Police spies have, historically, been deemed the most contemptible of people. The “copper’s nark” of Britain was traditionally seen as an enemy not only of the criminal fraternity but even of the working class, and richly deserved the savage kicking he received in prisons. In Paris, police spies were on the same level as pimps, but not as valuable members of society. In South Africa, of course, the police spy was necessarily tied in with the apartheid state, and to be called an “impimpi” was as much as one’s life was worth (provided that one was weak, unprotected and unarmed — ideally an elderly female whom the brave young lions could boldly burn to death).
The exception in the West is the middle-class perspective on the political police spy. Of course Verloc in Conrad’s The Secret Agent is an unattractive figure — but then he is an agent provocateur, and working for the Czarist government whom Konrad Korteniowski necessarily disliked. But in a lot of cases the attitude is more that of I Was a Communist for the FBI — focussing on the courage of the political police spy in betraying the spy’s friends and allies on behalf of the centres of power. The same was true under the apartheid regime in South Africa, when police spies were honoured (except by those against whom they were used) — except that some felt that there was something a little problematic about them, not that anybody in authority minded.
Olivia Forsyth’s Agent 407 is, thus, interesting as being a voice from within the problematic stuff. The question is whether anybody will admire it, and also, of course, whether anybody will believe a professional deceiver.
Forsyth was mildly famous at one stage. She was a campus spy — a fairly lowly form of life, but extremely common; it was particularly easy to recruit conservative white people and get them to pretend to be left-wingers in exchange for a free university education. Such people, if they were caught, would not be necklaced or shot, but would simply be embarrassed and might have to go to some other institution. So they risked little and all they had to do was deceive the people who surrounded them, which was usually easy, and pleasing for them because conservative whites naturally despised white left-wingers even more than they despised blacks.
Forsyth comes from a fairly familiar background — part colonial, having been partly brought up in Zambia, part official, since her biological father worked for the government, living some of her time in conservative white Natal, some of her time in conservative white Pietersburg (now Polokwane, of course). So it is not very surprising that someone of this schizophrenic reactionary origin should have sought out a job with the government, first supposedly with the Foreign Service, then with the National Intelligence Service, and then with the Security Branch of the South African Police. Or maybe she was always angling for an SB job — who can say for sure?
What one can say for sure is that this is not a person whom one would trust under any circumstances. You twig this on the first page, when she is talking about how she was getting ready to be sent off to Russia for training, and how she was being escorted out of Luanda by some MK troops, thinking that they were there to defend her against FRELIMO bandits. FRELIMO were, of course, the government of Mozambique at that time, and so had they been there in Angola they would not have been bandits but allies. Also, they were the government which the South African government was trying to overthrow by sponsoring RENAMO guerrillas. In fact the people she is talking about was UNITA, who were certainly bandits, but who were enjoying the full and unqualified support of the South African and United States governments at the time. So someone who can’t tell the difference between her friends and her enemies, who gets her acronyms wrong, can hardly be trusted to know when she is telling the truth — and very probably she is being sloppy anyway because she assumes that her audience is a bunch of ignorant and politically gullible Britons.
Anyway, after a reactionary life and a brief bit of university training she was recruited as Agent RS407. She claims not to know what the initials stand for, but wonders if it meant “Republican Servant”. Unlikely, since it would have been in Afrikaans, and in Afrikaans that would be “Republikeinse Bediende”. More probably it stands for “Republikeinse Spioen”, and the fact that she didn’t think of that suggests how she is completely running away from the realities of her actual trade of treachery and falsification.
Why should she? Why should she be so inaccurate regarding details where she could check the facts with a single act of Googling? Presumably, because the truth does not matter, because what matters is something else. But what?
She started out, with apparently very limited training, as a simple spy on Rhodes campus, the most interesting campus from the perspective of the secret police in the 1980s because it was an extremely right-wing university in an extremely right-wing area, and therefore the destruction of NUSAS, the principal leftist organisation, was always a possibility; the university had already disaffiliated from NUSAS once. (NUSAS depended heavily, and ironically, on the subsidies of institutions, in return for NUSAS members largely keeping students quiet in respect of the corruption and mismanagement of academics and university authorities; it was, thus, a pensionary of the power-structure.)
However, she wanted more. She says this was her own initiative, but it seems likely that the secret police were grooming her for more. It was always assumed that white people rose rapidly within the ANC because black people had an intrinsic respect for whiteness. (While there may have been some truth to this, a reason which the racist secret police failed to consider was that whites who joined the ANC tended to be people with much more initiative and political understanding than the average, and were thus better qualified to rise.) So a white leftist inserted into the ANC might be expected to get into a significant position.
Forsyth also seems to have had one significant advantage. She was young, pretty and would fuck any man within reach. This apparent utter lack of self-respect naturally made her attractive to the thoroughly sexist males of the leadership of the white left, protecting her against exposure as a police spy — for by making herself absolutely available she proved her political virtue. It also distinguished her from the women of the white left who were usually more subordinate dogsbodies and generally had a distaste for such abjection, as a result of exposure to feminism which never troubled Forsyth. (Also, just at the time when Forsyth was becoming active, sexualised “post-feminism” was beginning to raise its head, which could have been used by Forsyth had she so wished.)
Another advantage was that since Forsyth was simply playing a part, and had no liking or respect for any of the people who surrounded her (she claims otherwise, but provides no evidence for why she might have evolved liking or respect for the people she betrayed to prison or death under the increasingly repressive politics of the era) having sex with any of them was of no more significance than the sexual activities of a porn actress; it simply didn’t count as real sex because her partners were not human.
So, having successfully betrayed NUSAS and the End Conscription Campaign at Rhodes, there was nothing for it but to go on to fight against the African National Congress, using her contacts in the white left to gain access to the ANC underground and thus make her way to Luanda and become part of the external ANC, with the possibility of a huge betrayal of the liberation movement — which, of course, for her, was not a betrayal, but simply undermining the enemy. However, unmentioned in the background of one of Forsyth’s trophy photographs of all the young people whom she was informing on to the apartheid police force is the cheerful face of the sprightly, bumptious, self-centred aspirant journalist Gavin Evans, who unbeknownst to people like Forsyth was one of the main ANC counterintelligence officers inserted into the white left. It seems quite likely that Evans was the man who recognised that Forsyth was an actor, and was probably at best a stooge and, most probably, a traitor.
Forsyth was playing in a whole new game, again unbeknownst to her; the white left inside South Africa had long ago given up all hope of curbing the vast flood of police spies (they were considered quite useful for stuffing envelopes and making platform-parties seem larger) whereas the ANC took spies seriously, partly because they were useful in maintaining an atmosphere of paranoia which benefited many of the more repressive leaders of the organisation.
So when Forsyth arrived in Luanda she was monitored, and then scrutinised, and then chucked into Quattro, a.k.a Number Four Camp, the prison camp where ANC dissidents and spies were held, abused, re-educated and sometimes debriefed. And this is the point at which the narrative really goes off the rails.
Forsyth claims that she did a deal with Ronnie Kasrils, the head of MK Intelligence (as opposed to Mbokhodo, ANC Security, which ran Quattro and was generally of much higher status and lower quality than MK Intelligence). Under this deal, she would eventually be swapped for some or other captured SWAPO or MK guerrilla, but she would really be working for MK, and would therefore be an ANC intelligence agent at the heart of the white establishment. In fact, she hints that while she had been busy betraying NUSAS at Rhodes she had undergone a complete change of heart and thereafter wanted nothing more than to be posted to spy on the ANC so that she could betray the apartheid establishment to them.
This is, of course, entirely her claim, which no conceivable evidence could substantiate. It is naturally what she might be expected to claim thirty years after the fact, when virtually everyone who could refute her claims is dead or senile. Of course it is possible that she might have so fallen in love with treachery and become so detached from reality and moral good sense that she might have pursued such an agenda for its own sake. (It is inconceivable that she might have somehow developed actual moral sense; nothing in her entire career suggests this.)
However, she obviously did some kind of deal, presumably under pressure, for she was taken out of Quattro again and placed under house arrest in Luanda. Conceivably Kasrils, who was always rather gullible and something of a grandstander, although honest according to his lights and more competent than most of those around him, was fooled by her line. Of course this would not have been a great accomplishment — she was an insignificant part of the South African espionage machinery and would not have known much more than gossip, nor been able to learn much — but MK and its allies were desperate for some modest success at this stage, their machinery in South Africa having been heavily penetrated or broken up. She then escaped from her safe-house to the British Embassy in that city. (Supposedly, the British government was highly indignant that the Angolans did not fast-track the rapid and easy repatriation of a spy from the South African government, which was then occupying and bombarding large parts of their country.)
Of course this escape makes nonsense of her claim to have wished to be a double agent for the ANC. There was no cause for such an escape unless one assumes that she remained loyal to the regime. After that she participated in a ludicrous pretense undertaken by the Security Branch under which she would pretend to have been a top agent who had successfully penetrated the ANC’s heartland and made it back with vital information, a pretense which fooled nobody who didn’t want to be fooled. Part of the deal was an arranged marriage with another secret policeman (probably the lick of truth in Forsyth’s narrative is that the Security Branch no longer trusted her) which, like the rest of her career and life, gradually faded away into the obscurity and misery which she had always richly deserved.
Why bother to write the book? Perhaps for the money, but who thought that the disingenuous fantasies of a dishonest reactionary would sell? Or was it sponsored by someone seeking to sanitise the odious history of the apartheid regime’s police spies? There are a few vague hints in the book that Forsyth would like to present herself as an anti-Communist – although this is ill-constructed and also decidedly implausible. Arguably, this is the kind of political stance which modern reactionaries try to take, and perhaps the wish to sanitise its own record on behalf of the old apartheid regime matched Forsyth’s desire to justify herself and possibly confuse the public enough to escape too much historical odium – for in the end Forsyth’s apparent lies and distortions are as likely as anything more honest and accurate to get into the history books.
Sad, really, but hardly surprising.