. All this, whilst they were being told that actually they belong in distant parts of the country that they had never seen (very similar, in other words, to the current problems of identity and frustration marking the children of non-white immigrants in Europe, leading to a sense of alienation and discontent there).  

It had struck us at the BfSS how the relatively small area of Soweto where there lived a tribally mixed population (the greater part of the township consisted of areas that were each essentially uni-tribally composed) was the source of significantly more unrest than the more tribally “pure” areas.

The local BCM had seized upon the issue of tuition in Afrikaans to mobilize the Soweto youth, and a growing number of protest actions had been building up during 1976. On the morning Wednesday 16 June, just days before the important talks in Germany were to start, a group of black school pupils variously estimated at between three and ten thousand had set out on foot to march to the Orlando stadium, to stage yet another peaceful protest there.

On that particular morning a small group of policemen were ordered by their commanding officer,  Col. J.A. Kleingeld, to physically block the road and to order the kids to disperse (thus, a significantly different approach to that which had worked well in Durban three years earlier to handle hugely bigger crowds marching there in the very city centre, not simply somewhere in a strategically irrelevant township road).

The police in Soweto were totally under-manned for such an operation, and when they tried to use tear-gas, the cannisters (which had been in storage for a long time) did not work.

A physical confrontation ensued which quickly escalated, with the police resorting to firing live ammunition (they did not have rubber bullets) directly at the kids in self-defence, when they started feeling themselves threatened. This further inflamed the situation, compounded when the “Rooi Rus”, Theuns Swanepoel of Fox Street siege fame, was placed locally in command. He immediately made clear that he will forcefully teach the protesters who’s boss, with his “kragdadige” methods then leading to widespread rioting that over the coming days were to spread to other townships.

Nongqai series Men Speak WPS2 RDM front page Soweto unrest

Vorster and his delegation had landed in Frankfurt on Monday the 21st of June. They went first to Bonn, and then down to Bavaria where, at a small town called Bodenmais, they had talks with Kissinger on the evening of the 23rd over dinner (Vorster and Kissinger meeting alone) followed by a full day of talks the 24th with the respective delegations participating.

The discussions were cordial and constructive, demonstrating the diplomatic skills of Vorster and his team. However, the events in Soweto had clearly tipped the internal American political balancing scale regarding their competing (self)interests of, on the one hand, distancing themselves from Apartheid, but on the other, needing to engage with Pretoria in order to seek negotiated settlements to the Southern African disputes that would keep the Soviets out. With what was then going on back in South Africa, which was being widely broadcast on international media, the overriding determinant of the U.S. public posture was now the need to denounce Apartheid repression.

It is evident from the verbatim transcript of the discussions that the outcome could have been very different, had it not been for the events in Soweto. Kissinger was entirely receptive of the Vorster team’s main points, namely that it should be understood in the West that white South Africans are not colonist settlers who could or would return to some distant motherland (as Van den Bergh had stressed in the meeting, we have “no boats in the harbour” – a telling saying that would later become the title of the general’s unpublished autobiography). Kissinger also accepted that Vorster was indeed willing, ready, and able to contribute to reaching settlements in Rhodesia and SWA/N (even though the CIA, in the “briefing book” they has prepared for him with a view to the meeting, had warned that Vorster was facing increasing opposition within his own party for supposedly “going soft”, with this coming especially from the military).

The violent suppression of the Soweto riots (which were themselves becoming increasingly violent) caused the meeting with Chancellor Schmidt on the 25th to become a damp squib, in terms of real outcomes. Germany chose to distance itself publicly as far as possible from Apartheid South Africa – which was understandable under the circumstance, given that nation’s own disastrous racist past under Hitler.

The photo below shows the delegation, upon their arrival back at Johannesburg airport:

Nongqai series Men Speak WPS2 BJ Vorster returns from Kissinger meeting Germany

Back: Genl. Mike Geldenhuys (BfSS, later Comm SAP), Johann Mostert (BfSS), Rupert Annelich (SAP, protection), Johan Weilbach (Vorster’s privaty secr), Jurgens Young (BfSS), Pieter Vorster’s spouse, genl. HJ van den Bergh (Head, BfSS and security advisor to the premier), Pieter Vorster, Waldo Prigge (BfSS, protection) and dr. Brink (Vorster’s personal physician). Front: Dr. Hilgard Muller (Min Foreign Affairs), premier John Vorster with a grandchild on his lap, Mrs Tienie Vorster, and Dr. Brand Fourie (Head, Foreign Affairs).

What I remember most vividly about the crossflow of messaging while I was the night-time duty officer for that trip, was the exasperation on the part of Genl. Van den Bergh over the undeniable fact that we had not sufficiently anticipated that “our enemies” would logically do their utmost to cast a shadow over these important talks, and try and upstage them. He believed that the Soweto unrest was a calculated move to do just this. What he most lamented, was that no warning had been sent to alert officers and officials across the country that they should expect provocations and should therefore do their utmost to avoid them, so as not to compromise this vital meeting in Germany.

This latter viewpoint about the need for effective communication both ways in the sphere of national intelligence had struck a particular chord with me, so that I would go on and make it a central theme of my own doctoral research into the functioning (or not) of intelligence within a political system. The world over, there is far too much of a fixation within intelligence with secrecy, often defeating the whole object of the exercise, which is to forewarn decision-makers at all levels and make them understand the true nature of threats. It is a proven fact that most so-called “intelligence disasters” occurred not because of a lack of relevant intelligence, but because of a lack of timely and effective communication.

As regards whether the Soweto riots were specifically instigated to overshadow the talks, I personally have my doubts, because the protests had been building up from long before the talks had become known – even though I recognise that it probably did play some role in the thinking of the instigators from the moment when the news of the coming talks had become public. If they did plan the events of the 16th for that purpose, then in the end they succeeded beyond their wildest dreams, thanks to us scoring abundant “own goals”.

Soweto 16 June 1976 thus became another critical fork in the road (possibly the most critical) where we ourselves had taken a wrong turning, handing “the enemy” a resounding propaganda victory on a platter.  Which propaganda victory, because of the fact that the broader power struggle was at its heart a political conflict and not a security one, translated into a definitive and future-determining political defeat for the NP government. This political defeat would, in turn, very quickly manifest in the form of very real, very concrete and painful actions to isolate South Africa in all spheres.

Soweto, 16 June 1976, was the effective death sentence for détente and can rightly be said to have been the beginning of the end for white rule in South Africa. Not thanks to the SACP/ANC, who can honestly lay no claim whatsoever to it (the BCM had organised the whole campaign of protests, which had slowly gestated up to 16 June).

If we are honest, it was 99% due to our own policies and actions… 

Who to blame? (Not that blaming would now help – but it should serve to learn). It would be easy to point the finger at “The Police”, but that would be too facile, if we really want to learn from that sad episode. Yes, the SAP as force then had shortcomings which significantly contributed to the disaster.  Had riot control training been adequate? Clearly, at that stage, no. Did the police on the scene have the appropriate non-lethal tools? Again, no – as said, the teargas didn’t work, there were no rubber bullets, and the force that attempted to block the road were totally inadequate in numbers. Was the selection and appointment of commanding officers optimal? Clearly not. And in the latter, lies the rub.

That same force, with all its then logistical and training shortcomings but under different commanders, had three years earlier in Durban handled a much more dangerous situation with aplomb. If “the Police” are to be criticized, it must first and foremost be the decision-making of the specific commanders on the day – Kleingeld and Swanepoel – and not the hundreds of ordinary policemen who had to be rushed in and who then, over many terrible, taxing months, served honourably and bravely to try and restore peace.

What did Col. Kleingeld think, deciding to block that march? Whatever for? What harm could it have done, to just have let those kids be and “get it out of their system”? What did Swanepoel think, when he chose to respond with “kragdadigheid” when he took charge of the unfolding situation? Did they have absolutely no situational awareness, regarding the importance of that moment, with the momentous talks at hand in Germany?

Those police officers cannot, however, be blamed alone. When a drunk driver has hit a pedestrian, and that pedestrian then suffers at the hands of incompetent paramedics, then of course we do blame the paramedics for their incompetence. But we do realise that the drunk driver was the real cause of the disaster. And the drunk driver, in this case, were those who had unilaterally decreed the policy of forced tuition in the Afrikaans language. Culpability goes beyond them, as well. In that causal chain, those who had given the drunk driver the keys to the car are ultimately to blame – because, again, the Afrikaans language decree was but part of the overall scheme of Grand Apartheid.  The keys were given by those whom Vorster had derisively called the Super Afrikaners forming the governing elite. Who, in turn, had been empowered by us, the rest of the Afrikaans and white population…

Undeniably the black mind-set had also changed. No longer were the whites seen as omnipotent and unbeatable. This was thanks to what blacks had seen happen in the rest of Africa, with the liberation of state after state, and particularly thanks to the political and strategic fiasco that was Operation Savannah, which had burst the “bubble of invincibility” that the “Boere” had hitherto enjoyed. Henceforth, protesting blacks would not easily be cowed by “kragdadige” shows of force – it would rather serve to infuriate them. The psychological wheel had turned: now blacks had hope, and whites were the ones who feared…

The world media scene and its preoccupation with South Africa had also fundamentally changed. Whereas in the early sixties there only were some twenty foreign correspondents in South Africa, Operation Savannah and then Soweto had fundamentally changed that, with hundreds of foreign journalists being sent to South Africa. Far more than before, South Africa henceforth found itself in the hostile international media spotlight, with extensive coverage bringing the situation into the living rooms of first world families and thereby raising exponentially the levels of consciousness (and opportunities for exploiting it propaganda-wise).  

And, yes, Genl. Van den Bergh is correct, ideally an alert should have gone out, with standing orders to all and sundry to be attentive to provocations and to avoid them at all cost (even though, in actual practice, it is highly doubtful that such a warning emanating from the BfSS would have reached the likes of local police commanders, given the turf wars and silo-style operations of that time).

In the end it was a minor miracle that the Police could eventually re-establish a semblance of order, and that blacks in general allowed such order again to reign – despite no political movement regarding the core issues of black rights (the policy regarding language of tuition did, though, change). What was the effect? Increased polarization, with black resentment growing (touch people’s kids and you make enemies, not friends). Also, on white side – a greater inclination to see a shooting match as inevitably coming, and a loss of faith in the possibility of achieving a negotiated settlement. As regards the rest of Africa and the world community, the motivation to engage with South Africa was rapidly ebbing, being replaced by a conviction that coercive measures against the NP government was an unavoidable necessity.

Détente was dead, because as the saying goes, it takes two to tango, and after Savannah and Soweto, South Africa was bereft of potential dance partners.

6.4 Understanding unrest and applying scientific method to its analysis:

The unrest was spreading from Soweto to the black youth in other areas and among non-white youth in general. My desk (covering “Coloured” and Indian affairs) was becoming increasingly affected.  One could see the (unintended) damage that had flowed from the inappropriate actions of senior police officers – officers who evidently suffered from a lack of information and understanding about the true nature of the power struggle that was unfolding within the country.

My own academic background, as well as my years of learning at my father’s knee, had caused me to start analysing – from a political science behaviouralist perspective – the mechanics of the process of instigation, polarisation and political mobilization that was unfolding.  On the one hand, I realised that it was necessary to be able to spot the tell-tale signals as and when the unrest would start targeting new geographical areas or ethnic communities. On the other hand, I believed it important that the true political nature of, and the key components of the strategy being employed, be properly understood by our decision-makers. I had seen the difference that individual commanders made, and I could comprehend that they all – intelligent men – above all needed to understand and be informed about the true nature of what they were dealing with, if they were to be equipped to make optimal decisions.

It should be noted that, at that stage – with the BfSS then just half-a-decade old – most of the staff manning the analytical desks were not yet the highly academically qualified researchers of later years. Practically all were ex-security policemen trusting on their experience and instincts more than on anything else; my generation of youngsters fresh out of university were thus the vanguard of the new kind of analysts who had had the academic training and skills to apply scientific method to such analysis.

The report that I subsequently prepared outlined the systematic approach that was being followed by our adversaries to instigate the masses. My analysis explaining this process, was welcomed by my own Division “B” heads and was approved for incorporation into our division’s reporting on  the ongoing unrest. When, from there, my analytical piece reached the BfSS “Sanhedrin” (the meeting of top brass approving the content of the Bureau-wide weekly intelligence report), it attracted the attention of some of the most senior guys. They then asked that I (as the author there-of) be called in to personally explain it to them in more detail – they had clearly realised the import of it. A few years later, when my father was briefly seconded to serve as SAP-SB liaison with the NIS and we therefore worked together in Concilium, Pietertjie Swanepoel (who was to become NIS head of research) in informal conversation with my father and myself, recalled that analysis I had prepared. He told my father that this youngster of his was the one who had found the key to understanding the true nature and mechanics of the process of instigating unrest.

What my analytical essay essentially said – and it wasn’t rocket science – was that there were certain steps that were needed to move a normally peaceable mass of people who usually were totally focused upon their own daily lives (and who were, from the colonial experience, somewhat fearful of white power), to risk joining in mass action. These are the four steps:

6.4.1 You firstly had to conscientize (sensitize) them to their unacceptable lot (not a huge challenge, because they needed simply to look around them, to understand that they as blacks were the least well off, of the country’s peoples – no matter how well they may have been off, compared to black folks in the tribal areas or in the rest of Africa).

6.4.2 Once thus conscientized and made sufficiently resentful about their dissimilar lot, you had to polarize them, against those that you wanted them to hold responsible for their unacceptable situation (in South Africa’s case, the then holders of all power and wealth, the whites, and their then policy of rigid racial segregation).

6.4.3 When you had a mass of people sufficiently conscientized and resentfully polarized, the next step would necessarily be to mobilize them to no longer be passive, but to be willing to risk taking action to express their dissatisfaction and actively seek redress; this involved, on the  one hand, holding out examples of hope, such as of other blacks who had, through mass action, achieved progress (such as the civil rights movement in the USA, and the Uhuru wave of national liberation that had delivered independence to other African nations); on the other hand, it was necessary to overcome their instinctive historical fear of repercussions, of forceful suppression, by pointing out that the white government’s forces were no longer invincible and that there were powerful friendly forces that would come to the aid of the masses, such as the Soviets and Cubans had done in Angola.

6.4.4 The last step would be to consolidate the now conscientized, polarized and mobilised mass of individuals, behind the banner of a particular organisation that promised to be the vehicle that would carry them to liberation.

6.5 Speaking truth to power – researching “Coloured” political rights:

I persisted with this scientific approach to analysis, with the full support of the BfSS, when I researched and wrote my master’s degree dissertation in Political Science. I had chosen a topic related to my desk work, namely how well the government’s “separate but (un)equal” constitutional dispensation of that time for the so-called Coloured population was actually functioning in practice (or not). For this, the BfSS authorized me to use all open-source material in our data bank.

I was given sufficient study leave (taken a day here, a day there – so as not to be absent from my desk for too long) to research and write up the study, and the BfSS print shop in the end printed and bound the dissertation for me, for presentation to my university, UNISA.

In this dissertation I concluded that the Apartheid constitutional dispensation created to “meet” the political aspirations of the so-called Coloured persons by means of a separate assembly (the “Coloured Representative Council” – CRC) had failed.

This was illustrated i.a. by the fact that this Council, during its entire existence, had passed only three laws. I emphasized that: “The Council is not providing answers to the needs of the Coloured population, and within the framework of a Westminster-style parliamentary democracy where the (white) assembly is sovereign and thus dominant, there doesn’t exist scope to significantly expand an institution such as the CRC either… this problem is inseparably linked to the reality that the Westminster parliamentary system has as its foundation, the doctrine of the indivisibility of sovereignty, which has as necessary consequence that the CRC will always occupy a subservient position to the sovereign white parliament.”

I further concluded that the reason why political parties professing to be of and for the so-called Coloured population group were not making headway in garnering popular participation and support from among their “population group”, was due to the inadequacy of the then race-based constitutional dispensation: “The key characteristic of any true political system, which distinguishes it from other systems in society, is that it is focused on the authoritative allocation of values for the community (i.e., making laws and directing resources)… When there is no real ability to authoritatively allocate values, or to promote its adherents into positions of real governing power, then there is no real justification for such ‘political parties’ to exist. A quasi-political system such as the CRC, inevitably will spawn quasi political parties”.

To me, this meant that both the CRC as such, and the political parties participating in it, were correctly perceived by the so-called Coloureds as being no more than make-believe pretence. The CRC was dissolved in 1980 (its first election had been held in 1969).

As you can see, neither I nor the BfSS were averse to speaking truth to power. Genl. Van den Bergh was certainly not wed to the Grand Apartheid design as solution to South Africa’s constitutional challenges. He may not himself had the opportunity to go to university (like my own father, and many other highly intelligent Afrikaners who ended up in the Police Force). However, what he did have, was an open, enquiring mind, plus faith in empirical research as tool to arrive at the truth, and an inquisitiveness that led him to want to investigate. When he became head of the new Bureau with its analytical divisions (a tool he did not have at the SAP-SB) he started manning it with researchers from suitable academic backgrounds and had us investigate everything and anything, deriving clear joy from his new toy.

Van den Bergh was very widely read and wanted everything significant that cropped up in public discourse double-checked by us. Some of these topics were, for example, the conspiracy theories that at the time did the rounds among many Afrikaners (theories derived from right-wing circles overseas) about the supposed “Elders of Zion” and the “Illuminati”.

A study conducted under the leadership of Mr Pietertjie Swanepoel, debunked very thoroughly these conspiracy theories as being completely fake and unfounded. Ditto for similar theories about the “Trilateral Commission” supposedly running the entire world (it was, in a sense, the forerunner of today’s annual Davos get-togethers – merely a platform for exchanging ideas, in the age before IT facilitated contact).

I will come back later to another such topic, seriously important this time, which he had us investigate – the writings of the Dutch-American political scientist Arend Lijphart on consociationalism as a democratic model for resolving the constitutional challenges of multi-ethnic and multi-cultural societies such as ours.

6.6 Transkei Independence fails to gain recognition from even a single country:

In October 1976, the first of the homelands, Transkei, was accorded sovereign independence by the South African parliament, which excised it from the national territory. Should one look at old maps of Southern Africa, then this territory had always been regarded and shown as independent – till German imperial expansion came along in the latter part of the 1800s and Britain, wishing to control the entire Southern African coastline, quickly moved to lay claim to it before the Germans perhaps jumped in.

Historically, as well as in terms of its sheer size, Transkei (the land to the north of the Kei River) was therefore the homeland with the strongest prima facie case for gaining international recognition; its position prior to Union in 1910 had been no different to that of Basutoland, Swaziland and Bechuanaland (they were all allowed to stay outside) except for the fact that Transkei, to  its own detriment, possessed a substantial coastal while each of the other three had none.

It is debateable whether Transkei may have fared better, if independence had been granted say in 1973 (before the fall of the Portuguese empire, Savannah, and the Soweto riots). Be that as it may, the practical reality was that the new state failed to achieve even a single recognition internationally (except for South Africa, that is).

Transkei was established with the ideological intent that it should be the constitutional home of the Xosa people, the 2nd largest black tribal group. It would thus be the sovereign country where the Xhosa should exercise their voting rights (instead of in “white” South Africa). However, the logic of a “homeland per tribe” was undermined by the inconvenient reality that Transkei did not encompass all of the traditional Xhosa lands – there still existed the Xhosa territory south of the Kei River (i.e., Ciskei from the Latin). These southern lands were in colonial times separated from the northern Xhosa lands in the Transkei by a “corridor” of white settlers stretching down from the interior to the new British port on the Buffalo River called East London. Because the NP government did not wish to inconvenience the whites in the corridor or lose the port, there ended up being two separate homelands for the Xhosa, namely Transkei and Ciskei, making somewhat of a mockery of the underlying idea…

The other crucial flaw in the design was the demographic reality that Transkei and Ciskei were home to well less than half the total Xhosa population, with the vast majority working and residing in “white” South Africa, where their labour was essential. The architects of Grand Apartheid had predicted, back in the day, that the “turning point” when the flow of blacks back to their homelands would exceed the flow from there to the urban centres would be reached in 1978 – there were two years to go…

6.7 The death of Steve Biko, the BCM banned, and the mandatory UN arms embargo, 1977:

Steve Biko, a founder of the BCM and its most charismatic leader (particularly among young blacks), had been served with a banning order for his political activities. This had restricted him to King William’s Town in the Eastern Cape and prohibited him from participating in political activities, or being with more than two persons at any given time.

During 1977 there was considerable unrest in the Eastern Cape, i.a. fuelled by pamphlets. On 18 August Mr Biko was arrested at an SAP-SB roadblock on his way back from Cape Town, where he had met with other political leaders. He had clearly contravened his banning order and was suspected of having had a role in the production and distribution of a pamphlet that was seen as instigating violent political unrest.

Biko was transferred to the SAP-SB in Port Elizabeth, commanded at the time by Col. Piet Goosen. He was detained at a local police station. As revealed by the local SAP-SB officers who had interrogated Biko (when they presented their amnesty applications to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission), Col Goosen had instructed that Biko be brought to the SAP-SB regional offices in the city on the 6th of September, for his interrogation to commence. According to those officers, Goosen had instructed that the interrogation should be “intensive” and should include depriving Biko of sleep. Four officers were designated to undertake the interrogation.

Although the TRC rejected the veracity of the SAP-SB officers’ statements to it about the circumstances leading to Biko’s death, it appears to be accepted fact that he had sustained serious head injuries on that first day of interrogation, which had left him visibly impaired and in urgent need of medical attention. This was immediately reported to Goosen, who however only called in the district surgeon on 8 September. He also instructed the lead interrogator to go enter a falsified incident report in the register of the local police station, to the effect that Biko had sustained the injury on the seventh, and not the sixth.

On the 11th Biko was transported to Pretoria in the back of a police van, where he died of his injuries on the 12th while held at Pretoria Central prison.  It appears now, from all the evidence, that he had died because of lack of urgent treatment of a serious cerebral injury aggravated by being driven 1,200km to Pretoria lying helpless on the floor in the back of a police van, naked, while mentally incapacitated from the head injury and thus not capable of taking care of himself.

According to the testimony of the interrogators before the TRC, Col Goosen had convened a staff meeting on the Saturday after Biko’s death, stressing the serious political consequences. He then concocted a story to exonerate, to which all staff members were to stick.

Then police minister Jimmy Kruger compounded matters by first claiming that Biko had died because of a hunger strike, and then made it even worse when his clumsy wording was construed and presented to the world by the opposition media as him having stated that Mr. Biko’s death had “left him cold”.

It is obviously not for me to try and judge here, exactly how Mr Biko had sustained his head injuries and whether those who had inflicted it had any legal justification. What concerns me, is the broader picture. Once again, the issue of command leadership. It had been the responsibility of Col Goosen to understand the nature of the man and of the situation they were dealing with – the large popular following and the very high media stature of Mr Biko, locally and abroad. The instruction to interrogate him “intensively”, four officers at a time, seems to reflect no situational awareness, or of the obvious consequences for the country if he should die in detention. (This is quite apart from the duty of care that morally and legally Col Goosen had, for a detainee held and interrogated under his command).

What had transpired in the case of Steven Bantu Biko, was again an example of the consequences of a mind-set of “kragdadige baasskap”, and of “we are at war”, that some in the SAP-SB unfortunately displayed on occasion (as attested to by former officers themselves, before the TRC). The Biko case was another disastrous “own goal”, a fork in the road at a local level where the wrong route was taken by a local commander, with calamitous consequences for the country.

The circumstances of Mr Biko’s death provided ample ammunition to the other side in the propaganda war. It inspired the film directed by Richard Attenborough, “Cry Freedom”, as well as books by Biko’s friend, newspaper editor Donald Woods, and an outpouring of negative media coverage.

Soon enough there were very concrete consequences, too. The unrest intensified, so that the government on 19 October 1977 felt obliged to ban the BCM, the Christian Institute and some 17 other associated organisations. On 4 November 1977 the UN Security Council made the arms embargo against South Africa mandatory upon all member countries. On 13 November the UN General Assembly voted in favour of an oil embargo.  In the United States the death of Mr Biko and the banning of the BCM were taken very badly, because Biko and the BCM were seen as a counter to the Moscow-allied SACP/ANC (it is a valid question to ask, whether the SACP/ANC would have had such a clear run once settlement negotiations eventually began in the early nineties, had Mr Biko still been present).

My own first-hand experience of Col Goosen doing things his way, was in 1976 at the height of the unrest after Soweto.  It was deemed necessary for the security forces to clamp down in a co-ordinated manner, temporarily detaining activists. For this purpose, a series of inter-departmental meetings were held at Concilium to draw up lists of individuals who should be temporarily detained (and who not) in order to try and put a lid on the unrest. I attended those sessions where it concerned members of the “Coloured” and Indian communities.

Goosen had sent in a proposal that included the name of the Rev. Allan Hendrickse, a prominent Eastern Cape Labour Party member of the then Coloured Persons Representative Council. I strongly opposed him being detained. Firstly because it would lump together moderate and radical “Coloured” leaders, within and outside of the “system”, which could give rise to common cause among them. Secondly, because I had realised that Hendrickse would have loved nothing better than to be arrested, because that would burnish his anti-apartheid credentials at a time when members of the CPRC were decried as “Uncle Toms” (in later years he would again fish for arrest, when he went to a then “whites only” beach for a swim).

My recommendation was accepted and Hendrickse was purposely excluded from the list of activists to be detained. Col Goosen, however, nevertheless went ahead and arrested Hendrickse on his own authority…

Another operation that then Brig Goosen headed in 1982 (which I will detail later, when I recount my time in Britain) was the fire-bombing by the SAP-SB of the ANC head office in London. This was decided upon after then Police minister Louis le Grange had made it known that PW Botha was furious at the ANC having bombed the SADF base at Voortrekkerhoogte, Pretoria, and had intimated that something should be done in retaliation. Suffice to say at this point, that South Africa’s main international “friend” and protector then was Margaret Thatcher. Britain had been suffering through Irish bombing campaigns at that time. This operation in her own backyard was, therefore, another spectacular own goal strategically. For which Brig Goosen was decorated.

6.8 Two mind-sets within the SAP-SB and how this impacted the propaganda war:

You may deduce from what I’ve written above that I’m unfairly scapegoating Brig Goosen. Undeniably, the deplorable death of Steve Biko happened on his watch. However, in my view Brig Goosen was himself a victim – of the groupthink that had been deliberately fostered by those who saw us as being engaged in a physical war that required that fire be fought with fire. This was a mind-set that had unfortunately taken hold among many within the security forces. It was related to the broader dispute about strategic choice (between shoot and settle that I had referred to earlier).

If we look deeper at Piet Goosen the man, then we learn things about him that belie the image that had in many circles been created about him – a propaganda-serving image that had as its primary objective to get at the government he served.

As officer, Brig Goosen was admired and trusted by his men. They knew him as a gentleman, a man of honour, who would walk the extra mile for them. He was hard-working and conscientious. As policeman, his ethos was to serve and protect, irrespective of race – again, to the point of gladly putting his own life at risk for his fellow man (in the case that I will show you below, for a black civilian whom he didn’t know from Adam). Please read this very telling press cutting:

Nongqai series Men Speak WPS2 Goosen press cutting
Nongqai seriies Men Speak WPS2 Goosen press photo

Brig Goosen was an intelligent, dedicated patriot, determined to serve and protect his country and people as best he then understood how. He knew that the government which he identified with and supported, was involved in what was termed a war.  What he (and so many others like him, unfortunately) did not sufficiently comprehend, however, was what kind of a war it was.  

That some-one in his position of authority wasn’t properly briefed and trained, reflected on the Police Force, more than on him as person. There were no training programmes for this at the time (the typical lectures presented at Police security courses were of the nature of pep talks, fire and brimstone, condemning communism). There were no adequate mechanisms for communicating within and among police commanders, the kind of interpretative intelligence analysis that the BfSS had begun preparing.

Goosen’s lack of situational awareness and appreciation for the fact that this was first and foremost a political conflict, in which propaganda was playing a pivotal role (with insurgency and terrorism being in fact armed propaganda) was not unique to him. Or, for that matter, to South African officers. It applied equally to the likes of the Pentagon generals who had fought in Vietnam (there is the famous story of the American general who had asked Genl Giap after the war, how it could be that the Vietnamese won the war, despite the fact that the  Americans had won all the battles – to which Giap had sagely replied that the battles were irrelevant as such, because it was a political war, with the fighting serving only as armed propaganda).

Another famous saying (German, this time) is that the most dangerous officers – to their own side – are those who are industrious, dedicated action men, but who do not fully understand what they are dealing with…

Some SAP-SB officers at divisional commander level did understand and did realise the need to communicate the true nature of the conflict to their men, informing and guiding them with regard to how to handle their admittedly very challenging and hugely delicate tasks.

One such, with which I’m most familiar (for understandable reasons) was my own father, then commanding officer of the Port Natal division (i.e., Durban and Coast) of the SAP-SB. Ironically, he had circulated to each of his staff members, less than five months before the Biko incident, a comprehensive 12-page memo of explanation and instructions on how to deal with security detainees, stressing the need to avoid falling into traps set to provide ammunition in the propaganda battle.

It is worthwhile quoting directly here, key sections from this standing order. These will make it very plain that he understood the critical importance of the propaganda dimension in the campaign being waged against them, and the need for utmost care:

“Introduction: In recent years the image of the SB has been attacked and discredited in a deliberate, well-planned campaign across a broad spectrum. This of course forms a very important part of the overall assault on the State and our country. This psychological warfare must not be underestimated – it is not less of a threat than that experienced in other spheres such as terrorism and the undermining of our economy. The psychological onslaught stands out in that it is being launched with utmost professionalism and subtility – the public is systematically being conditioned to be antagonistic and resentful towards the security forces so that our actions and motives are regarded with concern and suspicion and the public loses its confidence in the integrity of the forces, to the point that the State itself is brought into discredit.

“The area in which this psychological war has recently been waged against us with most intensity and success, is in the courts and, in general, in relation to detentions in terms of security legislation…

“…the time has come where we must put our hand in our own bosom and honestly and objectively check whether we have not, in and through our own actions, worked directly into the hands of our enemies and thus that we ourselves are largely responsible for our defeats… We have to make sure, in all our actions, that no – or as little opportunity as possible – is afforded to attack our conduct. We must restore and rebuild our image in the eyes of the people. If we do not succeed, we will be responsible for infinite and possibly irreversible damage to our country. The field in which we have to do this is wide and covers our every action – on and off duty.

“Interrogations: Assign a suspect to two interrogators and they alone must interrogate him until they reach checkmate with him.

“Only the investigator / s in charge of the investigation may interrogate the suspect. More damage has been done than good by well-meaning colleagues who enter an interrogation in untimely manner.

“Avoid the so-called “team interrogation” where interrogators are replaced. There are more dis-advantages than advantages: no rapport is established between interrogator and suspect; interrogators contradict each other and so on. The lengthy interrogation undermines the interrogators and their objectives more than it does the suspect; the chances that the astute interrogator will properly utilize his intelligence and ingenuity towards the suspect are less.

“Act in a civilized but firm manner towards the suspect, thus will you gain and retain his respect.

“Always remember you are a policeman, not a politician; you are investigating a criminal case where the country’s laws have been transgressed and it is not your job or responsibility to defend the right or wrong of the laws.

“Think, think, and plan constantly. Our enemies are waging this battle against us with their heads, and we must fight them in the same way. It is the safest, most effective, and most lasting in its long-term effect. A mental, psychological victory evokes respect; a physical, violent victory brings with it a lasting and growing hatred, resistance, and desire for revenge, in any way possible. His respect for you is lost and your respect for yourself is damaged as well.

“The best legal brains in the country are going to be engaged against you and time and money is to them only of relevance in that the longer a case is drawn out, the greater will be their personal financial gain and the bigger the propaganda value that our enemies can seek to extract, to their benefit, from every court case.”

Nongqai series Men Speak WPS2 FMAS medal parade

My father, Maj Gen Frans Steenkamp, national CO of the SAP-SB at a medal parade, one of the few occasions I ever saw him in uniform.

Nongqai series Men Speak WPS2 FMAS circular staff re interrogation

My father’s approach had not been unique. When Genl Hendrik van den Bergh was still head of the SAP-SB (before establishing and heading the BfSS) he believed in communication, holding regular meetings, and emphasized the need for the police to work diligently for the trust and confidence of the public.

At the 2nd such security conference held at Pretoria on 18 & 19 June 1968, Genl Van den Bergh had emphasised that the maintenance of the highest moral standards in both private and professional life was imperative. Discipline was to be paramount: meaning, above all, self-discipline.

No SAP-SB members guilty of moral transgressions in their private or professional lives would be promoted, and he warned very strongly that superior officers who tried to hide transgressions by their subordinates, would be penalised. As regards reports of assaults on detainees, he appealed for help “to bring this down to zero; we must build up (the image of) the Police, so that every member of the public can sense that the policeman is truly his friend.”

It is opportune here to present some interesting data about the actual record of the SAP-SB in its carrying-out of its then legal duty to uphold law and order and bring the perpetrators of political violence before the courts. The Infographic below, which I had prepared for Nongqai’s e-Book on the SAP-SB’s conduct while countering the SACP/ANC’s “armed struggle” sums it up:

Nongqai series Men Speak WPS2 infographic deaths

It is also illuminating to compare the statistics regarding what had happened in South Africa between 1960 and 1990 with similar statistics for other parts of the world:





50,000   Killed Dirty War: “Plan Condor”

Cold War

S. America (+30,000 “disappeared”)

11,000   inmates and police detainees

2005 – 2020

State of Texas (total pop = ½ of S.A.)

900 +-    admitted to by ANC in its camps

1960 – 1990

ANC cadres died outside S. Africa

672        “Necklace” of opponents of UDF

1984 – 1987

Burned alive extra-judicially S. Africa

474        Aboriginal deaths in detention

1960 – 1990


214        Deaths in police detention

2019 only

South Africa, custody of new SAPS

800        Black policemen assassinated

1990 – 1994

South Africa, mostly by ANC/UDF

67          all causes, in SAP-SB detention

1960 – 1990

South Africa

These statistics puts the SAP-SB ethos in perspective. At no time did the SAP-SB engage in the kind of “dirty war” that the Americans had encouraged their military dictatorship friends in Latin America to engage in. The number of just 67 deaths from all causes while in SAP-SB detention over that period of thirty years, actually attests to the extreme care that the security policemen had taken with their detainees, when compared to Aboriginal deaths in police detention in Australia, for example.

These statistics one can cite till blue in the face. It did not then, nor will it now, alter the unfortunate reality that the propaganda war was decisively lost. Thanks to high-profile cases such as that of Mr Steve Biko. But also – and perhaps principally so – because our decision-makers did not fully understand the nature of the conflict either, nor the key role that their own policies and decisions had played there-in.

It is nowadays vogue and easy to try and put all blame on the police, more specifically on the SAP-SB. The political decision-makers have thus far come off scot-free, while the (then) more junior police ranks are now being prosecuted.

If blame is to be attributed, should the decision-makers not be held to have been the most blame-worthy?

Had all of them correctly understood the true nature of the struggle and the limited strategic options that realistically had remained (which Vorster and his team did) they would have understood the vital importance of possessing an effective own counter-propaganda capability, such as Dr Eschel Rhoodie and Genl Van den Bergh had been building. And they should have understood that the only possible strategic option available, was to urgently prepare for a negotiated settlement – NOT for an Armageddon of trying to shoot it out.

For 1977 wasn’t only the year of Biko.

By far the most important “fork in the road” for the destiny of the country as a whole, centred on Afrikaner politics, playing out within the NP itself.

Where, taking the wrong turning, we tolerated a most under-hand palace revolution and chose to be led by the “man from Wilderness”, ever deeper into it… Initiating a lost decade of ever-increasing polarization and militarization, abounding with “fever dreams” (as Dr Niël Barnard rightly called it) of betting on a “military solution”.

6.9 The Department of Information funding of “The Citizen” newspaper exposed, mid 1977:

A review of the “own goals” and “forks in the road” encountered in 1977 absolutely needs to highlight the start of the so-called “Information Scandal” in mid-1977. This was eventually to snowball and overthrow premier Vorster and his team, bringing PW Botha to power as prime minister in 1978, with enormous consequences for the strategic choices that were to hold sway for the next decade – the “lost decade” as I call it, which description I will justify when shortly I will start dealing with the SWA/Namibia situation and South Africa’s internal constitutional development (or the lack of it).

Suffice it to say here, that the seeds for the palace revolution (or coup d’etat, if you wish) that dethroned Vorster were sown in mid-1977. It was deliberately started when someone possessing official inside knowledge, purposely leaked to opposition media in Johannesburg, documentary proof of the fact that secret funds approved by Parliament under the Defence account, were clandestinely channelled to the Department of Information. There, it had then been covertly used to fund the establishment of “The Citizen” newspaper (among other counter-propaganda projects).

This palace revolution would prove to be the fork in the road that took us to the security state under the sway of the Military, during which Vorster’s effort to settle was forsaken and every means was employed to prepare for shooting.  Which drastically increased South Africa’s isolation. It wasted billions on weapons systems such as intercontinental ballistic missiles and on a war in Angola that served only as a training ground. Meanwhile, unilateral political decisions regarding the institution of the Tricameral Parliament (against the express advice of the security and intelligence community) saw the country internally increasingly confronted by spreading and intensifying unrest and ungovernability of many black townships. This, while wrong budget priorities (spending billions on the military, while neglecting the Police), had weakened the capacity to keep the critical internal situation under control…

Ironically, what then happened, at the end of the “lost decade”? After yet another military adventure into Angola had nearly ignited a full-scale war with Cuba, there was of necessity a return to negotiations, to prioritising settling SWA/Namibia. This was followed soon after by the scrapping of apartheid and the initiation of settlement negotiations in South Africa itself in 1990 – just as Vorster had warned would in the end be both necessary and unavoidable, because he had correctly foreseen that the alternative to settling “would be too ghastly to contemplate”.

The big difference between settling in the 1990s versus having done so in the 1970s was firstly that Vorster held many more cards than De Klerk eventually did. Secondly, that Vorster, Van den Bergh and their team had understood that negotiation is not a strategy as such, but that you had to plan and prepare the ground (as they had done meticulously, in the case of SWA/Namibia) for how to negotiate, to what end.

The negotiation table is the battlefield of any political war, for which you must prepare and equip yourself (just as much as an army would for a military war) if you want to achieve an optimal settlement. What the “lost decade” did, was to deprive PW’s successors of the time and opportunity to strategize and prepare properly for the political war that would and did descend upon them from the moment they chose finally to negotiate.

There had been no prior outreach, no building of alliances. No counter-propaganda apparatus to fight the critical propaganda dimension of the political war, which is akin to wanting to fight a military war without air superiority. In the end the NP went to the negotiation table, and from there into the elections, without an apparent strategy for how to win the political war. How to obtain an optimal settlement, and what it should at a minimum consist of. How to muster critical mass of support, so that your voice need be heeded. They ended up totally isolated.  Even though they were the ones who had changed the ground rules to bring all South Africans into the political system, they did not act as if they understood that these new rules meant that they would have to reach out and build alliances across tribal lines – or was it that the lost decade had robbed them of the time and opportunity to do so, before circumstances forced them to rush into negotiations?

The whole episode of dethroning premier Vorster and his team had been wrapped in an incredible amount of spin and manipulation of the media (and the justice system – “lawfare” isn’t as recent a phenomenon as one might think!). What I remember very well, was my father’s anger and concern at what was being done to John Vorster – in his eyes, totally unfairly and with obvious political power hunger on the part of the perpetrators. I also remember the sombre atmosphere in the BfSS, where we quite clearly understood that this was an internal political power struggle within Afrikaner elite circles, during which the BfSS was seriously at risk of being trampled underfoot. The wild and baseless claims of supposed self-enriching financial corruption that were being used to tarnish the politicians and the bureaucrats targeted for elimination, astounded and exasperated us who knew the very tight system of financial control that was strictly applied to secret funds.

What we knew all too well, was what was at stake – that this power-hunger on the part of ambitious NP-politicians would steer our strategic decision-making off-course, into seeking a military solution to our country’s challenges instead of preparing properly for a negotiated settlement.

Recently, in my latter-day capacity as Nongqai’s co-editor, first-hand information illustrative of what had really been going on “behind the scenes” during that tumultuous period had passed my desk. It will suffice here to cite fully, one such example which illustrates the conspiratorial nature of the plot and the sham of an “independent” judicial inquiry.

On 16 December 2022, as co-editor of NONGQAI, I spoke with Warrant Officer Barry Swart, who was a member of the SA Police’s Special Task Force (STF) in the seventies. Part of the STF’s functions was VIP protection. Barry was at that time the only STF member who was also a member of the Afrikaner-Broederbond (AB). He was one of the very youngest AB members. He lived in the Wonderboom constituency of Mr Pik Botha (1970-74; later Pik Botha represented Westdene, on his return to parliament after having served as ambassador to the UN/USA. Barry, who was politically active within and on behalf of the NP, therefore knew Pik Botha – both in the constituency context and within the AB.

Barry suspects that, as a result of his AB membership and associated surmised “political reliability”, he was appointed as the personal bodyguard and chauffeur for Judge Rudolph Erasmus, who was appointed by the PW Botha government in November 1978 to investigate the “information scandal”. Because of the access that Barry had in terms of his official duties, but also because of his position of trust as fellow AB member, Barry was exposed to the interactions surrounding the commission’s operation, and therefore in a position to be able to form a personal judgment as to whether the Erasmus Commission was in fact an objective, unfettered exercise of judicial impartiality, or a political “hit job” under the guise of law (part of “lawfare” as we would now call it).

Barry’s opinion on this matter is unequivocal – during our conversation (which was “on the record”, for publication in Nongqai) he told me: “Dit was ‘n gekonkel” (it was a conspiratorial hit job”).

As one concrete example of this, Barry mentioned that one day at the beginning of the commission investigation he was instructed to drive Judge Erasmus to the official residence of min. Pik Botha in Pretoria. Known to both principals and apparently trusted by them, he was invited to lunch with them, and was not asked to leave the room when they began to discuss in detail the judicial investigation and how it should be conducted by Erasmus. According to Barry’s recollection, the whole thrust of min Botha’s conversation with the judge was to advise Erasmus (“he told him”) about how to “handle” Mr BJ Vorster (then president). Pertinently, “how to manage the investigation in order to get rid of Vorster” and “I could clearly deduce that people were against Connie Mulder in the Transvaal”.

Barry did not have a particular personal preference or dislike in relation to any of the politicians involved and his communication of these facts was therefore not motivated by any grudge, according to him. He also unhesitatingly agreed that his account may be published by Nongqai and that he may be cited by name as its source.

Barry resigned from the AB in 1981, over what he saw as the culture of “conspiratorial plotting” that surrounded the AB. The thrust of what he shared with me is therefore not that the AB as such was deliberately part of a plot against Vorster / Mulder, but that the interpersonal contacts that flowed from the AB’s network mode of operation made it possible for individuals and factions to be individually guilty of this type of “conspiracy” (as he called it by name).

It will be recalled that the “Information Scandal” (later renamed in the English-language media to “Muldergate”) began to emerge in 1977, with the systematic leaking to the English-language media of classified information about secret counter-propaganda projects operated by the State to combat the propaganda onslaught against the RSA. The then Department of Information was responsible for the operation of the secret projects, but because that department did not then have its own accounts for secret funds authorized by statute, the necessary funds were channelled to it via the secret fund accounts of the SA Armed Forces and the Bureau for State Security.

The “scandal” primarily implicated Dr Connie Mulder, then Transvaal leader of the NP, as then minister responsible for the Department of Information. The general expectation in those years was that Dr Mulder would succeed Mr John Vorster as prime minister.

Vorster, as prime minister, was involved in the “scandal” because he was obviously aware of the projects as government leader and had authorized them.

General “Lang Hendrik” van den Bergh was involved in his capacity as Prime Minister Vorster’s security advisor and head of the BfSS. Gen. Van den Bergh realized that the attack against the South African government was mainly a struggle that was waged politically, i.a. to isolate the country by harming its image and whipping up emotions. In this campaign the “armed struggle” mostly served as “armed propaganda” (as Mr Nelson Mandela himself also clearly characterized it). This was, therefore, not primarily a military conflict, but a political one, meaning that the propaganda attack simply could not be left unanswered. A counter-propaganda capacity had to be built. This, by its very nature (as practiced the world over) had to include a covert element.

Dr. Eschel Rhoodie, head of the Department of Information, and Genl Van den Bergh shared this strategic analysis with premier Vorster and minister Mulder, who both also agreed.

The political pressure caused by the deliberate leaking of this sensitive classified information continued to rise throughout 1978. Especially in relation to the secret state funding of the newly established English-language morning newspaper The Citizen. The latter was founded to try to balance the uniformly negatively anti-government information that was flowing abroad at that time from the local English-language media – not to create a party-political advantage for the governing party. When President Nico Diederichs died suddenly on 21 August 1978, Mr Vorster took the opportunity to resign as Prime Minister and make himself available as President, to which position he was then elected. He did this in the hope that him leaving the active political scene, would help calm matters down. General Van den Bergh resigned as head of the BfSS, concurrently with Mr Vorster’s resignation as prime minister.

The two main aspirants to succeed Mr Vorster as prime minister were ministers PW Botha (Cape NP leader) and Connie Mulder (Transvaal NP leader), with the ambitious Pik Botha also having thrown his hat in the ring. Pik Botha soon enough stood back in favour of PW, and thereby swung a part of the Transvaal votes that might otherwise have gone to Dr Connie Mulder to PW, so that Mr PW Botha narrowly won the election for the premiership held among NP MP’s. This, despite the fact that Pik Botha would have known better than most what damage PW had caused the country with Operation Savannah – and what future damage he was likely to cause, given his militarist mind-set. However, it was all about ego and personal ambition, and Minister Pik Botha’s ambition wasn’t quenched – what he subsequently aspired to, was to replace Dr Connie Mulder as leader of the Transvaal National Party.

The appointment of the Erasmus Commission by Prime Minister PW Botha to investigate the “information scandal”, within weeks of becoming Prime Minister, duly resulted in Dr Connie Mulder being forced to resign as Cabinet Minister on 8 November 1978. In 1979, Dr Connie Mulder was expelled from the NP because he did not want to accept the Erasmus Commission’s report (which condemned him and Vorster as directly complicit in the “scandal’s” supposed “irregularities”). Dr. Rhoodie was criminally prosecuted and initially found guilty for his part in alleged financial abuses, but the Appellate Division of the Supreme Court completely overturned his conviction on appeal.

State President John Vorster himself was subsequently forced to resign as president due to the negative findings against him by the Erasmus Commission.

The end result of the “Intelligence Scandal” and Mr PW Botha’s military-focused premiership, was that the State largely lost its ability to effectively conduct counterpropaganda. This, while the increased militarization and hardening of the securocrat state under PW Botha, exponentially increased the scope and intensity of the propaganda onslaught. The blind focus on preparing for what was seen as an inevitable military shoot-out (instead of planning and laying the groundwork for an eventual negotiated settlement through prioritizing political outreach and alliance building), together with the aforementioned loss of the propaganda war, meant that the real struggle – the one for political power – was definitively lost, even though the Security Forces had won the physical confrontations during the armed struggle…

​But let us not belabour the point or get too far ahead of the chronology of “Our Story”. Therefore, we’re going to revert now to my own, far more mundane experiences, back then in the BfSS (which would quickly, if briefly, become the DNS – Department of National Security – and then the National Intelligence Service, or NIS).   

6.10 Analysis division “K” – focused on constitutional issues:

As the internal unrest in the country grew, the analytical branch was re-organised. My section (“Coloureds and Indians” was excised from Division B (which henceforth would focus on the unrest in the urban areas). We became part of analytical Division K, which had a more constitutional/ ethnographical focus.

Division “K” monitored events in three subject areas. First there was the tribal “homelands” that had been created as constitutional “solution” for the different black ethnic groups (out of the former “native reserves” of the British colonial era). Secondly, the territory of South-West Africa/Namibia (a mandate entrusted to South Africa after the 1st World War, by the then League of Nations). Thirdly, “K” monitored political developments in the “Coloured” and Indian communities. This was related to the conundrum (from the Apartheid ideological viewpoint) of how to constitutionally accommodate these two population groups. They had always lived intermingled with the whites.

Therefore, a “solution” of tribe-based separate homelands had no historical or ethnological basis or sense in their case.

It seems that many people simplistically assume that an institution such as the BfSS would have been blindly following the NP party line, looking no further than official government policy. It is true that we shared and valued the British civil service precept that you serve the duly elected government of the day. However, as intelligence service bound to objectively speak the truth to power, that precept certainly did not mean that we were somehow obliged to not look critically at the consequences of government policy as it affected national security. Nor did it mean that we were precluded from assessing other constitutional models and their potential aptness for the South African challenge.

After all, the Vorster government was actively seeking settlements, for which negotiations about different possible constitutional models would be both essential and unavoidable. Furthermore, Vorster and his core team understood full well that the different stake-holder groups in the country were engaged in a political power struggle, for which there could thus only be political solutions, not military ones. In the South African context, that political struggle revolved around competing concepts of how the state(s) should be constitutionally configured.

There was, at the one end of the spectrum, the notion that the omelette created by our colonial masters should be unscrambled, splitting the territory up into sovereignly independent nation states corresponding to the pre-colonial era (i.e., Grand Apartheid). On the other hand, there were those who advocated the retention of the colonial state as one unitary entity, with emphasis on the rights of the individual (not groups) meaning a system of one person, one vote, with no discrimination, and one all-powerful central government at national level, controlled by the majority in parliament.

Obviously, in between these two extremes, there could exist a wide range of permutations, from a confederal solution (such as in Switzerland), through a federal one (the USA) or a consociational democracy (Belgium, Lebanon, Northern Ireland, the Netherlands…).

What is significant about Genl Van den Bergh, is that he had realised that the main weakness of the Apartheid model was its failure to recognise that South Africa had evolved (through largely economic imperatives) into a reality where large and important parts of the country, especially the industrialised urban areas, were de facto “shared” territory among all the ethnic groups. He thus recognised, at the intellectual level, that the colonial state couldn’t simply be re-subdivided into only “white” and “Black” areas, but that it would be necessary to accommodate the reality of this “common” area as well.

General Van den Bergh was thus in accord with what Prince Mangosuthu Buthelezi was pointing out in the seventies. The latter obviously was attached to his Zulu tribe’s historic homeland, but not to the exclusion of the rightful claim that the Zulus (and blacks in general) had to a shared say in the common area. (Van den Bergh clearly spelled this out in his unpublished autobiography, “No Boats in the Harbour”).

Consociationalism as constitutional model is not a new concept – it was first discussed in New England (America) in the 1660s. Between 1857 and 1967 the consociational constitutional model of the Netherlands was based on four group interest pillars which were not territorially defined: Calvinist, Catholic, Socialist and General. This latter example illustrates the distinguishing nature of consociationalism. It accepts the reality that a society which is multi-ethnic or multi-cultural or multi-religious (in other words, consisting of distinct interest groups) may exist as nation-state within one national territory, yet that it may – despite functioning within one undivided territory – still accommodate constitutionally, that rich diversity which exists among its population.  

The emphasis in consociationalism is on co-operation among group elites, so that every citizen is accorded a vote. This, however, is exercised in a (self-identified) group context. The representatives of the groups so elected, are then obliged to co-govern in terms of set constitutional rules designed to avoid oppression by the majority. This ensures engagement and participation by all (thus, not the exclusion of minorities that typically results in practice, in purely majoritarian unitary states).

The Dutch-American political scientist, Arend Lijphart, was the first to study and write extensively on the consociational model. In 1977 he published: “Democracy in Plural Societies: A Comparative Exploration”. I remember very well how we were tasked by General van den Bergh to analyse this concept and assess its potential applicability. Looking at what he would later write in his unpublished autobiography mentioned above (written during the early eighties) it is clear that Van den Bergh had concurred with Buthelezi’s argument about the need to recognise that the most vital parts of South Africa are held in common by all.

The general was thus interested to learn what consociationalism might offer, should one accept that the country cannot be simply re-subdivided territorially between white and black, but at the same time also accept that majoritarianism in a unitary state will not meet group aspirations and lead to the effective exclusion of minorities.  

At about this time (I was still on the “Coloured and Indian” desk) we were approached by one of our regional offices. Understandably, given the way that the internal situation in the country was evolving, leaders in the Indian community were concerned. Did we have a plan? This applied particularly to leaders who had accepted to participate in the Indian Council (equivalent to the Coloured Representative Council, discussed earlier) and who were being attacked by the Left as “Uncle Toms”.

Our operatives in the field, when approached, had sensed that they themselves weren’t exactly best placed to engage in such a discussion about constitutional models and the like, so they asked that someone from the analytical side meet with the specific Indian leader – which logically meant me, as the only guy then handling the section.

I had obviously reported this higher up and received the green light. The meetings that followed were kept confidential. They were most informative and also very pleasant. The upshot was that I prepared for this leader a speech to deliver (as his) in the Indian Council, on the record, in which we tested the basic principles of consociationalism as a possible solution to the country’s challenges.

The idea of not physically splitting up the country (as Grand Apartheid envisaged) but that the existence of distinct groups nevertheless needed to be recognised and accommodated constitutionally, found general approval among his colleagues in the chamber. It could have served as a pointer to where to head to, in negotiations towards an internal settlement.

However, the “Information Scandal” with Vorster being deposed and replaced by PW Botha, meant that nothing further came of it. PW Botha and those around him would later suggest that their tricameral parliament (which PW was to impose unilaterally in 1983, without consultation – let alone negotiation) was some form of consociationalism, which it certainly wasn’t from a Political Science viewpoint.

The tricameral parliament was in fact still a majoritarian system with representation in terms of fixed quotas and designed to allow the white chamber able to override the other two. Thus, without the mechanisms for obligatory consensus-building which marks true consociational systems, such as minority veto power. In other words, it was a sham – and was recognised as such by the “Coloured” and Indian communities. Of course, it gravely affronted the black African population, who were totally excluded.

As we will see later, PW imposed his new constitution unilaterally in 1983, without proper consultation with the other two groups. This he did against the express advice of the intelligence community, given to him beforehand via the Secretariat of the State Security Council. It is also interesting to read the critique by Genl Van den Bergh on the tricameral system, contained in his unpublished autobiography. He had anticipated that it would not be accepted and that it would in fact exacerbate the escalating tensions in the country. Which is exactly what it did, as the intelligence community had anticipated.

I will deal with this in more depth in Part Three. It is a great pity that PW’s machinations had contaminated the concept of consociationalism to such an extent, that it had little chance of acceptance by the time FW de Klerk was obliged to initiate negotiations… 

6.11 Homelands – the inflow/outflow of “urban blacks” doesn’t turn around in 1978:

We do not need to say much here, even though it is very important to state it: the fond expectation of the architects of Grand Apartheid that the urban black situation would see a reverse in the flow of black people by 1978, with henceforth more blacks going back to their homelands than migrating out of there to the urban areas, was NOT met. Not by a country mile. On the contrary… 

I’m relating here all this seemingly theoretical stuff about constitutional models to demonstrate that the BfSS (and its successor, the NIS), had no illusions about the fact that constitutional rights – and how to accommodate them – underpinned the entire security situation. This would come to a head in the late eighties when the NIS began calling a spade a spade, as we will see in Part Three. But let’s leave the constitutional issues aside for a moment, and return to my intelligence career. 

6.12 Oorsig “K” – the first computerised daily intelligence review:

It was at Division K that my career as analyst really acquired substance – not so much due to some great importance being attached to Coloured and Indian politics (it was, in all honesty, regarded as a bit of a backwater). But, perhaps because of that, I had time on my hands to ride my own hobby horse and investigate technological solutions for the logistical challenges that had plagued the production and dissemination of finished intelligence products up to that time. Especially as regards the issue of effectively and timeously communicating finished intelligence products, which I had referred to earlier.

The problem was that the intelligence briefings produced up to then on a weekly basis, had to be laboriously typed up on old-style typewriters. Because of the importance of these products and the high positions of their intended readers (destined for the top decision-makers in the country) they had to be perfect in both appearance and content.

Drafts of items to be included would wind their way through innumerable meetings. In each of these there would, inevitably, each time be amendments and additions and re-interpretations. Which then, each and every time, meant that the hard master copy had to be typed anew, in full. The famous and ubiquitous “tip-ex” of the time (a white correcting fluid, with which small errors could be painted out on the foolscap paper and then typed over) truly didn’t help very much, if the word order of a sentence got changed around, or if a phrase got eliminated, or a paragraph added in.

This time-consuming process had as consequence that the BfSS produced its reports on a weekly basis, not daily (there simply wasn’t the logistical or technological capacity to step this up to daily analytical reports, thanks to this dependence on the typewriter).

Till computers came along…

The intelligence service was one of the very first state entities to acquire a mainframe computer (a huge thing that occupied most of the 4th floor). During 1978 it was fully operational. I was immediately intrigued by its capabilities and had struck up a close relationship with the programmers, who were very keen on showing off what their baby could potentially do. It had at first been seen as little more than a data processing resource.

The computer would obviously be great for accounting, and also for archiving. In the case of the latter, because it would alleviate the equally time-consuming and laborious process of having to make, by hand, photocopies of the incoming source reports and then storing these copies in physical file folders in the Central Registry (which itself had been gobbling up floor space for its rapidly expanding rows of shelves). Each such report had to be copied many times over, in order that copies could be placed in the personal files of every individual named in it, as well as in the files of every institution or organisation named.

I believed that the computer would be able to do much more than accounting and archiving, also assisting us in our line-function tasks. Particularly as regards our urgent need to improve the production of our finished product in a format better suited to the needs of the decision-makers. I could clearly see the need to produce daily intelligence reports (to maintain topicality) and furthermore, for not just a single weekly “one size fits all” report, but horses for courses – that each cabinet minister should, for example, be provided with reports tailored to his or her area of interest.

The techies responsible for the NIS mainframe computer were convinced that they could help me with my aim of speeding up the production cycle of our analytical reporting. Through my informal contact with the computer guys, the analytical desks of Division K got provided with terminals linked to the mainframe, which thus enabled word processing. We could now quickly and easily aggregate drafts from the desks into timely products that would print out perfectly, since we could so easily edit and correct along the way (“perfect” to the extent that a dot-matrix printer could print, of course…).

I duly convinced my divisional head, the ethnologist Dries van der Lith, that we should start our own daily product, “Oorsig K” (intelligence review K).

Five things conspired to cause me to be informally designated editor of this new review at divisional level.

Firstly, it was my brainchild, and I was the only analyst with enough of a theoretical grasp of the intelligence function, as well as of the practicalities of the computing side, to be able to design a process and a work-flow chart for how to integrate the technology with the requirements of the intelligence cycle.

Secondly, I could at least type and format documents on the terminals myself, not being dependent on a typist (which no-one else had yet learned to do at that early stage).

Thirdly, I had been recognised for my writing talents and command of both Afrikaans and English, so I was deemed the best qualified to edit the diverse desk inputs into a cohesive, comprehensible whole.

Fourthly, my inquisitive nature had ensured that I was familiar enough with the general trends playing out in the focus areas of the division’s other desks, to be able to properly contextualise their inputs and thus edit it with understanding.

Lastly, my own desk wasn’t keeping me that busy, so that I could make time for the editing and running around required to produce such a review.

It was literally a case of running around. Up and down inside the building, because the only place where the end products could initially be printed out was the 4th floor computer room with the big dot-matrix printer of the mainframe, where we had to cut the big continuous sheets that emerged from it into A4-size with a guillotine. As well as running the streets of the city itself – I would lunchtimes grab one of the steel courier cases with the chain locked around your wrist, and set off on foot in the streets of Pretoria to go and deliver their individualised copies of these secret reports to the different ministers on our thematic distribution list.

Oorsig K” was immediately the envy of the other analytical divisions. At the prompting of Mike Louw (who would head the BIS in later years) I was commandeered by Cor Bekker, the head of the analysis branch, to start designing a branch-wide capacity to produce such daily reports, and to indicate what we would need to make it work.

The first thing, of course, would be that every desk should have a terminal wired into the mainframe (it wasn’t yet the age of the autonomous desktop computer!). Which meant a lot of terminals, proper A4 printers for every division, a huge amount of cabling throughout the head office complex, and of course training for the desk officers to be able to use the new technology and to themselves type and format on their terminals.

Beyond the hardware, we would need a proper flow model of how raw information would be input into the new system, how it would be processed form desk level up, and how the emerging draft reports would be channelled through the different levels of review and aggregation before eventually emerging as finished products.

Right at this time, personal tragedy struck our division. The then head of the SWA/N section (a gentleman in his late fifties, Barries Barnard, who was also the deputy head of division K) suddenly died of a massive heart attack. It was a big blow, since the only two officers over thirty in our division at that stage were him and Dries van der Lith, the head of division, who was himself not always in the best of health.

The way that the division was structured, was that there was the “Coloured and Indian desk” (basically, me), the desks covering the homelands (which, together, formed the “homelands” section) and then the desks covering the SWA/Namibia issue in all its dimensions – political, diplomatic, military and economic – which together formed the “SWA/Namibia” section. The latter section fell under the deputy head of division, Barries Barnard, whereas the Homelands section and my desk reported to the head of division, Dries van der Lith (who also had overall responsibility for the SWA/N section, of course).

There was supposed to be a deputy head for the Homelands / Coloured & Indian leg as well, but due to the acute staff shortage this had not been filled while Barnard was alive. In the absence of Van der Lith, Barnard as deputy would act as head of the division.

The SWA/Namibia desks were by far the most important in our division (and also very much so in the context of the entire service), because of the great strategic importance of the territory due to the war against the communist Cuban and MPLA forces across its northern border in Angola, the arm-wrestling over the future of Namibia then going on between South Africa and the United Nations, and the guerrilla war being waged by the South West Africa People’s Organisation (SWAPO) against the South African security forces in the northern Ovamboland and Caprivi regions.

I was immediately transferred from the Indian/Coloured desk and put in charge of the section consisting of the SWA/Namibia desks. There were a number of reasons for this:

  • my role as editor of the division’s reporting (which would continue) had intimately acquainted me with the work of the Namibia desks, so that I would be able to hit the ground running;
  • the Namibia desk officers were known to accept me as the natural leader – I was, for example, elected by my peers in the service as chair of the local branch in central Pretoria (where the NIS headquarters was situated), of the leading Afrikaans cultural organisation, the Junior Rapportryers (the same one that had been the main sponsor of the national debating contest I had won in high school – it was a very open and public organisation dedicated to cultural promotion and outreach, not to be confused with the secret society the Broederbond, which I abhorred);
  • because of the then great importance of SWA/Namibia in the national security context, that section required someone at its head who would be able to effectively represent the intelligence service inter-departmentally – someone who could articulately, cogently and authoritatively communicate the NIS viewpoints in the frequent top-level interdepartmental meetings and task teams that were providing cabinet with inputs on how to resolve this most delicate and dangerous challenge (because of my debating skills and analytical ability, I was deemed to be – despite my tender age of only 25 – the best suited to this task).

This did not mean that I immediately jumped up to the position of deputy head of division – the other (pre-existing) vacancy was quickly filled with some-one of the appropriate age and seniority, so that there could be an understudy in place for Dries van der Lith. It should also be understood that one’s hierarchical position (in terms of the structure of authority: head of branch, heads of division, deputy heads of division, section heads and desk officers) did not necessarily relate exactly to pay grades.  

To their credit, my division and the service’s administration had pressed hard for raise for me, wanting to promote me skipping a grade. They pointed out that I was actually doing the work and carrying the responsibility, but the Civil Service Commission (always hyper-conservative sticklers for rules) would have none of it, unfortunately. They clearly didn’t want to create precedents, particularly at that sensitive time of scrutiny of anything with financial implication, when the “Information Scandal” had started rearing its ugly head.

Be that as it may, in practice I was trusted to run the SWA/M section and was delegated to undertake all the representative functions related to participating in and putting our service’s viewpoint at interdepartmental meetings on SWA/Namibia.


7.1 Getting started in my new position

The first thing I did upon assuming that position, was to arrange that I visit the Territory to meet with the officers at the field office. I wanted to establish a personal relationship with them, so that they could get to know me first-hand, fostering communication. I also wanted to signal that I envisaged the future relationship between the analytical staff and the field staff to evolve to a new level, in line with what I had been identifying as what it should be, based upon my doctoral research.

The regional head office was located in Windhoek, the capital of the Territory. It was the only city (even if small) in that vast expanse of land (Namibia is some 3.4 times larger in surface area than the entire United Kingdom, but with a total population of only about a million souls).  The head of that regional office, Johan van den Heever (officially titled the Regional Representative), came to personally pick me up at the airport. He was around 60, crusty and known to be a no-nonsense straight talker. He was also very senior in the service, as the importance of the Territory in national security terms required.

We had just entered his vehicle, without him even having started the engine, when he looked me up and down and said something to the effect of: “Listen, youngster. You’re now in a very important position. Especially for us, here in the territory. So, I want you to know that I’ve made a lot of enquiries about you. And what everybody has told me, is not to worry about your age – that you are very capable of standing up for yourself. They said that you are clever and insightful, and that you’re sure to be a future director-general of the service. So, we’ll see… Now tell me – how do you see the relationship between your bunch of desk johnnies and us men here in the field?”

Johan was, like most of the early staff contingent of the BfSS, an ex-security policeman, as Barries Barnard had been. This “carry-through effect” of the SAP-SB heritage had caused a bit of a hierarchical relationship between the field office and the desks at head office, similar to what had existed in the Police’s Security Branch. In that system the field offices (which were hierarchically under the command of the head office in that militarist system) would send reports in to Head Office, who would then promote these further up as they saw fit, without much in the line of feed-back and collection guidance necessarily being passed back.

I explained to Van den Heever that I had nothing against this approach in the context of the SAP-SB, which I respected enormously (with my own father – whom he of course knew – being a senior officer there). But the SAP-SB was not primarily an intelligence agency, where-as we of course were. We had to act our part.

What my studies had taught me was that in the case of ourselves as a professional intelligence service, the analytical desks should be working with the field office, in partnership (as opposed to the field being, in a manner of speaking, “under” our analytical head office). One should keep in mind the difference between the analytical branch and the Operational branch – the field offices were of course under the command and control of the Operational branch at head office, whilst with us as analysts it was more akin to being two sides of the same coin, needing to work in tandem – with the field workers being the suppliers and we the consumers of the information they collected.

We needed them to find for us the information we required, and they needed us to provide proper guidance and feed-back regarding what we needed, and how well their product met our needs.

I explained to Johan that I would be putting a lot of emphasis on my section developing clear KIQs (Key Intelligence Questions) that had to be regularly conveyed to the field officers, to help them to optimally target their collection operations. Also, that I would be insisting with my staff that their task wasn’t simply to process “upwards” the source reporting from the field. It was imperative that they also provide proper feedback on each source report received (as to its relevance to our needs, the assessed reliability of  the source and veracity of the information as measured against other information to hand, plus indication of what follow-up collection would be beneficial).

All in accordance with that “intelligence cycle” of which I presented a diagram earlier, in sub-section 5.2 above, when I dealt with training and my doctoral studies.

This was of course music to Van den Heever’s ears, and we developed a very solid and mutually respectful working relationship. Which was essential, given the contentious nature of the debate within the South African intelligence community about the appropriate strategy to follow regarding SWA/Namibia, in which I had to play a significant role from the word go.

Because my transfer to the SWA/Namibia analytical section had come in the middle of those serious shenanigans within Afrikaner politics when then defence minister PW Botha and a like-minded group within the Defence Force were pulling what amounted to a bloodless coup against prime minister John Vorster and his closest allies. Not the least of whom was our own former boss, General “Lang Hendrik” van den Bergh, the National Security Advisor.

7.2 The “Shoot” vs “Settle” Strategy Debate and SWA/Namibia

PW Botha and those thinking like him, were (ostensibly) wedded to a so-called “forward defence strategy”, which justified engaging the enemy on Angolan territory.  I say “ostensibly”, because in the greater scope of South Africa’s exposure the Marxist take-over of Mozambique had of course meant that the potential threat had already reached our own borders, close to our heartland, so that across the entire front a forward defence strategy had a critical, gaping hole.

What the PW Botha/Magnus Malan circle and those supporting them really believed, and very firmly so, was that the future of (white) South Africa would be decided on the battlefield. They viewed the notion of settling through negotiation as both unrealistic and dangerous appeasement.

Vorster and his advisors were, on the other hand, convinced of the need to engineer a comprehensive settlement in timely manner, given the historical trend that had been unstoppably unfolding since the end of the WW2 and the ever-increasing world pressure building up against the white government. They further believed that Rhodesia and SWA/Namibia needed urgently to progress to independence on a non-racial basis (so as to head off the threat of internationally mandated intervention forces being deployed in Southern Africa).

If these two disputes could be settled through negotiation, and if that could lead to the establishment of functioning non-racial governments, then those processes could serve as precursor and example for reaching a similar settlement in South Africa.

Vorster, together with the BfSS, Foreign Affairs, and Information therefore had four main reasons that underpinned their view.

Firstly, they had understood that this progression towards a post-colonial non-racial new order was historically inevitable (particularly after the collapse of the Portuguese colonial empire and the buffer that those territories had hitherto formed, protecting the white regimes in Southern Africa).

Secondly, they comprehended that resistance on the part of the South African government to non-racial independence for Rhodesia and SWA/Namibia would put the Republic seriously at odds with the international community, risking punitive coercive measures such as sanctions and boycotts, and eventually even military intervention.

Thirdly, Vorster had hoped that his efforts at promoting settlements in Rhodesia and SWA/Namibia, if successful, would serve as valuable experience, building mutual confidence and psychologically preparing white South Africans for the post-colonial future that inevitably awaited.

Lastly, they well understood that the alternative to reaching settlements would truly be “too ghastly to contemplate” (ever-increasing isolation, escalating international punitive measures, growing ungovernability internally, and a huge risk that a shooting war – which would further polarize and fill the populace with mutual hate – could in the long run be lost, with disastrous consequences at the humanitarian level for our own people; otherwise, it risked just dragging on and on, without end).

PW Botha and his circle, on the other hand (because they saw settlement as appeasement and believed an eventual military show-down over ownership of the land to be inevitable) viewed SWA/Namibia not as a high-risk problem that should be solved as soon as possible, but rather as a geostrategic asset to keep. They saw the Territory as a launching pad for intervening militarily to the north of our borders, and as a battleground where our troops could be “bled for battle”, gaining essential combat experience.

The fact that this latter point was in reality a main driver of militarist thinking about SWA/Namibia, is not well known nor understood. However, its importance cannot be over-stressed. I first was acquainted with this thinking (which for obvious reasons the military did not broadcast far and wide) well past midnight one evening in the then “Kalahari Sands” hotel in Windhoek. We were visiting there on one of those high-level inter-departmental fact-finding missions. I was the only representative of the intelligence service, with the DFA represented by Niel van Heerden, the SAP-SB by a brigadier and the military by three brigadier-generals.

After dinner, one of the Army generals (from Military Intelligence), a very nice and honourable guy, well qualified and competent, had cornered me. He was dead set upon convincing me that their strategic vision was the correct one. They had of course noticed during the proceedings earlier that day that I wasn’t exactly ad idem with their views, and since I was the scribe of the mission (writing up the report to be presented to cabinet) they were naturally eager to have me “on board”.  

It was just the two of us, up in my room.  To cut a long story short, after many hours of always amiable but intense debate, he had eventually cut to the chase. I had patiently countered each and every of the arguments he had put forward in favour of why they believed, from their strategic viewpoint, that we needed to step away from the Vorster / Van den Bergh approach of seeking a negotiated settlement in the Territory.

Eventually he essentially admitted that the reasoning they had been proffering publicly, namely of continuing the “forward defence strategy” of old, no longer made much sense after the Portuguese revolution. He admitted (indirectly, of course) that it had become more of a smokescreen for their real reason.

What he then shared with me, in confidence, initially shocked me – even though I could see the logic of it (if looked at from their point of view, that is).

What he had said to me, there in the Kalahari Sands well past midnight, was – if I paraphrase, to the best of my memory – something to the effect of: “Come on man! Don’t you see it? This is not a conflict about democratic rights. It is about ownership of Southern Africa, of the land and the power to govern it. Does our country belong to the blacks, or to us whites who had built it up?

This kind of conflict – which is based on competing, mutually excluding claims to owning and governing the land – can only be resolved by force of arms. In the end, war is going to be inevitable! Therefore, strategically, there’s only one thing that should count now – we have to win! And since we have to win, we need to prepare. Now! Our security forces and our entire white population.

We have to have our troops and our armaments battle-tested and combat ready. You cannot teach troops that theoretically, nor can you test weapons systems in a laboratory. That kind of preparation comes only with actual combat experience. That is why we must fight here, and not settle!”

My response to this was that, if they so firmly believe in this logic – why, then, don’t they go public and come clean, explaining this “necessity” to the moms and dads of the conscripts being sent into Angola? The mere thought of having to do this clearly horrified him, so that was the end of the conversation. He could not convince me, and I could not convince him.

Who was right?

In the end, one can but look at the hard, unpalatable facts inscribed on the scoreboard of history. Not at wishful thinking and “if only” scenarios dreamt up after the fact. By 1990, that scoreboard had clearly read that Vorster had been right – we had needed to prioritise the preparations to settle. Just as, by 1978, the scoreboard of history had clearly shown that Fagan was right about the permanence of urban blacks, and Sauer was dead wrong…

It is easy, in a narrative like this, to get caught up in all the negatives. All the errors, all the wrong turnings taken. We whites mostly neglect to recognise the lasting positive fruits of those decisions of ours where we had taken the right turns.

To illustrate – ask yourself: what other group of European origin could stay on, anywhere else in the world, in the post-colonial era? Not the French in Algeria or Indochina. Not the Portuguese in Africa. Nor the British – unless they had genocidally wiped out the indigenous populations, such as in North America and Australasia.

We under-estimate how much our own early identification with Africa (instead of with some European motherland), plus our adoption of the Afrikaans language, and our waging of Africa’s first wars of independence, of national liberation against colonial oppression, had contributed to us being uniquely recognised as truly African and rightfully, equally South African – as much so, as any of our darker countrymen.

The basic premise that war was inevitable, was therefore fundamentally wrong (as the success of the eventual negotiated settlements in SWA/Namibia and South Africa had shown, where we could successfully stave off the imposition of Marxist people’s republics). Since the basic assumption was wrong, it stands to reason that the strategic option of putting all the eggs in the basket of military preparedness (at the expense of internal security, diplomacy, and preparation for winning the real “war” – the political one) was equally wrong…

But more about that later…

7.3 Vorster’s progress towards Settling the SWA/Namibia dispute.

Prime minister John Vorster had made considerable progress between 1972 and 1978 (when he resigned as premier) in moving SWA/Namibia to a negotiated settlement in terms of a formula approved by the United Nations. (The stand-off with the international community had become increasingly serious during the preceding years, when in 1971 the International Court of Justice ruled that the South African mandate no longer was valid and that the United Nations had legal authority over the territory).

The first break-through came in March 1972, when Vorster and Dr Kurt Waldheim, the Secretary-general of the UN, met and initiated a process of consultation. In terms of this, Waldheim’s representative, Dr Escher, visited SAW/Namibia extensively later that year, leading eventually to an accord to effectively bring an end the practice of governing the Territory as if effectively a fifth province of South Africa. Vorster agreed to take over, as prime minister, personal responsibility for the Territory, in consultation with its inhabitants.

The aim was to set up a consultative council of Namibians that could prepare the ground for a constitutional conference. This council was set up in 1974, after Vorster, General van den Bergh, plus the Department of Foreign Affairs had met on 24 January 1974 as what would become known as the quo vadis (“where to”) committee.

It was from these discussions with the Consultative Committee that resulted the launch of the constitutional conference known as the Turnhalle Conference, which first convened in Windhoek in September of 1975. (It is important to note here that the decision by the Vorster team at their quo vadis meeting which set SWA/Namibia on the road to a non-racial independence, had been taken before the Portuguese revolution; the initiative to seek a negotiated settlement was therefore not the consequence of a sudden sense of new threat brought about by the Portuguese collapse, but of a pre-existing decision on strategic direction favouring settlement over continued conflict).

Another critically important characteristic of the Vorster approach to seeking a negotiated settlement for the SWA/Namibia dispute should be noted here (particularly to compare to, and later here-in to be used help understand “what went wrong” in the FW de Klerk initiative from 1990 onwards, to reach a negotiated settlement in South Africa itself).

It boils down to this: When one opts for a negotiated settlement, then the “war” becomes an out-and-out political conflict, with the negotiation table as the battlefield. And, as for any war, you need to enter that type of battlefield prepared and properly equipped for its particular exigencies. You cannot simply decide that henceforth your “strategy” is achieving a negotiated settlement – that is not a strategy, it is a choice of preferred outcome and means. The real strategy needed, then kicks in – which is: how you can best muster your means and skills in order to achieve an optimal settlement.

To understand what I’m trying to get at here, it is helpful to look at it inversely, with the shoe on the other foot: if you had been living at peace, talking and negotiating amicably with your neighbour, and then suddenly it becomes clear that a real military war is now your only option, then your decision to make war is not a strategy, it is a choice – the true strategy then required, is how you plan to win that war. And, certainly, you cannot hope for success if you have no soldiers, allies or armaments, and no plan (strategy) regarding how to achieve the outcome you  ideally would want.

Similarly as for a conventional military war, you need to be properly equipped and prepared for the political war as well, where your “battalions ” are formed by your political movement, where your movement forges alliances, and where your armament consists of the convincing arguments and constitutional models that you wish to put on the negotiation table, plus the propaganda capacity you have for destroying and isolating your opposition and their ideas.

What we shall ask later when we come to the era of 1990, is: how prepared were we then, when we went (out of sheer necessity) from the “shoot” option to the “settle” option almost overnight, after PW Botha had finally left the scene?  It is worth keeping that question in mind, when we now look at how systematically Vorster, Van den Bergh and DFA had strategized for optimally positioning our side for the political contest in SWA/Namibia. A strategy in which one man, Dirk Mudge, was to play a pivotal role.

The important trend to spot here in the annals of the history of SWA/Namibia, is that there was a clear two-track approach adopted. On the one hand there was the talks between the SA Government and the international community. On the other hand, there was feverish activity on the ground, much of it initially covert, to firstly test in the local political sphere whether a negotiated settlement was at all feasible, and secondly to begin to put means and plans in place achieve the best possible negotiated outcome.

Mudge, an astute white leader of standing within the local NP with a head for strategizing, had met with Escher in 1972. He had realised early on that, if the people of SWA/Namibia were to engage in non-racial negotiations for a non-racial constitutional dispensation, then one needed a non-racial political party, or at least a non-racial alliance, with which to contest that coming non-racial election (in a political war, your “army” is your political party). This was understood by Vorster and Van den Bergh as well (Mudge had been invited to meet in confidence with Vorster).

In 1973 Mudge was invited to be part of the South African delegation to visit the United Nations in New York. There he had the opportunity to engage more extensively with Herero leader and staunch anti-apartheid campaigner, Chief Clemens Capuuo (whom he first had contact with in 1972). The latter also attended that UN meeting, but independently as anti-apartheid activist.

Mudge and Capuuo realised that, once the decision to aim for a non-racial SWA/Namibia was made and apartheid as source of division would thus be removed, they then would have much more in common than would divide them – most specifically, that they did not want the Moscow-sponsored SWAPO (and the numerically powerful Ovambo tribe SWAPO essentially consisted of) to be able to dictate the writing of a constitution. 

With Mudge confirming to Pretoria that he believed that a political alliance of non-SWAPO movements could be formed to ward off SWAPO domination, the green light was given for the Turnhalle Constitutional Conference to set SWA/Namibia firmly on the road to a non-racial negotiated settlement.

It is no secret that the BfSS and DFA “contributed” covertly for Mudge and his allies to have the means with which to launch their political movement, the DTA (Democratic Turnhalle Alliance).

The draft constitution prepared by the Turnhalle conference provided for a non-racial Namibian government, elected by means of non-racial elections.

What the deployment of the strategy in the political arena also did achieve, was to put pressure on SWAPO and the West, increasing the Vorster government’s leverage in the diplomatic sphere. The threat that Pretoria and the DTA could proceed to an independence outside of the UN framework, motivated the group of five leading Western powers (which became known as the WCG – the Western Contact Group) to engage with SWAPO and the South African government to establish an agreed procedure for leading SWA/Namibia to internationally-recognised independence under joint UN/SA supervision. The WCG had initiated their conversations in 1977.

Part of the Vorster strategy had been to organise a whites-only referendum in SWA/Namibia, held in May 1977, over the question of independence under the draft non-racial constitution that the Turnhalle Conference had prepared. Almost 95% of the white voters of the Territory had voted in favour. This ensured that Vorster knew that there would not be a white backlash, and further increased pressure on the WCG to come up, quickly, with a solution to present to the UN Security Council.

In April 1978, after extensive consultations, agreement in principle had been facilitated by the WCG among all the principal parties. The WCG therefore presented to the UNSC in that month a draft of what would upon approval become UNSC Resolution 45/1978. The South African cabinet had accepted the WCG plan in principle and had informed the UN Secretary-general accordingly. SWAPO did so as well.

As explained earlier, South African politics had in the meantime fallen prey to the machinations of the “Information Scandal”. On 20 September 1978 Vorster resigned as prime minister, and on 28 September PW Botha succeeded him. On 29 September 1978, the UNSC formally approved Resolution 435. The intention had been that the WCG-mediated independence process should have started immediately, aiming for quick termination. However, it soon proved that approval in principle and acceptance to actually implement, weren’t the same thing. Issues still to resolve were found, in particular a demand that South Africa would only withdraw its troops from SWA/Namibia if and when Cuba would simultaneously withdraw its troops from Angola.

The Territory’s first internal non-racial elections nevertheless went ahead, without SWAPO participation and without international recognition, at the beginning of December 1978. The DTA (the alliance formed by Mudge) won by a landslide and formed the new territorial government. However, relations between Mudge and PW Botha soon soured. Over the next few years Botha persistently tried to force the DTA back from non-racialism to an ethnically based approach still reeking of the homelands policies. This eventually led to a heated spat between Mudge and Botha, with the latter accusing Mudge of having publicly disrespected him and demanding an apology – which Mudge refused, eventually resigning.

Needless to say, Resolution 435 was not implemented until a series of eye-opening strategic military blunders in Angola (leading to Fidel Castro credibly threatening to invade Ovamboland) had made it plain for all to see in 1988 that a military solution was not feasible and that it was urgent to negotiate a settlement to stave off potential disaster. But, I’m running ahead of the story now, so let’s keep that educational episode for later.

7.4 PW Botha takes over and the handling of the SWA/Namibia issue changes course

PW Botha came to power on the 28th of September 1978, and immediately we could sense a serious change of tack, with the military claiming dominance in the inter-departmental debates.

General van den Bergh had seen the writing on the wall and had himself retired already in June of that year. He was succeeded by his 2IC, a tall, stately gentleman of calm and amicable demeanour known to us youngsters in the service as “Oom” Alec van Wyk. On the 1st of September 1978 the name of the BfSS was formally changed to the Department of National Security (DoNS), in a last-ditch effort by Vorster to try and pre-empt the country’s nascent intelligence service (which very much had been his and Van den Bergh’s brainchild) from being destroyed underfoot in the Afrikaner in-fighting.

It was all to no avail, though. The moment that PW came to power the knives were out. He soon enough announced that DoNS would be replaced by a new entity, to be called the National Intelligence Service (NIS).

As head of this service Botha then appointed a very young university professor from the Political Science department of Bloemfontein university, Dr Niël Barnard, to become the new Director-general, after a six-month orientation period (Barnard had no intelligence background whatsoever, but was the chair of the junior wing of the secret Broederbond, and had written his doctoral thesis on the theme of South Africa needing to acquire nuclear weapons, which had endeared him no end to the military). Barnard is four years and six months older than me, so that he had turned 30 just a few months before he first walked into Concilium on the 3rd of December 1979 to start his apprenticeship. On the 1st of June 1980 he officially became DG of the new NIS.

7.5 Dr Niël Barnard and I – the back history

Dr Barnard and I knew each other (more than well!) from our Bloemfontein varsity days, where he had been a junior lecturer in Political Science when I was a 3rd year senior student studying precisely Political Science as one of my majors. And a stormy relationship it had been, because Barnard was then notorious for being an arch-conservative Apartheid apostle, while I was seen – with those rebellious Steenkamp genes coursing through my veins – as a liberal agitator (and, I must confess, also stormy in the academic context, because I was probably one of his laziest students ever, who furthermore did not take kindly to his overbearing way of setting us tasks over our holidays).

A bit of historical background about this is necessary, to explain the course events took when Barnard and I next met up again at the intelligence service.

My first two years at varsity in Bloemfontein I had lived in residence on campus and was active in the student community – as a Durban boytjie whose family home on the Bluff literally ran down to the beach, I had for example founded the “Kovsie” university underwater club for scuba and snorkel diving, named Aquatilis.  I then experienced my own first clash with the ultra-conservative “Super Afrikaner” element (as Vorster had derisively dubbed them).

I was fingered by them as a liberal agitator, a ringleader, because I had favoured the clearly subversive and revolutionary notion that students in residence should be permitted to decide for themselves whether they wanted to wear suit and tie when going to mess hall on Sundays for lunch (those Steenkamp genes again, rebelling against being prescribed to).

With my “rebellious” reputation thus established and blessed with the gift of the gab, what resulted was that, whenever my fellow students in final year Political Science class were not feeling particularly keen on classes, I would be egged on to instigate a debate with Niël that would distract him from his prepared lecture. The favourite topic for baiting him, was the future of SWA/Namibia. Barnard, who was born in Otjiwarongo in northern SWA/Namibia was an ardent Suidwester, at that time often quite emotionally so.

It was thus no great oratory achievement on my part to get him to abandon his prepared lectures and fervently defend South Africa’s supposed obligation to the whites of Suidwes, when I started niggling him that it was a lost cause that should be abandoned sooner rather than later. As intelligent as Niël undoubtedly is (he very soon lost his arch-conservative views when, at the NIS, he was confronted with reality, and in the end was to play a crucial role in South Africa’s peaceful transition out of Apartheid) he wasn’t much of a debater. So that he frequently got seriously frustrated and angry when he couldn’t make headway in his arguments with me, sensing the class siding with me against him.

He also in those days in Bloemfontein suspected me of not respecting his position as junior lecturer, based on what he saw as my disregard for his instructions when he purposely set us lengthy essays to write up during our holidays, to be handed in first day back (apparently not understanding that that tactic of his, partly intended to enforce his authority, wasn’t endearing him to us in any way or manner). I had duly handed in the first such task, punctually on the stipulated first day of class.

A few days later he called me in, white with suppressed anger, asking me what I had thought I was playing at, giving him a piece of work like that. Upon me innocently enquiring what was wrong (was there something amiss with what I had written, or with my conclusions?) he responded with clear frustration, saying that that is precisely the problem – my essay as such was excellent, but I had not included a single footnote, nor any source references at all. He then warned me that, if I should ever submit such a defective piece to him again, he would fail me, refusing to mark such academically inadequate work.

Now we all knew that Barnard was over-eager when it came to things academic. Always going overboard. He had been driving his promotor for his doctoral thesis, Prof. Wessels (with whom I was on a particularly friendly footing) crazy – Wessels told me, or rather complained in exasperation, that Niël had submitted a more than 500-page first draft of his doctoral thesis, which Wessels summarily refused to receive, telling him that he had to reduce it to the usual 200-odd pages. So that I wasn’t the only one round the Political Science department that found myself from-time-to-time irritated by this young lecturer with his clearly very high opinion of himself.

When the first day of the next term rolled up, I duly submitted the holiday task Barnard had once again set us – this time replete with hundreds of footnotes.

That said, when Barnard soon enough called me in again, he was seething with impotent fury, clearly believing that I was wilfully mocking him. So, again, I asked whether there was anything wrong with my content. No, he replied, on the contrary – it was again excellent (what I had to credit him with, was his integrity). Were there enough footnotes? I innocently asked. Yes, yes, he replied – more than enough. But – all taken from just one solitary source book!

Neither of us could have known then that our paths would cross again in just five years’ time…

As previously explained, Niël had first been appointed as deputy to acting DG Alec van Wyk, with the intention that he would lead the new NIS in some six months’ time when the new service had been duly constituted (he in fact took over on 1 June 1980). That December of 1979 Oom Alec was doing the rounds with Barnard in tow, in the Concilium/Alphen complex, introducing him to staff. The two of them were coming down the 2nd floor passage, from the Concilium side, just about to round the corner where the old Alphen building and the newer Concilium were internally linked, when I came literally running round that same corner in the opposite direction, barely avoiding crashing into them.

Niël immediately recognised me and to say that he was surprised to see me there, was an understatement. “Wat, is jý híér!?” (What, are you HERE?) was all he could initially get out. I could understand his surprise, given my campus reputation as liberal agitator, and when I obviously answered in the affirmative, he next asked what exactly I’m doing in the Service. His consternation was even greater when I took pleasure in informing him that, in actual fact, I was heading the Namibia section!

To his credit, Dr Barnard soon proved himself to be a quick learner, realistic and gifted. We developed a very good professional relationship, with him consulting me as his informal legal adviser in addition to my line-function duties, till that gap was filled by setting up a proper in-house legal counsel section for the Service.

7.6 Dr Gerrit Viljoen takes umbrage at my “precociousness”.

It is apropos to quote here what Dr Barnard later wrote in his memoirs about an incident that involved me (although, as per the intelligence tradition, he didn’t name me by name); he used this incident from my Namibia days, to illustrate how NIS intelligence analysts were committed to speaking truth to power.

Nongqai series Men Speak WPS2 LDB book quote

What the Afrikaans quote above says, is the following: Even the formidable Dr Gerrit Viljoen, during his time as administrator-general of South-West Africa, had a run-in with a young but outstanding analyst whose strategic analysis of SWAPO did not match Viljoen’s views. However, the analyst fearlessly stuck to the facts and his interpretation thereof, so much so that Viljoen later informally complained that "the youngster is too precocious".

This incident occurred during the first half of 1980, in Windhoek. Dr Viljoen had been the rector of the Rand Afrikaans (now Johannesburg) University and head of the Afrikaner secret society the Broederbond, before PW Botha had asked him to take up the post of administrator general of SWA/Namibia, the official in whose hands all power in the territory was concentrated.

Viljoen was seen as being in the running for vice-president and was soon to become a leading member of PW Botha’s cabinet, so that he was indeed regarded as extremely influential, being viewed as the leading intellect in high Super Afrikaner circles at that time.

I had been delegated to represent the intelligence service on another of those high-powered inter-departmental missions to Windhoek, thus in the league of military and police colonels and generals, and a soon-to-be DG of Foreign Affairs, Neil van Heerden. At the end of our mission (during which we had consulted with leading figures in the internal political firmament), we paid a courtesy call on Viljoen as AG to brief him on what we had learnt.

The military guys were of course keenest to talk about the security situation along the northern border, painting a rosy picture of great successes while reciting the typical “kill stats” that the Pentagon had also been so fond of during the Vietnam war. This had perturbed med, because it was totally missing the point as to what kind of conflict it really was – it was a political struggle, not primarily a military one.

Being at 26 by far the youngest member of the delegation, I was the last to be asked if I wished to say anything on behalf of the intelligence service.  I responded by saying that I indeed had some important figures with me, that I deemed essential for him as AG to take note of, in order to gain a balanced perspective of the other statics that he had heard. My figures related to the number of Namibians who were each month crossing the border to go join SWAPO in Angola, to be trained and armed there, and then to return to fight the security forces.

Those numbers of fresh recruits exceeded the monthly stats of SWAPO’s killed or captured by the security forces (those “kill stats” recited by my military colleagues), by a factor of four or five.

Viljoen, being indeed highly intelligent, immediately understood the significance of what I was saying. “What are you saying?” he barked at me. “Are you saying that we are losing the war?

I don’t know if he wanted to try and intimidate me by leaning across and addressing me in this fashion. He had obviously been briefed (before accepting the post of AG) that the military viewpoint was henceforth to be privileged, and he knew which side his own political bread was buttered. I am, however, not someone who’s easily intimidated, especially not when the facts are backing me, and when so much is at stake for my country.

To get the point across, I recalled for them what had occurred in Vietnam. There, too, those kinds of “kill stats” were regularly relied upon by the Pentagon in decision-making. Which had thereby led them into the disaster the world had witnessed there, through the generals having missed the essential point that Vietnam was a political struggle, not primarily a military one.

We flew back to Pretoria that weekend, and when I sat foot in Concilium that Monday morning, I was told at the entrance to immediately report to the 5th floor, to the DG’s office. There I found the kindly Oom Alec with a wry, knowing smile crinkling his brow, standing in front of his desk, waiting for me. To his left stood Cor Bekker, the head of Analysis (who by that time knew me very well).  He stood in typical posture, his arms folded across his chest, looking more amused than concerned.

In the right-hand corner of that spacious office stood Niël Barnard (then still on his apprenticeship), on the contrary looking very much concerned – at that stage he was still in awe of figures like Viljoen who had such high standing in Barnard’s previous world of academia and the Broederbond.

Father-figure that he was, Oom Alec first enquired about my twins (he knew that we had been experienced difficult times, medically speaking). Fortunately, I could inform him that both, who had then recently turned one, were now doing very well, thank you. Then he casually enquired how things had gone in Windhoek, and I succinctly reported to him on all that had transpired in our different meetings there, but not focusing much on the Viljoen meeting, which I had regarded as little more than a courtesy call. When I had finished, he looked at me somewhat quizzically.

So, tell us please – what had happened between you and Dr Viljoen?” Oom Alec finally let the cat out of the bag. There and then I realised that the fact that the three of them were there together, questioning me like this, could mean but one thing – that my “calm exchange of ideas and opinions” about the SWAPO exile figures, had caused either the Army, or Viljoen himself (or both) to complain to the DG – and, I surmised, if Viljoen himself had called (as it later transpired had happened), he probably wanted to check whether this youngster was on the level, and had been authorised to present himself there as representing the DG of the intelligence service, and had conveyed reliable figures!

I then explained in more detail exactly what had gone down regarding those figures that I had quoted, and why I had deemed it essential that Viljoen be made aware of them, to balance the numbers that the Army had been touting – in other words, to try and avoid that we fall into the same trap of fundamental misunderstanding that had eventually swallowed the Americans in Vietnam. Oom Alec was quite content with my explanation, as Cor Bekker evidently also was. Barnard was also nodding his agreement, in his typically serious way.

The DG then took me by the shoulder, patting me on the back, smiling. “Very well, my boy. Keep up the good work! Just – try not to make people unnecessarily angry in these difficult times, when you need to have exchanges like that with them”.

Needless to say, I remained as the Intelligence Service representative on these committees and delegations, well into Niël Barnard’s reign. I only left that very interesting position as head of the Namibia section with serious promotion, into an even better vantage point for observing the entire intelligence horizon, not just SWA/Namibia. This happened when I was called upon to design and implement for the new NIS, that which Niël Barnard had rightly understood should be of the highest priority – namely, the creation of the ability to produce daily (instead of weekly) intelligence reporting for the entire service (not just my old division). These reports should not only be daily (instead of weekly) but also be individually tailored to the thematic needs of our different clients.

But before that promotion and unavoidable move away from the Namibia section kicked in, there were yet more and even fiercer policy debates still to come – in particular between me and a bullying tank driver, Brigadier-general John Huyser (who carried the resounding title of being PW Botha’s official adviser on national strategy).

Not that all of the Army blokes were of the same ilk. The then commanding general of all forces in SWA/Namibia, Genl Jannie Geldenhuys (who was soon to become head of the entire SA Defence Force – i.e., akin to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff) had for some reason taken a professional liking in my work, insisting that I should be invited to the military’s own intelligence briefing sessions for their staff whenever possible.

Nongqai series Men Speak WPS2 in Namibia bush

On a research project in the bush, Northern Namibia.

Nongqai series Men Speak WPS2 atop Grootfontein meteorite

Me on top of the largest intact meteorite in the world, near Grootfontein in Northern Namibia.

7.7 Restraining PW’s adviser on national strategy

Perhaps my most serious altercation on strategy regarding SWA/Namibia (and most illustrative of the strongly opposing views that existed regarding what should be the appropriate choice, between shoot and settle) was with new prime minister PW Botha’s adviser on national strategy, the forementioned Brigadier-general John Huyser. He was formerly of the Armoured Corps, and still very much displayed that kind of bulldozing mentality.

Huyser had come up with the hair-brained idea that South Africa should unilaterally divide SWA/Namibia into two parts, North and South (like Korea and Vietnam had been divided), then annex the South, leaving the fate of the North in the hands of the gods, and daring the world to challenge this fait accompli.

We of course hadn’t known what utter silliness was about to be proposed, when the top brass of our service had, just days before, received notification from Huyser’s staff that an important inter-departmental strategy session on the future of SWA/Namibia was scheduled to take place at Huyser’s offices in Central Pretoria. The intelligence service, he commanded, had to send a representative to participate in the said discussions, with a view to formulating a submission on the matter for the eyes of the new premier himself, Mr PW Botha.

As you may already have guessed I was duly designated to go and attend this high-level meeting on behalf of our director-general. Also present were senior representatives of the Department of Foreign Affairs, as well as of the S.A. Police Security Branch, and high-ranking officers of Military Intelligence, plus high brass of the Army, the Air Force and Navy (so that the military would significantly outnumber us few civvies).

Huyser opened proceedings by stating that the premier had requested that new approaches to the SWA/Namibia dilemma be developed, since he wasn’t satisfied with what had previously been planned under his predecessor (Vorster). The task of developing such a new strategy had been entrusted to him, Huyser, in his capacity as advisor on strategy.

Every non-military man in that room knew of course that PW Botha had very much intended for the military to henceforth dominate strategic planning. Accordingly, there was a marked reticence to openly take on Huyser after his enthusiastic presentation of his proposal to divide SWA/Namibia into two and then unilaterally annex the Southern part. (It was a drawback inherent to having such senior people there – people thus so near to retirement – that they would be wary of risking their positions and pensions by openly countering Huyser’s arguments).  

I myself, however, felt no such constraints, because serving in that position I was above all determined to protect my country’s interests as best I could, but knowing at the back of my head that after completing my bursary and national service I most likely would move on, jobwise.

Now the fact of the matter was that the great Western powers had committed very publicly to the Western Contact Group – WCG – initiative outlined earlier. This, in turn, had resulted in a binding UNSC resolution (R435/1978) which the South African government had back then already publicly accepted in principle. What Huyser was proposing, was like deliberately waving a red rag to some of the world’s most awesomely powerful bulls. In fact, not only to the leading Western powers, but to the UN Security Council itself and to the entire international community (remember, they all regarded Namibia as legally falling under UN jurisdiction, no longer ours).

If anyone had purposely tried to come up with an over-the-top legal and diplomatic casus belli that could justify the international community to decide to deploy an international intervention force (or, at the very least, some extremely harsh punitive measures), this idea of Huyser would be it.

We would be directly challenging the West (with the East and the South already on our backs!) so that they would have to respond forcefully. Firstly, in order to protect their public image. Secondly, to get in on the act, ahead of the East (which latter reason had been precisely why they had launched the WCG initiative in the first place, to keep control of the SWA/Namibia matter out of the hands of the Soviets).

It thus fell to me to take on Huyser with reasoned argument and facts, in what soon developed into an intense dialogue between mainly the two of us. Two things thoroughly frustrated Huyser: firstly, that he could sense that most of those in the room were subliminally siding with me against him, only too glad that I had been willing to take up the cudgels (and had the debating skills to handle the likes of Huyser). Secondly, that he couldn’t really figure out how he should be handling this (to him) long-haired 26-year old upstart civvie who was countering him, PW’s anointed strategy adviser, at every turn.

Should he deal with me as he would an obstreperous young army troepie? What was my actual rank? But then, did that even matter, since I was formally representing my service there? 

After hours of this back and forth, Huyser would not admit defeat and insisted that we re-convene the next day to carry on (he was nothing if not bull-headedly persistent).

Arriving back at Concilium I immediately reported to Cor Bekker this frankly crazy partitioning idea that Huyser had put on the table, which I regarded as tantamount to a peremptory challenge to the entire international community. I explained that, in my view, it could at best land us with exceedingly stringent economic coercion measures being applied against us, and at worst see us end up on the receiving end of a shooting war when an international intervention force is sent against us.

Such an international intervention force would have as task to militarily enforce the decisions of the International Court of Justice (which had already declared South Africa’s continued administration of SWA/Namibia to be illegal) as well as to enforce the binding UN Security Council resolutions requiring us to withdraw from Namibia. With such a brazen challenge to the international community and effectively to the WCG, leaders like Margaret Thatcher (who had hitherto protected South Africa against the imposition of serious coercive measures) would be left with no option but to go along with very harsh measures against us.

What should not to be forgotten is that Jimmy Carter was then still the U.S. President, very much dependent upon the black vote in his upcoming electoral contest with Ronald Reagan. Carter was wishing for opportunities to counter his own image of weakness (fed by the Iran hostage drama and the Panama Canal ownership crisis), so that any opportunity to be seen as decisive and strong would have been like manna from heaven to him at that stage.

Bekker was in full agreement with me. It was clear that I had the green light from him to continue taking on Huyser and his ideas. Bekker knew Huyser and regarded him with evident distaste, describing the man as a bully, and observing that bullies aren’t used to being stood up to. He then told me more about Huyser, who was married to a very well-known radio broadcaster who just happened to be best friends with Bekker’s wife. So that Corrie Huyser had not infrequently sought refuge in Bekker’s house (enough said).

During the following day’s intellectual sparring between Huyser and myself, the proverbial gloves really came off. What I knew I had to do, was to diplomatically and on the face of it very respectfully, keep priming his natural propensity to anger and frustration. Because that would make him even more distastefully overbearing, and his ideas even less sellable to the other guys. What I had to prevent, was for him to be able to browbeat the others into a “consensus” favouring his idea. Because, without such consensus, he couldn’t very well go back to PW saying that his proposal was but his alone, for which he could garner no support from the rest of the intelligence and security community.

Accordingly, I wasn’t averse to gently needling him and trapping him into ever more hyperbole, as I kept dissecting and destroying his arguments. The old guys round that conference table, even though not verbally participating much, were clearly enjoying the confrontation (it certainly wasn’t your typically boring civil service meeting!). In their body language they were ever more clearly signalling that they were with the young guy…

What finally brought things to a head, was the support I in the end received from the representatives of the Navy and the Air Force, who I could see were getting ever more perturbed about the likely consequences of Huyser’s plan (while, I suspect, also enjoying seeing their high and mighty Army colleague being frustrated by an uppity but articulate 26-year-old). 

My clinching argument that brough the debate to an abrupt end after many more hours, was about what the likely military consequences would be if the West – based on such a brazen challenge to them and the world order – decided that enough was enough? What if they decided that it was in their best interest to actually be seen to lead the punitive measures against South Africa?

What if the military coercion was to come from NATO? Done of course for their own political gain in terms of brownie points with the Third World – but also to prevent the communist bloc from sending in such a force with Third World UN approval? (remembering the 1975 Cuban arrival in Angola).

Could the West really stand idly by, allowing Moscow to seize the initiative (and opportunity) of using our unilateral partitioning of Namibia and annexing its southern part, as pretext to physically take control of the strategically so important Southern Africa, with Cold War then still raging?

Huyser tried to dismiss this notion of the West intervening militarily as entirely improbable. He was saying that NATO (nor the Warsaw Pact, for that matter) would not risk accumulating on African soil, anywhere within striking proximity to us, the sizeable kind of intervention force that would be needed for an effective military operation. Because they would know that we could devastatingly strike at any such force accumulation of theirs (with him probably thinking about our nuclear bombs). The others around the conference table weren’t as convinced as he was, though – quite the contrary.

I countered this wishful thinking of his by asking: But what if the intervention comes not in the form of an accumulation of ground forces, but from the air and sea? A no-fly zone and bombing raids to force us into submission? What could we conceivably do if the United States and its NATO allies would park just one aircraft carrier battle group opposite Durban on the East Coast, and another one, off Walfish Bay on the West Coast?

I asked this latter question directly of the two senior representatives of respectively the Navy and Air Force sitting at that conference table.

They looked at one another, and then the Air Force guy answered most emphatically – finally clinching the debate: “Then we’re totally f@cked…

It was propitious that Huyser’s hairbrained idea had on that day died a well-deserved death, because a decade later NATO would do precisely that against Serbia (no-fly zone and arial bombing). Under Jimmy Carter’s fellow Democrat Bill Clinton, the USA/West had decided that it was in their interest to be seen by the Muslim world as being on their side, through NATO leading the crusade against the Serbs.

There NATO i.a. used their aircraft carriers and began bombing Serbian infrastructure and military assets to smithereens – in not one, but two successive huge air wars.

Till Serbia inevitably succumbed to the unrelenting pressure…

(And, of course, compared to the size of the Muslim constituency in the USA, the Black constituency in America was already many orders of magnitude more politically influential and politically sought after than the Muslim constituency…).

I had often wondered what would have happened, had I not stood up against Huyser; if he had successfully browbeaten the others into acquiescing, and then had told PW Botha that all of the intelligence community was united in their support of his government throwing down the gauntlet to the world in this manner…

Just in case you think that I have a personal fixation with this guy Huyser, here is what Dr Niël Barnard wrote about him in his memoir: “In the eighties, two clearly distinguishable schools of thought regarding the security and political situation in the country crystallized. On the one hand was the group with whom the Army and the Police sided and who strongly believed that the only problem in the country was the communists as personified by the Soviet Union. They saw a threat in the Russians’ support for independent African states where communist governments are in power. The communists’ ultimate goal, so the Army and the Police believed, was that they wanted to take over the country through revolution.

“The SADF leadership’s answer to this threat was a long-term military strategy in terms of which South Africa would create a buffer zone on our northern border by bringing those states under our control through placing and keeping benevolent governments in power there. As a result, we supported resistance movements such as Unita in Angola, Renamo in Mozambique and from time-to-time certain recalcitrant groups in Zambia and Zimbabwe.

“Brig. John Huyser, then chief of staff: planning of the Armed Forces, expounded this strategy, which was becoming the military establishment’s standard response to the political and revolutionary attack against the country. According to this doctrine, South Africa must avoid having to fight military battles on its own soil, rather doing so in the so-called buffer zones to the north of our borders. Huyser went so far as to include not only Zimbabwe and Zambia: I attend lectures in which he explained that Tanzania should also come under South Africa’s control – in fact, all of Africa south of the equator. This is how Huyser’s fever dreams became part of the Army’s so-called forward defence strategy.

“In addition, there was also a more sinister element to the Armed Forces’ strategy. In light of the arms boycott against South Africa, the country had built up its own powerful arms industry with the help of our own state-owned armaments enterprise, Krygkor. Over time, it became necessary to feed exaggerated information about the military threat from the neighbouring states to the political rulers in order to justify Krygkor’s ambitious programs of weapons development. If necessary, information had to be fabricated to help so-called well-disposed groups (such as Renamo and Unita) to wage revolutionary “liberation wars” in neighbouring states.

“The other school of thought, in which the NIS took the lead, believed that the shadow boxing exercises we were carrying out in the neighbouring states were a bluff. It was essentially trying to postulate a military answer to a political question. At the NIS we were convinced that the Armed Forces’ strategy was not based on good information. Our own reliable and objectively assessed information told us that South Africa’s survival was not primarily linked to wars against communists on the country’s borders. It was first and foremost related to the fact that we had to find an answer to the country’s domestic political question.

“The fact of the matter was that the solutions that the South African government was at that stage trying to offer up, to try and quell the growing attacks upon the country’s racial policies, were not accepted by the majority of South Africans; furthermore, that we were never going to convince them of the validity of these solutions.” (Of “separate development” within a “constellation of sovereign states”, tribally based).

7.8 Working with some top-notch military minds (Genl. Jannie Geldenhuys)

Not all Army officers could or should be equated to John Huyser, though. There were many brilliant leaders as well, men like General Jannie Geldenhuys that I had earlier mentioned.  Men with open, clear-thinking minds. Geldenhuys liked to have me present at important in-house military planning sessions, for the independent intelligence input I could provide (I don’t think he always believed Military Intelligence to be 100% objective, or as broadly informed as the NIS).

One such big brainstorming session of the military was planned to take place at the large South African military base at Grootfontein in Northern SWA/Namibia, from where the war in the North was essentially planned and directed. I was invited along and had to be at Snake Valley Airbase in Pretoria before 5am that particular morning. Snake Valley was primarily a logistics-focused base, with Pretoria’s other major airbase, Waterkloof, handling mostly bombers and fighters. I would be flying up to Grootfontein with the senior officers from military headquarters in Pretoria, who would be attending the “Bosberaad” (Brainstormer in the Bush).

The Air Force VIP squadron had arranged to fly us up to Grootfontein in the luxuriously outfitted venerable old Viscount prop-plane (photo) which had been the former official aircraft of the Union’s Governors-general and later, after 1961, of the State President of the Republic.

Nongqai series Men Speak WPS2 old SAAF presidential Viscount

The old presidential Viscount plane, still part of the SAAF’s VIP fleet in the early 1980s

This plane was quite an experience. It had extra-large windows, and since it flew low and slow (compared to jetliners) one had an amazing view of the African veldt sliding gently by below us, basked in the early morning sun. We were served a wonderful breakfast of bacon, eggs and all the trimmings, freshly cooked up in the on-board kitchen that occupied about a third of the plane (no mere galley!). This was served to us by the SAAF VIP section’s smart young air hostesses, on real porcelain with real silver cutlery. The plush armchair seats were arranged to face each other, with a proper table in between, covered in pearl-white, stiffly starched linen tablecloths, so that it was truly a culinary experience similar to the Orient Express train – just with the incomparable bonus of the animal-rich, flat expanse of the northern environs of Botswana gliding past low and slow beneath us as we majestically skimmed along at game-viewing height…

Whatever one could say about the Defence Force top brass, they certainly knew how to make the most of excursions!

The “Bosberaad” was quite a substantial affair, with all the CO’s of the units operating in Northern SWA/Namibia and many staff officers from Windhoek and Pretoria present. Military Intelligence from Pretoria HQ was also present in numbers, providing the briefings. One such was by their chief psychologist, a Dr Wassenaar, who presented a psycho-profile of the SWAPO leader, Mr Sam Nujoma (later to be elected the first president of Namibia). Wassenaar’s hatchet job would have made the devil jealous of the character traits attributed to Nujoma, who clearly exceeded Satan himself as prime threat to humanity.

I listened to this nonsense and cast my gaze towards General Geldenhuys. He was listening to this psych-profile with a somewhat bemused expression. His eyes caught mine, and once Wassenaar had finished, Geldenhuys asked me if the intelligence service also had developed a profile of Nujoma – which of course we had, and which I luckily had the foresight to bring with me.

What we on our side had tried to do, was to understand the man, both as human being and political leader. What traits drove him? Determining this was essential, so as to be able to judge the reasons for his popularity and thus his likely durability in his position. Furthermore, we needed to understand his inner driving forces in order to assess his likely reaction to potential scenario’s (such as an escalation in the conflict, or a de-escalation with a view to a negotiated settlement).

What had been clear to us in the SWA/Namibia section, was that Nujoma was indeed personally extremely popular – viewed as a kind of benevolent father figure by the many youngsters who had been flocking to SWAPO (his popularity stands to reason – one doesn’t get elected to the leadership of a populist organisation like that, if you’re not well liked). I had gotten round to explaining to those gathered there at the “Bosberaad” that Nujoma was known to be very fond of children, and very caring, patient and empathetic towards them. At this point Wassenaar could contain himself no longer and jumped up, protesting that I was making a dastardly terrorist look like Santa Claus.

General Geldenhuys very quickly cut him back to size, though, emphatically stating that intelligence briefings had as purpose to tell us what we needed to hear, not what we wanted to hear.

During the extended informal lunch (a “braai” – BBQ – with everyone milling around, plates and drinks in hand) a lot of the officers sought me out for a chat, clearly curious to know how we at the intelligence service were viewing the way the situation was evolving (as said before, I was the only non-military bloke who had been invited; at the general’s insistence, at that). I could then already sense that the more realistic ones, the true warriors (and we had some truly excellent ones who later would become internationally recognised experts on the theory of modern mobile warfare) didn’t share Huyser’s “fever dreams”.


I’ve mentioned earlier my role in setting up our service’s first computerized daily reporting system, starting in my own division (“Oorsig K”). Dr Niël Barnard as new DG was particularly keen on this concept, wanting it to be implemented for the service as a whole. Accordingly, I was hauled in to establish it. This meant saying good-bye to the SWA/Namibia section, but it did open for me a window through which to observe the evolving national intelligence picture in its fullest scope and complexity, across the workings of all the divisions. I would be the deputy head of a new division, labelled N.11, which would fall directly under the Chief Director for analysis (Research / Navorsing, as the branch was called), Mr Cor Bekker.

The new division would perform a number of functions at the heart of the production of intelligence. Among these were that it would serve as Mr Bekker’s support component, for example through me assisting him as secretary, when he chaired the interdepartmental Coordinating Intelligence Committee (KIK). Most of our time, though, was taken up by our key function of serving as the central editorial nodal point through which the divisions channelled all of their draft inputs which they wished considered for inclusion in the daily intelligence report, which our division had the responsibility to produce in polished form and distribute.

This central editorial task entailed firstly coordination among the divisions, if we saw that some or other draft input bore relationship to the work of another division and could benefit from broader elucidation.

Secondly, because we attended the daily head of division (Sanhedrin) meetings which approved the end product to be disseminated that day, we became familiar with what they would typically require of an input before approving it for inclusion. It therefore became part of our task, upon receipt of a draft that at face value (because of the relevance of the topic) seemed to merit publication, but which in its received form suffered some defects, to engage with the divisions and ask for clarifications or amplifications, before submitting it to the Sanhedrin.

Lastly, because of the high-level recipients of our intelligence products (the premier and cabinet) and because our product was the foremost display window of the service, the finished product had to be faultless, readable, and concise – which meant the normal editing (and oftentimes re-writing) of drafts, to ensure correct language and uniformity of style.   

8.1 Setting up Division N.11 (Central Redaction) and the NIFS system:

In setting up the new system, I had baptised it “NIFS”. This acronym worked in both English and Afrikaans: National Intelligence Flashes and Sketches / Nasionale Intelligensie Flitse en Sketse. The “flashes” consisted of short topical intelligence reports, while the “Sketches” were more substantial situational analysis, including more ample interpretation.

Together with IT techies we designed a work-flow system, whereby the different analytical divisions would forward their draft inputs for the NIFS from their computer terminals to my terminal sitting on my desk at N.11 (as explained, these were all terminals linked by cable to the mainframe, since in those days desktop computers as such did not yet exist – not to mention laptops).

I would then edit these proposed inputs from the desks, both regarding their content (checking how they meshed with the bigger intelligence picture and with reporting from other divisions) as well as language-wise, plus I would proof-read the product to be presented each day to the Sanhedrin for final approval, prior to dissemination.

Since this was well before the existence of spell-checkers, the proof-reading of the final product had to be done with the same method publishers then employed – working from back to front, tight to left, reading each word individually starting with the very last and working your way forward to the first. It was done this way to avoid one being caught up in the flow of the story and then reading over mistakes.

Once I had the daily draft ready, I would send it in turn to the terminals of the divisional heads forming the “Sanhedrin” as well as to the top management that sat in on its session (it was chaired by my boss, the Chief Director: Analysis). The next morning, first thing, I would check if any very urgent stuff had come in overnight that should be included, and then it was off to the Sanhedrin session on the 5th floor (the “executive floor” in Concilium), where I would act as secretary and note all the changes that had to be made, as decided there.

Once that was done, the final document had to be distributed asap.  To some national decision-makers most intimately involved with national security, such as the prime minister, plus those cabinet members and departmental heads serving on the State Security Council (SSC), the daily NIFS was sent in its entirety, but to others (such as ministers not part of the SSC) only those parts relevant to them were disseminated.

This is what NIS DG Niël Barnard had to say about the NIFS system in his autobiography: “The NIFS were daily brief reports and in-depth analyses of the latest security information. With that, we as NIS suddenly were back at the main table. Suddenly, everyone understood that the true litmus test for any intelligence service, was its ability to produce security intelligence on a daily basis to inform decision-making.”

Apart from this main function of producing the daily NIFS, my other role was that of staff officer to my boss, the Chief Director Research (Analysis). This entailed being secretary to meetings that he chaired (unless chaired by the NIS-DG himself), such as those of the inter-departmental Coordinating Intelligence Committee known as the KIK, by its Afrikaans acronym).

8.2 The conditions of detention and possible release of Mr Nelson Mandela - we had no illusions:

One of those KIK meetings still sticks in my mind: it was the annual review and recommendation to cabinet and the SSC about the continued imprisonment of Mr Nelson Mandela. As in most countries, the government (executive council) had the constitutional right to afford any prisoner clemency and to reduce his or her sentence.

Mr Mandela had been sentenced in the sixties by the Supreme Court to life imprisonment, for a string of offences. Among these were that he had started and headed Umkhonto We Sizwe (MK), the armed wing of the ANC, and that he launched the sabotage bombing campaign of the early sixties. He had also written a book titled “How to be a good communist” and had left South Africa illegally without passport.

Most seriously, he and MK had planned Operation Mayibuye, which was to be the start of a revolutionary guerrilla war on the model of Castro’s invasion of Cuba, with groups of armed and Moscow-trained MK fighters to be landed on different parts of the coast by the Soviets (it is not generally known that the tip-off to the S.A. Police’s Security Branch which led to the disguised and covertly travelling  Mr Mandela’s arrest, had come from the American CIA – for years after he had become South Africa’s president in 1994, Mr Mandela was still formally on the USA terror blacklist, ensuring that it was always a drama to obtain permission for him to travel to the USA or the UN headquarters in New York, no matter his position as president).

By the early eighties, though, Mr Mandela’s health and well-being had become of the utmost national security importance. What was clear, was that everything should be done to avoid him dying in prison, and that releasing him should actually be a question of “when” rather than “if”, dependent on the most opportune moment to do so. He was thus afforded top medical care and was moved from Robben Island prison to the mainland to facilitate this, as well as to ease his contact with the rest of the ANC (he was seen as a moderating influence).

The annual meeting of the KIK that was dedicated to reviewing Mr Mandela’s situation and release was attended by heavyweights from the military, the security branch, as well as from the Department of Correctional Services (i.e., the prison service). The latter would send their top medical people who had been caring for Mr Mandela, as well as their top psychologist, who had been working closely with him.

At one point, when the psychologist had the floor, he was asked how he would expect Mr Mandela to perform as politician, once released. The psychologist’s response was brutally clear: Mandela would, in terms of intellect and charisma, wipe the floor with the then crop of white cabinet ministers and was certain to dominate the national political scene, as well as having the highest possible impact internationally.

This statement left the two military generals in attendance visibly fidgeting. One then asked, with somewhat of a smirk, whether the psychologist would include Dr Gerrit Viljoen (then minister of Education) among those that Mr Mandela would wipe the floor with, intellectually?  (You may recall my own earlier run-in with the self-same Dr. Viljoen, when he was Administrator-general of SWA/Namibia, and the general perception among Super Afrikaners that he was an exceptional intellectual heavyweight).

“Yes, definitely” came the psychologist’s reply – short and to the point.

I am relating this to illustrate that there weren’t any illusions within the intelligence community about Mr Mandela’s unique abilities and potential as politician and man.

8.3 “Operation Angela” blows froth in the Seychelles

On Thursday morning the 26th of November 1981, our normally tranquil 11th floor of Concilium Building suddenly burst into a frantic hustle and bustle of national security big brass rushing in and out of the conference room (my office was next door, so I had quite a grand-stand view).

Colonel “Mad Mike” Hoare and a bunch of mercenaries had fled the Seychelles after their coup attempt to take over the islands had gone wrong the previous evening. To get away, they had hijacked an Air India Boeing and forced the pilots to fly them to Durban. So, what to do now?

We were told at the time that what we were seeing, was the “anti-hijack committee” kicking into action. This body had been set up as a contingency measure, after the hijack of an SAA Boeing 727 in May 1972. Ironically, the two Lebanese air pirates who were responsible for that hijacking wanted to be flown to the Seychelles – they were common criminals rather than being politically-motivated (they had tried to extort money).

In parallel with its strong anti-terrorism stance, the South African government had taken a strong stance against air piracy as international crime, with heavy penalties on the statute book for dealing with hijackers. South Africa had also subscribed to the international agreements against air piracy. So, the matter initially seemed straight-forward. Till the back-story quickly started emerging…

To cut a long story short, the majority of the fifty or so members of Hoare’s travelling group of supposed rugby-playing, beer-swilling “tourists” – who called themselves “Ye Ancient Order of Froth-Blowers” – had been formally called up by the SADF to go and participate in this “excursion”. And within days it transpired that an NIS member from the Durban field office had been left behind on the Seychelles, where he was arrested. And soon he was “persuaded” to start talking about “Operation Angela”…

The incident caused an international furore, with a UN Commission of Investigation established and the OAU seeing this as another example of South Africa’s aggressive intervention in black African states. The fact that, initially, the prosecuting authorities in South Africa had let the bulk of the “hijackers” walk free caused such an international backlash that the matter eventually had to be brought back to court, charging them anew. Otherwise, punitive actions such as curtailing South Africa’s air links with the wider world were threatened, for ignoring our obligations.

It would become a regular feature of this kind of covert operation involving South African security forces that the South African public knew next to nothing about it, while the rest of the world were very much aware of all the details (because of the media interest in us, as part of the propaganda war).

Magnus Malan, then Defence Minister, had invoked Section 29(1) of the General Laws Amendment Act and barred the twenty-five accused and/or witnesses who at the time of the operation had been serving or reserve members of the SADF from disclosing any knowledge they had of SADF operations prior to 24 November 1981. Two local editors (Rand Daily Mail and Sunday Times) plus a local journalist were found guilty under the Official Secrets Act for reporting classified information about the operation. Nevertheless, the PW Botha government maintained straight-faced that it not had anything to do with the “froth-blowers”, and actually didn’t even have any prior knowledge about it… 

Making much of this particular incident – if it had just been a once-off aberration – could be deemed to be blowing it out of proportion here. However, it must be seen as part of a pattern of dozens of such military interventions under PW Botha, which exemplified the mind-set of “shoot” instead of “settle”. It underscores how operations launched (or supported, as in this case) based on possible short-term tactical gain, can and did cause huge strategic setbacks. Which should have been foreseen, if a potential gain / loss balance sheet had been drawn up.

Some of the later covert operations (and there really were dozens) boggles the mind, when seeking now to discern what strategic benefit it could have been hoped to bring? As opposed to the downside! Operations such as the SAP-SB bombing the ANC’s London offices in 1982 (which we will get  to shortly) and the SADF attempt to blow up American-owned oil installations in Cabinda in November 1985 (which led to the capture of Recce Captain Wynand du Toit).

Suffice it to say that this strategic maladroitness is reflective of a psychosis that “we are at war”, and that the only way to survive would be to win the shooting contest. If you were in the forces, then your manliness was judged on your identification with this mind-set. And if you were inclined to believe that a settlement made more strategic sense, then you were seen as an appeaser…

8.4 From intelligence and academic writing to trying my hand at spy novels:

During this time at N.11, I was also beavering away at my doctoral studies. And, in all honesty, sometimes getting quite fed-up with all the academic-style writing. So, one Friday (which I had off, for study leave) early in 1981, I remarked over lunch at home that I’m now really wishing that I could for aa change just sit down and focus for a while on writing something totally different, like a novel.

This innocent, off the cuff remark of mine caused my dear wife to burst out in loud, uproarious laughter. In a most derogatory manner, at that (at least, that is how my bruised ego perceived it). As if I was delusionally dreaming, by even merely thinking that I – of all people – had it in me to write a novel! (You see, she’s the one who had studied journalism and languages at university, and who from time-to-time had herself played with the notion of writing fiction).

So now I’m going to recount to you the story of the publication of my first novel, doing so here (in the midst of the part dealing with my time in the intelligence service, because it was soon to prove quite important to my eventual move from the analytical branch to the operational side of the service.

Grinning and bearing (but inwardly seething), I finished lunch and then immediately sat myself down in front of my battered old Remington Portable typewriter that I had picked up at a 2nd hand shop in Bloemfontein during my student days (and which I still have). Furiously, I started clattering away at my first novel. A spy story, of course. Written in Afrikaans, under a penname, because of my position within the NIS – I chose for this the name of my maternal grandfather, my Oupa Tom: Thomas O’Reilly. With “Laksman” as title (meaning: the “executioner”).

Nongqai series Men Speak WPS2 old Remington typewriter

My old Remington portable typewriter, which I still have as memento.

Laksman” was about this anonymous South African secret agent, who would never be named in the entire book – a literary device that appealed to me, in terms of the supposed secrecy inherent to the genre. Of course, it was not the easiest of things to pull off – just referring to the main character as “he / him” throughout, without sowing confusion…

Here’s the marketing blurb of the publishers on the back cover (to explain what it was all about):

A thriller about international terrorism and espionage: A skilled killing machine – that’s what his profession made of him. Without other options, he is caught up in a game that can only have one winner. And there is a price to pay – kill, or be killed. Through the exploits of the secret agent, the reader is introduced to the exciting but also unforgiving world of espionage and international terrorism. A world that leaves no room for emotion. Where cold calculation prevails. Packed with suspense and adventure, this novel captivates to the end.

By that same Sunday, I had my novel completed, proof-read (by my own lights) and loosely bound in manuscript form. It wasn’t very thick, because the Afrikaans market was small and printing cost militated against bulky novels. Apart from at least knowing that much, I didn’t have the foggiest idea of how the publishing process actually worked. I therefore grabbed the Yellow Pages, which in those days was printed at the back of every telephone directory (there was no internet or Google, of course!). Looking up publishing houses located in Pretoria, I was pleased to find that one of the biggest and most reputable, HAUM, had their head office in the same street as the NIS’s Concilium Building, just a block or so down.

That Monday morning, after having completed my Sanhedrin obligations, I obtained permission to briefly absent myself on a personal errand. With the loosely bound manuscript under my arm, I set off for HAUM’s offices. There I told the receptionist that I would like to see the manager! (I myself, thinking back now, almost cannot believe my own youthful presumptuousness!). Wanting to know what I wanted to see the manager about, I brandished my manuscript and told the very dubious-looking lady that I’ve written a spy novel, for which I’m considering HAUM as a possible publisher – among others…

Not convinced at all that she should bother the manager with this, she wanted some more information, about myself. Had I published before? What was my background, qualifying me to write about the subject?

I explained that I’m doing my doctorate on intelligence, and that I worked just down the road, for the NIS (as an analyst at that time, the latter bit wasn’t classified information).  As I had hoped, this intrigued her enough to go and tell the big boss that there’s this youngster wanting to see him – from the NIS, working on his doctorate about espionage, and having written a spy novel…

I’ll never forget the manager’s name. Chris Richter was in his late forties, and the gods again had smiled at me since he wasn’t pressingly busy at that moment. Himself quite curious, he agreed to receive me.

He listened to my story about this novel of mine with equanimity, and then started asking about my background and what it was like, working for an intelligence service. Once having satisfied his curiosity, he then patiently explained to me how publishing actually works – emphasising its sloooowness, and that VERY few manuscripts submitted, ever actually make the cut to be published. Especially not first-time manuscripts…

He would, therefore – as next step – be submitting my effort to their panel of assessors, and if they were all unanimously agreed that the work is both worthy of publication and had a reasonable chance of commercial success, then they would contact me to come see them again about a possible contract (if not, they would simply return my manuscript to me, accompanied by a note of rejection – something he reckoned that it would be prudent for any prospective writer to be emotionally prepared for).  All this he explained, while underscoring repeatedly: don’t, under any circumstances whatsoever, contact us – we’ll contact you…

Satisfied that at least now I knew how things worked, and relieved that I hadn’t been shown the door straight away, I returned to my office – convinced that it was going to take many a month before I would hear anything, either way…

Then, the very next morning, returning to my office from the Sanhedrin meeting, I was awaited in the passage by my very excited secretary. A Mr Richter had called to speak with me, she said, and had asked that I should call him on his personal number (which he had left) as soon as I had a moment to spare. He had not divulged anything more to the secretary than just that, but she felt sure that it was important – probably good news…

My analytical instincts tended to agree – if my manuscript had been rejected out of hand, it would surely have required much more time to have come to that conclusion. But equally, it would have required much more time for the assessors to have approved it, not so? Therefore, had he just called the NIS switchboard to verify that there actually was a Willem Steenkamp working there?

Excited but also with a touch of trepidation, I of course immediately phoned Chris Richter. What he told me, left me astounded – and overjoyed.

What Chris told me, was that he had that previous afternoon decided to take my manuscript home with him with the intention to just scan-browse through it, to be sure that it was worth bothering the assessment panel with, before sending it to them. Once he had opened it, though, he had become totally intrigued and captivated and found himself reading it that night from start to end.

With as punch line, that he as manager had there and then taken the decision to publish, without referral to the panel!

The book was very popular among libraries (then the big market for Afrikaans novels) and also received some very positive press reviews. Based on the frequency with which it was being borrowed off the library shelves (proof of some effective word-of-mouth promotion among the readers themselves, since no social media at that time existed) many a library ordered additional copies, so that “Laksman” turned out to be commercially viable for HAUM as well.

From the author’s royalty perspective, it was of course a hard reality that no Afrikaans writer ever could hope to get rich solely based on his published books – for that, the market simply was too small.

HAUM therefore immediately started encouraging me to try my hand at writing something similar in English, which they believed that they would be able to market much wider and more profitably – if, of course, my English was up to it.  They also roped me into their circle of authors, putting me on their assessment panel. This was a welcome supplement to the actual royalties that “Laksman” could hope to earn me.

The idea of writing an espionage novel in English certainly appealed to me, given that I naturally thrived on challenges. So, I used my first meagre royalty fees to buy myself a brand-new portable typewriter. (Desktop or laptop computers with word processing software still lay a number of years into the future, and – unlike for my academic studies – I obviously couldn’t make use of the NIS mainframe and terminals for my pass-time!).

My first English novel, titled “South Wind”, appeared in that same year of 1981.

It, too, was a spy novel with an element of international terrorism playing out against a Cold War setting, with South Africa featuring prominently in the plans of the Soviets for re-establishing order and dominance in their restive Eastern European vassal states, especially Poland.

Upon its release, “South Wind” garnered very positive reviews from the local English-language press, even though its political sub-plot ran contrary to what they typically supported editorially.

Nongqai series men Speak WPS2 South Wind book press reviews

By the end of 1981 my work at N.11 had become routine editing – the intellectual stimulation of conceptualizing and implementing the new reporting system was over, and all that remained was the daily struggle with grumpy colleagues, who – with pride of parentage – were inclined to see my editing of their “babies” as gross mutilation.

For the sake of broadening my career prospects, I therefore requested a transfer to Operations, to also develop experience of field work. This was granted, and I duly “resigned” from the NIS (at least in the eyes of my colleagues at Head Office) to “go my own merry way as writer”.

The rationale that was put out for my supposed decision to “leave the NIS” was that my fiction writing (which was widely known in the Service) had made me financially independent (if only!). Furthermore, I had demonstrably finished with both my public service bursary obligations and completed my national service. Plus, I supposedly wanted a sabbatical, in order to be able to travel overseas and do research there for my doctorate, as well as to research possible plots for future novels.

Thus, at the end of 1981, I was secretly transferred to the clandestine operations branch of the NIS.


One of the things that my own doctoral studies was highlighting (of which Niël Barnard as ex-academic was also aware), was that there existed a vast volume of highly security relevant yet openly available material that may be had at low cost and no risk. This information was typically reposing in libraries, at universities, in press archives and at publishing houses around the world. It was called  OSINT, for “open source intelligence”.

By properly tapping into this kind of information (which nowadays typically make up some 70% – 90% of all material consumed by intelligence services globally), it stands to reason that the task of the truly clandestine collectors, namely going after the hard, top secret stuff, can be greatly alleviated. So that their high-risk, high-cost efforts may be focused laser-sharp on the crucial 10% that cannot be easily obtained from open sources.

OSINT provides the bulk of the essential contextual background against which to evaluate those critical bits and pieces that are not openly available – the crucial stuff which the clandestine “spooks” collect with their secret operations.

Having had its origins in especially the S.A. Police Security Branch, the old BfSS wasn’t very strong on systematically hoovering up OSINT. Barnard concurred with the need to change that, and I was viewed as ideally qualified for this task. This was due to my broad analytical background – especially at N.11 – which had given me an over-arching insight into the needs of the analytical branch as a whole (since my exposure there at the editorial hub had not been limited to just one thematic division or desk).

Furthermore, I had the academic background (with my doctoral research) to appreciate what needed to be assessed, and to prepare a proper report on the why, what and how of OSINT collection afterwards.

Finally, my doctoral studies plus my verifiable status as a published novelist, provided the perfect cover for me to conduct such investigations at libraries, universities, and publishing houses abroad.

9.1 Collecting OSINT in the U.K., 1982:

It was decided that I should undertake a six-month investigation into the availability of OSINT in the United Kingdom.  This location was chosen because of the plethora of top universities, libraries and publishing houses located there. Also, because the English language was of course understood by our analysts. There also existed the nexus with South African security interests through the fact that key opposition forces such as the ANC and SWAPO were based there, as well as the large number of British researchers and journalists focused on Southern Africa because of the historical ties. Furthermore, in those days South African passport holders could visit the UK for six months, visa-free – which was deemed enough time to complete such an assessment.

I had researched and planned my cover story intensively, sticking as close as possible to the known facts about my life. Since I wasn’t going to commit any illegal acts in Britain in any case, there was no need for the kind of deep cover that “illegals” would build. Furthermore, it was certain that practically all intelligence services already had my biodata on file, given my previous relatively high-profile positions (what with the many briefings on SWA/Namibia that I had conducted for the foreign intelligence liaison officers based in Pretoria, and the course with the BND that I had attended in Munich). Trying to use a false identity would, therefore, have been professional stupidity amounting to suicide.

What we decided to do, was to mimic exactly that which one would expect a young doctoral researcher and budding novelist would do, visiting the UK for six months on such a research sabbatical. Accompanied by my young family, I would look for a house to rent somewhere within easy reach of London and Oxford and would get myself a “buy-to-sell-back” campervan as vehicle.

So, with everything thoroughly planned and prepared, we stepped aboard a South African Airways Boeing in January 1982, bound for London Heathrow. 

I had arranged the purchase of the Bedford campervan ahead of time, from Pretoria. The rental company’s premises were located not far from Heathrow Airport, and they had arranged hotel accommodation nearby for us for that first night.  With our wheels under us, the next thing was to obtain a six-month lease on a suitable house (which had to be fully furnished).

Nongqai series Men Speaak WPS2 Bedford campervan

What our Bedford campervan looked like (definitely not your James Bond 007 Aston Martin!)

We were very fortunate that we almost immediately could rent a house in Steep, a tiny village just north of the market town of Petersfield. The latter, a sizeable market town, is located on the A3 main road from London to Portsmouth, as well as being on the main railroad running in to Waterloo Station in the heart of London, via Guildford.

The house belonged to a British naval officer then stationed in Brussels at NATO HQ. I well remember the phone conversation between the estate agent and this gentleman – especially when the agent explained that the prospective tenants were from South Africa. “Are they Black!?” the voice thundered down the line, signalling very clearly that that would have been an immediate disqualifier. “No, they’re white, and they’ll pay the six months’ rent up front, in cash…” Which clinched the deal without any further delay.

Our stay had indeed been most tranquil and the project advanced at a good clip, until the day that the powers-that-be in Pretoria thought that it would advance our national security interests if they sent an SAP-SB team to firebomb the ANC head office in London. This, right in the back yard of one of our few remaining friends, Margaret Thatcher.

Apart from the fact that this brash deed understandably angered Thatcher and the local security services (with whom the NIS had enjoyed excellent cooperation, up to that point) it was operationally stupid because the NIS, with its very successful Operation Cruiser, had had the ANC premises fully bugged.

Before the bombing, the ANC guys had been very talkative and extremely lax on security, believing themselves beyond the reach of the South African services. Of course, their attitude immediately changed, and they became highly security conscious. Accordingly, it became that much more difficult to obtain information that had before been falling into our laps, so to speak. So much for PW’s supposedly coordinated inter-departmental national security management… (Let me make clear here that I don’t blame the operatives who were instructed to go do the bombing – they were brave and good at their job; what I do question, is the insight of those who had given the order to do something so counter-productive).

To make matters worse, in addition to an ongoing IRA bombing campaign which already had the Brits on high alert (and very negative about any bombings!), the Falklands War had broken out, making the Brits themselves hyper security conscious about any foreign intelligence presence on their soil.

The upshot of this was that – even though I had absolutely nothing to do with the firebomb shenanigans, nor of course with the war the Argies had started – we suddenly found our rented home’s phone unserviceable (and British Telecom not disposed to get it working again), and our mail started to take ages to arrive via the local post office. I didn’t have to be a genius to know that we were under observation.

Soon enough, while one morning riding in by train from Petersfield to Waterloo, I sensed that I had a surveillance team on my tail. Since I had nothing incriminating on me and had planned to simply go and visit the many publishing houses clustered around Leicester Square to collect their catalogues, I was more intrigued than perturbed.

There was no need for me to “shake” my tail since I wasn’t intent upon any clandestine meetings or visiting “dead letter boxes” or anything even vaguely nefarious. So, I decided that I needed to first confirm my suspicions (in case I was becoming paranoid). Then, should it prove that the Brits were indeed tailing me, I would just take them on a merry walkabout of Central London – to make them understand that I was onto them. Perhaps then, they would in future find better things to do with their time and manpower…

9.2 Playing Spy Games in London with a British surveillance team:

Before we start on my Pied Piper of Hamelin routine of that morning, though, I need to quickly explain how surveillance works in the spy world (at least in those “low-tech” days). I also need to orientate you a bit as to the relevant geography of that part of central London.

The typical surveillance team consists of at least three members, A, B and C. Starting out, agent A will take up position behind the target (T) and follow him or her at a discreet distance. Across the road, a little further back, will be B. Agent C will make up the rear, following some ways behind A on the same side of the road.

What a target has to do (in order to unmask and confirm the tailing), is to oblige A to pass him, so that B and C have to take up their new positions and can be seen to do so. The way to achieve this, is to stop suddenly at a suitable spot. Agent A cannot also stop, because that would be a dead giveaway that a tail is on; he/she has to continue ahead, past the target, to substitute at a later stage for B or C – one of whom needs to take up the new A-position when the target gets moving again (if the target loiters for very long, and B or C had followed too closely, then they would also have to carry on past, so as not to be themselves seen to be loitering in the open for no apparent good reason. This is demonstrated on the following diagram:

Nongqai series Men Speak WPS2 how surveillance works diagram

Target T is tailed by three agents, initially in positions A1, B1 and C1. Should T turn right, then the agents will adopt new positions A2, B2 and C2.

Nongqai series Men Speak WPS2 central London map

On this London map, Waterloo Station (black circle) is in the bottom right corner and my destination, Leicester Square (red circle), at the centre top. To get there, I had to cross the River Thames via the old Hungerford footbridge, proceed to Trafalgar Square, and continue on past St Martin’s-in-the-Fields Church (purple circle) up Charing Cross Road.

To cross the Thames from Waterloo Station to Trafalgar Square, one had in those days to use the old Hungerford footbridge. This was particularly narrow, except for a small semi-circular extension atop the pillar in the middle of the stream – a kind of tiny viewing platform, if you like (see photo below). This “viewing bulge” presented me with an ideal opportunity to try and catch out my tail. I had my camera with me (being a tourist/sabbatical student) so I abruptly stopped in that little crescent, taking photographs downstream. The individuals among those who had been on the train with me that I had mentally marked out, for a moment didn’t know quite what to do, but had to carry on.

Nongqai series men Speak WPS2 Old Hungerford footbridge London

The old Hungerford Footbridge (since demolished) was quite narrow.

On that narrow passageway, in that throng of people rushing to work, there was just no way for them to try and hang around unobtrusively in mid-passage.

Eventually crossing over myself, I saw my friends forming up again, as we trooped along towards Trafalgar Square. The South African Embassy in London, the imposing South Africa House, sits in prime position right on the Square, occupying a triangular block on the street corner. Adjacent to SA House is the church of St. Martin’s-in-the-fields (left on the photo below) with its tall steeple and portico-style façade.

Nongqai series Men Speak WPS2 SA House London arial

SA House at the centre of the photo, with the church of St. Martin’s-in-the-fields to its left.

Approaching SA House and the Square, I stopped again at a news stand to quickly buy a newspaper – just long enough so that the agent tailing me in position A at that time (a tall, sturdy woman in a bulky windbreaker) could pass by.

She carried on, headed towards the front of the embassy and then on to the church. It so happened that the façade of the church was at that time (1982) undergoing extensive renovation. So, to protect pedestrians against possible falling objects, a narrow catwalk-type corridor of wood, with a tin roof, had been constructed on the sidewalk in front of the church.

Unbeknownst to our lady friend I had, after she had passed, suddenly picked up my own pace quite seriously, to catch up with her. I timed my “overtaking” manoeuvre to take place exactly on that narrow catwalk, where I would need to rub past her because of its narrowness.

Blowing in her neck, I could see that she was totally caught up in talking into her walkie-talkie. Getting alongside her, I saw that she had the black microphone pinned to the inside of her windbreaker’s left lapel. She had her head completely bowed down and turned to the left, very clearly talking into it, reporting in, to their Control. I clearly caught the words “…got off the train…”. (In those days there were no mobile phones, so somebody talking into that ultra-rare kind of radio was definitely not just another average pedestrian!).

Her sixth sense must have suddenly alerted her to my presence, pressed up against her right side in that little tunnel. If I still had any doubts, her look of panicked horror at realising that I had seen and heard her “talking into the mike” dispelled it. I just gave her a conspiratorial smile and a wink and carried on ahead.

The cat-and-mouse game now began in earnest, but with me now initiating the action. I had a number of postcards and a few letters to mail to family back home (just simple, genuine family updates, nothing remotely secret or incriminating). So, I began to mail these one at a time, every time I passed one of those famous red letterboxes that are densely scattered across London.

I knew from my own training that the standard procedure for the surveillance team would be to immediately push a sheaf of paper through the slot of the letterbox, so that it would land on top of whatever I had mailed. Then they would have to call the Post Office to send someone to come and open the letterbox so that they could try and retrieve whatever I had dropped in. By mailing my five or six items in that manner, I was seriously expanding the amount of work they had to perform…

Arriving in Leicester Square (famous for its cinemas and theatres, but also home to an array of publishing houses) I first went to sit down in the park on a public bench, to browse through the newspaper that I had bought. Having done that for a sufficient length of time, I then took out a gum wrapper that I happened to have had in my pocket, inserted it in amongst the paper’s pages, folded the broadsheet and casually left it on the bench beside me “for the next guy to read”. I got up, and at a brisk pace headed for the front door of the first publisher.

This routine with the newspaper would have looked classically like a spy performing a “dead drop”, with his contact hovering nearby, ready to pick up the paper and retrieve the secret message hidden inside. It was de rigour that I absolutely not look back, but I’ve always wondered what actually played out when some innocent victim sat down on that bench and picked up that paper – and what that surveillance team’s faces looked like, when they found nothing but a gum wrapper inside…

Popping in and out of the host of publishers arrayed around the square added another layer of travail for the surveillance team. What they were supposed to do, was to visit each place and enquire what the bearded young fellow that had just been in there, had been up to (they would probably have had a photo of me to show). Had he met with someone? Had he dropped anything off? No, Sir – he just asked for our catalogue of academic publications…

I had my story down pat, should they at any time have tried to stop me: Yes, I am Willem Steenkamp, and yes, the same one who had done his obligatory national service in the NIS, who had presented briefings to your guys in Pretoria and who had done a course with the BND in Munich. But I’m now a novelist and doctoral researcher, here on my own account. Do you really think that I would have come to London, under my own identity and with my wife and three small kids in tow, plus my own mother, if I still was with the Service, on some secret mission?

And yes, I have obviously been trained in counter-surveillance, so naturally I caught on that I was being tailed, but I didn’t try and shake you, did I? Have you ever noticed me doing anything other than simply (and very openly, as well as legitimately), visiting places representing my new interest, such as publishers and libraries? Want to see my Bodleian library card? Or the letter of introduction from my own publishers back home? Or the one from my university and study promoters?

Be that as it may, I was never directly confronted – however, we never got our phone connection back during those six months, our mail arrivals continued to be significantly delayed, and – when eventually we were inside the boarding hall at Heathrow Airport, ready for South African Airways to fly us back home – our squad of chaperones made a very visible effort of showing themselves as being again present, probably to confirm my departure.  One guy even pointed at me while I was looking back at him, then waved me goodbye, ironically and exaggeratedly (and not too fondly, I would presume).

I think they must have been very frustrated, trying to figure out what exactly I had been up to, because my comings and goings certainly didn’t correspond to anything that they would or could have associated with clandestine intelligence work – they probably would never have thought of something as mundane as the actual truth, namely that our relatively new service had realised the need to figure out what was to be gained from collecting OSINT in an organised way.

The project as such had been carried off with very good results – it was amazing to see the volume and quality of information that could be openly obtained, at no risk and little cost. I believe it contributed to the later decision to post NIS analysts abroad as well, attached to our embassies to collect this kind of OSINT and to gain exposure to foreign climes and mores.

Before my project, only staff from the operational branch were posted abroad to the embassies. These officers were declared to the local services and were tasked only with liaison with those services and with running agents in neighbouring countries – never, ever running undercover agents in the country of diplomatic accreditation itself.

What this meant, is that the operational branches of intelligence services would have two kinds of “operator” officers, who typically were organised into separate divisions. The one group would be posted to embassies abroad under diplomatic cover, ostensibly as part of the sending country’s diplomatic service. They would be listed on the foreign affairs lists as if true-blue diplomats, with normal diplomatic passports and bearing traditional diplomatic titles of rank, such as Third Secretary, Second or First Secretary.

The head of such an embassy-attached intelligence office operating under diplomatic cover abroad (if it’s a large embassy) may possibly be publicly listed with the senior diplomatic rank of counsellor. These officials would, however, be formally declared to the intelligence services of the receiving country as actually being serving intelligence officers, and their main task would be to liaise with those services (a considerable amount of the information processed by intelligence services actually originate through such reciprocal exchanges between co-operating services).

So as not to jeopardise this important liaison, such officials would not run undercover agents in and against their host country. They would only run agents in neighbouring countries where they were non-resident, but this would obviously be subject to limitations such as that their identities (at least their official aliases) would be publicly known, as well as which country they are from and thus working for. These declared officers would also likely be more vulnerable to surveillance.

If the across-the-border target country of such an operation and the diplomatic host country themselves had close relations, then it would also be risky to run agents from an embassy into such other country, because it could cause severe diplomatic embarrassment if caught out and if the annoyed target country then used its ties to the host country to get the offending “diplomat” expelled (this actually happened to the then NIS station chief during my time in Paris.

Under pressure from our military who were urgently in need of man-portable surface-to-air missiles to down enemy aircraft in places such as Angola, and who wanted models of existing such systems to study with a view to the design of our own, the Paris NIS office was tasked to get hold of a British Blowpipe SAM launcher – which they successfully did, through contacts with Unionist elements in Northern Ireland; when the Brits eventually found out, they were of course furious and persuaded their French allies to kick our guy out).

The other component of an intelligence service’s collections branch would be the clandestine guys, working abroad with no diplomatic cover, doing so under false identities, typically with forged passports often from other countries and pretending to be citizens of those.  These are the classical “illegals” – if caught, their only hope would be an eventual spy swap (if they would be lucky enough to be caught by a first-world country; in the third world they would likely be executed, after some serious hardship to first extract all possible information from them).

These officers of the clandestine divisions are the real spies of espionage fiction, although they are more likely to be focused on recruiting and running agents with access to the information being sought, rather than themselves trying to infiltrate, in person, hostile targets. They are thus, first and foremost, “talent spotters” trained to recruit persons with access by whichever means necessary (money, sex, ideology, ego recognition, blackmail if necessary, or impersonating another country’s service) and then to train and manage that agent.

It does, however, happen from time to time that intelligence officers themselves infiltrate target entities in person. This constitutes probably the pinnacle of personal risk, yet also of reward, in terms of access to key information. An example of this was the joint BfSS / SAP-SB penetration operation of the late seventies known as “Operation Daisy”, which was run out of Concilium by a joint control team.

The brave officer in question, Major Craig Williamson, had been successful in infiltrating the top structures of the ANC via the International University Exchange Fund (IUEF), then one of the main funders of the ANC. Williamson succeeded in getting himself appointed as deputy director of the IUEF based in their Head Office in Geneva, posing as a fervently anti-Apartheid white South African exile. Since Sweden was in turn the main funder of the IUEF, Williamson became close to then Swedish premier Olaf Palme (now known to have been a Russian agent) and could exploit introductions from him, with Williamson even visiting Moscow to attend meetings there.

Nongqai series Men Speak WPS2 Criag Williamson on Red Square

SAP-SB Major Craig Williamson on Red Square, Moscow, USSR.

On my own eventual return to South Africa after completing the OSINT project in the U.K. (nothing even vaguely comparable to Maj Williamson’s brave exploits!), I obviously could not show my face at Concilium again. As planned, I therefore became part of Dr Kobus Scholtz’s clandestine collections team operating incognito from the office of a front company the NIS had set up, located in a drab building “behind the mountain”.


The NIS had at this stage already understood that it was quite likely that South Africa under PW Botha may become internationally increasingly isolated, eventually to the point of losing its network of embassies around the world (or much of it). It was therefore necessary to start building up a world-wide covert infrastructure to substitute for our diplomatic network, if and when the latter should fall away.

The mere process of setting up such a network could also, of its own right, help one to identify contacts with potential for being run as penetration agents, to be infiltrated into target entities – or otherwise (if they happened to already be strategically in place within such entities) to recruit or “turn” them to work for us, either knowingly or unknowingly. What the latter meant was that we could use a “false flag” approach, where we would make the target believe that he/she would be working for the CIA, the SIS, BND, Mossad or whichever intelligence service they would be most likely to emotionally identify with.

Setting up such a network would clearly require proper planning and much patience – it would not be a success if it was rushed into haphazardly, without a solid foundation first put in place that would allow one to become thoroughly familiar with one’s designated geographical target area.

The region allocated to me was Latin America, to keep me away from the NATO countries where I was obviously known and well documented (I suspect that my own predilection for eventually settling in Latin America in later life started there, given the extensive research that I then undertook).

The groundwork that I had planned to put in place for such an eventual region-wide network, was to establish a news agency. This agency would then recruit journalists in the region as its correspondents (“stringers” in their parlance). Unlike the large, well-known press agencies such as Reuters, Associated Press, DPA, AFP and South Africa’s own SAPA, that region then didn’t possess an established press agency of its own, so setting up such an entity would appear plausible to journalists based there. That South Africa’s media would be interested in news from that region was also plausible, due to the then growing economic ties.

The first recruitment that I needed to do to put this plan in motion, was of a reputable, well-established journalist who could credibly front as the originator and manager of this new press agency.  All requests for information (initially of a traditional news-orientated kind) would then also appear to emanate from this agent, tasking the contracted journalists in the target region – even though originally coming from me. Their reports would also be directed to him, who would pass it on to me.

We could quickly attend to all the legalities of having such an agency set up, and I recruited a seasoned, well-known journalist of a suitably patriotic streak (further lubricated by an attractive monthly stipend, since journalists are notoriously poor) to front for it.

What would be essential in all of this, was that no link should ever be traceable between him and the NIS. I therefore dealt with him under my local pseudonym, for which I had a genuine NIS ID card that I could show him to convince him that all this was real and genuine.

Being now part of clandestine operations, those aliases were very important, and were carefully thought out and researched. For overseas travel my “false” South African passport (very much a genuine one but issued to my fake identity) was in name of “Casper Jan-Hendrik du Plooy” (a combination of my great-grandfather Steenkamp’s first names and my paternal grandmother’s maiden name).

The local alias I was using for running the guy who was managing the press agency was “Wally Eksteen” (with Wally being phonologically close to my real name, sounding like its diminutive “Willie”, and with Eksteen/Steenkamp having the “steen” part in common, meaning stone). A precaution which soon, in that unforgiving environment of real-world spying (where one un-anticipated slip-up can destroy your credibility with your source), proved to have been a judicious choice.

On one fine day I had to meet with my press agency managing agent in a Johannesburg hotel parking lot, to affect a brief exchange. This hotel was next to a convenient exit and on-ramp for the adjacent highway, and its parking lot was spacious, so that my agent would be sure to be able to find a spot close to me (he knew my car, a Volkswagen Passat station wagon – again, nothing flashy when you’re doing real spy work). He duly showed up and easily located me, because I had parked somewhat to the side of the lot where there were enough empty spaces for him to select from.

Just as that agent of mine and I were standing next to my car exchanging initial greetings (and a little something else), out of the blue André Bouwer, my old Bloemfontein varsity residence roommate – of all people – suddenly came driving by. Recognising me, he immediately pulled up and parked right next to us. I hadn’t seen him for many a year, so that he was very pleased to see me. Of course, he came straight over to greet me, using my nickname from varsity days. That was “Klippies” (stones/pebbles) after the “steen”(stone) in Steenkamp. Fortunately, André was in a hurry to attend some conference inside the hotel and was soon on his way. I could then explain to my agent (whom I noticed had pricked his ears when I wasn’t addressed as the “Wally” he knew me to be) that this old student friend who called me “Klippies” did so because that nickname supposedly referred to the “steen” (stone) in Eksteen


But enough of my story about my years as a “spook”. Let’s get back, rather, to “Our Story” as a people and a nation.So that we can look at the tumultuous years of the eighties (the “lost decade”), and the eventual transition to the “New South Africa” during the early nineties…

In Part Three I will be telling you about the many forks in the road which during that time challenged the decision-making skills of our leaders. Most of which I could observe from my new vantage point as diplomat – eventually having the great honour and privilege to be the first ambassador to hitherto hostile black Africa. 

I’ll share with you my take about what caused what may have appeared to many, to have been a sudden and dramatic change of course (from “shoot” to “settle”) in 1989/90. I’ll also analyse the transition process that followed, highlighting why we ended up the with the kind of constitution we now have – and what lessons there are to be drawn, for the future.

In conclusion, I will take a detached look at the South Africa of today, doing so through the cold, clinical eyes of the intelligence analyst (not pushing party politics, but assessing the national security implications of today’s realities). In that review of the present – coming up in Part Three – I will outline the strategic choices that I believe will be unfolding after the fast approaching general election of 29 May 2024.

Without running too far ahead, all I can say right now is that we are truly at a critical junction, where things can indeed go very, very wrong. And, it may do so very, very fast, at that…

Thank you for your patience in reading this – I hope you will join me again, around the campfire, for Part Three.