Jonathan ANCER, Spy: Uncovering Craig Williamson (Johannesburg: Jacana, 2017)

HUNDREDS of apartheid-era operatives have quietly disappeared into the forgotten recesses of post-liberation South Africa. An exception is the much-reviled Craig Williamson: “I feel anger; seething anger towards him,” says Janet Love in this book.

Journalist Jonathan Ancer constructed his biography from a wide range of interviews and met the man himself only at the end of his research. Williamson, at the behest of Colonel Johann Coetzee of the police Special Branch, infiltrated the student movement, both at Wits and nationally in the early 1970s. Notoriously he attained high office at the Geneva-based International University Exchange Fund and penetrated the ANC even to the extraordinary extent of running an escape route into Botswana.

Unmasked in 1980 by the defector Arthur McGiven (another spy at Wits) he interrogated, recruited (Olivia Forsyth was one of his agents[1]) and acted as witness in a number of political trials before turning his hand to more muscular methods. Major Craig Williamson played an organising role in the bombing of the ANC’s London offices in March 1982 (an explosion so powerful it caused the building to shift); and found it necessary to seek amnesty before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in the 1990s for the murders of Ruth First and Jeanette and Katryn Schoon. But despite rumour, he had no part in the death of Steve Biko; although the jury is still out on the murder of Sweden’s prime minister Olaf Palme.

Deception, betrayal, murder and probable fraud; and now Williamson is a successful businessman who has placed all his assets outside the reach of civil litigation. Much of the distaste shown towards him – Tim Sebastian famously refused the routine handshake at the end of a BBC Hardtalk interview on the grounds that he did not greet murderers – is because he remains unrepentant, self-satisfied and lacking remorse. All his nefarious activities he justifies in terms of anti-communism and his obsession with the Cold War.

How did Williamson pull off his ten-year-long deception? That is the most intriguing question raised by this book. He was an unlikely student activist, known as a right-wing bully at St John’s (Johannesburg) who joined the police from school; and his credentials were suspected by many. There were a number of close calls (on one occasion a police card fell out of a car sun visor and on another he used racist language and the ‘k’ word when inebriated), but luck and increased self-control protected him.

Doubts were deflected by his willingness to work hard and efficiently at unglamorous tasks. Nor was there any direct or proven evidence against him among a group of people who prided themselves on their democratic principles and an admirable desire for inclusivity even for such an obvious misfit as Williamson. Trust and openness were symbols of hope for the future even while the State became recklessly aggressive and ultimately murderous. The anti-apartheid movement, including the ANC, was consequently wide open to infiltration. A quarter of the sixteen members of the Wits SRC of 1972–1973 were working for the police or the Bureau for State Security (BOSS).[2]

There are some strange and inexplicable errors in this book. The Johannesburg station bomb was detonated on 24 July 1964 (not in 1960, p. 120) and Maputo is not ‘thousands of kilometres away’ from Pretoria (p. 167). But above all, there is a truly bizarre account of the 1966 South African general election (p. 7). In a school debate Williamson had represented a new right-wing party, the Republicans, and beaten his three opponents. Ancer records that the Republican Party won 22 and the Progressives 26 in the national election out of a total of 356 seats. Where this fiction comes from is a total mystery. The real figures were 0 (the Republicans never won a parliamentary seat), 1 and 170.

The cover of Ancer’s book is also odd – a bulky, smartly dressed Williamson, apparently attending a formal meeting, holds a teacup – reflective, maybe, of the banality of evil. Always over-weight, he is now described as ‘grotesque’ perhaps the only obvious sign of a troubled life that brought tragedy to many worthy people. This book was published just as the inquest into the death in detention of Ahmed Timol in 1971 was re-opened. There are a number of other deaths whose farcical inquests need re-examination with the possibility of prosecution. Momentum is gathering and the methods and operatives of the apartheid regime are back in the news.

[1] Olivia Forsyth, Agent 407: A South African Spy Breaks Her Silence (Johannesburg: Jonathan Ball, 2015).

[2] A photograph confirming this can be found in Glenn Moss, The New Radicals: A Generational Memoir of the 1970s (Johannesburg: Jacana, 2014).