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The spy from the suburbs: How a human rights lawyer was in the pay of apartheid

Terry Bell
Wednesday 22 October 2003 00:00 BST

A woman lawyer in Britain has revealed she was an undercover agent for South Africa's former apartheid regime, a disclosure which could have a dramatic effect on a spy scandal tearing the new South African government apart.

A high-level inquiry has opened into accusations that Bulelani Ngcuka, South Africa's Director of Public Prosecutions, was a spy for the apartheid authorities, and known as agent RS452. But Vanessa Brereton, who lives in south London with her British husband, says that was her number.

Over coffee at a pavement cafe in south London this week, she told The Independent she became agent RS452 after being recruited by a British-born spy for the Bureau of State Security or Boss, the feared apartheid-era security service. Her story reveals the extraordinary lengths to which the Pretoria regime went to penetrate the anti-apartheid movement.

Vanessa Brereton had confided in no one about her secret life since resigning from the South African security police in April, 1991, when Nelson Mandela had been out of prison for a year and apartheid was collapsing. Not even her husband knew, but she said she decided to speak out after reading on the internet a piece I had written about the need to deal openly and comprehensively with South Africa's "malignant past". She wanted an end to "all the lies and deceit", she told me.

Now in her mid-40s, Ms Brereton was a human rights lawyer fighting high-profile cases under the previous regime; when the African National Congress was unbanned in the early 1990s, she was unanimously elected treasurer of her local ANC branch in Port Elizabeth. What nobody knew was that she had been informing on the anti-apartheid opposition all along. "I am only now starting to come to terms with what I did and what I was involved with," she said.

She was among the agents and informers in Operation Crocus, a security police project aimed at collecting information about the "white left". The British-born spy recruiter spotted Ms Brereton at a party in Port Elizabeth in December, 1984. He was a close friend and associate of Craig Williamson, a confessed letter-bomb killer who organised the bombing of the ANC office in London in 1982. A newly qualified lawyer who was starting her own practice, she was, she said, confident in her chosen field, but was socially insecure.

"I know now I had a low self-image," she says. Born with a congenital hip defect, she spent six months in hospital at the age of 11, and walked with a conspicuous limp. Serious, a high achiever, and fiercely protected by her parents, she says she was summed up by a school report saying: "It's a pity Vanessa is not a little less self-conscious and a little more carefree."

The Irish nuns at the Holy Rosary Convent helped her develop a commitment against apartheid, she says, but they also gave her a strong fear and repugnance of communism. This would be played on by her recruiter.

"He made me feel special," she said. He listened to her, appeared to take her opinions seriously and joked with her about her being "just a little old liberal". They became lovers. "He was the first man in my life," she said. "At 26, I was still so naive. Today, I think I would see right through him."

Her recruiter said if she considered communism a grave danger, she should be prepared to do something about it. Cuban "communists" were on South Africa's doorstep in Angola, and the unrest in the country was being fuelled by unscrupulous and immoral white communists, who used the advantages granted them by apartheid to sow discord and havoc in the majority black population.

Besotted by him, she accepted his arguments, even when he confessed he was married. He asked her to attend an anti-apartheid meeting in a church hall and volunteer for the cause, while secretly reporting back to him. Her double life had begun.

Her controller kept expressing his gratitude and admiration, and other meetings and reports followed. She was paid expenses, but, she says: "For me it was never about money." But she felt uneasy because he often got her to sign blank expenses claims. She never knew what happened to them.

A year later, he suggested the relationship with the security police be formalised. At a "safe house" in the Port Elizabeth suburb of Mount Pleasant, Vanessa Brereton was declared an undercover police constable, with the designation RS452. She was paid her monthly wage in cash, and continued signing expenses claims for her recruiter.

By that time her legal practice was booming as human rights cases poured in. As a defence lawyer in political cases, she secured her reputation among the white left on whom she spied. She was also ostracised as a "communist" by other lawyers. And the security police did not suddenly move her cases to remote areas or create difficulties. The better her reputation as a political defender, the better her cover as a spy.

She progressed from constable to sergeant then to lieutenant. Clandestine meetings with her controller, for personal and police reasons, continued. Her only regular social contact was at almost weekly barbecues with other security police at various safe houses.

"But then the Berlin Wall fell and signalled the end of what I had seen as the threat of communism. Then the anti-apartheid movements were unbanned and Nelson Mandela was freed." She met her future husband on a visit to Britain in 1997 and they married the following year.

Ms Brereton's confession is not the end of Mr Ngcuka's troubles, because he has also been accused of spying for the former National Intelligence Agency. But she has called on other informers to come forward. Like her, they are in constant danger of blackmail and manipulation by their former mentors and spymasters.

"It is essential for the sake of emotional health," she says. "Now, at last, I can start again to live a normal life."

Terry Bell is the author of 'Unfinished Business - South Africa, Apartheid & Truth', published in the UK by Verso


The commission of inquiry into South Africa's spy scandal may visit Britain to take evidence from Vanessa Brereton, the lawyer who has confessed to informing for the apartheid regime.

Ms Brereton, now settled in London with her British husband, contacted the commission after talking to The Independent. She said she would not return to South Africa to testify, but would submit an affidavit. A spokesman said the commission would then decide if it should visit her.

"We were very surprised that she came forward, but we are very glad that she did," said the spokesman.

Some of Ms Brereton's former associates have been angered by her revelations. "Why did you do it, Vanessa?" asked Mike Loewe, a freelance journalist whom she represented when he was detained by the security police. "You are hoping probably that your clients -- more than 300 Eastern Cape activists who were beaten, tortured and held in jail for months, even years -- will forgive you.

"You say, I am told, that as their lawyer you retained strict confidentiality -- that you never betrayed them to your boss, their torturer. Yet you were, presumably, in their pay."

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