South Africa: Home truths

In apartheid South Africa the security forces had the state's blessing to spy on, harass and `eliminate' its opponents. Gavin Evans should know - he was on their hit list, and fled to London. But when he went back recently to track down his police files, he found the new regime a little less than welcoming
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Let's start with the handshake - his, at least, was something other than welcoming. More like, "I'm in charge here, boy, and you seem to need a bit of pain to get the point." At the other end of the bonecrusher fist was 6ft 7in-worth of mortician from Central Casting. No introduction; merely a sneer: "Had any personal experience of crime and violence since returning to this new South Africa of yours?" I informed him that a friend's Mini I had borrowed had been nicked in Johannesburg a few hours earlier.

I was on the final lap of a quest to discover why a military hit squad had attempted to assassinate me in the dying days of apartheid. In particular, I was trying to dig out of the dossiers kept on me by the agency responsible for the plot - Military Intelligence (MI). After being brushed off by the brass, I applied to the state attorney, Ben Minaar, who, after months of prevarication, gave me permission to "peruse" the files. Which is why I was in his Pretoria office on a hot 1998 summer morning, expecting an enlightening read.

But the big man was not going to make it easy for me. "How do I know you are who you say you are? You say you're Gavin Evans but for all I know you could be Hannes Smit [a 60-something newspaper editor]."

"Are you seriously pursuing this?" I asked, offering my identity document.

He waved it away: "Just making a point."

"I didn't catch your name."

"Willem Adriaan van Deventer, Brigadier."

It sounded ominously familiar. "Military Intelligence, by any chance?"

"Ja, Military Intelligence and working directly in the office of the Minister of Defence, Mr Joe Modise," he replied.

The Brigadier was not a man used to being interrogated. "I foresee problems. First, we in MI destroyed certain files in 1993. Second, there are legal complications." I reminded him these had been resolved. "Listen," he continued, "if we let you see those files, you may ascertain who was supplying this information on you, which could lead to criminal charges against members of the defence force - and we wouldn't want that." Before I could say, "speak for yourself", he completed his monologue with, "Anyway, Mr Evans, the final decision on this matter rests with the Minister of Defence, and I report directly to him."

Ben Minaar suggested another meeting and as a sop he handed over a military file packed with 145 pages of press clippings on me (some of my own writings, others on me from MI publications and the mainstream press). The Brigadier began flicking through the pages quickly, until, noticing the source of his concern, I snatched away the file. Its flow continued seamlessly through to 1995, suggesting MI had continued to keep tabs on me for at least a year after South Africa's first democratic elections, when I was living in London. As I noted this down, he became flustered. "I dunno how these got here. They shouldn't be in this file." With that, he gave me another paw-paralysing squeeze, and sent me on my way.

Let me backtrack nine years: in March 1989 four members of a clandestine military death squad network, quaintly named the Civil Co-operation Bureau (CCB), had one of their get-togethers in a Johannesburg hotel. Colonel Daniel "Staal" (Steel) Burger - a senior MI officer and former police commander - consulted his list and issued an order. "Slang, you do Gavin Evans. Ferdi, you do the research." So Lieutenant Abram "Slang" (Snake) van Zyl contacted his Cape gangster connection, Edward "Peaches" Gordon, with a pounds 3,000 commission: "Follow Evans, stab him to death outside the Weekly Mail offices, steal his watch and wallet; make it look like a robbery."

Ferdi Barnard - a notorious MI officer and former cop who already had one murder conviction to his name - completed his research task and supplied Peaches with my work and home addresses and my pager number, and told him I drove a Ford Sierra. But Ferdi's homework was only so-so - I was in hiding, I worked irregular hours, I rode a motorbike, and did not respond to Peaches' pager message. There was no second chance. Fresh from murdering a friend of mine, Dr David Webster, Ferdi was arrested by the regular police while trying to set up the assassination of another activist. This embarrassment prompted President FW de Klerk to set up a soft-soap inquiry into political murders, with the result that CCB operations were officially suspended (though they subsequently continued under new guises), and "Staal", "Ferdi" and "Slang" would become household names in South Africa.

It emerged from the inquiry that the little list with my name on it was put together through the compilation of "various intelligence reports" and approved by the Special Forces Commander General Eddie Webb (who admitted to the inquiry: "Evans was monitored with the aim of elimination"). Recently it was confirmed that the strategy to "eliminate" people such as David Webster, myself and hundreds of others, was approved by the State Security Council - a cabinet committee that included the state president.

At the time I felt an uneasy mix of relief at having been spared, and sadness and anger about the assassination of friends including David Webster. I was also curious to meet the men at the business end of the plot. In 1992 I tracked down Staal at the Johannesburg brothel he was covertly running for Military Intelligence and I had a surreal two-hour tea with Slang at his beachside holiday home. He said I was "chosen" because of "spook" reports. "You know what you were involved with," he said enigmatically before claiming he was only doing his job and had no regrets - but perhaps we could meet again under happier circumstances?

I could not bring myself to break bread with Ferdi. Nor did I ever speak to Peaches. After "singing" in exchange for immunity, the life of this 27-year-old gangster was ended in 1989 by a .22 bullet in the back of his head, while he was sitting in a stolen car. Two young lovers, chance witnesses to his execution, were also bumped off.

In 1997, three years after the country's first democratic election, I decided it was time to go back. I wanted to find out who had been telling tales on me, and I wanted to test the lofty freedom-of-information guarantees in the new South African constitution - something that had not been tried before. By then I was living in London and had dropped my ANC connections. I no longer had a political or personal obligation to keep secrets or protect reputations.

The standard had been set in East Germany. There, after the fall of the Wall, you could wander into the Stasi offices, draw your files, and find out who'd been ratting on you. In South Africa, there were plenty of files to be drawn (one state document leaked to me stated that in 1990 the security police alone had 314,000 files on individuals, and 9,400 on organisations). But South Africa was not like Germany. It was more like Chile or Argentina, where the old order had not collapsed, but had retained control over the military and a stake in the police and intelligence services. There was another consideration: from my decade in the ANC underground, I had become aware of several apartheid spies who had re-emerged as ANC MPs, suggesting there were powerful forces in the new order who could be compromised by too much transparency.

My first stop seemed to confirm this. When my solicitor applied to the National Intelligence Agency (South Africa's putative CIA), a senior, ANC-linked official told him this was not in the state's interest, and that the files might contain "harmful information, such as who had been sleeping with whom at the time". I pressed on, eventually reaching the director-general of the NIA, Mo Shaik, at his Pretoria office. But by then, the panic had subsided. "Unfortunately, a substantial number of documents were destroyed," he said, adding he was "confident" my lot were "in that batch". Later, he wrote to tell me his agency was "giving the matter the urgent attention it deserves". No more was heard.

Next up were the former security police, and the initial response was encouraging. The minister involved, Sydney Mufamadi, had been a close "comrade" - we had worked together for two years in an underground leadership cell - and although we'd subsequently had our differences, he immediately ordered the police commissioner to cough up. As a result, the manager of the police legal department supplied me with a computer file comprising edited versions of 82 reports on me starting in 1977 (my last year in secondary school). All other files had been destroyed, he said, with a straight face: "After 1990 the approach of the security police ceased to be an ideological one, so information on banned organisations and their members became irrelevant."

Still, these bowdlerised offerings left me feeling queasy. I had been watched far longer, and more closely, than I had imagined. For instance, 16 of the reports covered my stay in Texas as a naive 17-year-old Rotary exchange student in 1978. A fellow student - a snooty private schoolgirl who seldom removed her Rotary blazer - reported my support for divestment to a US-based group called the Friends of South Africa. Its hysterical response was reported in the Afrikaner press, prompting Desmond Tutu to write to me to "keep it up". From then on the spooks became hooked, filling the file with informer reports, details of my letters and long-distance calls, travel plans, reports on left-wing academics I associated with and even my reading habits ("stated the book Biko included outstanding material and the book Socialism by Michael Harrington influenced his political thought processes").

Back in Cape Town in 1979, I threw myself into anti-government student and worker support groups and the file covers these activities, as well as letters I wrote to foreign friends and my 1980 arrest for "furthering the aims of communism" (being caught with "Release Mandela" and "Freedom Charter" pamphlets). I then moved to Johannesburg and the print-out includes descriptions of political meetings, activists I associated with, speeches I made and a detention spell in 1985. These accounts, often comically inaccurate, seem to have been supplied by spies, including journalist colleagues. (More than a decade later I confronted a former colleague on the Rand Daily Mail living in London, who admitted to me he had "co-operated with the security police" and supplied them with information on me, but "didn't think it was important".)

After 1985 my activism and the state's attentions mirrored each other in obsessiveness. My home was raided, teargassed and burgled by security cops, my motorbike sabotaged, I was detained again in 1988, issued with regular death threats and periodically surveilled. Yet the file included none of this, not did it make mention of suspicions of clandestine activities, although it subsequently emerged this was the time the spooks became aware of my ANC role. Instead, the police print-out ends in late 1985 (the same year, I later discovered, the Military Intelligence file was opened).

So my next stop was MI itself, the most powerful agency in the late apartheid days, and the most obdurate since. Its agents were responsible for hundreds of political assassinations as well as for fomenting what they termed "black on black" violence. Unlike the police, they were "discouraged" from opening up to the Truth Commission and got away with this because of a pre-election pact between Mandela and the generals to keep the peace - so, for example, the notorious Defence Force Chief, General Georg Meiring, remained in command and was given a say in the appointment of the first post-apartheid defence minister, Joe Modise.

I was hardly astonished, then, at MI's evasive response. A Major JC Mathupi said the computerised information held on me could not be released without Modise's say-so. When this was refused he suggested I applied to the state attorney's office.

Meanwhile, a former security cop, Warrant Officer Paul Erasmus, was in the news. He had made a high-profile confession to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission last year, saying that in the late 1980s a senior officer asked him for the names of people to be "permanently removed from society". He obliged. "As a result of a personal grudge I included Gavin Evans," he explained, suggesting this was why my name found its way to the CCB hit list. He later said his grudge arose from a trivial incident in 1985, when I was participating in some anti-military agit-prop theatre. Posing as a concerned bystander, he threatened to beat us up, after which I "threatened" him with a citizen's arrest. Three years on, when I was in detention, he still seemed incensed by this slight and burst into the interrogation room, hit me and then whispered that I should expect a letter-bomb or a bullet in the back.

But Erasmus was a bit-player and most decisions on political murders were taken at the top of the security hierarchy. I knew this wasn't the whole story but felt I was getting nowhere, and might well have given up the quest had I not been pressed to continue by several former ANC comrades, who argued that it might set an important legal and political precedent. Eventually I went back to examine the unreported fine print from various security trials and judicial commissions.

While reviewing an inquiry into a spy network run by the Johannesburg City Council, I came across a paper stamped "Top Secret" which noted that council spies had supplied MI with my home and work addresses shortly before the assassination attempt. I then read Staal Burger's evidence to the judicial inquest into David Webster's murder, where he claimed I was chosen for assassination because I was "involved in military activities with Hein Grosskopf" (an ANC military commander). General Eddie Webb made the same connection and it emerged that the research on Grosskopf was conducted by - Ferdi Barnard.

At first I assumed the Grosskopf link was obfuscatory nonsense. The only time I had met him was in 1990, a year after the CCB death plot. But as a last resort I looked up a former "senior comrade" from the ANC who suggested another possibility. While visiting Zimbabwe in 1987, I had compiled a report recommending a Johannesburg military building as an appropriate "target". It was typed under my codename, "Rory", and I was assured by my ANC superior that its source would only be revealed to the top ANC military commander. Several months later the building was, indeed, bombed (without loss of life or serious injury) and the state blamed Grosskopf, correctly, I later discovered.

The big question was, how did MI get to know the identities of both the bomber and the author of a coded report on the target? As my ANC superior was above suspicion, the only conclusion I could draw was that a spy who held senior ANC military rank leaked its origin to MI. He could not be exposed as a state witness, so my murder was the alternative chosen.

Having got so far, I wanted more, although I had no plans of what I would do with the information if I found it. In particular, I wanted to confirm my suspicions about the identity of the top ANC informer. That is why I travelled to Pretoria for my meeting with the state attorney Ben Minaar and the hand-crushing Brigadier. But closure was more than this branch of the South African state was prepared to offer. And so, one stolen Mini short of a ride, I walked to Pretoria Station to take the train to Johannesburg.

I returned to London filled with ambivalence about the country and its new government. In every corner of this emerging nation, I had found both hope and hopelessness. It seemed from my file-seeking experience, that while civil liberties were becoming entrenched, the military was successfully ignoring them - and there was more than a hint that the old and the new had common cause when it came to protecting their own secrets.

A month later my solicitors received a fax from Minaar, refusing my request to see any more of the apartheid era military files. "We are not of the opinion your client is, in terms of the constitution, entitled to classified information," he wrote, contradicting his previous letter and the legal advice I had received.

A few weeks later, however, there was a happy twist. The military hierarchy became agitated about the prospect that their next chief was to be a former ANC military commander, Siphiwe Nyanda, a man who was one of the leaders of the underground network I belonged to and who was certainly no friend of the generals. MI cobbled together a report implicating him in a coup plot. General Georg Meiring personally delivered it to a sceptical Nelson Mandela, who handed it to the Chief Justice, who concluded it was a crude fraud. Meiring was forced into premature retirement, Nyanda assumed his post as chief of the defence force, and today MI is now experiencing an overdue purge.

The good news, I suppose, is that men like the Brigadier will no longer be defending the realm and Ferdi Barnard will no longer be doing their dirty work (after a headline-grabbing trial, this year Barnard has been convicted of murder and sentenced to 25 years imprisonment).

But that is about as optimistic as I can get. Like most new governments - and the British treatment of the David Shayler case comes to mind - the post-apartheid South Africans have shown little enthusiasm for revealing secrets inherited from their predecessors, and even less for revealing their own