Comrade unmasked as a super-spy
ON 2 January 1980, nine years after he walked on to Wits campus trying to impersonate a hippie, an article was published in the London Observer that pulled a strand loose from Craig Williamson’s web of lies. The spy’s double life began to unravel.
Williamson was in the bath when a radio news bulletin quoted the Observer report that a South African spy had defected to Britain. His wife, Ingrid, said to him: ‘You know this spy?’
‘Ag, it’s always spy bullshit. It’s probably that bloody fool Gordon Winter,’ Williamson told her.
Ingrid went out to buy the newspaper. When she came back, Williamson thought she’d been attacked. He’d never seen her look like that in her life – not even when he had told her that he was a spy. Ingrid held up The Observer and there was Arthur McGiven’s photograph. That’s a great way to find out, thought Williamson sarcastically.
The story published in The Observer was about the defection of McGiven, a BOSS (Bureau of State Security) agent. BOSS had discovered that McGiven, who had served on the 1973/4 Wits SRC with Williamson, was living with a man, which in the apartheid South African catalogue of sins was almost as bad as being a communist.
He was declared a security threat. That night he went to his office at BOSS, packed a suitcase of secret documents, including material relating to Williamson’s operations, and left for London.
However, Williamson’s masters didn’t bother to tell him about these developments, which made him angry and anxious. McGiven knew who he was and Williamson wondered what would have happened to him if McGiven had talked, say, while he was in Moscow or Luanda. Williamson phoned the Special Branch in South Africa. ‘Until I know what McGiven is doing and who he has told and what, my life is in danger.’
A few days later, on Saturday, 5 January, Piers Campbell, the IUEF’s project manager, saw Williamson in the organisation’s office. (The International University Exchange Fund was a major funder of anti-apartheid groups in South Africa.) Williamson was carrying a suitcase and said he was returning certain documents. The next day, a second McGiven article was published in The Observer, and although it didn’t name Williamson, it made a passing reference to the IUEF.
On the Monday night Williamson called Campbell and said Ingrid had had a nervous breakdown and had returned to South Africa. He also said that because he had assisted three ANC activists, Tim Jenkin, Alex Moumbaris and Stephen Lee, escape from Pretoria Central Prison, he was being pursued by BOSS agents. Williamson sounded confused and Campbell was worried about his strange behaviour.
Julian Sturgeon, who was then in exile in the UK and who did odd jobs for William- son, was also troubled. ‘Craig was in touch with me just about every day, he wanted me to do this and to do that, go there… he was impossible. I thought this guy was going off his head. He was so weird…. I couldn’t cope with him. I wrote to him and said, “I quit.” Thank God.’
Then Williamson dropped out of sight for 11 days.
Meanwhile, IUEF director Lars-Gunnar Eriksson was taking strain. The IUEF’s financials were in a mess and he was in a poor psychological state. This was exacerbated by the fact that a month earlier Williamson had told him that Piers Campbell was plotting to oust him as the director. In addition, Eriksson was having to defend his deputy from accusations that he was working for the South Africans or was a communist, and now Williamson had gone missing.
Both Campbell and Eriksson were worried that something was seriously wrong. On 15 January, they discovered Williamson’s desk had been cleared out. They discussed the possibility that he was being blackmailed by BOSS.
Eriksson wasn’t the only person worried about Williamson. Back in South Africa, Colonel Johann Coetzee was anxious that his agent was in danger. Using a code they had arranged, he and Williamson hatched a plan. They were not overly optimistic about it but decided it was the only way – Coetzee himself had to confront Eriksson.
By “confront”, Coetzee actually meant blackmail into silence. The South Africans had dirt on Eriksson and Coetzee knew that the IUEF director was afraid of being exposed for womanising, drinking, and misusing funds. Coetzee flew to Switzerland to rescue his agent and confront Eriksson.
The plan could well have blown up in his face. Though a neutral country, Switzerland has strict espionage laws. The South Africans hadn’t been spying on Switzerland but were spying in their country. If Coetzee or Williamson had been arrested, it could have created an international incident with embarrassing political and diplomatic fallout. But Coetzee’s man was in danger and the security of the state was at stake, so he boarded a plane to bring back his mole.
‘My man could have been in a very dangerous position,’ Coetzee told a jour nalist afterwards. ‘I had to be there myself to evaluate the position and decide whether to pull him out. Someone had to be there to take that decision. It’s not something you can do from a distance.’
On 17 January, Williamson phoned Eriksson and asked to meet him at the Hotel Zurich the next day – and to come alone. Campbell and Eriksson flew to Zurich. The meeting between Eriksson and Williamson was set for 1pm. If Campbell hadn’t heard from Eriksson by 2pm, he was to contact the Swiss police.
This is an edited extract from Spy, Uncovering Craig Williamson by Jonathan Ancer, published by Jacana at a recommended retail price of R260.