Undercover with Mandela’s Spies: the living and the dead still bound by apartheid’s devastation

By Marianne Thamm• 7 June 2019


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Bradley Steyn and Mark Fine’s book Undercover with Mandela’s Spies is not just a rollicking read full of testosterone-driven skop, skiet and donner, treachery and treason, it is also about a young white man’s gradual attainment of wisdom, of understanding how psychologically, emotionally and spiritually corrosive the idea of unreconstructed whiteness is.  


While a packed audience attended the Cape Town launch of Bradley Steyn’s recently published biography, Undercover with Mandela’s Spies – The Story of the Boy Who Crossed the Square, an account of how he went from apartheid Security Branch operative to spying for the ANC, the ghosts of those who suffered and died in apartheid violence moved among us.

Steyn was a 17-year-old schoolboy when he strolled across Strijdom Square towards the State Theatre in Pretoria one hot afternoon in November 1988. Fresh from rugby practice, the schoolboy carried a set of clean clothes in a tog bag for that night’s performance of the ballet Giselle,to be performed at the State Theatre, where his mother, Daphne, worked.

That year, 1988, was a torrid one of assassinations, murders, constant violence and bomb and limpet mine explosions in Kokstad, in a disco in Hillbrow, in central Johannesburg, in Cape Town in an office block only 100m from parliament, outside the Sterland cinema in Pretoria, to name only a few.

While the National Party was talking to ANC leaders both in exile and imprisoned in South Africa, behind the scenes, the war between the state and ANC Umkhonto weSizwe (MK) operatives escalated. Cross-border raids by apartheid forces in Zimbabwe and Botswana, targeted the ANC and its allies.

It was the year Trevor Manuel was detained for the third time while Nelson Mandela was moved from Pollsmoor Prison in Cape Town to Victor Verster Prison in Paarl. It was from here that he would in 1990 step through the gates, a free man.

But on 15 November, white supremacist Wit Wolf, Barend Strydom, then 23 years old and dressed in camouflage, chose to drive to Pretoria’s CBD, armed with a 9mm pistol with extra ammunition bulging in his pockets.

His mission was to kill any and every black person he encountered on the capital’s streets in the name of white and specifically Afrikaner supremacy. At the end of Strydom’s random shooting spree, eight victims lay dead, one of them cradled in Steyn’s arms, while 16 others were injured.

It is unfortunate that a superb foreword by veteran journalist Janet Smith and which formed part of an earlier draft of Steyn’s manuscript (co-written with author Mark Fine) did not make it to the final print.

Smith’s thoughts would have offered a crucial entry point into this complex, painful and layered story about the corrosive psychological and emotional impact of white supremacy and particularly toxic patriarchy in shaping events and history.

These not only led to the bloody massacre on Strijdom Square but deeply affected and shaped the lives of South Africans who lived under the apartheid regime.

Smith wrote: “If I was wary of supremacists – who didn’t hesitate to DM me with threats of slitting me open from top to bottom and rejoicing if I was gang-raped – I was cautious of Bradley at the get-go. I was affected by his experience as the boy who crossed the square, but I was immediately suspicious of everything else, especially the depth of his relationship with the ANC.”

She said that while she was “moved by his [Steyn] having witnessed Strydom’s massacre, I felt he had to be that white male stereotype of a special kind that my generation of South Africans knows only too well. He would want to be ‘protected’ and treated as special in some way because he had always been told he was.”

Smith’s sentiments echoed my own when I first picked up this remarkable book. Do we really need another damaged white person who finds redemption through black suffering and pain?

Smith wrote: “Our history has been related by white men, through white men and with white men’s often-covert comfort in a shared white maleness. My experience and that of many other women has been that Bradley and millions of other white South African men like him were damaged, unable to recognise or – for some – atone for their violence. So, without the outlet of overt racism, they harmed women in frightening, private ways, privileged and sheltered by their masculine pain, and that was just what it was.”

Encountering Steyn at the Cape Town book launch in person it is evident he has, ever since that day in 1988, grappled with the demons that came to haunt him and which altered the course not only of his life, but his sense of self.

What Smith had also set out in her omitted foreword were the violent currents that shaped the shooter Barend Strydom’s life and worldview, his unconstrained psychopathic rage as a result of early childhood trauma and which found horrific expression in the murder of those he considered “not human”.

The ideology of apartheid cultivated and groomed feelings of superiority, hate, suspicion and fear. Strydom was not born a racist mass murderer. So, what was it that shaped his rage and his hatred beyond a political system nourished by these selfsame atavistic impulses?

“When Barend Strydom was 18 months old, his unhappy young mother died of a bullet wound. They were alone at home when it happened. She was 21, and court papers recorded with cold economy that she was ‘suicidal’ and in an ‘unstable marriage’ to Nicolaas (Nic) Strydom, a 22-year-old policeman. Barend – who later preferred ‘Hendri’, from his second name, Hendrik – was their only child.”

What the court documents also revealed was that “Hendri had survived a near-death incident a year earlier when he was six months old, ‘falling unconscious for a couple of hours’ after being smothered. And it is only the young woman who put a gun to her own head who knows why her small son had ‘blue strangulation marks’ on his neck the day she pulled the trigger. The child – who’d spent a fortnight in hospital under observation after being choked as a baby – had previously been admitted to the paediatric ward after surgery for a cleft lip and palate. If Hendri witnessed his mother unravelling before she raised the gun to her head, he was deemed oblivious to it.”

It has taken Bradley Steyn 30 long and difficult years to internalise the effects of what he witnessed that day in November.

Steyn now lives in the US, having fled South Africa. His life was under threat after he was exposed as an undercover operative for the ANC’s security wing (DIS). In the Western Cape, Andre Lincoln and Jeremy Vearey (both later to become generals in the SAPS) played a significant role – it was these two men who “turned” Steyn – as well as his original Special Branch recruiter, Neil De Beer.

Steyn’s book is an insider account of the depraved dirty tricks campaign of the ruthless Special Branch, under the cover of “legitimate” business, The Project Group, and ultimately aimed at destablising South Africa’s slow rise from white minority rule to democracy.

On the surface, the Project Group appeared to be a “legitimate” business offering security at clubs and restaurants in Cape Town. In reality, the outfit was a Special Branch project.

The blueprint for what has morphed today into a continued violent turf war around protection rackets in the city was set then. Today Vearey is one of those SAPS senior officers still trying to undo the grip of the criminal underworld on Cape Town’s nighttime economy.

If you want a history of where it all began, this is it.

But Steyn’s book is not just a rollicking read full of testosterone-driven skop, skiet and donner, treachery and treason, it is also about a young white man’s gradual attainment of wisdom, of understanding how psychologically, emotionally and spiritually corrosive the idea of unreconstructed whiteness is.

Steyn delicately highlights a matter that seldom receives attention in South Africa. And that is of the many bitter and broken white men who emerged from that long dark night – fighting the apartheid government’s war, while being left to lick their own wounds, forgotten and abandoned in its aftermath.

The white boy who saw the massacre on Strijdom Square, who found his “True North” as an ANC spy, has come a long way, but is aware there is still some distance to cross in order to heal the rift between white and black South Africans.

Sitting in the audience of the Cape Town launch on 4 June, was Selina Williams, sister of ANC activist and MK operative Coline, who along with Robbie Waterwitch was killed in 1989 when a defective landmine the duo was due to place at the Athlone Magistrate’s Court exploded. Coline was 22 and Robbie 20 when they died.

While their deaths happened only one year after the Strijdom Square massacre there is no doubt that the defective mine was handed to the cadres by someone who had infiltrated the then still underground movement.

Bradley Steyn’s book is yet another vital missing piece in the reconstruction and remembrance of South Africa’s past. His intention is to memorialise those South Africans who were killed and injured that day, all of them named in the book.

And while it is written as a thriller of sorts, it has depth and layering that render it so much more than that. DM

‘Undercover with Mandela’s Spies – The Story of the Boy Who Crossed the Square’ is published by Jacana.



Undercover with Mandela's Spies – Bradley D. Steyn and Mark Fine

by POLITY | 11th June 2019

The memoir charts Steyn’s life – from the deeply traumatic experience of witnessing the Strijdom Square massacre in 1988 that leaves him with a severe case of PTSD, to being recruited by the underground ANC’s Department of Intelligence and Security (DIS).

Written with sweltering clarity, Steyn and Fine details the dark and dangerous world of espionage, guns and the extremes both the apartheid government and the ANC went to to achieve their goals.

This astonishing true-life thriller provides a thorough account of one man’s explosive experiences during a highly unstable period in South Africa’s history and reveals for the first time some of the dirty secrets of a dirty war. Beset with all the makings of a spy blockbuster, Steyn’s every day with the Security Branch included surveillance, psychoactive drugs to weaken targets, war tactics, shootings and death. While navigating this dangerous world, Steyn was also battling PTSD and one can only imagine how the violent nature of this covert world impacted him.

"... we had just seconds before the shit hit the fan.

Our target was prostrate on the floor with his eyes closed, so I led the way out through the collapsed wall to give Neil cover as he carried the dazed ‘Kumalo’ over his shoulder. A jumpy teen armed with a panga stood alone in the dark waiting to ambush us. He must have heard ‘Mrs Kumalo’s’ screams. 

I drew my cz-75 and barked, ‘fuck off!’ I was relieved when he dropped his weapon and fled. No one had to die. But we were running out of time.”

Bradley Steyn’s life is a perfect example of how fact can be stranger than fiction, as Undercover with Mandela’s Spies shows.

He ends up being recruited by MK and used to infiltrate the crazed right-wing whose mission is to de-stabilise a South Africa on the brink of peace.

With these forces pushing the nation toward a bloody race war, will his time run out before they discover he is working for Mandela’s spies? Undercover with Mandela’s Spies captures the horror of this war for freedom and the resilience of the men and women who fought for our liberation. With the Kevin Costner documentary of Steyn’s unbelievable story set for release next year, and as we examine the results of this, our sixth democratic election, this book shows just how close to civil war we were.


A Ja/Nee kind of book

Jeremy Gordin | POLITICSWEB

21 August 2019

Jeremy Gordin reviews "Undercover with Mandela’s Spies" by Bradley Steyn

Undercover with Mandela’s Spies: The Story of the Boy who Crossed the Square by Bradley Steyn (and Mark Fine), 2019. Jacana Media. Kindle Edition.

The Dictionary of South African English on Historical Principles [1] gives five definitions of “ja-nee”. No. 4 is this: “Used to express the paradoxical or contradictory nature of a situation,” as in this example: “Her brother is both a hunter and leading conservationist. This is the Ja/Nee contradictory situation in which so many South Africans find themselves”.

Having finished reading Undercover with Mandela’s Spies, my reaction is rather “contradictory”. Ja-nee. But let’s begin with as dispassionate and accurate a précis as possible.

The book is the autobiography of Steyn, written 30 years after 1988. The significance of that year is that as a 17-year-old Afrikaner, still in high school, fed the stuff many young South Africans were in those days (Communism is evil, the ANC are communists, blacks are not to be trusted, etc. etc.), Steyn, while crossing Pretoria’s Strijdom Square on 15 November 1988, was caught in the middle of Barend Strydom’s murder spree during which the so-called Wit Wolf killed seven black people and wounded 15 more.

Due to what we would now call post-traumatic stress disorder, Steyn’s life unravels, and he messes up his schooling. So much so that by the age of 19 (he tells us) he has only one “qualification”. Thanks largely to his training at the Navy training base, SAS Saldanha, he is a “highly qualified thug” (location 382). In 1990/91, then, Steyn becomes a bouncer and enforcer for one of the protection rackets operating in Cape Town. This segues into him being recruited by a “government” underground unit, run by a security force member. Then various things happen to Steyn.

These include Steyn being deeply impressed by an ANC underground operator code-named “Kumalo” whom Steyn and a sidekick have kidnapped to interrogate but who achieves some sort of psychological ascendancy over them due to his fearlessness (chapter 11); a rather bizarre “meeting” with a man who turns out to be Joe Nhlanhla (loc. 2220), chief of the ANC’s secret intelligence apparatus; and Steyn’s long-standing relationship with Cyril Beeka, later a major “underworld boss”, who, it emerges, is also a member of the ANC underground [2].

Steyn is thereafter introduced by Nhlanhla to the ANC’s André Lincoln and Jeremy Vearey [3], the latter becomes Steyn’s mentor, and Steyn has a Damascene conversion of sorts and starts working undercover for the ANC.

Several of Steyn’s escapades – for “both” sides – are excitingly told, especially his infiltration on behalf of the ANC of the “militant right-wing extremist group, the World Apartheid Movement” (2490), and the gripping and frightening events that force him to flee the country (chaps. 20 and 21).

But let’s halt here. So far, having covered 21 chapters and with only the Epilogue to go, we have been reading what journalist Marianne Thamm aptly described as a “rollicking read full of testosterone-driven skopskiet and donner, treachery and treason” [4].

Nonetheless, there are some questions that prick at the reader’s mind.

Steyn’s “thesis” (confirmed in the Epilogue, which we’ll get to) is that he was completely messed up (an understatement) by what happened in Strijdom Square and that this experience effectively dictated all his behaviour thereafter. Yet there is ample evidence throughout the chapters demonstrating that Steyn had always (including the pre-Strijdom Square days) been a roughneck. More significantly, he seems to be not unhappy in the savage world he inhabits nor about the violence he perpetrates, irrespective of the “side” for which he inflicts it.

It also seems clear, from his own version, that Steyn was probably “turned,” as they say in the “spook” world, by Nhlanhla et al – he became a sort of white askari – not because he made a wrenching ethical decision but because the ANC had blown his cover, also “spook” terminology.

So shouldn’t Steyn just “own” what he is (or was) – his motives, such as they were – and move on? Cf. Robert McBride and Eugene de Kock. Should Steyn blame everything, as it were, on Strydom and what happened in Strijdom Square? These thoughts and questions naturally suggest to the reader others regarding the authorial orchestration or manipulation of Steyn’s story.

Steyn has a very competent and skilful co-writer, Mark Fine – who, we can safely assume (because this is what professional writers are paid to do), had to turn Steyn’s experiences into (i) a coherent and (ii) a sympathetic narrative.

Well, a narrative which has as its fulcrum the appalling events in Strijdom Square, is an author’s godsend. I.e., the reader could be forgiven for wondering in the back of her mind precisely how much of a role this event played in Steyn’s real life. Secondly, if this story had been only about a troubled bouncer swept up in the Seffrican melee of the early 90s, there’d not, in present-day South Africa, be much sympathy for or interest in the tale. Would there? I.e., the reader could also be forgiven for wondering in the back of his mind why an essentially non-political person such as Steyn, especially one with his sort of outlook, treats the ANC folk with such reverence.

Additionally, to give a story of this sort context and also the requisite “substance” – especially if, as is the case with Steyn, the protagonist was a bit-player with a very small part in the overall action – authors often look for relevant background and use it to fill pages, as it were. Fair enough. But in chapter nine, out of the proverbial blue, Steyn launches into a full-scale, pages-long attack on “the poster boy for ... government-sanctioned havoc” (loc. 1331), Eugene de Kock. Ostensibly this is to demonstrate that Steyn clearly “appreciated” that the bouncer group for which he was working before joining the ANC “was doing the donkey work of an organisation that embraced racist-driven psychotic [sic] killers” (1389).

Now, the point is not to defend De Kock or even to disagree with Steyn’s rant. The point is that Steyn never even met De Kock (if he had, he’d have said so), nor had he anything to do with De Kock’s activities or ones like them, and at the time in the narrative at which the “attack” on De Kock is inserted, Steyn would probably not even have heard of him. What I’m talking about here is tone-deaf anachronism – which is bound to make a reader wonder just how much the “truth” of the whole story is being manipulated.

But on the other hand, ja-nee: if a person tells you that what Strydom did in Strijdom Square marked him for life, traumatising him into something of a animal (there’s no doubt Steyn was there, there are photographs in the book) and that “Kumalo,” Nhlanhla, Beeka and Vearey all helped transform him into a human being able to see the (ANC) light, who am I to suggest that maybe it didn’t happen quite that way?   

We now move to the Epilogue, the final chapter of the book, which is set in 2018, and which I am purposely dealing with separately, for reasons that will be evident.

“I don’t know if I would have had the emotional issues I have today had I not witnessed Strydom’s massacre. I would probably have finished school and chosen a career. ... I wouldn’t have viewed the navy as a way to channel my anger into even further aggression, and ultimately found myself working for Project Group [the “protection and enforcement” company], looking for a scrap and bearing weapons for a living. // I wouldn’t have met ... Beeka, or any other of the individuals associated with that life. I wouldn’t have started working secretly for the apartheid regime at such a young age, entrenching my mental chaos, twisting gratitude and survivor’s guilt into a knot around what it meant to be ‘saved’ by a homicidal white supremacist because of my white skin [Strydom apparently encountered Steyn but “spared” him]. // I probably wouldn’t then have ended up fighting on the right side, for freedom [sic] – however briefly. I wouldn’t have met guerrillas [sic] Vearey and Lincoln, earned a file at DIS [ANC intelligence] and been trained in weapons handling, and vodka consumption ... in the Angolan bush (3308).

“Because almost none have [he means “has”] experienced a massacre or spied on both sides of a desperate race divide,” Steyn continues, “I can’t deny that I am different from most of my white brothers in terms of my life experience. But we do share our race and gender which, combined, have made for a lethal combination in our society [my emphasis]. Many South African white men of my generation are in all kinds of trouble with their mental health [my emphasis], and the realisation came to a head for me ... when I returned home to South Africa to prepare for the thirtieth anniversary of the Strijdom Square massacre” (3320).

Steyn explains that in 2018 he came back to SA from the US, where he now lives, wanting “to find the families of the dead and ... to meet survivors. My hope was that we could establish a memorial on Lilian Ngoyi Square – the new name of the site of Barend Strydom’s killing spree – that would forever remember those victims ...” (3320).

But then his “beloved brother-in-law, John ‘Bozzy’ Bosman, was murdered on his farm in Nelspruit. ...Three men invaded the farmhouse he shared with his wife – my sister, Leigh – and John, 61, was stabbed and shot, apparently for meagre electronic items. Mourning him, I was overcome by a sense of utter futility, angry with myself at having trusted my ANC comrades to take our country on a righteous path out of apartheid’s toxic grip ... I identified the reason for his death as the ANC’s failure to contain poverty” (3335).

Following this, Steyn makes a public video in which he “insisted that there was no way [John] was a victim of some imagined genocide that targeted white farmers; that we were all potential victims” (3351). “The Nazis [sic] went for me like crazed dogs. I was a traitor, they said. How could I be claiming this when I’d been a member of [MK] and had helped the ANC get into power? They then laid the blame for John’s slaughter at my feet with a loud ‘serves you right’” (3351).

Steyn tells us that “one of the loneliest aspects of this [period] was that those who would best relate to at least some of that trauma – other white South African men of my generation [born circa 1970] – were not available to me. The truth is that they have remained the indoctrinated. At the height of apartheid’s dehumanisation campaign, they were trained, over and over, to be supremacists. They were brainwashed to such an extent that most cannot but take their white privilege for granted [my emphases], which means that all that many of them are capable of doing now in terms of making a contribution to our country is to quieten the fxxx down, slightly (3379). ... It is also no surprise that politically charged racism continues to be fuelled by groups like AfriForum [sic] and Suidlanders, as well as by political entities such as the Economic Freedom Fighters and Black First Land First” (3410).

Steyn concludes: “I value freedom not only because I detest bigotry, but because I’m grateful to have been liberated from the controlling influence of my whiteness [my emphasis]. Strijdom Square was life-saving for me. At first I didn’t know what to do with the grotesque irony – until I was recruited by ANC Intelligence and could take advantage of the pigmentation of my skin as a means to add positively to the liberation struggle [my emphasis]. ... For now, as a witness to the massacre and as someone who was there among those murdered by one of us, I send out a call to my white brothers who had their minds stolen by the apartheid state. Let’s talk to each other, man. Let’s make this better. We must. There is no other way” (3424).

Am I correct in thinking that a “rollicking read full of testosterone-driven skopskiet and donner, treachery and treason” (notwithstanding some over-orchestration) was in the Epilogue thuggishly shouldered out of the room – by some sort of didactic virtue-signalling or something of that sort? Or am I just a weary old cynic?




[2] In 2011 Beeka was murdered in Cape Town. In the interests of “full disclosure,” I should perhaps mention that I met Beeka in 2007 at Polokwane and that a few years later in Cape Town he assisted me with a project. In my experience, he was remarkably deferential and helpful; but I was, of course, neither an underworld rival nor a cop, merely a journalist introduced to him by a close friend of his.

[3] Vearey became a member of Nelson Mandela’s elite protection detail and is now a Major General and Western Cape detective head. As best as one can make out from conflicting news reports, Vearey was charged in March with kidnapping, torture and defeating the ends of justice – but it is not clear whether these charges are still pending. At the end of the book, Steyn remarks, somewhat obscurely: “Although Jeremy became the focus of combative news reporting [sic] in late 2018 and again in 2019, with allegations that he ‘worked outside’ the system to gain information from sources on the street, he remained in his job without charges laid against him” (3610).

[4] In fairness to Thamm, she also goes on to note that Undercover with Mandela’s Spies is “much more” than a thriller.