COMMENT

Emerging from the shadows

Jeremy Gordin reviews "Cop Under Cover" by Johann van Loggerenberg

Cop Under Cover: My Life in the Shadows with Drug Lords, Robbers and Smugglers by Johann van Loggerenberg. Jonathan Ball Publishers, 2020, 275 pp.

Here is a sentence-and-a-half spoken by a character in a (yet) unpublished novel, shared with me by its author: “... the country was awash with disinformation. It was a growth industry, a currency that never devalued, the essential lubricant that greased the cogs of private and governmental corruption and murder”.

Looking around my own workspace, here are a few of the books I see. Askari by Jacob Dlamini (2014), Spy and Betrayal by Jonathan Ancer (2017, 2019), Secret Revolution by Niël Barnard (2015) and So, For the Record by Anton Harber (2020).

If I glance at my Kindle library, there’s The President Keeper’s by Jacques Pauw (2017), Shaking Hands with Billy by Anthony Turton (2010), The Terrorist Album by Jacob Dlamini (2020), and many others.

Also lying on the table are Muldergate by Mervyn Rees and Chris Day (1980) and Final Deadline by Rex Gibson (2007) and, on my Kindle, Prisoner 913 by Riaan de Villiers and Jan-Ad Stemmet (2020) and The Last Jacobins of Africa by James Myburgh (2020).

In short, the remark made by the protagonist above is pretty uncontroversial. Most of our political history has revolved – and doubtless still revolves – around the covert manipulation of information and the “playing” of various people including those in the government and media, who are fed incorrect, slanted, or malicious information; and, if you’re wondering about the inclusion of The Last Jacobins of Africa, Muldergate, and Prisoner 913, the local practice, for want of a better word, of disinformation seems to go back further in time than one might at first think (though this a discussion for another day).

And where there is disinformation and disinformation peddlers, there are of course undercover operatives – spooks. Which brings us to Johann van Loggerenberg and his latest book, Cop Under Cover.

“Latest” because in the last few years Van Loggerenberg has been industrious, to say the least. He co-wrote (with Adrian Lackay) Rogue: The Inside Story of SARS’s Elite Crime-busting Unit (2016), and authored Death and TaxesHow SARS made hitmen, drug dealers and tax dodgers pay their dues (2017) and Tobacco Wars: Inside the spy games and dirty tricks of southern Africa's cigarette trade (2019).

Yes, you know who he is and have probably even seen him on TV. Van Loggerenberg was one of the SARS group who, through the use of manipulated “information” and a badly fooled media, were kicked hard where it hurts most, each losing his career and reputation, the last of which has been restored only in recent years (insofar as a reputation can ever be restored).

So, Van Loggerenberg was himself a victim of brutal disinformation. He knows exactly how it feels and describes what happened to him in detail (pp. 112-14).

Besides this, Van Loggerenberg was also an undercover cop, working for the Organised Crime Intelligence Unit (OCIU), and was also from November 1993 a species of spook, secret operative RS536 – just like RS167, Craig Williamson, and RS452, Vanessa Brereton. 

There was a difference, though, between Van Loggerenberg and the others, as he painstakingly shows us. As he says, Yes, he did “operate covertly, actively sought out evidence, leads, witnesses and information” – but his work related to “the sins of the Security Branch, Military Intelligence and other dirty-tricks outfits of the old regime” (116).

Van Loggerenberg, in other words, was at that time a spy but not an “apartheid spy”; not a member of the Vlakplaas hit squad or a former Security Branch operative, as suggested by some of the disinformation touted when he and his colleagues came under attack at SARS.

Van Loggerenberg, now 51, is setting the record straight about what happened at SARS.

Van Loggerenberg also came to learn – this was towards the end of his “career” in the OCIU, in 1997 – just how prevalent and destructive disinformation dissemination could be – and gives us some interesting examples (243-4).

We meet some old friends such as the 2006 “Browse Mole” report alleging inter alia that Jacob Zuma was planning to overthrow the government, and the 2011 “Mdluli dossier” which cleared then head of Crime Intelligence Richard Mdluli of the 1999 murder of Oupa Abel Ramogibe (maar kyk hoe lyk Mdluli nou). But because he was no longer a spook by then, we assume these cases are Van Loggerenberg extrapolating from his experience.

Far more gripping is a matter in which he was personally involved – the top-secret dossier handed in 1998 to former President Mandela by General Georg Meiring, in which the government was warned that there was a complex plot involving hundreds of ANC members, including Robert McBride, who planned to take over SA (245-50).

This is a remarkable story about disinformation. McBride was well and truly set up and the main state witness against him in the ensuing trial in Mozambique turned out to be known informers for the Security Branch and Military Intelligence, and the arms cache, “supposedly to be used to overthrow, the SA government, turned out to be a few old, rusty and mostly disabled arms, found in [one informer’s] flat”.

As we recall, McBride was exonerated and Meiring resigned in disgrace. But, interestingly, the sting in which McBride was caught is not clearly attributed by Van Loggerenberg to one particular group or “political motive” – though obviously McBride was not generally loved by the old guard – but to people merely looking to “produce” disinformation, or what Van Loggerenberg terms the “conspiracy theories” that had the intelligence agencies “chasing ghosts”.

But what about the sub-head of the title, My Life in the Shadows with Drug Lords, Robbers and Smugglers? Ja-nee, most of Van Loggerenberg’s “work” was busting drug cartels, smugglers and robbers, and there’s plenty of exciting undercover work, skullduggery, and corruption to be read about.

In the first couple of chapters, Van Loggerenberg talks about his early life.  He joined the police because he just “didn’t want to go” for military service; and – though Eugene de Kock did go to the army before joining the police – something about Van Loggerenberg’s attitude to the army, coupled with the ambience of his early days, reminds me of De Kock.

This is not without irony because it was partially due to Van Loggerenberg’s undercover work that the delivery of truckloads of AK-47s, ammunition and grenades to the Inkatha Freedom Party’s Phillip Powell was revealed – as confirmed by De Kock, who admitted his pivotal role at the TRC in 1996.

There’s another sort of similarity between the two men that strikes me, something about their intensity and focus. On p. 7, Van Loggerenberg describes how in his early thirties, he found out he had suffered from a mild form of bipolar disorder all his life.

I have no medical degree, yet I sense from this book and from other things I have read about Van Loggerenberg that if he were to research the matter, he might find he also features on the Asperger’s spectrum. As Wikipedia tells us, “People with Asperger syndrome can display behavior, interests, and activities that are ... abnormally intense or focused.”

I don’t intend these observations to be offensive or obtrusive, I was set along these lines of thought by Van Loggerenberg’s brave admission (260-1) that he was (unsurprisingly) hit hard by post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), or a “general anxiety disorder”, in 1999 when he was 30.

In his prefatory note, Van Loggerenberg points out that “every word in this book is fact, based on personal records kept over my lifetime ...” and lists where and in what formats he kept the records and also reproduces certain “proofs” (copies of documents) in this book. Again, such meticulous record-keeping is clearly the fruit of intense focus.

And of course, it is precisely this penchant for fastidious record-keeping that assisted Van Loggerenberg in fighting against and repelling the vicious disinformation onslaught when he was at SARS. 

Addendum

Johan van Loggerenberg called me today (Friday, 16 October) essentially to say that he considered my “comparisons” of himself and former Vlakplaas commander Eugene de Kock inappropriate. We discussed the issue amicably, and I said I had not intended to suggest an overall or full-on similarity between himself and De Kock.

I had merely been trying to highlight (what I thought were) two specific and ring-fenced “resemblances”: a particular sort of upbringing resulting in antipathy to certain societal demands (e.g., military service); and second, an abnormally intense, obsessive approach to many things (e.g., in Van Loggerenberg’s case, meticulous record-keeping). In any case, I apologise to Van Loggerenberg for any offence or hurt I might have caused.