That lingering odour …

In the 1980’s I unwittingly employed an apartheid police informer, Mark Behr, to work in the Institute for a Democratic Alternative for South Africa (of which I was a regional director).

Behr had a serious talent – and zest – for self-promotion. But he was also bright, ambitious and charismatic and I naively believed that all those characteristics together, could be harnessed for the good of the organisation, and ‘the struggle’ (I know. We really called it that.)

As it turned out he was already in the employ of the Dark Side …  and those who got the benefits of that self-promotion and ambition were the opposition to the anti-apartheid team.

Mark Behr was a lightweight apartheid agent and there is a part of me that wishes I could just put him and the sheer awfulness and banality of the apartheid security state machinery, and his role in it, behind me.

But unfortunately for me, someone pointed out last week that there is a Wikipedia entry on Behr that, when I accessed it on Friday (13/02/2013) said (without any cautionary remarks):

“Undergoing a process of political radicalization himself, he later turned double agent and spied on the South African government on behalf of the African National Congress

… and further:

“Professor Behr is a well respected and acknowledged international author and experienced double agent that left South Africa for a safer lifestyle in the USA.”

The gradual sanitising of Apartheid and the security machine that maintained it is disturbing to me for too many reasons to name here.

But that is less the issue for me in this particular story.

No matter how slow the historical fabrication happens, how tiny the incremental changes made to the record, there is no version of the truth in which Behr underwent “a process of political radicalization” or “turned double agent and spied on the South African government on behalf of the African National Congress” – or any similar heroic, tragic nonsense.

I know this because I was connected to the underground structures that dealt with Behr, heard his original confession and sent him home safely – a neutralised enemy agent; but also a narcissist and fantasist who, precisely for these reasons, could not be trusted to report back to the movement.

(I mean, please … Behr, in an attempt to have his credentials as an anti-apartheid activist improved, used a gun – and instructions – he got from his police handlers to shoot through an outside window into his room at his university home. He then ran back inside, and later, suitably disheveled and shocked, managed to convince the student body and administration that he was the victim of an apartheid hit-squad assassination  attempt … a little story he managed to leave out of his confession that I cover below – probably because of its obvious buffoonery and because thousands of people still remembered how convincing was his feigned shock and ‘injured victim’ status at the time … and by the way – – this as an added afterthought – he also managed to leave out of his 1996 confession – see below – that he had been a “double agent”.)

Why am I bothering with this, all these years later?

Because Behr knows the truth … as do I. I am no longer certain anyone else remembers or cares. Behr could easily have corrected the hagiographic Wikipedia entry – but he has allowed this distorted tale, in which he is the dashing hero, and of which he is undoubtedly the author, to become the official version of a minor – but important to me – slice of our history.

In 1996 Behr made a dramatic and self-aggrandising (and unauthorised by the ANC) public confession at a writers conference in South Africa.

This is what I said at the time (published in the Mail & Guardian here) … I no longer have that condemnatory certainty, but as an antidote to the Wikipedia entry I cut-and-pasted above, I wouldn’t change a word.

Thus, purely for the record:

The Smell of Rotten Apples

PEOPLE who worked secretly or otherwise to undermine the movement against apartheid should be given every encouragement to say what they did and why. I am all for listening to them and forgiving those who are genuinely contrite.

Unfortunately the sincerity of Mark Behr’s confession is doubtful.

Even before one looks at the text it is difficult to believe that Behr is not engaged in another act of self-promotion. The initial signs are:

  • He flew in from Norway, delivered his confession and fled back overseas without facing those on whom he had spied;
  •  He addressed himself to a conference of people interested in writing, where he was the star speaker, rather than to the ex-Stellenbosch students he had betrayed and the anti-apartheid activists on whom he had informed;
  • He revealed to close friends he was only coming clean because he was going to be named as a spy by a witness at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission;
  • He is publishing a book dealing with spying and betrayal early next year. One must assume his high-profile confession is part of an advance publicity campaign.

To grasp just how unlikely is Behr’s sincerity, we need to examine the text of the 4 000-word confession and apology.

A number of things are missing from the text. He never mentions the arm of the state he spied for, who his handler was, how much he was paid or what information he passed on. If Behr really wanted to redress some of the harm he did -—a crucial aspect of confession and forgiveness—- then these were the questions he should have answered. Instead of dealing with the details of what he did and for whom, Behr spends the overwhelming majority of his words worrying about how he will be judged. The repeated lament is: “I have always suspected that the only voice people will hear from that moment on … is the voice that cannot be trusted, that is incapable of the truth.”

Aside from his exasperating self-absorption the problem with Behr’s words is their totalitarian thoroughness. Behr constructs his defence as a monolith. On reading the document we are left with the impression that there is nothing more to say except to forgive the poor chap, he is suffering enough already. There is no chink in the words for us to enter and engage with him. He has pre-empted any possible criticism by exhaustively criticising himself. He apologises for the betrayals, for his motivation, for his lack of moral courage; he apologises for apologising; and then, in an infinite regress, he apologises for apologising for apologising.

This is called “shutout”. We are left unable to engage with the truth. We can do nothing but acquiesce or reject him outright. If we reject him we place ourselves with those who deny perpetrators the right to change heart; to seek a language to express their grief and regret.

But to what are we being asked to acquiesce? If it was just forgiveness it would be easy. You have to listen to the rhythms of the text, the cadence of Behr ‘s voice to understand the enormity of what he wants from us. “It is with the profoundest imaginable regret …”, “I soon believed in the moral correctness of this struggle I was reporting on …”, “… this might be … yet another reinterpretation geared for justification …”, “I lacked the moral fortitude to face the consequences of my treason …”, “I … would like to capitulate into silence … there is also truth in silence as there might be in ceasing to live.”

Imagine a young version of the Reverend Jim Bakker – remember him? Then listen carefully to Mark Behr and you will hear something akin to the tearful televangelist minister who got caught sleeping with a prostitute – again. He is beating his breast, calling down the wrath of God on his sinner’s head, begging us to join the Lord in forgiving him. The individuals in the congregation are crying with him, wishing they could be the ones to embrace him, to soothe away the contradiction at the heart of this flawed titan of a man. Behr’s confession is a number of things. It is also an audacious attempt at seduction.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission has begun bringing the painful stories of victims on to the centre stage of our history. As that process begins to take effect we are presented with Behr claiming to have been the victim: “… one is born into, loved into, violated into discrimination”. Behr claims to be the victim of propaganda, of Christian National Education, of his family, of history, of fate, of his own moral weakness. With all due respect! This is a man who spied for the apartheid police in exchange for money. He apparently didn’t even support apartheid. Ten minutes listening to the truth commission will clear the heads of anyone seduced into believing Behr is the tragic hero at the centre of our national drama.

I do believe there is something fragile and sacred in our process of confession and absolution. We all probably know white men who were, as conscripts, engaged in atrocities in Angola and Mozambique. We have watched them writhe in the terrible privacy of their own fear and shame. These men cannot even imagine words to describe where they have been and what they have done. We have all known someone among them who has descended into the hell of drug addiction or suicide.

Behr had the unique combination of talent and opportunity to examine how young whites became culpable. His confession could have begun giving them a voice.

But he misses his one chance at salvation. In an orgy of self-pity and self-promotion he abandons the only people who really needed him to speak with sincerity.

I hear that Behr’s confession was warmly received by many. Behr has consistently traded on his anti-apartheid credentials. I am appalled at the possibility that he will now get away with trading on his credentials as the contrite perpetrator, as the prodigal son.

Behr phrases his confession in the literary context of the limitations of memory and language to describe truth. He has extensive access to platforms that propagate his vision of the truth and a unique ability to manipulate language to do so efficiently. Behr is the fast-food chain in the market of truth. Perhaps in the neighbourhoods where they consume mediocrity three meals a day his version of himself and history will prevail.

Behr could be forgiven for spying on the anti-apartheid movement, even if it was for thrills and extra ready cash. But, quite simply, he would have to be sorry first. Not sorry for himself. Sorry for what he has done.

Nic Borain was secretary general of Nusas in 1985, and established a Nusas branch at Stellenbosch. He was regional director of Idasa Western Cape from 1988 to 1990, and during this time employed Mark Behr

15 thoughts on “That lingering odour …

    1. Thanks Nicolaas … good to hear from you. I feel a bit like a sleepy old badger being dragged from a hole with regard to this thing … I don’t want to fight … I actually don’t even want to be disturbed … but somehow, because I am the one who wrote that article back in 1996, and because I employed Behr in the late 80s it feels, somehow, like it is my responsibility.

  1. I also don’t want to fight. But this actually bothers me… Nicolas hear me out:
    jeeeeziz my friend but this is really ou koeie uit die sloot! What in the world can “compel” anyone to write about this spy-story now? and AGAIN? Who looks at Wikipedia to either check facts or make sense of the world?
    My “thing” with you and you rehashing the Mark-spy-story is my sense that this “compulsion” you feel, also compells you to put yourself on the side of the clean-hand brigade. That morally superior world so comfortably inhabited by the white left on English campuses is not something to be SO proud of…
    Why are you writing again and again about this? Is it to make yourself feel better about YOUR choices? Your life? Your luck in life? If that’s the case, it’s fine. But surely not by holding somebody else up as deeply flawed and compromised – especially so many many years later and so many apologies later.
    We are all flawed and comtaminated by the horrid past that we share Nic. You know that as well as I do. I think that I am a better person for trying to forgive somebody like Mark who has asked for forgiveness. Over and over. Maybe not to you in person. But then again he hardly if ever spied on you!
    Let it go! You should fight that compulsion I reckon…
    And just for clarity: I’m not a better person than you. I’m just better than I was before because that’s what forgiveness does. It rubs off well…

    1. writing about it again and again? That’s twice by my count (mostly the same story) … in 16 years … in a 100 years … It feels as tired to me as it clearly does to you – but I have explained why I did it, to my mind adequately.

  2. I also the other day came across Mark’s wikipedia slot and found it tendentious and sad. I was doing research on how IDASA has been used over the years as a base for spies and international intelligence projects. I think its cool to be pissed-off with the guy. I think its cool to express yourself and tell us about it. Thanks Nic.

  3. We have such short memories and it is so easy to rewrite history. I know that truth is a slippery beast and almost impossible to pin down. But I think we are truly doomed if we give up looking for it. So thanks to you Nic for trying to keep the truth alive in the avalanche of self-aggrandizement that is the curse of our age.

  4. Whoa Nic – steady on that high horse! Is it really a point of pride for you not to have shifted in your moral certainties in 17 years? In this country?
    Wikipedia is open source… you are doing exact same shutout you are accusing Behr of with your condemnation, judgement and “the truth”
    Whilst I can see the personal point you are making, I fail to see the moral or political one.

  5. Thanks Nic. I am reminded of the ‘confession’ piece by Adrian Leftwich in Granta a few years ago and wonder how those he betrayed felt about it …

    1. Sus, thanks for that … It stimulated me to check around for anything about it and I came across a truly excellent commentary by 1960’s activist Winston P. Nagan (“published widely on international law matters including issues of transformational justice and democracy” who worked with … but clearly didn’t like… Leftwich at the time) who in this piece “Truth, Reconciliation, and the Fragility of Heroic Activism” (2005) deals with Leftwich’s confession in a manner that makes everything I have said here seem trivial (although he reaches similar conclusions about that confession as I reached about Behr’s). I have just read it through quickly … and will be getting back to it as soon as I have a quiet hour or two.You can find it here http://www.cba.com.hr/docs/waas/heroic_activism_global_jurist_final.pdf … you might have to cut and paste that to get it to load. Push through the first page and what unfolds is extraordinary … and quite moving.

  6. Nic, thanks for doing this. Recently there was a viral post on Tumblr of a photographic collage of Chinese photographs, where various later-undesirable leaders were airbrushed out. That it went viral was very instructive.
    Given the seriously destructive tendencies prevailing in current South Africa, I’d say the more we are reminded of the past, the better to re-ignite critical and tactical thinking.
    Specifically with regard to Wikipedia: contrary to one comment on the presumed lack of credibility, the reality is not one of people not referencing Wikipedia, but actually (1) seeking it out as first source for orientation around a subject; (2) referencing it as a desirable summary of information, (not an academic citation).
    A very significant portion of Internet users do not ‘surf’ the web, but live within its realm, as naturally as we eat or sleep. Every generation adds to this. The question is not whether Wikipedia is credible, it is how to make it (and each and every entry) more credible.
    Personally I believe that Wikipedia is one of the greatest drivers of open culture, and its entirely within our personal abilities to address inaccuracies. Its entirely within your field of expertise to edit the article, and if necessary, open the necessary debates within the Wikipedia review process.

    Here’s an interesting introductory take on the credibility issue: http://teachinghistory.org/digital-classroom/ask-a-digital-historian/23863

  7. Nic, yours is the first comment on piece about the fragility of heroic activism. I would appreciate more of your thoughts. Winston Nagan

  8. Dear Winston … I happened to be checking past entries on my blog and came across your comment here … I somehow failed to notice it – apologies for that. I will attempt to give you more thorough feedback about ‘the fragility of heroic activism’ piece in the course of the next two weeks .. I am not certain whether to do it here or directly to your email address (which, I think, comes up on my WordPress “dashboard” for all people who leave comments here)? If you do not respond to this, I will send a response to your email address – kind regards

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