South Africa

The spy who went into the cold, or, When the ANC turns on its own

By Ranjeni Munusamy 24 October 2012

A layer of people who should have been ready to take the baton from the Zuma-Mbeki generation seems to have disappeared. Former MK combatant and spy chief Barry Gilder is one such person. His gripping memoir reveals how ANC politics and governance collide. By RANJENI MUNUSAMY.

In the postlude to his recently released epic book Songs and Secrets, Barry Gilder reflects on the departure of former National Intelligence Agency (NIA) Director General Vusi Mavimbela from the presidency in late 2010. The two had worked together in ANC intelligence and later in state intelligence and were close comrades and friends. President Zuma asked Mavimbela to leave after serving just over a year as director general in the presidency after running battles between senior officials.

He also notes the departure last year of three top intelligence officials, Gibson Njenje, Jeff Maqetuka and Moe Shaik, in quick succession after irreconcilable conflict with State Security Minister Siyabonga Cwele.  

“Today, there is hardly a director general in government that I know. In other countries, directors general are called ‘permanent secretaries’.” The reader can almost feel the author’s restraint from commenting further on the matter, although it is an obvious pointer to the ANC policy of cadre deployment chewing up and spitting out its own.

Personality clashes and conflicts between ministers and senior government officials in recent years have forced a rapid turnover in the upper echelons of the public service and a virtual cleanout of ANC people in the administration.

Gilder himself retired from the public service in 2007, at the age of 57, after being demoted in 2005 from director general of the Department of Home Affairs to head of the National Intelligence Co-ordinating Committee. His “redeployment” followed a breakdown in the relationship with then-Minister of Home Affairs Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula.  

Gilder resigned just before the ANC’s Polokwane conference. He insists he left because he was mentally exhausted, not because of the succession battle between Zuma and former President Thabo Mbeki or because of the fallout in the intelligence community at the time. Gilder is currently director of operations at the Mapungubwe Institute for Strategic Reflection, a policy think-tank set up by former senior ANC and government leaders.

Gilder states at the beginning of his memoir that he is neither a disaffected intelligence officer exposing secrets in revenge for wrongs done to him nor a disillusioned ANC cadre.

“The intention was to rise above current adversarial discourse about whither South Africa and provide insights into the realities of the journey from liberation movement to government,” Gilder writes.

In an interview, Gilder says he did not want the book to be used by any of the factions in the ANC. “I also didn’t want to use the book to fight my own battles. But I did try to convey that I didn’t get over my redeployment from Home Affairs.”

One of these battles he is referring to is with former NIA and Home Affairs Director General Billy Masetlha, now a member of the ANC’s National Executive Committee. There is clearly no love lost between the two, but Gilder restrains himself from delving into the conflict or revealing his revulsion towards Masetlha. And although former Intelligence Minister Ronnie Kasrils mentored Gilder in his early years in exile, their relationship in government was not on the best of terms.

What makes the book poignant is that it is essentially a love story of Gilder’s relationship with the ANC and the eventual heartbreak of not feeling needed. It traces his journey from the National Union of South African Students, the white student left-wing organisation, to his exile in 1976 and on to the ANC’s military camps in Angola, where he became a respected member of Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK). From there he went to Moscow for intelligence training and to the underground in Botswana.

It also provides a perspective of global events as they unfolded and coincided with the liberation struggle, and a unique insight into the ANC’s extensive machinery in exile. Gilder says most of the discourse about the anti-Apartheid struggle is recorded by people outside or on the periphery of the ANC. He was one of the few members of the “1976 generation” in the ANC who had exile experience as well as espionage training in the Soviet Union.

Although these were exceptionally difficult periods in the ANC’s history, Gilder’s memory of events is laced with an enduring romanticism about his organisation. His nostalgia is profound. Like many former MK combatants and exiled leaders, the events and strife of the past 10 years has evoked a melancholy for the ANC of yesteryear, when its leaders were also heroes, when comradeship was what bound them.  

Gilder admits these were treasured and politically inspiring times of his life, although there were times he thought he might die. The book also shares his intense grief at the deaths of his comrades, particularly his friend Manqoba who was killed in the Matola raid in Maputo in 1981. The postlude includes a moving note to his deceased friend about issues tormenting him at the time he was writing the book.

“What do you make of this new South Africa we have built? Does it even approximate the South Africa we dreamed about in The Coffee (a meeting place in the ANC’s Quibaxe training camp in Angola)? And our movement? You see this fight between comrades Thabo and JZ? Does it make sense to you? From where you are, can you see into the future? Will we get over this? I’m sorry to disturb your peace. I miss you, mfo (Zulu for brother).”

Gilder says he also wanted to tell the story of the transition and how difficult it was to go into government and turn Apartheid around. He says the ANC had to contend with the “extreme influence of co-option” into the state, which took ideological and practical forms, and accept certain fundamentals in order to maintain economic balances.

Intelligence was not his chosen career, Gilder says. Yet, his training and experience in ANC intelligence made him essential to the spy machinery in the new government. He served in various positions in the state intelligence services and had rare insight into the passages of power. But Home Affairs was where he eventually found his groove, working initially under IFP President Mangosuthu Buthelezi, who was still the minister when Gilder was deployed to the department.

But this is also when the ANC started to take strain from its internal battles which impacted on the state machinery. From 2003 onwards, senior officials began to fall as turbulence in the party caused turmoil in the state. The ANC’s own were the most affected and damaged by the party’s battles. After being pushed out of Home Affairs, Gilder stuck out two years as co-ordinator for intelligence before he called it quits under severe stress. He is now attempting to live a normal life.    

Gilder’s story is unique in many ways – his musical talents rather than his race made him stand out from the rest. (Gilder is a singer and guitarist, whose struggle songs and musical renditions become renowned in the ANC camps and in exile.) He worked under legendary figures in the ANC in exile and was witness to some of the highest and lowest points of the liberation struggle. His experience in the state machinery shows how the ANC has struggled with governance and how its factional battles impact its ability to run the state.  

His is a story of triumph and loss. But mostly it is the tale of a soldier who fights a long and hard battle but eventually walks away from his army at war with itself. When the ANC one day reaches the point where it has to look back to find where things went wrong, it should remember what it did to men like Gilder. The ANC once had people in its ranks that possessed tremendous skill and commitment to public service. Many such people were placed on the altar of sacrifice in the name of political expediency, narcissism and factional interests.
As a result, out in the wilderness sits a legion of people who no longer have a place in their organisation and who can only sit and watch in despair as their beloved ANC self-destructs. Not a fairy tale, this story. DM

Photo: Gary Gilder (Daily Maverick)

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