South Africa


A Nightingale Sang in CR Swart Square: Moe Shaik and the greatest story not yet told

A Nightingale Sang in CR Swart Square: Moe Shaik and the greatest story not yet told

Moe Shaik, a former uMkhonto weSizwe operative and intelligence boss, has opened up about his life in the shadows. A soon-to-be-released autobiography sets out how Shaik apologised to Bulelani Ngcuka for making public an ANC investigation into ‘probable spies’ in its ranks. And there’s a lot more.

“The Nightingale” is a legend in the ANC’s counter-intelligence lore. As improbable as it may seem, it was this white, Afrikaner Security Branch (SB) policeman who provided the liberation party’s counter-intelligence structures with a list of alleged “probable” apartheid agents (spies) who had infiltrated the movement.

The extent of the infiltration has always been staggering and difficult to understand.

Writing on South Africa in 1986, Pulitzer-prize winning journalist Joseph Lelyveld in Move Your Shadow – South Africa in Black and White, recounts a meeting with then-exiled ANC leader, Oliver Tambo, and his response to SB member, a General Coetzee’s boasts about the extent of the state’s infiltration of the ANC.

“At one time there was a group of 10 [ANC members who had gone into exile], and only one of them was genuine,” Tambo was quoted as responding.

“Sometimes, this has happened to people who were highly respected in our ranks, who had behaved very well, were disciplined and sounded very committed and certainly performed all their tasks very satisfactory. Well, we’ve learned all that,” Tambo told Lelyveld.

The work that the Nightingale performed for the ANC – the leaking of top-secret SB files – was invaluable to the movement.

But it was work that still feeds the hungry ghosts which stalk the country’s body politic.

Wherever you turn, there are secrets, some vaporised by the apartheid state in the furnaces of forgetting, while the whispers that the spies and agents still move among us continue behind cupped hands.

This shadow world of intelligence, as those who inhabit it know, can exact a terrible moral price.

For Moe Shaik, this far down the line, “you come to despise the knowing and long for the comfort of ignorance”.

In his soon-to-be-released, highly engaging autobiography, The ANC Spy Bible – Surviving Across Enemy Lines, Shaik candidly reveals “all intelligence services direct their efforts at corrupting the morality of others. To justify this effort we call these people ‘targets’. In that calling, we seek to make ourselves superior.”

Of his relationship with the Nightingale, which endured beyond their mutual spy work, Shaik writes “both he and I live our lives trapped in time. We are linked to a horrible past and although we acted honourably, it will not let us go.”

“The Nightingale is my hero, my hero, broken by the lack of generosity of those that wield power, callously forgotten by the passage of time,” writes Shaik.

It was the Nightingale’s leaking of state secrets to the ANC which led to the formation of Operation Bible, led by Moe Shaik and endorsed in 1987 by the ANC’s leadership in exile, including Tambo, Aziz Pahad and Jacob Zuma.

It was also information gathered through Operation Bible which was fed into Operation Vula, an underground operation launched in 1986 to infiltrate operatives into South Africa. This in order to open a line of communication between ANC leaders in exile and those in South Africa. Vula members included Billy Nair, Mac Maharaj and Pravin Gordhan.

The Nightingale’s files have lived a life beyond apartheid as it was these very state secrets – on both sides – which came later to be deployed in the heat of a new struggle in post-democratic South Africa; the struggle within the ANC itself – between those who supported then-president Thabo Mbeki and his successor, Zuma.

Then ta-da … enter the Arms Deal.

In 2002, it became apparent that the Scorpions with Ngcuka as head, were investigating charges involving Moe’s brother, Shabir and Zuma, elected deputy president of the ANC in 1997 and later deputy president of South Africa in 1999.

As Ngcuka and the Scorpions circled and the factionalism in the party began to tear it apart, Shaik resurrected the Operation Bible file opened on Ngcuka in 1988.

And that is how it came to pass that Shaik alleged that Ngcuka was a “probable” spy, a period he describes in his biography as “the worst in my life”.

He accepted the findings of the Hefer Commission, instituted by Mbeki, that “Mr Ngcuka probably never acted as an agent for a pre-1994 government security service”, and he had sought “redemption” from Ngcuka afterwards.

“I met with Bulelani Ngcuka and his wife Phumzile and apologised to them for the hurt I had caused. They were gracious in their acceptance,” Shaik writes in his autobiography.

Back in 2004, Shaik had also written to then ANC secretary-general Kgalema Motlanthe, “apologising for my actions and the disrepute that I had brought on the organisation. I profoundly regretted my actions. I still do. I should not have made the investigation public.”

But at the time, Shaik told the Hefer Commission, as media coverage raged about arms deal corruption, “I became apprehensive about the intentions of Bulelani Ngcuka”.

In his submission to the Hefer Commission, Shaik wrote: “From that day [23 August 2003 when Ngcuka held a Press Conference announcing there was a prima facie case against Zuma] to this, the Deputy President [Zuma] has tried to clear his name.

“Like Jesus Christ, he was to discover how cruel and devious Pontius Pilate was. At the sight of my comrade, commander and friend, carrying his cross to that place where he was to be crucified, I could endure his pain no longer. I refused to stay silent and be a curious on-looker at this spectacle.”

In his memoir, Shaik now acknowledges that he was “wrong in my belief that institutions can withstand bad leaders. They cannot.”

“The intelligence services under the Zuma government were converted into an agency that served the narrow power of the state and the insecurities of the president. I will never know when precisely Zuma lost his way.”

It was the Nightingale’s information that had identified agent RS452 and which had led Operation Bible’s operatives to conclude, or surmise that Ngcuka was “most probably” an apartheid spy.

“Our findings were forwarded to the ANC intelligence headquarters. Mac had independently informed President Tambo of this development. No action was taken against Ngcuka. I dropped the matter and moved on,” writes Shaik in his autobiography.

But Mbeki, long before he decided to appoint the Hefer Commission of Inquiry into Maharaj and Shaik’s allegations, had been well appraised, even while still in exile, of Operation Bible, its work, and what the files had contained.

Mbeki could have, writes Shaik, simply requested Maharaj to “cease and desist” with the Ngcuka expose.

“Their meeting in August 2003 had discussed this very thing. Why did he not, as the president of the ANC, say to Mac, ‘I instruct you not to take this matter any further’?”

Writing in Shades of Difference, his voluminous 2007 history of the ANC and Maharaj in particular, scholar Padraig O’Malley described Mbeki’s appointment of the Hefer Commission as “his most venal move”.

“Whether for reasons great or petty, he gave the thumbs up for the revolution, like most revolutionary movements in history, to start eating its own – a time to settle old scores, personal and ideological, a time to get down to what post-revolutionary movements do best; marginalise old comrades and trample on others in the stampede for power.

“Some did it with the guillotine, some with civil wars, some with show trials, some with show commissions,” wrote O’Malley.

Shaik describes in his book that Mbeki’s silence about the fact that the ANC had been aware of the Operation Bible list of “probable” spies was “unsettling”.

“His silence was a dereliction of duty as president of the ANC. His silence unsettled the nation, his organisation and brought hurt and pain to the individuals concerned in this sorry saga.”

At the start of the Hefer Commission, Mbeki, writes Shaik, had amended the terms – leaving it up to Maharaj and Shaik to prove that Ngcuka had been investigated, and to demonstrate that he was indeed abusing the office of the National Director of Public Prosecutions (NDPP).

Later, Mbeki again tightened the terms – placing the onus on the two men to actually prove Ngcuka was a spy. But in the end, it all came to naught as the real agent RS452, Vanessa Brereton, a lawyer, stepped out of the shadows.

For Shaik, the fascination with unravelling secrets began at a very young age. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, five boys were born to Rabia and Lambie Shaik in Johannesburg. They were Faizal, Schabir, Yunis, Moe and Shamin (Chippy), almost all of whom would come to play a role in pre- and post-democratic South Africa.

Sometime after the birth of her sixth son, Salim in 1960, Rabia left Lambie and the six sons the couple had had. A year later, she tragically died in a car accident leaving her fourth son, Moe, whose nickname was Two Five, bereft and confused.

“My father’s silence about her was impenetrable and because of this, she intrigued me to no end. His silence and the distance Rabia’s family kept from us compounded the mystery of my mother.”

The Nightingale, writes Shaik, was “turned” in 1986 when he [the Nightingale] walked into Shaik’s optometry practice in Durban and volunteered to hand over the Security Branch’s files.

The two had first met when Moe and his brother Yunis had been detained and sadistically tortured in 1985 by SB officers who had offices at CR Swart Square, the Durban provincial headquarters of the police.

Witnessing this relentless torture, it seems, tripped the moral switch for the Nightingale, who, to this day, has not been identified, or honoured for his remarkable role.

But this game of secrets, writes Shaik, ultimately comes to destroy those who play it.

“Eventually you become a stranger to those close to you. In time, you lose the ability to see the wonder of all living things. You become accustomed to the intrigues of human nature.

“You live in the hope that one day you will find your way back to those things that were once important. But it is a long road. Some of it seldom travel its length. I suppose, in the end when the excitement of events and actions is long forgotten, old spies are left with their stories. And our regrets.”

To the person he called the Nightingale, Shaik writes: “I want to say ‘thank you’ for all you have done. You are a true hero; you have much to be proud about.”

Shaik’s 247-page memoir, co-authored with author Mike Nicol, is a layered and engrossing story which moves at a clipping pace, exposing one man’s vulnerabilities, triumphs and regrets. It is a vital addition to the growing understanding of our past and perhaps our future. DM


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