A high-level inquiry has opened into accusations that Bulelani Ngcuka, South Africa’s Director of Public Prosecutions, was a spy for the apartheid authorities, and known as agent RS452. But Vanessa Brereton, who lives in south London with her British husband, says that was her number.
Over coffee at a pavement cafe in south London this week, she told The Independent she became agent RS452 after being recruited by a British-born spy for the Bureau of State Security or Boss, the feared apartheid-era security service. Her story reveals the extraordinary lengths to which the Pretoria regime went to penetrate the anti-apartheid movement.
Vanessa Brereton had confided in no one about her secret life since resigning from the South African security police in April, 1991, when Nelson Mandela had been out of prison for a year and apartheid was collapsing. Not even her husband knew, but she said she decided to speak out after reading on the internet a piece I had written about the need to deal openly and comprehensively with South Africa’s “malignant past”. She wanted an end to “all the lies and deceit”, she told me.
Now in her mid-40s, Ms Brereton was a human rights lawyer fighting high-profile cases under the previous regime; when the African National Congress was unbanned in the early 1990s, she was unanimously elected treasurer of her local ANC branch in Port Elizabeth. What nobody knew was that she had been informing on the anti-apartheid opposition all along. “I am only now starting to come to terms with what I did and what I was involved with,” she said.
She was among the agents and informers in Operation Crocus, a security police project aimed at collecting information about the “white left”. The British-born spy recruiter spotted Ms Brereton at a party in Port Elizabeth in December, 1984. He was a close friend and associate of Craig Williamson, a confessed letter-bomb killer who organised the bombing of the ANC office in London in 1982. A newly qualified lawyer who was starting her own practice, she was, she said, confident in her chosen field, but was socially insecure.
“I know now I had a low self-image,” she says. Born with a congenital hip defect, she spent six months in hospital at the age of 11, and walked with a conspicuous limp. Serious, a high achiever, and fiercely protected by her parents, she says she was summed up by a school report saying: “It’s a pity Vanessa is not a little less self-conscious and a little more carefree.”
The Irish nuns at the Holy Rosary Convent helped her develop a commitment against apartheid, she says, but they also gave her a strong fear and repugnance of communism. This would be played on by her recruiter.
Her recruiter said if she considered communism a grave danger, she should be prepared to do something about it. Cuban “communists” were on South Africa’s doorstep in Angola, and the unrest in the country was being fuelled by unscrupulous and immoral white communists, who used the advantages granted them by apartheid to sow discord and havoc in the majority black population.