Published in the Sunday Times
Spy: Uncovering Craig Williamson (Jacana Media)
I turned onto Jan Smuts Avenue. I was a few minutes away from Hyde Park Corner, where I had arranged to meet Craig Williamson – the apartheid spy turned parcel-bomb assassin who is now a doting grandfather living a consequence-free life in the northern suburbs of the city. Oh, and he’s also the central character in my book.
A week earlier I had mustered every ounce of courage to contact him to set up this meeting. I had devoted three years to studying his life; I had a cupboard full of documents, classified reports, court transcripts, newspaper clippings, and interviews with people he had betrayed. I had even dreamt about him. For three years Williamson had occupied my consciousness and haunted my unconsciousness. Up until that call, though, he had no idea I existed. I had put off contacting him, but the deadline for the book was approaching and meeting him was the final surge in this three-year marathon.
And now I was going to meet him face to face. Williamson had infiltrated the National Union of South African Students (Nusas) and betrayed his ‘friends’ and then lived a double life in Switzerland, trying to penetrate the ANC. He was eventually unmasked after almost a decade undercover, and returned to South Africa where he was instrumental in the murders of Ruth First, Jeanette Schoon and Jeanette’s six-year-old daughter, Katryn.
A few months before my meeting with Williamson I had interviewed Paula Ensor, Jeanette’s best friend. Paula told me how the two friends thought they would grow old together and she showed me photographs of Katryn – an angelic little girl with golden curls. Fritz Schoon was also at home when the bomb detonated. Fritz, who was two-and-a-half, witnessed the murders of his mother and sister.
I wanted to try to understand what had motivated Williamson. I wanted to look him in the eye and see if he had any remorse. As I waited for him I recalled the first interview I had conducted for the book. The person, a former Nusas leader, wasn’t convinced that the book was a good idea. His concern was that Williamson enjoyed publicity, and it would be better to ignore him. I had wrestled with Williamson — metaphorically — ever since.
I didn’t want this book to glorify him and romanticise the cloak-and-dagger world of spying. I wanted it to shed light on a slice of history that seems to have been forgotten. One of the aims of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was to allow perpetrators amnesty in exchange for acknowledging what they had done and divulging details of their crimes. However, many of the perpetrators gave just enough information to get amnesty.
We often talk about “the legacy of apartheid”, but the legacy of apartheid is ultimately a legacy of people; people who perpetrated evil. People like Williamson.
If we ignore Williamson, we are absolving him of responsibility.
I wanted to fill in those TRC gaps and remind the world about Williamson’s activities – so that he doesn’t continue to live a consequence-free life. That, I hoped, would provide a small measure of justice for Ruth First and Jeanette and Katryn Schoon.
I looked up, my heart still pounding in my chest, and saw Williamson walking towards me… I took a deep breath. It was time to look him in his eye.
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