Allister Sparks

When spies lay claim to serving humanity

2015-06-24 12:06

Allister Sparks

Are spies good for us? By which I mean should we the people consider them to be among the good guys or the baddies?

The public image of intelligence agents varies greatly, from the glamorous figure of James Bond to George Orwell's rather less endearing Big Brother, who has entered our lexicon as a synonym for the abuse of government power.

Personally, I have always gone along with John le Carre's contention that espionage is morally incompatible with the principles of democracy. But perhaps that is because I am a journalist, and as such have not only been the subject of Big Brother's constant surveillance but have also had the experience of discovering that some of my colleagues have been covert members of that dodgy profession.

I am raising these issues because I have just read two books by former spy bosses who, while working for regimes now regarded as thoroughly disreputable, contend that they served the interests of humanity in profoundly important ways. One is by Helmut Wolf, who headed East Germany's notorious Stasi intelligence service. The other is by our own Niel Barnard, an academic whom President P W Botha plucked out of the University of the Free State at the tender age of 30 to head the apartheid regime's National Intelligence Service.

Wolf's Double Life

Wolf, who left Germany for the Soviet Union when Hitler came to power, began his career as -- yes, I hate to say it - a journalist, who covered the whole of the Nurmburg trials for Soviet newspapers. Later he worked for the KGB and was then posted to East Germany to run the Stasi.

In his book, "Man Without a Face," Wolf claims his speciality was in establishing double agents, penetrating the West German intelligence service and persuading some of its best operators to serve his organisation as well. His singular success was in recruiting Chancellor Willy Brandt's closest aide, Gunter Guillaume, to work for the Stasi. When Guillaume was unmasked, Brandt resigned -- an outcome Wolf laments, for he felt Brandt was a good man working for East-West reconciliation.

So I guess accidents happen even in that world of the all-knowing.

But Wolf's greatest claim to having been a do-gooder is his contention that through his contacts with enemy spies -- it seems they form an underground fellowship -- he was able several times to draw the world back from the brink of nuclear destruction.

The argument here is that political leaders have to play to their electorates, which can lead to utterances that may cause their enemies to over-react, so starting a dangerous spiral of counter threats. It is then the job of the intelligence agencies, who know the real thinking of their opponents through their underground contacts, to cool the situation.  

Barnard's Secret Mission

In the same vein, Barnard claims to have been the key figure in bringing about South Africa's transition from apartheid to democracy. In his book, "Secret Revolution," he recounts how he did so by holding about 50 secret meetings with Nelson Mandela while the latter was in prison. He contends that he was able to do this because he was a shadowy figure out of the public eye, and therefore able to speak frankly with the imprisoned ANC leader and keep his own leader, P W Botha, informed.

There is nothing new in the fact that such secret discussions took place. That has long been known: I wrote about them in my own account of the transition, "Tomorrow is Another Country," 21 years ago. What is new are the fascinating details of those conversations between Barnard and Mandela, and the conversations between Mandela and his fellow activists, including his wife Winnie, on their visits to him in Victor Verster prison, which Barnard admits to having secretly taped and passages of which he now discloses.

What I also found fascinating is not so much the influence Barnard had on Mandela's thinking during those exchanges, but rather the reverse. Barnard admits that at the outset he was a fairly orthodox believer in National Party policy; he felt there was a real chance Botha would be able to pull off some kind of power-sharing deal based on an expansion of his tricameral parliament structure to include the black population.

But in the course of his exchanges with Mandela he came to realise that was unrealistic, and that black majority rule was inevitable. It became his duty to tell Botha that.

That is valuable historical information, and Barnard deserves acclamation for making it public.

But there are two themes in his book with which I take issue. One is his admiration for P W Botha and his relative contempt for President F W de Klerk. In essence he seems to feel that Botha, by initiating those contacts with Mandela, did all the politically courageous groundwork for a settlement, only for De Klerk, coming to power after Botha suffered a stroke, to take all the credit for consummating a deal that had already been set up for him.

Spies versus Politicians

I take a much harsher view of Botha. I was a close observer of events in those days and I believe the severity of Botha's stroke has been exaggerated to defend his image. I believe he reached a point where he knew he had to release Mandela and cut a deal with him, but just didn't have the guts to take that final leap. He had been embedded in the party all his life, from youth leader to President, and baulked at doing what would have amounted to renouncing his entire life.

De Klerk did have the guts to do that, and Barnard demeans him by not acknowledging it.

I take issue even more strongly with Barnard's dismissal, indeed resentment, of all other players, and there were many, in the drama of political persuasion that took place in those transition days . He seems to regard them as intruders in a mediation job that should have left to him alone.

"The foreigners who posed as peacemakers had counterparts, as it were, inside the country," he writes. "A wide range of people, from romantics and politicians to cynics and academics, held talks with the ANC, some perhaps with good intentions, others with no more than an eye on their own interests."

Elsewhere Barnard refers to "these unofficial negotiators" who got in the way of his work. "We could not trust these self-appointed negotiators," he writes. "Each wanted his own pound of flesh, which bedevilled our process."

So much for the efforts of Frederik van Zyl Slabbert, US Secretary of State Chester Crocker, British Ambassador Robin Renwick, who set up a critical meeting at Checkers between F W de Klerk and Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher that I am told may have been the final clincher. As well as the likes of the Rev Beyers Naude and Allan Boesak, whose influence in arousing moral doubts  about the policy of apartheid I thought was a major factor.

So remember, folks, keep out of the way and leave it all to Big Brother -- who now seems to have acquired about four siblings, who spy on each other as well we the people and report to former ANC spy-boss Jacob Zuma.

News24 encourages freedom of speech and the expression of diverse views. The views of columnists published on News24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of News24.


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