A Ja/Nee kind of book

Jeremy Gordin reviews "Undercover with Mandela’s Spies" by Bradley Steyn

Undercover with Mandela’s Spies: The Story of the Boy who Crossed the Square by Bradley Steyn (and Mark Fine), 2019. Jacana Media. Kindle Edition.

The Dictionary of South African English on Historical Principles [1] gives five definitions of “ja-nee”. No. 4 is this: “Used to express the paradoxical or contradictory nature of a situation,” as in this example: “Her brother is both a hunter and leading conservationist. This is the Ja/Nee contradictory situation in which so many South Africans find themselves”.

Having finished reading Undercover with Mandela’s Spies, my reaction is rather “contradictory”. Ja-nee. But let’s begin with as dispassionate and accurate a précis as possible.

The book is the autobiography of Steyn, written 30 years after 1988. The significance of that year is that as a 17-year-old Afrikaner, still in high school, fed the stuff many young South Africans were in those days (Communism is evil, the ANC are communists, blacks are not to be trusted, etc. etc.), Steyn, while crossing Pretoria’s Strijdom Square on 15 November 1988, was caught in the middle of Barend Strydom’s murder spree during which the so-called Wit Wolf killed seven black people and wounded 15 more.

Due to what we would now call post-traumatic stress disorder, Steyn’s life unravels, and he messes up his schooling. So much so that by the age of 19 (he tells us) he has only one “qualification”. Thanks largely to his training at the Navy training base, SAS Saldanha, he is a “highly qualified thug” (location 382). In 1990/91, then, Steyn becomes a bouncer and enforcer for one of the protection rackets operating in Cape Town. This segues into him being recruited by a “government” underground unit, run by a security force member. Then various things happen to Steyn.

These include Steyn being deeply impressed by an ANC underground operator code-named “Kumalo” whom Steyn and a sidekick have kidnapped to interrogate but who achieves some sort of psychological ascendancy over them due to his fearlessness (chapter 11); a rather bizarre “meeting” with a man who turns out to be Joe Nhlanhla (loc. 2220), chief of the ANC’s secret intelligence apparatus; and Steyn’s long-standing relationship with Cyril Beeka, later a major “underworld boss”, who, it emerges, is also a member of the ANC underground [2].

Steyn is thereafter introduced by Nhlanhla to the ANC’s André Lincoln and Jeremy Vearey [3], the latter becomes Steyn’s mentor, and Steyn has a Damascene conversion of sorts and starts working undercover for the ANC.

Several of Steyn’s escapades – for “both” sides – are excitingly told, especially his infiltration on behalf of the ANC of the “militant right-wing extremist group, the World Apartheid Movement” (2490), and the gripping and frightening events that force him to flee the country (chaps. 20 and 21).

But let’s halt here. So far, having covered 21 chapters and with only the Epilogue to go, we have been reading what journalist Marianne Thamm aptly described as a “rollicking read full of testosterone-driven skopskiet and donner, treachery and treason” [4].

Nonetheless, there are some questions that prick at the reader’s mind.

Steyn’s “thesis” (confirmed in the Epilogue, which we’ll get to) is that he was completely messed up (an understatement) by what happened in Strijdom Square and that this experience effectively dictated all his behaviour thereafter. Yet there is ample evidence throughout the chapters demonstrating that Steyn had always (including the pre-Strijdom Square days) been a roughneck. More significantly, he seems to be not unhappy in the savage world he inhabits nor about the violence he perpetrates, irrespective of the “side” for which he inflicts it.

It also seems clear, from his own version, that Steyn was probably “turned,” as they say in the “spook” world, by Nhlanhla et al – he became a sort of white askari – not because he made a wrenching ethical decision but because the ANC had blown his cover, also “spook” terminology.

So shouldn’t Steyn just “own” what he is (or was) – his motives, such as they were – and move on? Cf. Robert McBride and Eugene de Kock. Should Steyn blame everything, as it were, on Strydom and what happened in Strijdom Square? These thoughts and questions naturally suggest to the reader others regarding the authorial orchestration or manipulation of Steyn’s story.

Steyn has a very competent and skilful co-writer, Mark Fine – who, we can safely assume (because this is what professional writers are paid to do), had to turn Steyn’s experiences into (i) a coherent and (ii) a sympathetic narrative.

Well, a narrative which has as its fulcrum the appalling events in Strijdom Square, is an author’s godsend. I.e., the reader could be forgiven for wondering in the back of her mind precisely how much of a role this event played in Steyn’s real life. Secondly, if this story had been only about a troubled bouncer swept up in the Seffrican melee of the early 90s, there’d not, in present-day South Africa, be much sympathy for or interest in the tale. Would there? I.e., the reader could also be forgiven for wondering in the back of his mind why an essentially non-political person such as Steyn, especially one with his sort of outlook, treats the ANC folk with such reverence.

Additionally, to give a story of this sort context and also the requisite “substance” – especially if, as is the case with Steyn, the protagonist was a bit-player with a very small part in the overall action – authors often look for relevant background and use it to fill pages, as it were. Fair enough. But in chapter nine, out of the proverbial blue, Steyn launches into a full-scale, pages-long attack on “the poster boy for ... government-sanctioned havoc” (loc. 1331), Eugene de Kock. Ostensibly this is to demonstrate that Steyn clearly “appreciated” that the bouncer group for which he was working before joining the ANC “was doing the donkey work of an organisation that embraced racist-driven psychotic [sic] killers” (1389).

Now, the point is not to defend De Kock or even to disagree with Steyn’s rant. The point is that Steyn never even met De Kock (if he had, he’d have said so), nor had he anything to do with De Kock’s activities or ones like them, and at the time in the narrative at which the “attack” on De Kock is inserted, Steyn would probably not even have heard of him. What I’m talking about here is tone-deaf anachronism – which is bound to make a reader wonder just how much the “truth” of the whole story is being manipulated.

But on the other hand, ja-nee: if a person tells you that what Strydom did in Strijdom Square marked him for life, traumatising him into something of a animal (there’s no doubt Steyn was there, there are photographs in the book) and that “Kumalo,” Nhlanhla, Beeka and Vearey all helped transform him into a human being able to see the (ANC) light, who am I to suggest that maybe it didn’t happen quite that way?   

We now move to the Epilogue, the final chapter of the book, which is set in 2018, and which I am purposely dealing with separately, for reasons that will be evident.

“I don’t know if I would have had the emotional issues I have today had I not witnessed Strydom’s massacre. I would probably have finished school and chosen a career. ... I wouldn’t have viewed the navy as a way to channel my anger into even further aggression, and ultimately found myself working for Project Group [the “protection and enforcement” company], looking for a scrap and bearing weapons for a living. // I wouldn’t have met ... Beeka, or any other of the individuals associated with that life. I wouldn’t have started working secretly for the apartheid regime at such a young age, entrenching my mental chaos, twisting gratitude and survivor’s guilt into a knot around what it meant to be ‘saved’ by a homicidal white supremacist because of my white skin [Strydom apparently encountered Steyn but “spared” him]. // I probably wouldn’t then have ended up fighting on the right side, for freedom [sic] – however briefly. I wouldn’t have met guerrillas [sic] Vearey and Lincoln, earned a file at DIS [ANC intelligence] and been trained in weapons handling, and vodka consumption ... in the Angolan bush (3308).

“Because almost none have [he means “has”] experienced a massacre or spied on both sides of a desperate race divide,” Steyn continues, “I can’t deny that I am different from most of my white brothers in terms of my life experience. But we do share our race and gender which, combined, have made for a lethal combination in our society [my emphasis]. Many South African white men of my generation are in all kinds of trouble with their mental health [my emphasis], and the realisation came to a head for me ... when I returned home to South Africa to prepare for the thirtieth anniversary of the Strijdom Square massacre” (3320).

Steyn explains that in 2018 he came back to SA from the US, where he now lives, wanting “to find the families of the dead and ... to meet survivors. My hope was that we could establish a memorial on Lilian Ngoyi Square – the new name of the site of Barend Strydom’s killing spree – that would forever remember those victims ...” (3320).

But then his “beloved brother-in-law, John ‘Bozzy’ Bosman, was murdered on his farm in Nelspruit. ...Three men invaded the farmhouse he shared with his wife – my sister, Leigh – and John, 61, was stabbed and shot, apparently for meagre electronic items. Mourning him, I was overcome by a sense of utter futility, angry with myself at having trusted my ANC comrades to take our country on a righteous path out of apartheid’s toxic grip ... I identified the reason for his death as the ANC’s failure to contain poverty” (3335).

Following this, Steyn makes a public video in which he “insisted that there was no way [John] was a victim of some imagined genocide that targeted white farmers; that we were all potential victims” (3351). “The Nazis [sic] went for me like crazed dogs. I was a traitor, they said. How could I be claiming this when I’d been a member of [MK] and had helped the ANC get into power? They then laid the blame for John’s slaughter at my feet with a loud ‘serves you right’” (3351).

Steyn tells us that “one of the loneliest aspects of this [period] was that those who would best relate to at least some of that trauma – other white South African men of my generation [born circa 1970] – were not available to me. The truth is that they have remained the indoctrinated. At the height of apartheid’s dehumanisation campaign, they were trained, over and over, to be supremacists. They were brainwashed to such an extent that most cannot but take their white privilege for granted [my emphases], which means that all that many of them are capable of doing now in terms of making a contribution to our country is to quieten the fxxx down, slightly (3379). ... It is also no surprise that politically charged racism continues to be fuelled by groups like AfriForum [sic] and Suidlanders, as well as by political entities such as the Economic Freedom Fighters and Black First Land First” (3410).

Steyn concludes: “I value freedom not only because I detest bigotry, but because I’m grateful to have been liberated from the controlling influence of my whiteness [my emphasis]. Strijdom Square was life-saving for me. At first I didn’t know what to do with the grotesque irony – until I was recruited by ANC Intelligence and could take advantage of the pigmentation of my skin as a means to add positively to the liberation struggle [my emphasis]. ... For now, as a witness to the massacre and as someone who was there among those murdered by one of us, I send out a call to my white brothers who had their minds stolen by the apartheid state. Let’s talk to each other, man. Let’s make this better. We must. There is no other way” (3424).

Am I correct in thinking that a “rollicking read full of testosterone-driven skopskiet and donner, treachery and treason” (notwithstanding some over-orchestration) was in the Epilogue thuggishly shouldered out of the room – by some sort of didactic virtue-signalling or something of that sort? Or am I just a weary old cynic?



[1] https://dsae.co.za/entry/janee/e03453.

[2] In 2011 Beeka was murdered in Cape Town. In the interests of “full disclosure,” I should perhaps mention that I met Beeka in 2007 at Polokwane and that a few years later in Cape Town he assisted me with a project. In my experience, he was remarkably deferential and helpful; but I was, of course, neither an underworld rival nor a cop, merely a journalist introduced to him by a close friend of his.

[3] Vearey became a member of Nelson Mandela’s elite protection detail and is now a Major General and Western Cape detective head. As best as one can make out from conflicting news reports, Vearey was charged in March with kidnapping, torture and defeating the ends of justice – but it is not clear whether these charges are still pending. At the end of the book, Steyn remarks, somewhat obscurely: “Although Jeremy became the focus of combative news reporting [sic] in late 2018 and again in 2019, with allegations that he ‘worked outside’ the system to gain information from sources on the street, he remained in his job without charges laid against him” (3610).

[4] In fairness to Thamm, she also goes on to note that Undercover with Mandela’s Spies is “much more” than a thriller.