A Convicted South African Terrorist Discusses the Future of His Country

By Danny McDonald


Nelson Mandela shaking the hand of his predecessor Frederik de Klerk, the last apartheid-era president of South Africa. (Photo via)

Dr. Renfrew Christie was jailed during the early 1980s for passing on the South African government’s nuclear development plans to the African National Congress (ANC), the political party that spearheaded the campaign to end apartheid. There was some talk he would be hanged for his troubles, but the judge spared him. Instead, he was imprisoned right next to the hanging area in a Pretoria prison.

He recalls beautiful singing in the prison for two or three days before an execution, presumably to make the last days of the condemned more joyful. Or morbidly bittersweet, depending on how you look at it. He says the consecutive crash of doors signaled that the hanging party was moving its way through the prison. There was silence before the hangings, then the slam of a trap door—“that’s when you knew their necks were broken”—then more silence and then the banging of nails into the coffin. He estimates he has heard about 300 hangings during his stint in prison.

Christie’s story reads like Jean Le Carre fan fiction: conscripted into the South African army at 17, he soon “saw something I wasn’t supposed to see that told me they [the government] were playing with nuclear weapons. From then on I was hunting the apartheid atom bomb."

He wrote his PhD thesis on the electrification of South Africa—a subject area that allowed him access to plants where he could observe “how much electricity they were using to enrich uranium."

“That enabled me to work out when they would have nuclear weapons by,” he tells me. “Because you can calculate from the amount of electricity used just how close they are, just as people are doing now with Iran.”

Christie, a fierce anti-apartheid activist from a young age, sent his information to the then-banned ANC, as well as the plans for a nuclear power station and “anything else I could lay my hands on.” He was outed by a double agent and found guilty of multiple charges under the country’s Terrorism Act. However, the ANC’s campaign against nuclear development in the country continued. In 1982, Umkhonto we Sizwe—the ANC’s militant wing—bombed the unfinished Koeberg Nuclear Power Station, causing 500 million rand (around £33 million, in today's money) in damage and delaying construction for a year and a half.

Now, Christie is dean of research at University of the Western Cape.

His country finds itself in interesting times. Two decades after the end of apartheid, South Africa is still one of the most unequal societies on the planet. The ANC—the political party he risked his life for—continues to be mired in corruption and cronyism, and the country’s talismanic unifier, Nelson Mandela, continues to be in fragile health. Christie spoke with me about what all of that means for South Africa’s future.


Dr .Renfrew Christie at his daughter's graduation.

VICE: Let’s talk about Mandela. Was he an inspiration for you when you were incarcerated?
Dr. Renfrew Christie: Absolutely. Remember, I was in Pretoria because my skin is white, he was on Robben Island because his skin is black. We were 1,000 miles away from each other. But there was a joint effort, if you like, by the prisoners on the island, led by Mandela, by the white male prisoners in my prison and the white female prisoners down the road in Pretoria to improve the conditions of imprisonment, which did happen. As the government realized they might actually be imprisoning the future president of the country, they started to treat him better.

Do you know Mandela? What kind of interactions have you had with him?
Well, he was in jail for most of my life, but I knew his wife well. She was released from detention in 1971, but put on house arrest at a house owned by the guy I was sharing with. I knew Winnie very well in the early 70s. I met Nelson Mandela when my university was the first to give him an honorary doctorate soon after he was released from prison in 1990, and I met him again in the run up to the elections, but I don’t know him well.

So, did he have any hand in the cloak-and-dagger stuff you were involved with, specifically regarding the nuclear plans?
The CIA shot him in 1963 and he was jailed, by which stage I was 12 or 13 years old. He would have no hand in the next 27 years worth of [operations], other than to have little messages smuggled out of prison. Of course, he set up the armed struggle. He gave the wonderful speech in the dock about why one had to fight for one’s freedom. But he wasn’t in any way involved in the nuclear stuff because he was in prison.


Oliver Tambo (on the left) in 1978. (Photo via)

What were his greatest successes?
You have to see him together with Oliver Tambo. They were a team, even when he was in jail. Their first great success was in the middle of the World War II. Forming and completely recasting the ANC Youth League into a much more pro-democratic, less subservient thing than the rather tame ANC of the 1930s. They caused, if you like, a revolution in thinking during the 40s.

He's then at the forefront of all the great campaigns from about 1949 onwards. The anti-pass campaigns, eventually the writing of the Freedom Charter and, as he gets more mature and more respect, he and Tambo give leadership of immense maturity. It’s not a cheap strategy. It’s a, “We are the people and we are the majority of the country. We want a democracy. The country will be much better as a democracy.”

Eventually, Mandela becomes the great icon who can say, “I’ve been in prison 27 years but I forgive. We are all South Africans together. There are good and great people in all of our communities. We've got to work together to build a new country.” He says, "We’re not going to victimise white civil servants. They won’t lose their jobs."

Mandela then leads the unification of the country, which gives us the next 20 years of peace and increasing economic prosperity. We brought electricity to 12 million people, we brought clean water to 12 million people and so on. The result, in the end, isn't perfect—only my wife and daughters are perfect—but, with Mandela, this is the guy who started the armed struggle, the guy who, back in the 60s, said that the only solution is the gun. And then he's the one who brings everybody back to the negotiating table in the early 90s.


Mandela with Bill Clinton in 1993. (Photo via)

What about his failures? 
I think the whole movement, not just him, could have done better for women. We do have a significant number of women in parliament in societal leadership roles, but we could have done better. This is the glorious great beginning—we’re beginning to use the other half of humankind that we’ve excluded for the last 10,000 years. And the ANC was a part of that, but not enough. I’d have liked to have seen him find ways to do better in terms of liberating women.

Mandela didn’t speak out as some ANC figures got rich at the expense of some of the poorest South Africans. Is that a valid criticism?
I do think that, in all these sorts of democratic revolutions, the process of enabling people to do economic things that were illegal before is going to be patchy. You’re going to get who just look after themselves. I’m quite sure that, internally, he was quite rigid on the subject.

But again, for the sake of unity. Remember he was the unifier. He keeps the broad church that is the ANC together, and you can’t attack a bit of that church. Should he have found somebody to put in jail as an exemplar? Maybe. But I think his need wasn't that. His need was to keep the ANC in power—keep the ANC respected by the people – but above all to achieve unity and have it not fall apart. But you get total unity going up to the democratic revolution. Everyone works together. There’s a united democratic front, they all unite. And then, after revolutions, you always get the squabble. What’s the phrase? "The revolution begins to eat itself"?

What he did was to avoid huge fissures, huge fallings apart, rural/urban splits, and so on. So the unifier had difficulty being as strong as he would have liked to have been with people enriching themselves. People enriching themselves is a problem worldwide. America has yet to jail the crooked bankers that ruined the world in 2008. I don’t know why. 


South African president and current leader of the ANC, Jacob Zuma. (Photo via)

What would Mandela make of the current ANC? From an outsider’s perspective, whenever I’m reading about the ANC, I’m reading about corruption and cronyism. Jacob Zuma has been investigated for misusing millions of public funds. There were killings at the mines last year. The ANC didn't emerge from that unscathed. Would Mandela even recognize; this iteration of the ANC as his own party any more?
Absolutely. The ANC is still the majority party. Around two thirds of the people are voting for it every time. In open democratic elections. It has a vigorous internal politics that's actually not a crooked politics. It’s contested. It develops its policies very thoroughly. It's currently giving social grants to 13 million unemployed people when the United States Congress is busy voting against food stamps.

The ANC is still an excellent political party. Are there crooks in it? Yes, of course. But we are in an era of crookery. Just run through the names: Enron, Arthur Andersen, Fannie Mae, Lehman Brothers, Royal Bank of Scotland, HBSC, I can go on. That's what happened in this century. We’re not exempt from that. But we are bit players. We are minor compared to that long litany.

Is there any heir apparent to Mandela? Or is he a once in a lifetime political personality?
We have a serious depth of political talent, not only in the ANC, but in all of our political parties. Remember that, for the first time, the majority of people—black people—can now also go into private enterprise. So quite a lot of the talent is going into big business. Which is fine and good, but there’s no lack of political skill. This is a highly politicized system that has outcomes that work.

Is there a Winston Churchill? A Roosevelt? The Churchills and the Roosevelts come up in a particular context and Mandela was in a context. So whether we actually need a Mandela in 2015 is not clear. What we do need is an adept politician who can keep everyone together and who can further the interests of the ordinary people, the common people. The thing about the ANC is it’s absolutely based in the common people—that it’s got faults, obviously. I’m not one of those who thinks you need an absolutely charismatic, glorious leader at every step along the way. You sometimes just need a simple, old-fashioned politician who can deliver the goods.


Mandela in 2008. (Photo via)

South Africa is still one of the most unequal societies in the world. If Mandela couldn’t change that, can anyone?
It has to do with education, education, education. You had a deliberate policy for 100 years of not educating the overwhelming majority. One of the ways of getting out of inequality is really good education. You’ve got some perfectly willing but not particularly competent teachers in the ordinary schools of the ordinary people, and they’re not teaching kids well enough.

The route out of inequality has to be urbanization, because inequality in rural areas is very difficult to crack. And we are slowly urbanizing. I would prefer us to have a much stronger urbanization plan so that we actually know what cities are going to be built and why. And we're in the trap that the whole world finds itself in, in that the Chinese manufacturers can undercut you by a hundred times. So, just as the United States manufacturing production hit a brick wall, so has ours. So that’s going to lock us into inequality for a very long time.

What we mustn’t be is just a mining economy. We do have to be doing advanced manufacturing. And we do. We build the best quality Mercedes Benzes on Earth, technically measured. But there’s not enough of the new forms of education that would get people out of the inequality trap. So I think we’re stuck with that one, structurally, for a very long time.

When he does pass on, what effect will that have on the nation?
There will be a huge period of national mourning. We’ve been prepared for it for some years now, but the death of a hero—the death of a national saviou—we will go through all the rituals. He will remain our unifier, even in death.

Last off, what's his legacy?
Taking a country that had become the polecat of the world, which was practicing perhaps the second most despicable form of racism after the Holocaust, and turning it into a viable democracy with an independent judiciary, superb bill of rights and a working economy that all South Africans, regardless of color or gender, can thrive under.

Thanks, Dr. Christie.

Follow Danny on Twitter: @DMacCash

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