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Ghosts of the past: How Jacob Zuma and other ANC political figures unwittingly interacted with Apartheid’s best spy

The release of the full transcript of an ‘in camera’ Section 29 TRC inquiry into the death of two young MK operatives, Robbie Waterwitch and Coline Williams, who were killed when a zero-timed limpet mine exploded during an action in Athlone in 1989, has revealed various cross-currents in the impossibly murky world of underground secrecy and subterfuge that existed at the time. In the 1997 interview, fellow activist Geoffrey Brown maintains he did not know he had been registered as a NIA source and reveals that he also inadvertently introduced Jacob Zuma, Trevor Manuel and various other high level political operatives to the National Intelligence Service's “best” Apartheid spy. By MARIANNE THAMM

It was the worst of times.

In the late 1980s South Africa was plunged into a countrywide low-grade civil war. While Nelson Mandela and PW Botha had already begun secret talks, outside of this enclave of delicate negotiation, in the rest of the country, pockets of chaos erupted. As internal resistance to the Apartheid regime grew, police clamped down ruthlessly. Explosions, usually detonated by limpet mines, were routine. Targets were magistrates courts, police stations and various other government buildings. Anti-Apartheid activists across the country led itinerant lives of instability, mistrust and secrecy as spies and informers infiltrated underground anti-Apartheid networks.

It was in this atmosphere that two young underground uMkhonto weSizwe (MK) activists, students Robbie Waterwitch and Coline Williams, both 20, who were also members of the Ashley Kriel detachment in the Western Cape, were tasked with placing a limpet mine at the Athlone Magistrate’s court on the Sunday evening of 23 July 1989. The target had been selected specifically because it was to be used in upcoming elections for the ‘tricameral’ Parliament in September that year. There had been vehement opposition to the notion of a tricameral parliament in which the government of the day provided sham representation to only white, coloured and Indian “voters”.

Williams and Waterwitch both died in an explosion when the limpet mine prematurely detonated. It was later confirmed that the Ashley Kriel detachment had been infiltrated by a state agent, Shane Oliver, who supplied security police with information on activities of the cell. It has never been conclusively established who provided the two with the mine primed to explode on activation.

However, the deaths of Williams and Waterwich set off a series of events – hasty attempts at ridding Waterwitch’s home of any possibly incriminating evidence, including literature, an AK47 that had been concealed in the ceiling, rounds of ammunition as well as a limpet mine stashed behind the bath – and which later would call into question some of the actions by those – including Geoff Brown – who were tasked with this emergency cleanup.

Ironically the AK47 that had been removed from Waterwitch’s home after his death and handed to underground ANC structures for safekeeping was the same weapon used several years later to offer unofficial security to a subsequently freed Nelson Mandela on a visit to Mitchell’s Plain in the early 1990s.

Information that Brown had conducted paid research and analysis for a company called H&H (which it was later revealed was an Apartheid National Intelligence Service front) is not new. Brown has for several years denied that he provided any detailed reports on fellow activists and that he had conducted paid macro socio-political research for the company believing it was a legitimate operation. He said he provided a professional service on the greater South African political situation, as did many consultants at the time.

Recently the South African History Archive gained access from the justice department to 174 of the Section 29 ‘secret’ hearings of individuals suspected of having knowledge of “some of Apartheid’s most heinous crimes”. Those who testified at these hearings did so under oath and could be prosecuted for perjury. The idea behind these hearings was to encourage the confidential provision of a full and free disclosure without the threat of a subsequent criminal charge.

What does come to light in Brown’s Section 29 hearing is that he was responsible for inadvertently introducing Jacob Zuma, Trevor Manuel, PAC secretary general Maxwell Nemadzivhanani, SACP central committee member Garth Strachan as well as many other anti-Apartheid activists to Johan Hattingh, an Afrikaner intellectual and academic who was one of the NIA’s most effective undercover agents.

The backstory here, and which is not clear from this hearing, is that at the time – during the late 1980s – many Afrikaner intellectuals, writers, academics and businessmen were engaged in attempts at making contact with the ANC internally and in exile. Away from the street battles between anti-Apartheid activists and the SADF and police, key players in the National Party and the ANC were sounding each other out on the possibility of a negotiated future, unthinkable to those unaware of these meetings at the time.

Hattingh, a wealthy Free State businessman – described as one of the Apartheid government’s “best NIS operatives” – was involved in the apparently progressive “think tank”, the Foundation for Contemporary Research (FCR) as well as the Africa-Trans news Agency. Through these he managed, without their knowledge, to make contact with and sometimes register a long list (estimated to consist of over 200 people) of journalists, community workers and prominent activists as intelligence sources.

Brown had been introduced to Hattingh in 1987 by academic Dr Richard Stevens. The two men had subsequently developed a friendship and working relationship. Many individuals who later became prominent politicians, including Ebrahim Rasool, were drawn into Hattingh’s vast network – Rasool was a board member of the FCR – and were shocked to discover that the businessman had been an Apartheid agent.

Hattingh had registered Brown as a source in June 1989, a month before Williams and Waterwitch were killed. This detail, of course, later raised suspicions about Brown’s connection to or involvement with the deaths of the two activists, an involvement he has always denied.

Rumours and accusations have followed Brown into democratic South Africa highlighting the painfully damaging and insidious after effects of Apartheid’s “dirty tricks” on the lives of those who were knowingly or unwittingly drawn into the dark matrix. The tragedy, as Jacob Dlamini attempts to explore in his award-winning book ‘Askari’, is how the state attempted to morally compromise anti-Apartheid activists – with or without their knowledge. It is this pain of being “tainted” that some continue to grapple and live with, including Brown.

In the Section 29 hearing Brown states: “Subsequent to his [Robbie’s] death and some period afterwards I came to learn through the grapevine that people were suggesting, and even claiming strongly, that I was responsible for the death of Robbie Waterwich and Coline Williams. Responsible for his death, not because of an accident, but rather that this was planned because as some allegations went I actively worked for the Apartheid government security service and that this operation was probably an operation of theirs. This rumour and allegations have cost me many sleepless nights and hardships, both emotionally and professionally. At one point I heard that there was in fact an attempt by some to eliminate me. To this day I do not know how authentic this story was about the elimination and who, if any, was supposed to eliminate me. I also do not know where the origin of this rumour lies and the allegation that I was responsible for the death of these two youngsters. It, however, caused me tremendous professional grief. I did what I thought was the right thing to do in terms of this situation.”

At the time of the blast, Brown had worked as a co-ordinator and manager at the Student Resource Centre at the University of the Western Cape. Waterwitch was a student at UWC and would interact with Brown on a daily basis. Brown said he viewed Waterwich, who was a member of the Belgravia Youth Congress as “a brother”.

Robbie learnt a lot from me. We had lengthy political discussions into early hours of the morning. He looked up to me. He was a fast learner, he read a lot, he was a dedicated activist in the Athlone community. He had an exceptional personality. I don’t think that there was anybody that disliked Robbie Waterwich, not of my knowledge, but he was also a militant and a staunch supporter of the African National Congress. I met Robbie Waterwich in his capacity as the leader of the local Belgravia Youth Congress, which was an affiliate of the South African Youth Congress when I was asked to present a paper to members of his organisation explaining the concept, Colonialism of a Special type, which was at that point the dominant theoretical perspective in the African National Congress that explained the nature of South African society.”

Brown said that he was not a member of the Ashley Kriel detachment, to which Waterwitch and Williams (as well as others) belonged. The commander of the detachment was Melvyn Bruintjies who worked, at the time, for the Churches Urban Planning Commission in Salt River. Brown however, who had received military training and was a political officer, had also been tasked with recruiting members to another ‘cell’ which had been commanded by Terence Tryon.

During the lengthy Section 29 hearing, TRC investigator Zenzile Khoisan attempted to ascertain how Brown had known that Melvyn Bruintjies had been Williams and Waterwitch’s cell commander as this was information that was highly secret and unlikely to be known to anyone outside of the cell. Khoisan’s suggestion is that in revealing himself to Brown, Bruintjies had compromised this secrecy and the cell. Brown, however, said he had approached Bruintjies after he had learned of the blast that had killed the students because he had been concerned that others might have been compromised. He had made the connection to Bruintjies, said Brown, through “observation”.

I went to him because my earlier observations, as an underground operative anywhere, told me that Robbie and Melvyn had a ‘special’ connection, ‘special’ in inverted commas. I asked Melvyn whether he had any knowledge of the situation regarding Robbie’s disappearance. He, without hesitation indicated that it was indeed Robbie Waterwitch and Coline Williams who died in the explosion, and that he was Robbie and Coline’s military commander, and that he was indeed commanding that specific operation.”

Brown said that on the Sunday night of the explosion he had been out with his wife having dinner at a friend’s home in Mitchell’s Plain.

The following day at work, at the University of Western Cape, many people spoke about this bomb blast and were seemingly unaware of the identity of the two people that were killed in the explosion. That evening, the Monday, some of Robbie’s Youth Congress colleagues came to my house to inform me that Robbie has not turned up at home this Sunday. This made me concerned and worried. I went to see Robbie’s mother and other members of his family. They were obviously very concerned at this point. I gave a commitment to them that I will investigate the matter.”

On the Tuesday Brown had visited Bruintjies. Bruintjies had, said Brown, informed him that “he was in some sort of security predicament and requested me to assist him in removing some remaining weapons from Robbie’s house”. Brown had not thought this would be difficult as he had been a regular and “open” visitor to Waterwitch’s home. Brown then immediately drove to a school where Waterwitch’s uncle, Basil Snayers, taught and the two men went to the student’s home.

We then went together to the house where Basil informed the rest of the family about the fact that it was indeed Robbie that died in the explosion. I in turn informed them that Robbie was a member of Umkhonto weSizwe. This was based on the information that I received from Melvyn and there was in fact no reason why I should have doubted his bona fides. Melvyn also gave me a very detailed idea of where the remaining weapons were. I then removed it. I also cleared the house of all sorts of books and papers that might link Robbie in any way to anything political. These items were not many and as far as I was concerned not of any relevance. Most of these items have gone missing because of me moving house several times. The only items that I kept were some personal photographs of Robbie and a denim jacket that his mother gave me as a gift. The weapons included an AK-47, three rounds of ammunition, one limpet mine. These weapons were all stored in the roof of the house and the limpet mine behind the bath.”

The AK-47 and rounds of ammunition were later handed over to Andre Lincoln employed in the ANC’s department of intelligence and security and later as a senior a policeman in their crime intelligence division in the Western Cape.

Two weeks later Brown left South Africa for Harare, Zimbabwe, where he reported back on the situation to Geraldine Fraser-Moleketi, Derek Hanekom and Garth Strachan, who Brown maintains were his underground commanders.

TRC investigator Khoisan quizzed Brown on whether he had ever been suspicious or cautious of Hattingh particularly in those politically charged times when it was known that many undercover state spies had infiltrated the movement. He also asked about the nature of the reports Brown had supplied Hattingh’s company.

My understanding of Hattingh was that he comes from a rich family. His father owns semi-industrialised cattle farms and mealie farms and potato farms in the Free State province, so he’s not poor. I never felt uncomfortable about my relationship with him because I never did or gave him anything that could lead to such uncomfortability.”

Brown said while he had introduced Hattingh to people he had no idea of what type of relationship evolved from these introductions.

So in the sense, for example, I introduced him to Jacob Zuma, and subsequent to that they would have their own meetings or contacts or whatever. What transpired there is really – I am not familiar with that. I think most of the documentation that I saw at hand about the research done was quite substantial and it was not mischievous. The conclusions was on various strategic issues, and local government and development questions and economic questions. But as far as my knowledge stretches, and I – this is only on the basis of my relationship with him is that there was nothing mischievous.”

(Watch: Vigil for Robbie Waterwitch & Coline Williams)

Brown was asked whether he had informed his command structures in the ANC of his relationship with Hattingh and the paid work he had performed for him. He replied that he had done so, but only in “vague detail”.

MR KHOISAN: And what was their response?

MR BROWN: We never really went into it. The only thing is that they told me is to be careful.

MR KHOISAN: They told you to be careful of him?

MR BROWN: No not of him, to be careful.

MR KHOISAN: To be careful.

The 151-page transcript provides some insight into the violent and turbulent late 1980s in the Western Cape when hundreds of young activists were detained, tortured and killed. It also reveals the complexity and dangers of working “underground” in a deeply compromised atmosphere. Kriel, after whom the detachment Coline and Robbie had belonged to had been named, was a 20-year-old MK member who was brutally murdered when he was found by security police hiding in a “safe house” in Athlone on 9 July 1987. Jeff Benzien, a well-known and ruthless security policeman at the time, later received amnesty for his role in Kriel’s murder.

Another young MK activist, Anton Fransch, also 20, died in a nine hour shootout with police in November 1989, four months after Robbie and Coline’s deaths. And there were many more. Many of those who survived, like Brown, are today in their 40s. Some have managed to rebuild their lives, working in government. Others continue to live with the ghosts of the past. DM

Photo: Robbie Waterwitch (Image captured from Oryxmedia tribute); Coline Williams (image captured from Oryxmedia tribute)

Read more:

  • The full transcipt of the Section 29 TRC inquiry into the death of MK operatives, Robbie Waterwitch and Coline Williams.