Life, etc

Book Extract: How apartheid's top intelligence operative met with the KGB and got to hang in Lenin's office

Former head of National Intelligence and DG of Constitutional Development NIЁL BARNARD'S recently published Peaceful Revolution – Inside the War Room at the Negotiations reveals how it is intelligence operatives who guide the eventual course politicians end up taking. In this chapter, extracted from the book, Barnard shockingly reveals how, as an apartheid government super spy, he met with apparent arch-enemy agency, the KGB as well as Russian leader Mikhail Gorbachev long before political leaders did so. He also got to hang out in Lenin's office.

In 1991 Barnard found himself in Moscow. This was after almost a decade of secret communication with the KGB which began in 1980 and, writes Barnard, after the arrest of Russian spy Alexei Kozlov. National Intelligence had used this arrest to initiate the talks. Back home the Nationalist Government portrayed the Soviet Union and Communism as the ultimate evil, an ideology that had “captured” the minds and souls of black South Africans. Theirs was a pathological and historical loathing of Communism. Yet Barnard  found himself in the heart of the KGB, the most feared secret service in the world. Later in this chapter Barnard also describes how he is shown Lenin’s office:

My invitation to visit Russia as a guest of the KGB four months later was a direct outcome of Artemov and Ivanov’s visit to South Africa. Very early in the morning – at about 4.30, after the spectacular show by the Moscow Circus the previous evening – I was awakened discreetly to take a telephone call from South Africa. It was Mike Louw (Barnard's NI colleague). He told me the devastating news that my father had passed away the previous day.

It occurred to me that this must have been the same news that Artemov (his Russian host) had received the previous night while we were at the circus, but that he had obviously decided to spare me the grief for the time being, also realising that such sad news should come from a close confidant such as Mike instead. From other hosts during my time in Russia I received the same sincere sympathy.

I experienced it as a character trait shown by those who, in their history, had lived through immeasurable hardship and suffering. This kept one humble and grateful and made one more aware of supporting one’s fellow man in times of hardship. I did not have much time to reminisce about my father and his life. The KGB had organised a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity: to have a personal discussion with Russian leader Mikhail Gorbachev.

It was scheduled for the next day, but, because of the death of my father, I had to return home earlier than planned. Then another unimaginable thing occurred: Gorbachev undertook to interrupt a sitting of the Politburo and see me that same day in the Kremlin – which is exactly what happened on 10 July 1991 at 10am. We met in an enormous boardroom adorned with old-world finery. The Russian leader wore a neat, navy tailored suit and a red tie. Artemov and an interpreter were also present.

From my side, I informed Gorbachev about the political negotiations in South Africa and asked that the Soviet Union not favour any particular political group in this process; and that the Russians use their influence to exert pressure on the ANC–SACP to abandon its protest action, such as mass mobilisation, if it wanted the process to proceed peacefully. I added that the SACP had a radical influence on the ANC and that it was interested less in a political settlement than in a violent takeover of power. I also warned that any military destabilisation of the process would not be tolerated, be it from inside or outside South Africa.

The Russian leader listened attentively and then made a few remarks. First, he sent his best wishes to President FW De Klerk and admitted that both of them were dealing with challenging and wide-ranging issues of transformation. Of the South African settlement process, he was complimentary and supportive.

On the possibility of political contact on the highest level, he replied: “I will give this idea serious consideration.” He expressed his concern about the political disintegration in Eastern Europe  (it was almost two years after the fall of the Berlin Wall) and the influence that this might have on the Soviet Union’s cohesion.

He had, possibly, already foreseen the demonstrations in Chechnya and the balkanisation of the southern Russian states.

Gorbachev undertook to talk frankly with the ANC leadership about its responsibility to seek a political solution in all earnestness, but, in almost the same breath, told me that we were inclined to overestimate Moscow’s influence on the ANC and even the SACP.

He was, no doubt, correct if one took cognisance of the SACP’s ultra-revolutionary stance, even towards the ANC leadership, in the previous few years. At one stage, I was probably too frivolous in joking about Lenin’s absence from Petrograd during the revolution of 2 February 1917 and brought it up in relation to the communists in the ANC who also kept a reasonably low profile. Gorbachev frowned slightly, but the interpreter, with what was presumably a masterly touch of eloquence, took the impetuous sting out of my comment.

Gorbachev spent a full 40 minutes with me – or rather, I should say, with South Africa. I experienced him as both pleasant and intelligent. As a person, he was more matter-of-fact than earthly genial, as I had experienced of many Russians, but neither was he off-hand or dismissive. Possibly, he was not relentless enough to handle that vast country with its enormous problems, ambitious politicians and headstrong security forces.

On our departure, I gave him a Kruger rand coin and a Kruger rand necklace for Mrs Gorbachev. On the way back in the car, Artemov took me to task about the Lenin remark and said that the interpreter had seen fit to adapt my words considerably... but that it was all for a good cause. I agreed – for what other reason was there a brotherhood among spies? I thanked the interpreter heartily.

On the plane on the way home, I could relax, for the first time, and look back on the years and think about my father with sadness, but also with pride. Nicolaas Evehardus Barnard, aged 72 when he died of heart failure, had been a man among men, a deeply religious Afrikaner patriot with sound political judgement.

He had grown up virtually penniless, as an orphan and a bywoner. And yet, with discipline and determination, he had studied simultaneously at the Bloemfontein Teachers’ Training College, where he was chairman of the Students’ Council, and the Grey University College; after three years, he had been awarded a BA degree and a teacher’s diploma. He had been a pioneer in education in what was then South West Africa, where he had been promoted to chief inspector of education; all his life, he had been averse to egotism.

He inspired his four sons to do everything with full commitment and dedication. Beneath his photo that hung in what was later our family company’s boardroom are the words by which we shall always remember him: Blaas hoog die vlam! (fan the flame high). DM

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