They all lived together in that house on Church Street, Pretoria, in the year Berlin’s Take My Breath Away made it big on the charts. Ferdinand Fourie, dashingly handsome, often joked with the two other men that they won’t be famous one day. We’re the ones who’ll help free South Africa, he’d say, but we operate behind the scenes. Nobody knows much about us, not even our bosses – the Bureau Of State Security. And they operate almost independently from National Intelligence, who in turn shares nothing with Military Intelligence. I doubt if even the President knows about us.
There was more truth in his statement than even Ferdinand believed. They were a specialised unit, investigating the motives of various governments who supported the struggle against terrorists. Over time, it became clear that several of these played both sides against the middle. The CIA, for instance, first supported Buthelezi, then switched to the ANC; while all the time assuring Pretoria of their loyalty. This too, seemed to be true of the British government and their secret services.
Their task was massive. Kobus Gericke was the legal expert, who scrutinised the international accords, contracts and contacts. Ferdinand acted as a spy, an undercover man, who gathered information. The third member of the group, Herman Pretorius, was the military expert; it was his task to assess the impact of arms supply to the (then) enemy. Between the three of them, they gathered and analysed information that determined the government’s strategic planning.
There were other groups as well, of course. These cells had no way of knowing what the others were doing. The reasoning behind the approach can be found in the lack of trust that characterised the period: everybody was spying on everybody. Nobody trusted nobody. Disinformation and propaganda distorted the truth to such a degree, that all facts had to be checked and checked again. It was the rather paranoid government’s insurance policy against fraudulent information and double agents.
It was Gericke who stumbled across the plan to ferry rocket fuel to South Africa with a civilian passenger flight. Although it has happened before – with arms imports form Israel – the potential of carrying a much more dangerous substance on a commercial flight, made him sit up and take notice. He was worried. If he – operating in isolation as a small cell from a non-descript house in Church Street – could find suggestions that the government was side-stepping the arms embargo in this fashion, other agencies will also have some knowledge of it.
He checked the facts with Herman Pretorius.
“Ammonium perchloride? Impossible! That stuff is highly flammable and extremely dangerous. As far as I know, we make it ourselves. Use it at the testing grounds at De Hoop, on the Cape coast.” Gericke remembers to this day, the pause as Pretorius mulled the idea around. “Mind you, there have been shortages. The guys shoot off rockets faster at the testing grounds than we can supply the fuel…and there have been rumours of a search for external suppliers. Korea came up in one discussion.”
The legal implications of such an operation were vast. If something went wrong, or if it became known, the government would have hell to pay. The international outcry would negate any goodwill from foreign sources and public opinion would crucify South Africa. SAA would be refused permission to land anywhere.
Gericke called in Ferdinand. It was late at night and Gericke has just returned from the State Theatre, where he attended some opera with a date. Although he felt bad about calling his colleague – they had so little time to relax – he knew they had to move fast.
Their discussion was a short one. Ferdinand was to leave for Hong Kong to sniff around; find out anything about arms smuggling to South Africa.
What Gericke didn’t know then – and only found out later – was the double role Ferdinand was playing by secretly supplying the ANC with (some of) the information he gathered. When their agent made contact with him in Hong Kong, he confirmed they already know about the plan – the CIA informed them. And, they said, they’ll deal with it. He was to spend a few days lounging around in his hotel room, then return home.
That’s exactly what he did. And it was in that hotel room he watched in horror as the crash of the Helderberg became world news. TV anchormen ascribed the disaster as a freak, caused by lightning, or even sabotage by terrorists; but Ferdinand knew…
In Pretoria, Gericke welcomed Ferdinand with less enthusiasm than normal. How was it possible for a man of his abilities not to have found anything – while there were so many questions about the extremely strange fate of the Helderberg? He had sent Herman off to make enquiries, and some of the emerging facts worried him. Was it possible Ferdinand knew too much? Or that he had links with the opposition? Or that he was being controlled by foreign agents?
Ferdinand might be a problem, he decided. Instead of accusing him outright, and letting the opposition know they had been exposed, Gericke arranged for Ferdinand to be taken out of the picture by transferring him to another department. Maybe that tipped off the opposition, but he’ll never be sure.
Not surprisingly, Ferdinand disappeared before his transfer. The official version was that he was recruited by National Intelligence to work overseas, but everybody who knew how things worked, understood what had happened.
Judge takes off his shoes, letting them fall one by one. It’s been the most pleasant of evenings and Gertruida had been the most entertaining and gracious of hostesses. They had fun, that’s for sure.
Ferdinand mentioned Gertruida in the past, when they were sitting around, talking man-things around a braai on the occasional evening they relaxed a little. He’ll have to tell Gertruida that one day. He’ll also tell her what a shock it was to realise she is the Gertruida who featured in those chats. And that Ferdinand died…
Judge Gericke is an influential man. His knowledge of international affairs and his many contacts with politicians ensured his appointment as judge in the early 90’s, after National Intelligence basically stopped functioning. The unbanning of the ANC made many operatives redundant and he was appointed to the bench as a reward for his loyal work as one of the last actions of the National government. He kept a low profile, making sure his rulings were politically correct and avoided stepping on toes. He was a marked man, and he knew it. When the opportunity arose to retire, he grabbed at it.
Now, just when he thought he outstripped the past, he has seen the small picture of Ferdinand Fourie on the mantelpiece in Gertruida’s cottage. Ferdinand, the double agent who went to live in England. Oh they traced him, all right, but by then everything changed and it would have been stupid to do anything about the defection. However, the old-boy club kept tabs on things – they used to meet once or twice a year to talk of the old times. It was at one of these meetings he learnt what had become of his old comrade, the one that sat in the hotel while the Helderberg went up in flames. Dying like that…A fitting end, he thought at the time.
How ironic, he thinks as he slips into bed, that he should meet Gertruida here. He came to Rolbos to find his son, got a few surprises and was at the point of leaving, when he met Gertruida.
Sleep comes with leaded feet to those with a heavy conscience. It stomps on the wooden floor of remembering when the eyelids droop. It’ll march, arms swinging and boots crashing on the pavement, while sleep watches on uncomfortably from the spiked seat of yesterday’s actions. In itself, is bad enough; but it’s the prospect of telling the truth that strikes up the brass band that’ll really scare slumber away.
No, he decides, it’s fate that threw them together. It is a way of erasing the past and starting afresh. Surely they wouldn’t have met if it served only to punish him? Did the Law of Life demand sacrifice for all things done in the past? Surely not? Surely he is entitled to some happiness? He tries hard to believe the thought, knowing it’ll be impossible to do so. If he told Gertruida he had been at least partially responsible for Ferdinand’s disappearance, she’d never forgive him.
The little soldiers of guilt pick up speed as they do a quick-march across the pages of his mind, singing with gusto and saluting with laughter as they trample the dreams of the future.
Judge Kobus Gericke has been found guilty by his own conscience. The sentence is clear. He gets up with a sigh to put the kettle on.