When apartheid’s most notorious spy walks into the studio, she’s not what I expect. The photographs that were published across the world over two decades ago show an attractive brunette, clearly aware of her looks. A confident woman, who appears to flirt with the camera. The petite woman I meet is (of course) older. Her hair is darker; her glasses emphasize her small, friendly features. Her voice is gentle and moderate. After reading Olivia Forsyth’s book, Agent 407 – A South African Spy Breaks Her Silence, I expected someone with more machismo (listen to my full interview with Olivia Forsyth below).
Forsyth made worldwide headlines on 31 July 1988. An apartheid-era double agent with British citizenship was stuck at the British embassy in Lusaka, unable to leave because the Angolan government called her “dangerous”. She had just escaped years of ANC detainment: nearly six months in the notorious Quatro internment camp, and then several more months at a house in Lusaka. Margaret Thatcher’s administration intervened and Forsythe was eventually allowed to return to South Africa.
Shortly after arriving in Johannesburg in 1989, the apartheid government went on a media offensive. Forsyth, they claimed, had never defected to the ANC. She had infiltrated the then-‘terrorist’ organisation, and remained loyal to the Security Branch. Forsyth went along with the story. Yet now, she claims it was all a lie. She had in fact joined the ANC, becoming a double agent, with the intention of gathering intelligence about South African security operations, and feeding it to the ANC. The South African government turned her into an apartheid heroine.
What then, is the truth? In Agent 407 (her code name at Security Branch), Forsyth explains how she joined the intelligence services, hoping to be posted overseas and see the world. Instead, in the early 1980s she was sent to Rhodes University, to infiltrate student organisations there, and spy on anti-apartheid, ‘radical’, leftist activists. This she did well, rising through the ranks on both fronts, eventually heading up several student groups involved in the fight to dismantle apartheid.
But, it’s during her time here, that she says she had a change of heart. “I realised early on that I had found myself on the wrong side, but I had no idea, to begin with, what I was going to do about it. I was in a real quandary. After all my years of needing a caused for my rebellious spirit, I had now found one. The problem was, I was there under false pretences. This was a Catch-22. I want to be exactly where I was, but if I left the police I could not stay there. They would never allow that. I could not have one without the other.” She’s certain that none of the information she fed to Security Branch ever led to anyone being killed or seriously hurt. Only former Security Branch members could possibly verify this.
So, Forsyth decided to approach Security Branch with the suggestion that she should pretend to defect to the ANC, and join the group in exile, in order to infiltrate them. Instead, when she met with the ANC in Zimbabwe, she confessed who she was, and defected for real, with a suggestion that she feed false information to the Security Branch.
The plan went pear-shaped almost as soon as Forsyth arrived in Angola. Instead of being sent for military training, she was interned for six months in the notorious Quatro prison camp, where the ANC incarcerated traitors. Forsyth says she’s unclear about exactly why she was imprisoned, but believes one of the high-ranking security officers for the ANC’s military wing, MK, was responsible. Later it emerged an informer within the ANC had told Security Branch of Forsyth’s defection, which could have been behind her incarceration.
Following in intervention by Ronnie Kasrils (later a post-apartheid minister) and the late SACP leader Chris Hani, Forsyth was released from Quatro, but then detained in safe houses. After months of waiting to be freed, she managed to escape to the British Embassy in Lusaka. It is then, when her story hit the newspapers. With egg on its face, the Security Branch paid local newspapers for ‘exclusives’ in which Forsyth confessed she had always been loyal to South Africa. She went along with this plan, she says, because she was told it was the only way her safety could be guaranteed, as many of her former security colleagues, were rather angry at her betrayal.
It’s rather a hard idea to swallow. Forsyth admits she was gullible. “Writing this now, I am aware of how incredible my story sounds. Surely I must have had a pretty shrewd idea of what the police were up to? Surely I couldn’t have been that naïve? The truth is at the time I had no idea. And no one chose to tell me. I did not need to know,” she writes.
Agent 407 reads a bit like the John le Carré novels that drew Forsyth to the world of spying. The book has been controversial since it hit the shelves, with many of Forsyth’s former ‘comrades’ at Rhodes condemning her, and voicing their scepticism at her claim that she was in reality, a leftie, even though she was spying for the police. Forsyth tells me she understands why they would feel that way, but hopes they will read her book and realise, this is her apology. Whether you believe her or not, Forsyth’s descriptions of the machinations of spying for the apartheid government are fascinating. The book feels more like fiction than fact. Whether this is because Forsyth is a talented writer and storyteller, or whether it’s a PR exercise is for the reader to decide. But, it certainly is a good story.
“In Quatro I learned something which would serve me later in ways I could not predict. This was that your captors cannot get inside your head. No, that’s not right. Your captors can get inside your head, using all sorts of torture, but this was not my experience. The fact is this: they cannot see inside your head. Whatever else they may capture or control, they cannot know your thoughts. And that is a strangely comforting discovery, banal though it may seem. You can call people names in your head, think whatever you like about them, and they won’t know. Your head is your world. I may be fucked up, but it’s yours. You can live a whole other life in your head, one completely contrary to what your body says and does in obedience to whomever had the external control.”
Rating: 4 out of 5
Listen to my full interview with Olivia Forsyth:
Agent 407 is published by Jonathan Ball Publishers.