Moe Shaik, The ANC Spy Bible: Surviving across Enemy Lines (Cape Town: Tafelberg, 2020)                   

A MEMOIR might be loosely regarded as autobiography with benefits; or, in more literary terms, poetic licence. Any biographical account described as a ‘reading like a thriller’ must flirt with fiction and indeed Moe Shaik’s book started off as a novel. This is still evident in reported dialogue now over thirty years old. So this history is ‘the way I remember it and the way it was burnt into my soul.’ Its aim is to own Shaik’s many ‘scars’.

Described as a timid optometrist working in Durban, and one of several well-known brothers, Shaik was a member of the ANC’s Mandla Judson Khuzwayo (MJK) unit commanded by Jacob Zuma and operating from Swaziland. He was used as a decoy to enable the escape in 1984 of senior operative Ebrahim Ismail Ebrahim, later captured and sentenced for a second time to Robben Island on treason charges. Shaik’s experience of long-term detention confirms yet again pervasive physical and psychological torture and reminds us that apartheid was maintained by vicious, ruthless, brainwashed and conscienceless people. The prime example from this account is Captain Hentie Botha, abductor, interrogator, torturer and killer. Like many others, he went through the motions at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), received amnesty, and then disappeared into the private security industry.

Shaik did, however, encounter a few officers at C.R. Swart police station who were more human and ameliorated the grimness of detention. And one of them, codenamed the Nightingale (whose identity remains a secret to this day), not only kept in touch with Shaik after his release, but supplied him with top secret information about security branch (SB) operations against the ANC. This was done simply by lifting, photocopying and returning hard copy files. It reveals a staggering lack of security among people we knew, and feared, as security police.

In spite of past terrors of detention, Shaik developed a liking for these clandestine operations, was eventually put in touch with Billy Nair, the Durban trade union leader, and ended up being sent to London under the false identity of Sydney May to report to the genial but enigmatic Zuma and the abrasive Mac Maharaj. There then followed a period of training in East Germany and return to underground life in Durban running a sophisticated intelligence operation using newly developed technology such as pagers and early computers. Funding was arranged by the ancient hawala system and Shaik made further incognito trips out of the country.

Information extracted from SB files revealed how fatally compromised activities in Swaziland had become. As a result, the ANC’s Durban commander Phila Ndwandwe ended up dead in a grave at the SB farm at Elandskop just outside Pietermaritzburg. Botha had struck again and there were other casualties. Each side had penetrated the other.

Shaik’s extraordinary operation was effectively taken over in 1988 by Operation Vula, a project initiated by Oliver Tambo that featured Maharaj and side-lined Zuma. This happened just as Shaik was intending to emerge from hiding. His deep infiltration of the SB became an operational part of Vula, which played a crucial role in energising the ANC inside the country ahead of negotiations. But this came to an abrupt end when Vula’s supposed safe house was raided and the SB discovered the extent to which they had been penetrated. Shaik was again on the run, Vula members were detained then charged, and there was a sense that they had all been disowned by the ANC. It is a rift that persists to this day.

Shaik, from June 1991 indemnified from prosecution, was gradually absorbed into the negotiation process that led to the 1994 elections. Here was the ex-detainee and undercover ANC agent now involved in fashioning the security services for a democratic state. Sadly, the checks and balances he and other democrats constructed have been no proof against the toxic culture of the ANC. Indeed, Shaik’s own chequered career illustrates that only too well.

Having left the world of intelligence he joined the foreign service with postings to Hamburg and Algiers. But then there was the debacle of his and Maharaj’s claim that Bulelani Ngcuka had been an apartheid-era spy. The Hefer Commission revealed that agent RS452 was in fact the human rights lawyer Vanessa Brereton. Shaik was demoted within the department of foreign affairs. This was followed by the trial and conviction of his brother, Schabir who had run the hawala system, on corruption charges connected to the arms deal. Under the Zuma administration Shaik was back in intelligence as head of the secret service working closely with overseas counterparts. But like many professionals trying to do an honest job, he fell foul of Zuma and the Guptas and the sinister figures of Richard Mdluli (police crime intelligence) and Siyabonga Cwele (minister of intelligence).

Shaik was labelled a foreign agent supposedly working for the French and left the intelligence service for good. He dwells at length on the emotional roller coaster that has characterised his life while reflecting on the expressed feelings of Nightingale and the imagined ones of Botha. He is correct that the TRC created a documented history while failing to deal with its trauma. His thoughts on the contorted world of intelligence are profound and personal: ‘old spies are left with their stories. And our regrets.’

This account of a life that spans apartheid-era and liberated South Africa is both all-too-familiar and valuable in the retelling. It moves from idealism, commitment and comradeship in the struggle against political evil to an unravelling in the sordid reality of its aftermath. Sadly, the optimistic belief of the Martinican political philosopher Aimé Césaire that ‘there is room for everyone at the rendezvous of victory’ often turns out not to be true in practice. Shaik himself puts it profoundly: ‘Unfortunately, history rarely acknowledges those who create opportunities, it simply rewards those who seize them.’ Such is the story of post-apartheid South Africa.