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A Well of Conspiracy

The Tall Assassin, A Discussion with Author and Former SAPF Alan Elsdon   

The Year is 1942, Republic of South Africa. The Emergency Regulations Act, designed by General Smuts to curb pro-Nazi activities, had begun to bite at the ankles of the Ossewabrandwag membership list. The rounding up of Afrikaners and Nazi Auslanders into prison camps may have averted a civil war, but it also brought together many of the day’s anti-democratic minds, and there they talked and fomented South Africa’s future. At one such camp, Koffiefontein, there were interred together two men who would go on to shape the history of the country as few others would, one on the political stage and the other behind the scenes. The former, John Vorster, is well known. The latter, as founder and head of the Bureau of State Security, involved himself directly in most every Apartheid-era intrigue of national stakes, and yet is still very much a mystery.

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A recent novel published by Umuzi Press charts the rise of this obscure and mysterious Afrikaner nationalist—Hendrik van den Bergh—and his much feared Bureau of State Security (referred to by journalists as BOSS) to his resignation amidst the Muldergate Scandal of the late 70s. In doing so it casts a heatless light on the icily efficient character of van den Bergh, bringing him to life without resurrecting his ideals. New dimensions are also given to the coffins of Verwoerd, Stephen Biko, John Harris, Robert Smit, and David Pratt.

The Tall Assassin’s author, Alan Elsdon, is a former South African Police Force officer who served in Rhodesia during the Bush War, and in Transkei during its years of its nominal independence, and also with the Special Branch of the South African Narcotic Bureau (SANAB). He also worked as a cryptographer in Owamboland, South West Africa (now Namibia) during the Koevoet operations against SWAPO guerrillas, and later at Walvis Bay. It was during this time he came to learn some of South Africa’s darkest and most mysterious secrets. After reporting some of it to the proper authorities, he received a ‘calling card’ (a shot fired over his head) as a warning not to dig deeper. He did anyway.

Elsdon brings no academic compromise to the narrative, nor any noticeable interdepartmental baggage, just 20+ years of research, written up as a cinematic psychological thriller that makes fact stranger than fiction. And it is a roman à clef rather than a work of non-fiction for good reason: many of Apartheid’s architects and apologists are still out there and ever more reluctant to see their soiled laundry strung up. Nevertheless, there have been several accounts of these years written by South African intelligence community ex-members.[1] Each has its personal knives to sharpen and professional scabs to pick, and each is testament to the thick purdah van den Bergh hung between his operations and the public eye.

Drop a coin into the well of Apartheid-era conspiracy and you will never hear it hit bottom. In spite of this, South Africa has produced but a fraction of the volume of the American conspiratorial literature about subjects like JFK and MLK Jr. JFK was not Verwoerd and MLK was not Biko, but the vapor trails of unanswered and unanswerable questions left in the flights of their assassins are long and inflammable. Instead of lighting matches around the firedamp of conspiracies, metaphor and memory are layered in in just such a way that The Tall Assassin can read like a straight novel, or a novel with allegorical avenues for those who would know to follow them. A format born of necessity, it is, in spite of some awkward phrasing here and there, an achievement.

The Tall Assassin is currently out of print and unavailable to all but the most tenacious book hunters. This fact is not, evidently, due to lack of interest, but rather to some of the invisible forces about which Mr. Elsdon writes. Nevertheless, he is in the process of republishing both of his books (The Tall Assassin and My Cryptic Life) as well as the Afrikaans version of the former (Die Lang General) and hopes to make them available on Amazon this month (May 2013).

I recently had a conversation with Mr Elsdon about his life and books, and he has been gracious enough to permit me to publish it.

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Aram Yardumian: Umuzi Publishers sold the entire 8000 copy run of your book within a few months, and then refused to print more. Why?

Alan Elsdon: Umuzi is not some small printing concern, as it sounds, but part of Random House Struik, one of the largest publishing houses in South Africa. When I provided them with my manuscript they were over the moon with excitement. There was talk of local and overseas marketing to promote the book and sales figures. When the books were close to being sold out I asked Umuzi about the printing of more books and was told no more books would be printed. Asked about their unexpected decision I was told there had been ‘a number of complaints’ about ‘inaccuracies’ relating to dates used in my book. When I asked which dates were incorrect I received no direct reply. Despite my willingness to amend any ‘incorrect dates’ or other ‘inaccuracies’ in the book, I was told that the decision taken, was final. The books were eventually all sold out and I bought back the rights to them. Clearly Umuzi wanted nothing more to do with my titles, but when they drew up a contract, they still insisted that mention be made in any future copies that they were responsible for the first edition of the books in 2009.

AY: You also published a memoir entitled My Cryptic Life under a pseudonym. Will copies of that also be made available via Amazon? Also, what were the reasons for the pseudonym then and not now?

AE: When I tried to reveal the truth behind the “Smit Murders” in early 1994, a shot was fired in my direction when I arrived home at midnight (in Alberton, Johannesburg). At that stage a large number of the role players were still alive and residing in SA. When in 2006 My Cryptic Life was completed, no-one was interested in publishing the memoirs of an unknown policeman despite my pointing out to them that it contained some exciting revelations.

So, when Just Done Productions in Durban showed a hint of interest, I jumped at the opportunity and tongue-in-cheek (also to test the waters), used the pseudonym of ‘Donald Els Alanby’ which is ‘by Alan Elsdon’ when read backwards. A number of photos of me appear in the book. In the back of my mind I hoped that one day I would put together a book about Hendrik van den Bergh, Sharp and their escapades.

AY: One thing I find valuable about your approach to this subject is the emergence of van den Bergh as a literary character. His ice cold personality, dedication and efficiency. Whereas other books are focused on rendering history from intelligence data, and are thus devoid of psychology, I closed The Tall Assassin feeling a real sense of who van den Bergh was, and what may have motivated him.

AE: I never met van den Bergh in person. Most of the persons I spoke with who worked with him in BOSS were clearly petrified by the very thought of being in the same office as him. Nevertheless, they all had the utmost respect for him as a person and for that which he achieved in BOSS. Even now, one cannot easily find an ex-BOSS member (of course all or most are Afrikaners), who is prepared to say anything bad about him or even agree that he might have been anything but a national hero. One lady (a personal friend) refused to read my book. When it was her birthday I gave her a copy of the Afrikaans edition. Afterwards she commented that I had failed to establish or identify the link between Robert Smit, Anton Lubowski and Prof. Johan Heyns. She refused to elaborate or to give me her honest opinion on the content of my book.

My take is that van den Bergh was driven mostly by his strong inner beliefs and personality. Also, by that which he regarded as best for his people, the Afrikaner, in the country which God had given and promised to them. He was very alike to what I saw in Eugene de Kock when I first met him in Oshakati (Owamboland) where I served as a cryptographer in the police. I reckon persons like H van den Bergh and De Kock, without a second thought, put their personal happiness and lives aside. Instead, they follow their hearts and dreams in which the survival of their people and country becomes their central obsession and purpose in life.

AY: In the book, van den Bergh emerges as a kind of covert prime mover in the Apartheid-era history of South Africa, in much the way Beria masterminded the Soviet state security apparati, but remains largely unknown now. Were an enterprising young scholar to want to dig seriously into him as a research subject, where would he or she be able to access historical materials, and what kind of obstacles would he or she encounter? Will classified materials ever be de-classified? And — of course you knew the question was coming — where is vdB’s autobiographical manuscript (entitled No Boats in the Harbour), as reported in his obituary in The Independent (21 August 1997)?

AE: In terms of doing any research on H van den Bergh, the ideal would obviously be to have insight into his work at BOSS which I doubt will be de-classified in our time. The insight into work of persons like A.K. Chesterton is invaluable and one can only hope more such work will become available sooner than later.

In the writing of my work I made no effort to contact any of the van den Bergh family. If willing they could provide information mostly about his youth, personality etc., which would be of interest. The fact that my book has been suppressed tells me that there are still a few ‘obstacles’ out there but to what length they would go to keep the real truths buried I can only speculate.

I see exactly why you would place Beria and van den Bergh in the same pod. Both were clearly the quiet yet masterful (and devastating) force behind the throne.

The original manuscript of van den Bergh’s memoirs might be with a family member. The cryptic title, No Boats in the Harbour, might have been inspired by the Spanish explorer Hernán Cortés. In 1519 he landed with about 600 men on the coast of Mexico. Intent on not retreating to the sea or meeting with defeat, before they marched inland to meet the enemy, Cortés gave the order, ‘Burn the boats!’ Possibly with van den Bergh seeing himself as the custodian of the Afrikaners’ future, he knew there were not enough boats in the harbours of SA to carry his volk to another land … hence the title. In other words, whatever the challenges, we must rise above them because we are here to stay!

AY: One of the most startling things in the book for me was actually a tangent, the one regarding Dag Hammarskjöld. Since his death is still, officially, a mystery and one that has its own cottage industry of conspiracy, it was amazing to hear Theunis Swanepoel’s name in connection with it, especially when Susan Williams’ recent book cites UN reports about someone named John Benjamin Swanepoel having shot Hammarskjöld. Was John Benjamin an alias for Theunis? Do you think Swanepoel was acting as a mercenary on behalf of mining companies like UMHK, or for someone who wanted the fighting in the Congo to continue unabated? Where, for all that, did Swanepoel get the name ‘Rooi Rus’?

AE: I don’t think Theunis Swanepoel would ever have used an alias rather than want people to know exactly with whom they were dealing. Again, I never met him personally but it is clear in which category of policemen he fell.

My understanding is that he had reddish hair and a red face (to do with broken facial veins much like a long-time whisky-drinker) and his eyes were often bloodshot. However, the general belief seems to be that the nickname ‘Rooi Rus’ (Red Russian) had mostly to do with his absolute hate for the ‘Red Party’ (the Communists) and his lust to track them down.

I’m not sure of Swanepoel’s exact purpose when in the Congo, but during those times he was always spoken of as being a mercenary.

AY: The character of Dimitri Tsafendas has taken several decades to open, and finally has as much as it ever will, thanks to Henk van Woerden and Liza Key. That the obvious parallels of Tsafendas’ life to Lee Harvey Oswald’s (by way of Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent) hasn’t generated the volumes of conspiratorial literature we see in the case of Oswald, is remarkable. And surely testament to something. First of all, did South Africans really believe their prime minister was nothing more than the victim of a damned lucky man with a talking tapeworm in his stomach? Second, what was a known member of the Communist Party doing anywhere near Verwoerd, even as a messenger? (Yes, the answer is more or less in the book, but any further comment you might have would be great to get people interested in reading it.)

AE: The general public of SA during those times in my opinion was gullible and naive (almost punch-drunk) from all the propaganda (and lies) fed to them by the politicians and the press. Despite some newspapers trying their best to show otherwise, most citizens silently enjoyed the comfort zone Apartheid provided. In the same way the uncomplicated idea of Tsafendas being a madman who worked on his own was far easier to accept than to imagine some dark conspiracy or that there might be a Judas moving within the absolute hierarchy. The placing of Tsafendas as a messenger in parliament would have been the work of van den Bergh and for good reason.

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AY: The relations between South Africa and Israel are a topic many don’t like to see brought up, and yet it seems to me no mere coincidence that the ascendance of the National Party to government in South Africa and the declaration of Israel’s independence are only two months apart in history. Sasha Polakow-Suransky’s recent book has a chapter on the sharing of nuclear secrets between the states. As a 20-year veteran of the SAPF, you may have an anecdote to share on this subject.

AE: Let me say it is a brave or other man who writes a book like The Unspoken Alliance and of course he deserves respect. The same can be said about the book Apartheid’s Friends, whose author I believe has entered into a sort of self-imposed hiding. I am no expert on this subject but when I was on a course named STRATKOM (Strategic Communication) years ago, we were given material from which to study courtesy of Israel. We even watched films based on Mossad’s methods of operation and one thing that I still clearly remember is how they always operated in the number three, usually two men and a woman. The leader and another (usually the woman), would carry out ‘the deed’ and the third Mossad member would ‘clean up’ behind them. So, we learnt that the number three was regarded as the perfect number and possibly based on that line of thinking, when van den Bergh brought about his BOSS Death Squad, he also chose three members (‘Sharp’ and two others). At that stage he would have considered their work too rough for your normal Afrikaner-girl (most of the women recruited to BOSS came from the old stock … daughters and family of the trusted AB).

The STRATKOM course was mentioned at the TRC of which its existence was denied … until a couple of willing Afrikaners stepped forward to testify otherwise. The reason being, they also taught us, amongst others, how persons who were a ‘threat’ to the government could be nullified. I know that our friends provided BOSS with training in SA and at times BOSS agents visited Israel to receive training of which they spoke highly (especially the capabilities of the female Mossad agents in armed and unarmed combat). Our friends also for years provided technical and other equipment. Yes, it was a strange (given the past) alliance but was probably based on the pure foundation of the need to survive. SA needed Israel and they needed us … it was really that simple.

As far as both SA and Israel rising to power together, it’s not something of which I took particular notice, but again, also not surprising. Makes me think of two persons climbing the same tree and giving one another a hand to both reach the top safely.

AY: There is a classic as well as growing literature on the subject of BOSS, the NI, and some of the personalities involved. Kevin O’Brien’s book is highly academic but still valuable, I think. James Sanders’ book has been criticized, and I am told Piet Swanepoel’s book is a reaction to positions taken by Sanders and Winters. They all cast aspersion on each other, and thus the intelligence wars continue. Apparently Piet Swanepoel (so many Swanepoels!) also covers Verwoerd’s assassination and Smit’s murder in his book, which I’ve not yet read, so I don’t know at what variance his version stands from yours.

AE: I have not read Piet Swanepoel’s book in entirety because as you mentioned it is more a reaction to books like that of Winter and nothing new from the mouths of the old guard who defend their actions until the grave. If he mentioned Verwoerd and Smit it would only have been to tell the public, once again, that BOSS would never have played a role. To me, reading his book would not be a learning experience except in propaganda.

AY: I don’t know if you read Graham Macklin’s article in the journal Intelligence and National Security, but he dissects the relations between van den Bergh and AK Chesterton, which is pretty interesting. Other than those mentioned in the book, did you ever have run-ins with these various right-wing Europeans who vdB courted for intelligence sharing?

AE: I went and had a good look at those you mentioned … very interesting. Leading up especially to the 1994 elections I rubbed shoulders with some heavy right-wingers, but I can’t comment on the dealings van den Bergh had with the far right. In Sell-out it is said most right-wing organisations were the brain-child of for instance BOSS. In that way they knew exactly who to monitor and of course their plans.

AY: On a more personal level, what do you find yourself reading outside of your work in private security? Spy novels? Poetry?

AE: My sister would rap me over the knuckles for telling you this … but I don’t find time to read. The Da Vinci Code is about the last book I read from front to back. Generally I get through a few pages and then put them down. The moment I read something that to me is a little suspect or thin, I lose interest.

AY: Given the vastness of the conspiracy theories which surround your subject, I don’t think The Da Vinci Code is at all an inappropriate thing to read!

Given certain changes in structure, the book would make a fine film to add to surprisingly small canon of feature dramas about Apartheid era South Africa. I hope someone will smell what a good opportunity it is. We had Biko and A Dry White Season. Perhaps we’ll have The Tall Assassin. Perhaps when it happens you’ll celebrate with some Klipdrift? … Or perhaps a finer spirit?

AE: Yes, I really hope the film becomes a reality. Some I spoke to said there are just too many events over a span of say 30 years and that a series makes more sense than a 120 minute film. There are so many angles to the writing of a screenplay and the secret would be in finding the perfect angle which would show the main theme or plot making use of the sub-plots almost as a back-drop (so I have been told).

In terms of the spirits … quite strange … only yesterday I popped in at the pub here in Gordon’s Bay where ‘Sharp’ was a regular. The name and outside is the same but the inside has seen some radical changes. Still, it was great to sit on the verandah and cast my thoughts back to our meeting there a few years ago.

 


[1] Begin with Gordon Winter’s Inside BOSS, the classic account. Also worthwhile is James Sanders’s Apartheid’s Friends. Kevin O’Brien’s The South African Intelligence Services is an academic book, good for anyone unfamiliar with the names and terminology of the era. Piet Swanepoel’s Really Inside BOSS is a critical response to Winter and Sanders.

 

Comments

  1. Alan well done loved the book , even as a vetaran policeman now in my 35 yr service , you opened my eyes some more, rather late than never it’s said.
    It is true that we were fed bull sh*t and we all believed it as we were so young and gullable , it was country first then own family or friends we were doing this “Christian” thing at any cost (cult -like).
    I am gratefull to know you and to have been a friend in those dark (good) days we served together.
    well a lot of the old bullsh*t has just been replaced by new- nowadays

  2. P van der Walt says:

    Ek is opsoek na die Afrikaanse uitgawe van Die Lang Generaal

  3. Alan Elsdon says:

    Hi P van der Walt, I have the English and Afrikaans books in stock. Please contact me on this address (alanelsdon@yahoo.ie) and I can send you a book. All the best, Alan Elsdon.

  4. What a an outstanding litterary work once I started reading it I could not put it down…some of the facts I could identify with as the black youth of the eighties who actively participated in the struggle for liberation…indeed this is stuff that we as a country should learn from…welldone Alan for yrour courage and honesty.

  5. E Grimbeek says:

    Hoe het ek nie die boek waardeer nie. In 2 aande klaar gelees. Kon nie die boek neersit nie.
    Ek het gedink ek weet baie van die politiek – veral die 60’s. 70’s en later, maar die inligting het my hele uitkyk op gebeure verander. Dankie vir jou moed en bydrae om gebeure in perspektief te plaas.

  6. Stryjem says:

    Uitstekend. Ek kon die boek nie neersit nie. Nou lees ek dit weer met ‘n potlood en maak ‘n spreadsheet, net ingeval ek iets gemis het. Dis my tydgenote oor wie jy skryf. Jy het dit baie slim en vernuftig uiteengesit. Dis wonderlik dat jy nie toegelaat het dat die uitgewers jou boek laat doodloop nie.

  7. A thoroughly almost, unbelievable absorbing record of the events that happened under our noses.
    I have just finished reading “Die Lang Generaal” which was loaned to me by a friend.
    Please let me know if you still have copies of the” Tall Assasin” .I would like to buy a copy

    Bravo A most compelling read.Dont allow this story to die.

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