Truths, lies and looking in the mirror



IT’S EASY TO judge someone proven to be in the wrong, someone unmasked and publicly shamed. It’s easy to tut-tut about someone’s malleability in the face of complicated lures. It’s also easy to voice judgemental opinions through the gauze of history, and long after the fact. This is not what Jonathan Ancer stoops to in his book Betrayal. While this anthology of spy stories is as racy and un-putdownable as a John Le Carré compendium, there’s a spot of soul in each piece, which segues fact and supposition, the inner and outer stories of some of South Africa’s best known spies.

But this is no Pollyanna foray: Ancer’s writing is muscular, sophisticated and tight, it reflects strong journalistic acumen, insatiable curiosity and an unafraid tendency toward chatty levity. Written largely in the first person, the book is as much about Ancer’s research forays and the rebuffs and antagonisms he’s faced in the process, as it is about the stories he tells. And further to that, it offers an informed trajectory of history laid out through context, legislation and political incidents that gives potent voice to this country.

Arguably, the heart of this impressive book with its 1950s redolent cover, is the response Ancer got from so-called superspy Craig Williamson to Ancer’s 2017 significant work  Spy: Uncovering Craig Williamson that covered the gruesome history of the guy everyone knew but few knew about, who sat at the helm of left white student politics from the 1960s. He wasn’t amused. Indeed, he was at earnest pains to describe the complexity of the job of spook.

To Ancer’s credit, he hears the man and he extrapolates on what it must take to be able to ostensibly form relationships with people but never really be honest to them, and what this must do to one’s sense of self. It’s a terrifying recipe, and when you read the sad tale of Joy Harnden, or even that of Mark Behr, you’re imbued with a strong understanding of what it really must take to be fingered as vulnerable enough to be conned into a double life by some wouldbe handler who sees you as a soft enough touch. And then, how that vortex takes your whole life into its whirligig.

Unlike Spy, which is an exercise in detailed immersive research, Betrayal is a beautiful sample of journalistic succinctness. Complicated tales are told sparingly but with well-researched detail, clear narrative bones and a conveying of character that would enable you to recognise these complicated pariahs if they walked past you in the street. From Jennifer Miles who used pillow talk as a strategy to Gordon Brookbanks who became a well-loved history teacher, the work, filled with real people and their quandaries, is eminently readable and wise in its construction, clarity and liberal use of shocking detail, which never stoops to the baldly sensational, but which offers astute insight into the hows and wherefores around the phenomenon of the spy.

It leaves you with a grim and moving realisation that evil doesn’t reside with comfort in the hearts of any of these people. Indeed, Betrayal examines the notion of what makes a bad person, in a similar way to how Mary Shelley plays with the notion in her 1817 work, Frankenstein. Not a thing is cut and dried. Betrayal is a very important book which should prove valuable as a research tool as well as an asset on any discerning reader’s book shelf.

  • Betrayal: The Secret Lives of Apartheid Spies by Jonathan Ancer is published by Tafelberg, Cape Town (2019).

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