Tales from Dystopia XVI: The SB
No tales of the apartheid era in South Africa would be complete without the SB, also known as the Special Branch, the Veiligheidstak, the Security Police etc. They were what in German was called the Geheime Staatspolitzei — the Gestapo.
They were probably around even before apartheid, and perhaps were chasing suspected German spies in the Second World War. But they really came into their own when Balthazar Johannes Vorster became Minister of Justice in 1961, and worked very hard to turn South Africa into a police state. Within two years he had given them enormously increased powers in two General Laws Amendment Acts — powers of surveillance, detention without trial and more. Any criticism of the policies of the ruling National Party was deemed to be a threat to the security of the state, and so the SB became involved.
I have no horror stories to tell about the SB.
This is just to let anyone reading this in the hope or expectation of seeing such things here that they probably wont find them. Undoubtedly some people had horrific experiences with the SB, Steve Biko, for example. That was one of the things that sometimes surprised visitors from abroad during the apartheid time — things didn’t immediately look as bad as they expected them to be. And the trouble is that on the surface, everything did look so ordinary and normal when Mr Vorster was busy passing legislation. Nasty things did happen, and they happened to lots of people, but they didn’t happen to me. So I am able to tell the funnier side of it, though even the funnier side is rather sad. But never forget that there was also a very nasty side.
Thanks to the reports that the SB sent to Mr Vorster and his successors, I am able to tell when I first came under their attention (onder aandag). It was on 9 April 1964. I was a student at the University of Natal in Pietermaritzburg, and my friend and fellow student John Aitchison, who was a member of the Liberal Party, persuaded me to help him distribute Liberal Party leaflets to workers coming out of the Eddels Shoe Factory in Pietermaritzburg.
The SB had come under my attention a bit earlier than that, when I went to visit Arthur Blaxall, an Anglican priest whose ministry was mainly among deaf and blind children, and was also secretary of the Fellowship of Reconciliation, an ecumenical body that promoted Christian pacifism. As I noted in my diary for 17 April 1963, “Later I went back to town to have lunch with Father Blaxall, as I had arranged yesterday, but I found a note on his door to say that the heat had raided his office, and that he would not be back.”
It later transpired that he had been arrested, and was he was tried for contravening the Suppression of Communism Act. He received a suspended sentence and wrote a book about it. It was on the occasion that Mr Vorster came to Maritzburg I met first met the notorious Warrant Officer van Rensburg, the most visible SB man in the town.
In August 1964 my friend John Aitchison was picked up by the SB when he was riding his bicycle through the middle of town. He was taken to the SB offices for questioning by a bloke called Baker, an old boy of Hilton College (the most expensive private school in South Africa). They confiscated a lot of papers dealing with “blackspot removals” (ethnic cleansing) in various parts of Natal, which the Liberal Party was documenting and exposing. Baker showed John a copy of a book by Dale Carnegie, one of the early self-help gurus, called How to stop worrying and start living, and urged him to read it. Stop worrying about the country, and leave it to us. We are looking after your security too, said Baker.
John Aitchison also recruited me to drive people from Pietermaritzburg to meetings of rural branches of the Liberal Party. Most of the members of the rural branches were black peasants, and most of them were living in “blackspots” — land owned by black people in areas the government had designated for white occupation. They were the ones who were most intimidated by the SB, who harassed them in any way they could, by arresting them on trumped-up charges, urging employers to dismiss them, distributing scurrilous leaflets and occasionally throwing petrol bombs. So the city members would travel to rural branch meetings for a show of solidarity. And the SB would travel to the meetings with their tape recorders to record the speeches, note the names of those who were present, and sometimes follow up with something unpleasant.
On Saturday 27 February 1965, there were several meetings, and we went in two cars, Roddy Holmes driving his Wolseley 1500, and I was driving the Liberal Party car, a rather clapped out Opel station wagon. We passed the SB headquarters in Loop Street, and Van Rensburg was waiting outside, and waved to us as we went by. The SB went in three cars, and two of them had gone ahead.
The first meeting was at Stoffelton, and John Aitchison and Jennifer Hugo spoke. The SB arrived in their green Studebaker Lark (then the fastest production car on the road) and set up their tape recorder in the doorway — big reel-to-reel jobs in those days. Those of us sitting near the door shuffled our feet a lot to interfere with their recording.
We went on to the next meeting, which was at the Ukukhanya Mission in Upper Umkhomazi. The Umkhomazi River follows a winding course down to the coast and at its mouth is the seaside resort known to English-speaking people as Umkomaas. We turned off the main (gravel) road between Underberg and Nottingham Road, and climbed a winding stony track. Roddy Holmes was in front with his Wolseley, and we, following in the Opel, got stuck while crossing a drift across a stream. It had water in the distributor.
I cleaned and dried the distributor cap, while the girls walked down to the river for a swim. The SB men were stuck behind us in their Lark, and kept muttering that we were trying to hold them up, which, of course, we were. We said they would be welcome to push the Opel through the stream and up the bank on the other side but they declined the offer. We, and they, arrived too late for the meeting.
The advantage of the SB arriving late at the meeting was not that they couldn’t record it, but rather that they could not show their presence to intimidate the people.
The SB set off back down the hill ahead of us — they were not going to risk being caught behind us at the drift again. But they got stuck on a protruding rock, so their car was rocking with its front wheels or back wheels off the ground, so it was their turn not to move. They also holed their petrol tank.
So we passed them and went on to the next meeting, at Stepmore, where Van Rensburg had been impatiently waiting through the heat of the day. John Aitchison asked him if he had a warrant to attend the meeting. “Just get on with the bloody meeting!” he said. Oops, temper. Perhaps he was going to be late for a dinner date back in Maritzburg.
A year later, at the beginning of 1966, I went overseas to study in the UK. That involved an encounter with another
SB man, Detective Sergeant Van den Heever. I was in Johannesburg, driving buses to save enough money to travel overseas. Van den Heever phoned me at 4:30 one afternoon, and asked if he could come and see me. I said I was going to work. Could he come next morning? I said I had overtime. But I had some time between my overtime in the morning and my regular shift in the afternoon, so could I go and see him? I agreed to meet him at 11:00 am the next day at his office in The Grays, the SB Joburg headquarters. Then I thought he would either have a banning order to give me, or was coming to take my passport away, and either would disrupt my plans to study overseas.
I went to consult John Davies, the Anglican chalplain at Wits University, and we decided that I had better not keep the appointment, and that I should be out of the country by the time it came round. There were no available planes before 11:00 the next day, so I drove through the night to UDI Rhodesia, while my mother arranged a plane booking for me from Bulawayo to London. John Davies came with me to bring my mother’s car back.
A few days later my mother had a phone call from a Mervyn Harvey, saying he was a friend of mine from university and wanted to see me. She told him I was out. After another few days she had a phone call from Detective Sergeant van den Heever, saying he was looking for me, and for two friends of mine, Michael Blane and Mervyn Harvey, and she thought, “It’s you, you bugger” who had phoned her last time. He wanted to come and see her, and she said “I hope you won’t come in uniform, what will the neighbours think?” So he said he would come wearing his police blazer.
She told him I was over 21, and didn’t tell her everything I was doing, and played the ignorant parent card. Meanwhile I’d written her several letters from the UK, and she had organised my flight there. Later he informed her that I had left the country with a passport, as if it was news to her.
I learned later, from the SB files in the archives, that Vorster had signed a banning order for me on the 11th January 1966 (I had left on the 18th), so van den Heever was doubtless coming to deliver it, only I had scarpered. I also learned that they had sent an instruction to the Department of Home Affairs in Pretoria not to issue me with a passport, only I already had one, though valid only for Basutoland, Bechuanaland and Swaziland. In December 1966 I got it extended to include Western Europe and the UK at the Johannesburg Regional Office for Home Affairs — they obviously hadn’t got the SB memo there yet.
While I was overseas I sent Van Rensburg a Christmas card every year, to his home address. That may have disconcerted him a little — the SB are supposed to know their clients’ home addresses, but their clients are not supposed to know about them.
On my return to South Africa in July 1968 the SB picked up where they had left off. One day two spooks came to confiscate my passport. A Lieutenant Dreyer made a new appointment in place of the one with Detective Sergeant van den Heever. I was impressed, having graduated from a Detective Sergeant to a Lieutenant. And also, it seemed, from The Grays to John Vorster Square. That was interesting. He told me his office was on the 11th floor. But I could find no lift to the 11th floor. I asked at the counter, and they pointed me to a small passage down the side. I got in the lift, and it zoomed me up to the 10th floor. A bloke at the desk asked who I wanted to see, and I told him. He phoned Lieutenant Dreyer to check. Then he told me to get back in the lift, and he sent me up to the next floor. There was no button for me to press. There were two hefty bank vault doors along the way to Lieut Dreyer’s office as well.
He asked me questions about where I lived and what work I did, all the kinds of questions preliminary to a banning order. A waste of time, since I wouldn’t be there much longer. My file was on his desk, a foot thick. All shredded now, I’m sure, just before the SB were disbanded in 1994.
The SB were not very numerous, but they had a huge network of informers, pimps as they were called, izimpimpi, or imisheshelengwana. After my interview with Lietenant Dreyer I did not see much of the SB, except once. I was driving through Pietermaritzburg past the university, and spotted Van Rensburg at the side of the road, keeping an eye on a student demo across the road. I pulled out of the traffic and stopped next to him to say hello. We were most amused at his policeman’s reflex, like Dr Strangelove’s arm. Before even seeing who was in the car he had pulled out his notebook to take down the car number.
In early 1969 I was working at the Missions to Seamen in Durban, and conceived the idea of visiting some of the former members of the Liberal Party (which had been forced to disband). I drove to Ladysmith on my day off to see Elliot Mngadi, the still-banned former Northern Natal Organiser for the Liberal Party. He kept a fish and chip shop at Roosboom, and we called there for some fish and chips and a chat. While we were there some of the children from the neighbourhood, aged about 8 or 9, were reciting my car number in sing-song fashion. The next day I got a phone call from someone claiming to be from the police, asking if the car with that number belonged to me. It had been reported as having been in an accident in Ladysmith the previous day, they said. Had I been in Ladysmith yesterday?
Yes, the SB used kids as young as 8 as pimps. I wondered what incentives they gave them?
Later still I was in Windhoek, and a group of us had a kind of Christian commune, what would now be called in some quarters the “new monasticism“. We lived in a house belonging to the Anglican Church, and eventually some of us, the ringleaders, as the SB no doubt saw us, were deported, along with the Anglican Bishop, Colin Winter. Just before we left our next-door neighbour, Jean Rees, came along and told us she had been offered the house at a very low renal, on condition that she spied on us. She came and volunteered help in the church office.
There were many SB pimps, and one of the problems of those days was that one was suspicious of everyone, You never knew who might be a spy.
In the SB reports to the Minister of Justice there were frequent reference to “a sensitive source” (‘n delikate bron). In some cases this may have been a spy, but in other cases it was clearly a member of the SB who went through the mail. It is clear from the SB files that all the letters that John Aitchison had written to me while I was overseas had been read and the contents noted by the SB. And at least some of the letters I had written back to him had received similar treatment. It was also clear from these reports that I was a “client” of the Pietermaritzburg SB, and they were the ones who kept tabs on me. When I lived in Durban, or Johannesburg, the SB in those places didn’t really know what I was doing, and didn’t really care. The Windhoek ones were more diligent, but mainly used informers. Some of the ones we suspected we may have suspected unjustly, but the chief suspect was one Cyril Banet, who tried to find out all sorts of things he didn’t really need to know.
When I lived in Melmoth and in Utrecht in 1976-1982, the SB got many things completely wrong, and didn’t have a clue what I was really doing. In their reports to the Minister they were obviously making things up. And the most obvious spy was the funniest, but also the saddest one of the lot, one Alfredo Tembe.
In early 1977 he popped into a revival service we were having in Utrecht, and gave his testimony, to the effect that he had been a soldier for Frelimo in Mocambique, and after independence had been put in charge of a village, but when an inspector came round he was found AWOL and was sacked. He came to South Africa, got a job as a carpenter on a mine, and then got ill and went to hospital where an evangelist preached to him and he was converted. He said the had been a boxing champion, and one could believe that, as he was physically impressive.
We used to have ecumenical evening services in Utrecht, attended by all denominations except white Dutch Reformed. One of the people active there was Neville Richardson, who was personnel officer for two of the local mines that belonged to the Rand Mines-Barlow group. Alfredo was working on one of the mines as a carpenter.
He sometimes accompanied me to outlying congregations, and though his English was very poor and my Portuguese non-existent, he tried to learn local languages, and fancied himself as a preacher, though he seemed rather naive. I could see why his irresponsible behaviour might have got him fired in Mocambique.
Then one night he came to us, like Nicodemus, in great agitation. He confessed that he was an SB spy.
He said he had been given a tape recorder by the SB and asked to go around with me and record what I said at church services, and also what Neville Richardson said. But he was in trouble. There was something wrong with the tape recorder, and the SB could not get the tape to play back, so they wanted the original recorder that had recorded them — perhaps the head was misaligned or something. But he had left the recorder at the mine security office, and the security officer had lent it to someone else and now now nobody knew where it was. The SB were threatening to arrest Alfredo and deport him back to Mocambique. I said he would be well advised to tell the story to Neville Richardson as well, who found it disturbing. He was a rather non-political type, and this story sounded quite Kafkaesque to him.
It soon became clear that when Alfredo came out with me, he did not have time off work. He told the compound manager where he was going, and the compound manager signed his shift ticket as if he had worked.
A few months later some people from BOSS (the Bureau of State Security) came to the mine. They wanted to speak to the mine management about the security risks in industrial unrest, and what steps they could take to prevent it. And the mine management told them to get lost, and told them the story of Alfredo Tembe.
Here was the carpenter, whose boss, the compound manager, was using the mine’s money to pay Alfredo to spy on his (the compound manager’s) boss, namely Neville Richardson, the personnel manager. Neville was at the meeting with the BOSS people, who said that that was done by the SB, and the SB were stupid flatfoot policemen who didn’t have a clue what they were doing, and the men of BOSS were far too professional for that kind of thing. In fact, Neville told me, the BOSS people were furious with the SB for queering their pitch.
So poor blundering Alfredo had unwittingly set the SB and BOSS at each other’s throats. It was rather amusing, except that Alfredo was such a sad character.
The saddest tale of all, however, is not really mine to tell. It had to do with one of John Aitchison’s spies, who was a mental patient, an inmate of Fort Napier. He was a Dr Harry van Zyl, who attended Christian Institute meetings in Pietermaritzburg. It should really be for John Aitchison to tell the story, but using a mental patient as a pimp seems somehow even worse than using young children.
This is one of a series of posts called Tales from Dystopia, memories of what life was like in apartheid South Africa