Review of Spy by Breakaway Reviewers

Spy – Uncovering Craig Williamson by Jonathan Ancer

5 stars

South Africa’s infamous “Super Spy”

When Jonathan Ancer was a studying journalism at Rhodes University, he was asked to write an article (to be published) about what he saw as the most momentous day in South African History. He chose 17 August 1982. The day that Ruth First, wife of Joe Slovo, mother of Gillian, Robyn and Shawn, was assassinated by a letter bomb.

He chose to write about Ruth First not because of who she married or her children, but her contribution to the struggle against apartheid. She was known as a brilliant, brave journalist and a political activist who refused to shut up about the National Party government who ruled South Africa at the time. She had fled South Africa and at the time of her assassination was working as the of director of research at the Centre of African Studies (Centro de Estudos Africanos) in Maputo, Mozambique. Craig Williamson’s form of execution was a letter bomb.

Jonathan Ancer was with a fellow journalist driving along the Ruth First Freeway in Durban when he asked his companion what he thought Craig Williamson thought when he drove along this highway, or came across streets and buildings named after her. His companion gave him a blank look and asked, “Who is Craig Williamson?” This reaction convinced him to start investigating Craig Williamson to ensure that this man’s deeds were never forgotten by South Africans. How could this man, educated at a prestigious private boys’ school in Johannesburg, have turned into a psychopathic killer working for the Security Service’s Special Branch? It appears that Williamson was known as an arrogant bully at school and when Ancer interviewed boys who had attended school with him, none showed surprise what career path he’d taken after leaving school. In South Africa during the late 60s, 70s and 80s and early 90s all boys finishing school were forced to enlist in the army. It meant nine months training and a month’s service for the next ten years – or alternatively, you could join the police force and work for four years. This is the what Craig Williamson chose. He was spotted as a potential member of the Special Branch quite soon after joining the police and, once offered the role to be a member of this secret police force, he had absolutely no hesitation in agreeing to work for them. Once his training was over, he was asked to enrol in a degree course at the University of the Witwatersrand to infiltrate the left-wing student movement at Wits.

He very quickly managed to get elected to Wits University’s NUSAS (National Students Union) committee and later the national committee of the organisation. In 1975 while in London on NUSAS business, he met Lars-Gunnar Eriksson, the head of IUEF (International University Exchange Fund). Williamson managed to persuade Eriksson to employ him and it was through this organisation that Williamson met members of the ANC, Pan African Congress’s military members (APLA) and uMkhonto we Sizwe (MK) the military wing of the ANC) He used funds from this organisation to help people flee South Africa (obviously making him look like their friend!) However, it was all a ruse. Many of the people he helped flee the country found themselves facing treason charges with Craig Williamson as the main witness for the prosecution. I could write more about this treacherous, psychopathic man who even persuaded his wife Ingrid to spy for him when she worked at the World Health Organisation. However, I’d rather you read the book. Jonathan Ancer has done an excellent job of researching Williamson’s “career”.

Was there ever justice for his victims’ families? NO! He was granted amnesty during the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. He claimed that he was ordered to carry out the killings, torture and spying by his bosses; the Special Branch. Like many liberal South Africans, I was shocked when he was exposed as a spy by the Sunday Times in 1980. Members of my family fought hard to have the yoke of apartheid lifted. Reading this book and discovering that he’d declared himself bankrupt so that he didn’t have to pay damages to Jenny Schoor’s son, Fritz, was to me the lowest of the low. He lives in one of the most prestigious estates in Kyalami, South Africa; is a regular at all the top show-jumping events (his daughter being a show jumper).

His wife Ingrid, who seemed to get off without ever having to appear for being complicit in his spying developed “friendships” with many of his victims. She is still a practicing psychiatrist in Johannesburg. I want to ask one last question: This is for you Craig Williamson: How do you sleep at night? Treebeard Breakaway Reviewers received a copy of the book to review.

Review by Rony Campbell Breakaway Reviewers


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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1 Response to Review of Spy by Breakaway Reviewers

  1. Anonymous says:

    I spent four years at IUEF headquarters from June 1975 to May 1979. Although I was recruited by Lars-Gunnar to run the new programme for Latin American refugees, the initial grant from Sweden was not disbursed until the autumn of 1975. So my first months with IUEF were spent as assistant to LG and general factotum.

    Following the arrest of Breytenbach in August 1975 we received several visitors at IUEF headquarters from the South African white left. First was Berend Schuitema from Holland, followed by a student activist whose name I cannot remember (I still feel ashamed that, on the day the NUSAS leaders were arrested, when she arrived at the office I simply blurted out the news to her, not considering the impact it would have; she was of course very upset, and there was nowhere in that crowded office where she could be on her own). Later, it was the turn of Craig and Mike Stent, presumably after meeting LG in London – the book does not mention this visit to Geneva.

    LG asked me to look after these visitors socially at various points between their meetings with him.

    In the case of Berend, Lars-Gunnar only mentioned that the latter was doing important research on the South African A-bomb, and I remember going through some of the material produced by Berend. LG seemed to treat Berend with confidence at the time, but when Craig and Mike Stent showed up a month or two later, LG told me they were going be involved in a joint investigation with IUEF and another agency (was it the World Council of Churches? Can’t remember) into who betrayed Breytenbach – and that the main suspect was “Mr. Schuitema,” as he then referred to him.

    Incidentally, I understand that Berend has always denied the accusation, and I hope he is right. I liked what I saw of him, he seemed to be a genuine sort, unlike Craig whose denim jacket and trousers looked so odd on him, especially as they were combined with the man-bag he was already sporting at the time (did he take it along for the demonstrations he used to lead back in S. Africa? I think it took the place of a side-arm or swagger stick for him).

    I didn’t see Craig again until the morning I walked into the office in 1977 and saw my new colleague seated at the meeting table directly in front of the entrance. I recognised him instantly (I would not have recognised Mike Stent), but he kept his eyes down, perhaps scrutinising me out of their corners.

    By then I was totally immersed in the Latin America programme, and in the years remaining to me in IUEF I did not have much contact with Craig at work, and none socially. I would often stay late at the office and notice him churning away at the photocopier. Occasionally we would chat about general developments at work, always at his initiative.

    I soon came to rather look down on him as a toady to LG and an “intrigant.” This impression strengthened in my last months at IUEF, as he started assuming the role of attack dog for LG in the latter’s growing conflicts with the staff (“we’re working for the revolution so we don’t have time for all this staff council nonsense” etc). He never tried to lord it over me, though, and our relations were outwardly cordial – he showed no interest in the Latin America programme.

    I often reflect on this part of my life and what lessons I draw from it. One of these is that I too quickly make a picture in my mind of what someone is all about, and from then on all the further information I get is filtered through that paradigm, to the exclusion of others. Yes, apart from what I have already said about my impressions of Craig, he did appear to be a snoop of some kind, but I swallowed the cover image that Craig and his handlers had made up, i.e. that his real loyalty was to the ANC – something I did not see as anything to worry about.

    Similarly, I noticed how Craig was mirroring Lars-Gunnar, who was quite conservative in his personal behaviour (I still suspect it was he who made off with my earrings, which he detested seeing on me). Craig’s denim uniform with bandanna morphed into the turtleneck and blazer winter uniform that the boss favoured, summers were spent in the same safari suits that Lars-Gunnar wore, and Craig kept on his desk the same kind of executive fiddle-toys that the boss kept on his – precursors to today’s fidget spinners, but a lot fancier and dearer. But rather than understanding all this as part of a spy’s tradecraft, I dismissed it as pandering to the boss.

    The book is very accurate in describing the vaguely unsettling effect of being around Craig. He also seemed to fill the space in a room. Whereas I kept a very clear memory of him after he came to Geneva as NUSAS vice-president, Mike Stent, the president, was only a shadowy figure in my memory – I had even forgotten who it was who came to Geneva with Craig, until the book made me recall.

    A few small quibbles I have about the books description of events and persons:\

    a. Lars-Gunnar was not an innate anti-communist. If he favoured PAC and Black Consciousness, I think it was because he saw them as more open movements, led by people who would have longer memories of how IUEF had helped them in the struggle. Another aspect is that he needed to stay in the good books of both his main channels of influence in Sweden, who were strong rivals to each other within the Social Democrat Party – and one of these two was certainly more doctrinaire than the other about the Soviet threat.

    b. I don’t think Johann Coetzee was taking any risk at all in travelling to Switzerland to rescue Craig. The Swiss intelligence and defence services were very close to the South Africans during the Cold War – indeed, the hard right in Switzerland boasts of that closeness now. Coetzee would have ensured that his contacts in Switzerland would protect him against anyone who might actually have taken the country’s anti-espionage laws seriously.

    c. Lars-Gunnar did not die a broken man. I saw him a few times in the year or two before his demise and he was newly confident and ambitious in relation to his new work in the migration field, nearly back to his old self.

    But these are small points. I rated the book as 5-star on my Kindle.

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