For the Joy of Reading: The List

If anyone is going to write a novel based on the South African security services during apartheid and since the first democratic elections in 1994, Barry Gilder is a very good candidate. He spent years working for the ANC Intelligence services, and then in the amalgamated intelligence service of the newly-elected Government of National Unity under President Mandela. This is a man who knows what he is talking about. And he is very clear in his Author’s Note: “This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events, locales and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner.”
This is true. The whole story is based on a premise, a rumour which, as far as I am aware has never been proved. It is said that President Nelson Mandela was given a list, by the National Intelligence Service (the South African equivalent of MI5) naming all the apartheid agents in the ANC. It is also alleged that President Mandela was so magnanimous that he did nothing with the list, if it existed. If this is true, it would be for the very good reason that the source was tainted and that none of the information could be trusted. The list, if it exists, would have been written with the intention of sowing distrust and destroying reputations.
It is also true that the “Sunset Clauses” left dedicated supporters of apartheid in post, and in roles where they could do damage. There is no doubt in my mind, as a long-standing anti-apartheid campaigner who has visited South African many times since the ANC Solidarity Conference in 1993, that this has been happening. One of the key chapters in the book, Chapter 25, describes Mandela arriving at the Carlton Hotel in Johannesburg to acknowledge the ANC Victory in the first democratic election in South African history. He talked about the Reconstruction and Development Programme (RDP)and was quite clear that no-one could participate in the Government of National Unity if they were opposed to that plan. I remember this very well. I was there. It was a very sobering moment. That very evening, I had been arguing with ANC friends that they would have to defend the RDP because it was all that they had got, and that it would be attacked from the very outset. It was. The attack came from the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund and the RDP was watered down to the Growth, Employment and Redistribution (GEAR) plan, and that also proved too radical.
So, the premise of this book is that old, retired, loyal ANC members from the Intelligence Services are asked to investigate the existence of the List, and come across some terrifying information about how the tentacles of the apartheid state have reached into the new democratic regime.
The story is carried along by the sympathetic characters that we meet and, indeed, it is supposed to be written by Jerry Whitehead, an ANC intelligence officer who rose to be Deputy Director General of the post-apartheid intelligence service. I am tempted to imagine this Jerry Whitehead as the Barry Gilder character, if only for his intimate knowledge of Kilburn, but the caveats of the author, quoted above, have to be born in mind. It would be wrong to seek to identify each character with a real person, and given the denouement we can only hope that this is not the case.
This is a story that will have chills running up and down your spine. Gilder shows how easy it is to entrap someone, to corrupt them. There is a chilling scene where Gilder shows the apartheid security police relaxing at a braai (barbecue) and I know that the attitudes of white South African right-wings males have not changed. I have sat through braais like that. Gilder shows that the British security police were keeping a watchful eye, both to ensure that nothing untoward happened and to collaborate with their anti-communist allies in the South African security. He shows that agents in the National Intelligence Service were planning for change because it was obvious that apartheid was unsustainable. The system had to go but white privilege had to be maintained. This is what is at the heart of the planning by Otto Becker, in the book. And I am sure that it was at the heart of the planning of many white South African bureaucrats in the years of transition from the mid-1980s to the years following the 1994 elections.
Whilst this is a novel, it dissects a frightening truth. This is a truly disturbing story.
I have one quibble. Salusbury Road in Kilburn is not mis-spelled. It is not named after Salisbury, but rather after the Salusbury family, Welsh gentry who were cousins by marriage of Elizabeth Tudor. Katheryn, Lady Salusbury, was the daughter of Sir Roland Velville, the only illegitimate child of Henry VII. She was the richest heiress in Wales and her money was used to acquire lands in, I believe, Kilburn. This matters because it is the kind of mistake that an intelligence officer should not make. The assumption about the mis-spelling however is that of Jerry Whitehead not Barry Gilder.
This is an extraordinary book, a revelation. Please God, do not let it come true.

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