Spy: Uncovering Craig Williamson’ is a new book by Jonathan Ancer that delves into apartheid’s heart of darkness, writes MICHAEL MORRIS in the Weekend Argus (Saturday, 25 March 2017)
IN THE grainy picture from 1980, 2-year-old Katryn Schoon looks as though she is pretending to be asleep, head back, eyes closed, lips dreamily parted. We know she isn’t; it’s a family picture, with her toddler brother, Fritz, her mother Jeanette and, behind them, a heavily bearded and obviously doting father, Marius. Whether her seeming absence in what appears to be the only public photo of her is the consequence of accident or impish design is hard to tell. The jolt that attends this photo is the certainty of her looming fate. On a June Friday four years after it was taken, 6-year-old Katryn and her mother were killed in their flat in Lubango in southern Angola, about 200km north of the then South West African border, by a parcel bomb despatched from the heartless corridors of apartheid South Africa’s security establishment. It is said, Jonathan Ancer recounts, that “a smear of blood three metres wide from floor to ceiling on one wall… was all that was left of Katryn”. The only one of the four in that 1980 picture still alive today is Fritz, who, at the time of the blast, aged 2-and-a-half, “had probably been just outside the flat”.
In the years since, lingering attention has dwelled on another “survivor” of the bombing, the mastermind, notorious apartheid-era spy, Craig Williamson. We encounter Williamson today – only months ago – in the final chapter of Ancer’s book when the author interviews him at a coffee shop in a luxury mall in Johannesburg’s northern suburbs. And, in the final passages, the interview done, we see the former spy “picking up his leather man bag and shuffling off into the glitzy mall, (slipping) unnoticed into the crowd of upmarket shoppers”. It is hard to equate this homely image – along with the descriptions, by friends, of Williamson being “charming”, “convivial” and “jolly” (prompting Ancer’s anxiety that “to be honest, I’m worried I may end up liking him”) – with the outcomes of a life, much of it, devoted to notching up successes for an increasingly murderous apartheid state.
When the two meet at Life Grand Café – Ancer equipped with “a digital recorder, three pens, a notebook and 51 questions” – the consequence of three years of preparation means “I know the Williamson story quite well”. “I’ve dug through archives, scanned newspaper clippings, listened to recordings, read countless books, scoured social media, visited some dark corners of the internet, and interviewed dozens of people who crossed paths (and swords) with him – from a former school boy in his boarding house half a century ago, to an ex-president, four former cabinet ministers, an Academy Award winner and a young man who witnessed his mother and sister being blown to bits. “Unless he confesses to involvement in the murders of Olof Palme and Samora Machel, I’m not expecting new information from him. “I’m here to search for clues that will reveal something about the man himself. “I also want to look in his eyes and see if there’s any remorse when I ask him about the murders of (Ruth) First and the Schoons.”
Ancer was a former Independent Media journalist, and his book reads like a spy thriller. And it is, in the sense of being a comprehensive account of Williamson’s (and others’) deep infiltration of the ranks of 1970s leftwing student activism, and, latterly, of the peripheral operations and funding of the campaign against apartheid internationally, including of the ANC. It involved breathtaking betrayal – Williamson even stayed with the Schoons while they were in Botswana – perpetual cunning, and, doubtless, nerves of steel, too. For all the suspicions that surfaced from time to time, Williamson fooled a lot of people into believing he was genuine, and raked in information and names that cost many their freedom, and some their lives. It all began in May 1968 when Williamson, just out of school, elected to do service in the police rather than be called up into the army. He was adept, and was noticed, and within two years, was drawn into the murky world of the security police, becoming Agent RS 167. He had insinuated himself almost further than is credible into the “enemy” camp, latterly serving in a senior position in the International University Exchange Fund in Geneva until, in March 1980, he blew his own cover, fearing he was about to be unmasked following the defection to Britain of a Bureau of State Security agent, Arthur McGiven.
He earned a measure of celebrity on his hasty return to South Africa as the “spy who came in from the cold” – but his more chilling activities had yet to begin. Twenty years later, in a very different South Africa, Williamson (and bomb-maker Roger Raven) were granted amnesty for three murders – Jeanette and Katryn Schoon’s in 1984, and, two years earlier, Ruth First’s. First, who was married to Joe Slovo, uMkhonto we Sizwe’s chief of staff, was killed by a parcel bomb in her office at Maputo’s Eduardo Mondlane University in August 1982, where she was the research director of the Centre for African Studies. And it was First’s fate that triggered Ancer’s book. An old, fading student essay he’d written about First’s death, and not looked at for 20 years, came to light around about the time details of Williamson’s role emerged.
But it was only in 2010, having flown into Durban for a meeting, that, as he and a colleague turned on to the Ruth First Freeway to the city, Ancer idly remarked that he wondered “what Craig Williamson thinks when he travels on the Ruth First Freeway”. His colleague looked at him blankly: “Who is Craig Williamson?” He felt then that “while it’s important to remember people like First, who were killed in the struggle to bring about democracy, it’s equally important that we don’t allow the killers to slip into oblivion”. Ancer said in an interview this week that while researching the book, people often asked, “Why Williamson?”, some even suggesting his “worst punishment would be to not write about him”. And the funny thing is, he said, was that Williamson himself was the only person who did not ask “Why me?” “He was the only person who seemed to think, ‘Well, it‘s about time!’
“To me, it’s about the importance of remembering, and I have sought in the book to consolidate many stories we don’t know about – some of which go back 50 years – to present a fuller picture of the people involved, what they went through.” And, at the centre of it, is the figure of a man – a “bully” as Ancer sees him – who remains as self-convinced today as he was when he made his own choice a life-and-death matter for others without their having the slightest inkling of what was in store. Ancer said: “If you think about it, killing a little girl is probably the most grave crime you could commit. But for Williamson, his narrative is that ‘we were fighting a war, and I was a foot soldier on one side, following orders, and it was my role to kill’. “So I don’t think he sees that there was anything wrong with what he did. He was a patriot, doing his job. He has no remorse… though it was interesting to note that whenever I asked about First or the Schoons, he’d go red. It was the only sign of emotion he ever showed.”
Williamson’s version was, in essence, accepted by the Truth Commission’s amnesty committee which (as the book sets it out) “found that the killings were committed in the course of the conflicts of the past and that Williamson and his accomplice had acted in the course and scope of their authority. The ruling stated that the Schoons and First were at the time of their deaths still involved in the struggle, and hadn’t bade farewell to politics. Katryn, the committee ruled, was not an intended target but was killed in the crossfire.
“The committee didn’t accept the victims’ argument that Williamson had acted out of personal malice. The judges ruled that there was no evidence that he chose the victims and concluded that he had a political motive, which was to destabilise the liberation movement”. The furthest Williamson has ever gone to express his reaction to hearing that 6-year-old Katryn had been killed, was to say it was “like a bucket of cold water was thrown in my face”.
His victims’ families intended pursuing justice after the TRC, but eventually concluded a financial settlement with Williamson – yet the former spy failed to pay a cent of it, and then pleaded bankruptcy to avoid even this penalty. He became, as the book’s promotional material puts it, “The apartheid agent and killer who got away with it all… ” When, after his interview with Williamson, Ancer watched his subject slipping unnoticed into the crowd, he was “left with a hollow feeling”. “He answered all my questions,” Ancer writes, “but, like a good spy, he gave nothing away.” He said this week: “I set out to try to understand why Williamson did what he did… but perhaps the truth is, it can’t be understood.”
Spy: Uncovering Craig Williamson will be launched at The Book Lounge, Roeland Street, on Wednesday 29 March at 5.30pm, where Jonathan Ancer will be in conversation with former student leader Glenn Moss, author of The New Radicals: A Generational Memoir of the 1970s