Business Day BOOK REVIEW: Spy: Uncovering Craig Williamson

Digging deep: Jonathan Ancer, right, spent 15 years working on Spy. Picture: SUPPLIED

Digging deep: Jonathan Ancer, right, spent 15 years working on Spy. Picture: SUPPLIED


Anger, puzzlement and a smattering of suspicion permeated the packed Johannesburg launch of Jonathan Ancer’s book on apartheid spy and killer Craig Williamson.

The greying and mostly male audience queried the journalist extensively on the modus operandi of the portly figure who betrayed their university colleagues and others to the brutal police Special Branch in apartheid SA. Arrest, interrogation and torture often resulted from Williamson’s dirty work.

They wanted to know how the spy managed to infiltrate bodies such as the National Union of South African Students (Nusas) with seeming impunity.

They questioned why the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) granted him amnesty and how he can lead a consequence-free life now, often spotted sipping coffee in upmarket shopping malls.

Williamson shows little remorse for his role in the assassinations of Ruth First, Jeannette Schoon and her daughter Katryn, killed by letter bombs he masterminded.

It took Ancer 15 years to produce his deftly written, exhaustively researched book. “I am obsessed by him,” he says.

But Williamson provided no additional information — he sticks to the same story.

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“He was a patriot. He was in a war. It’s a soldier’s job to  kill and he was just doing his  job. He’s stuck to his narrative and doesn’t deviate from it,” Ancer says.

After the book was published the author received a message — “a strange one” — from Williamson. “The gist of it was that I was naive, that I didn’t understand how the world of intelligence worked. It wasn’t hostile, but he wasn’t pleased,” says Ancer.

Many a bitter questioner will find some answers in this fascinating, factual and racy read. Ancer has written the book chronologically, beginning with the spy’s schooldays at Johannesburg’s elite St John’s College.

Williamson aroused antagonism among his schoolmates for his bullying ways.

Glenn Moss, a student activist from the 1970s who knew Williamson at Wits University, told Ancer about a St John’s prefect who had boasted he had beaten the “Bunter” Williamson.

“Moss had a horrible picture of prefects flaying the fat boy … he was horrified,” Ancer writes in the book. “You helped create a monster,” Moss yelled at the former prefect.

Ancer, who interviewed as many of Williamson’s acquaintances as he could find, believes that “his St John’s experiences might have made a contribution to the person he became. It was telling to see him through the eyes of his schoolmates.”

After matriculating, Williamson joined the South African Police. “At the time, it had the reputation of being apartheid’s storm troopers. That is why liberals went into the army,” Ancer says.

In 1972, Williamson registered at Wits, joined Nusas, became its vice-president and held its purse strings. It gave him enormous power.

He resigned from the Nusas executive four years later to become a “free-floating permanent political activist … the Security Branch wanted to get him as deep as possible into the International University Exchange Fund,” writes Ancer.

“The Geneva-based fund helped students, providing scholarships as well as assistance for refugees.”

His cover was blown when Bureau of State Security agent Arthur McGiven defected to Britain in 1980 and gave extensive interviews to The Observer newspaper

Williamson provided the Special Branch with information about a range of anti-apartheid organisations and activities in SA and overseas.

In Switzerland, he again employed his organisational powers and took control of the fund’s financial matters.

His cover was blown when Bureau of State Security agent Arthur McGiven defected to Britain in 1980 and gave extensive interviews to The Observer newspaper. Williamson, in the bath in his Swiss home, turned pale when he heard the news.

The defection set in motion a series of events that exposed him as an apartheid secret agent who had been leading a double life for nearly a decade.

He returned to SA as “the spy who came in from the cold”, banner headlines declared upon his arrival.

Then minister of law and order Louis le Grange claimed Williamson had infiltrated the South African Communist Party, the ANC, the Black Consciousness Movement and the Pan Africanist Congress.

The Sunday Times also claimed he had spied on Russia’s KGB. However, a photo of Williamson in front of the Kremlin in Moscow was taken by his wife Ingrid when they were touring there.

In the 1980s, Williamson’s role escalated into a deadly one — he became a killer. He claimed at the TRC that colonel Piet Goosen had instructed him to send a parcel bomb to First in Maputo. He did so. It blew her to pieces.

He sent a bomb to the wife of anti-apartheid activist Marius Schoon in Angola two years later. Jeanette and her daughter Katryn, 6, were killed. The couple’s son, Fritz Schoon — who was three years old at the time — witnessed it.

Ancer’s rendering of their story, part of it gained recently from Fritz, is told sensitively  but nonetheless makes for  grisly reading.

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“Williamson was brought in to interrogate people such as Guy Berger, Duncan Innes and Barbara Hogan and was a state witness at Barbara’s trial,” says Ancer. “She committed no treason, yet received a 10-year prison sentence for treason.”

Part of Ancer’s research involved reading Jacob Dlamini’s powerful book, Askari, in which ANC member Comrade September “turns” against the ANC after he was brutally tortured by Eugene de Kock.

“He turned because it became a matter of survival. But for Williamson, it was a choice — he actively made a decision to become a spy,” Ancer says.

He devotes a chapter to the TRC and Williamson, who was granted amnesty. First’s two daughters and Fritz Schoon launched a judicial review to challenge the amnesty decision. But tired and despondent, they abandoned it after years of protracted legal negotiations.

The spy, described by some as a psychopath, had “outmanoeuvred the legal system to avoid paying an insignificant out-of-court settlement sum to the child [Fritz Schoon] of one of his victims”, writes Ancer.

His last interview for the book was with Williamson at the swish Hyde Park Corner mall in Johannesburg, where he searched for clues to reveal something about the man.

Ancer wanted to look into his eyes to see if there was any remorse when he asked about the murders of First and the Schoons. Williamson’s face turned bright red several times during the two-hour interview, but there was no remorse.

As he left Ancer, he remarked, “Maybe I’ll see you at the book launch.” But it takes courage to pitch at such an event. Williamson didn’t.


About Jonathan Ancer

I'm a journalist, cryptic crossword junkie, keen cyclist, Billy Bunter book collector and a Billy Bragg stalker. I love words and will post some of the columns I have written over the years on this blog. They include: View from the G-spot (my time as editor of a community newspaper in Grahamstown), Virgin Cyclist (the build up to my first Argus Cycle Tour), Pop psychology (my take on fatherhood) and Angry Utterances (10) (how crossword puzzles unlock the world's secrets and the meaning of life). Since leaving Independent Newspapers in September 2014 I have started freelancing and write a column for the Witness - The Diary of a Bumbling Hack. I've also become a podcast junkie and have produced a podcast biography series called Extraordinary Lives. Let me know what you think.
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