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Does This Man Look Like a Spy? Former Intelligence Boss Niel Barnard Launches Secret Revolution with John Maytham

Niël Barnard

The launch of Secret Revolution: Memoirs of a Spy Boss by former head of the National Intelligence Service (NIS) Niël Barnard, as told to Tobie Wiese, was an electric event. There was not one empty chair at The Book Lounge, where readers from all across the political spectrum came to hear remarkable tales from a man uniquely positioned to speak about a particularly troubling part of South Africa’s history.

As Nicky Stubbs welcomed the author and his interviewer, John Maytham, she recalled Hilda Bernstein’s memoir, The World that was Ours. In her foreword Bernstein wrote: “What I have written is the truth as I saw it but the whole truth will not be written for many years to come.”

John Maytham and Niël BarnardSecret Revolution: Memoirs of a Spy BossGeheime revolusie: Memoires van ’n spioenbaas10 years later her husband, Rusty Bernstein, wrote in Memory Against Forgetting: “For all those who resisted apartheid and finally laid it low, but whose courage and sacrifices are now in danger of being forgotten, ‘the struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting’ (Milan Kundera).”

Barnard and Maytham engaged in a conversation that kept everyone on the edge of their seats from the first startling words to the last. The book has also been published in Afrikaans as Geheime revolusie: Memoires van ’n spioenbaas.

True to form, Maytham commenced the event with his trademark theatrical flair when he asked: “Appearances can be deceptive. Does he look like a spy?” Maytham sustained a dramatic pause. A nervous titter ran through the audience. “It’s not actually him,” he continued in a mock sinister tone, “Niël Barnard is waiting outside. It’s a little deception we’re practising on you.”

Niël Barnard and Tobie WieseAt the core of this narrative is the author’s pride in the work he did. The event was prefaced by the statement in the book that “intelligence is such a dirty business that it can be run only by gentlemen”.

Barnard sees what he did as a public service that changed the course of history. He shared the line of thinking that led him to persuade PW Botha to seek an internal settlement to the country’s troubles and to start a secret dialogue with Nelson Mandela. Maytham highlighted the fact that when PW Botha approached Barnard in 1979 while he was still a junior lecturer with an interest in international affairs he was far from being the most obvious person for the job. Barnard speculated about why he had been chosen for the job. “At that time there was a very tough bureaucratic turf battle in the intelligence community.”

“Lang Hendrik” van den Bergh, founder of the Bureau of State Security (BOSS) was in control of intelligence in the country. Barnard said that the appointment of an unknown youngster from the Free State – possibly through the influence of Kobie Coetsee and Alwyn Schlebusch – enabled them to downgrade BOSS and clip its operational wings, replacing it with a kind of research institute.

“I had the right kind of background as an Afrikaner, as a member of the Broederbond, which I think is crucial,” he said. Maytham recalled that Barnard’s wife Engela (who was 30 at the time) was not in favour of him taking the position. She was against his being in charge of BOSS, “which in some people’s minds was killing people and conducting paramilitary operations”. She expressed her anxiety, warning him with the words: “They’re going to break you. You’re too young.”

In a conversation that wound through many fascinating aspects of recent history, Maytham referred to the colossal blunder of the US intelligence community that was the wide-ranging disclosures of Edward Snowden and his subsequent arrest. “Secrets are kept secret that shouldn’t be kept secret,” said Maytham. Barnard said, “I don’t know stronger words in English than ‘colossal blunder’ but it is more than that. Snowden – and the way he acted – has put thousands of top level sources in life security issues. Hell … now I must choose my words carefully … I don’t have a lot of sympathy for that man. It’s unpatriotic in the highest sense of the word. Don’t try to hide behind human rights.

“What must the ordinary citizen know? This is a minefield. What does the ordinary citizen know about nuclear strategy? Must we have an election on nuclear strategy? There are some issues in life for which democracy is not the answer.”

Barnard ended with a reflection on the effects of 9/11, weapons of mass destruction and the structure of the world: “If you want to be safe, you have to protect certain values. I don’t know of any other way.”

Listen to a podcast of the evening’s conversation:


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Liesl Jobson (@LieslJobson) tweeted live from the event using the hashtag #livebooks


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Posted by NB-Uitgewers on Tuesday, 26 May 2015


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