Reviewed by Pippa Green
In the afterword to this memoir, Moe Shaik writes that it began as a “badly written novel” and that his publishers had “strongly suggested” he rewrite it as a memoir. Which he did with the help of writer, Mike Nicol.
We should be thankful for the publisher’s suggestion because the result is not only a finely woven quintessentially South African story but one that is stranger and stronger than fiction.
It is much more than a thriller, although it is that: it is a deeply reflective work about the transition of the ANC from liberation movement to the governing party, about heroes who faded and in some cases became anti-heroes, and of the tensions within the liberation movement which became accentuated once it was in power. It is also about the high price in personal trauma, much still unresolved, that activists paid.
The story begins with a jolt: in 1985, Moe Shaik agreed, at the behest of his brother Yunis and Ebrahim Ebrahim, to become a “decoy” for the security police, giving Ebrahim a chance to leave the country.
He is told to hold out for three days. Once in jail, detained under the Internal Security Act, he describes his terror waiting for his torturers. “I could taste fear in the dryness of my mouth. It oozed out as sticky sweat that pooled in my armpits and trickled down the sides of my body.” His torture and that of his brother, Yunis, who was detained later, is almost unbearably painful to read.
But it was here, in a Durban prison, that he was to meet the man at the centre of this story: the Nightingale.
Shaik, born in 1959, the fifth of six boys, experienced tragedy early in life when his mother, Rabia, left the family when he and his younger brother, Shamim, were just out of babyhood. A year later she was killed in a car crash. His father, Lambie, he writes, never spoke about her. “All I know is that her absence left in me a debilitating fear of abandonment.” It also developed in him “an obsession with unravelling secrets.”
As it happened, both in the ANC underground and in the post-apartheid era, this obsession became central in his life and work.
The Nightingale, a security police officer in Durban, was apparently so appalled by the torture of both Moe and the even more severe torture of his brother, Yunis, that he became Moe’s secret informant – effectively a double agent for the ANC.
The book chronicles the last violent years of apartheid, not only contiguous with the negotiations process but overlapping them. Shaik himself successfully evaded a police dragnet as a Vula operative.
He had suffered severe trauma, including the death of his beloved stepmother, Kaye, while he was in jail in the mid-80s. After his release “loud noises and laughter jarred me into a state of agitated anxiety. I found being in a group disconcerting.”
He returned to his work as an optometrist, and then, just a few months later, encountered the security police officer who had shown such empathy when he and his brother were tortured.
The story of the information that the officer passed onto the ANC through Shaik is gripping, and a little puzzling. There was no pecuniary motive; it seemed the “Nightingale” was motivated by his conscience, in spite of his fear. The consequence of failure, as he and Shaik told each other, was death.
This is a personal account but also tells of a vivid slice of our history. He writes of his first encounters with ANC leaders who became powerful in the democratic era – such as Jacob Zuma, “known to be a crafty and skilful underground operator.” (How Shaik left the country when he was a wanted man is testimony to his own craftiness and skill).
The Nightingale’s reports turned out to be so accurate that Oliver Tambo, the then leader of the ANC, called the venture Project Bible.
Shaik interweaves testimony heard years later before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to unravel what had happened to certain of his comrades who disappeared – such as Phila Ndwandwe, whose fate “was left to the whisper of rumours”. It emerged at the TRC hearings, 13 years later, that the security police had murdered her after she had refused to “turn”. She was buried on a farm outside Pietermaritzburg, her body covered with lime.
He also provides a unique view of the Vula operation – its dangers and the politics around it. It tested ANC unity and also endangered Shaik’s valuable source. The deep contradictions in the potholed transition to democracy are illustrated by the fact that when all other political prisoners were being released, Shaik himself was in hiding fearing for his life.
There is another factor to this book that makes it a valuable read and that is Shaik’s insights into how those he had known in the struggle – such as Zuma – behaved once they had secured personal power. Or had the characteristics always been there? Shaik doesn’t make it clear.
His reflection of Zuma’s rise to power – “six short years” from being a provincial MEC to deputy president – tells a particularly personal story involving his brother, Shabir. Part of that story involves the former head of the National Prosecuting Authority, Bulelani Ngcuka, who announced charges against his brother and a “prima facie” case against Zuma although they would not prosecute.
The rift with then-president Thabo Mbeki over his (and Mac Maharaj’s) allegations that Ngcuka had been investigated for being a spy became a canyon with Mbeki’s establishment of the Hefer Commission. (Vanessa Brereton, the real agent with the code RS452 that supposedly applied to Ngcuka, revealed herself as the Commission got underway).
I recall how, at the Hefer Commission an ashen-faced Shaik declared his loyalty and love for Zuma, even as the evidence about Ngcuka was destroyed. (To his credit, he apologized to both Ngcuka and his wife Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka afterwards).
So the fallout with Zuma, when Shaik was in the intelligence services, must have been momentous, not only for their relationship but in the ANC. Much of this is now the subject of testimony at the State Capture Commission and revolves around the services’ alarm at the extent of the influence the Gupta brothers wielded.
In many ways, the book is a chronicle of heroes, those who survived intact, albeit at a cost, and those who failed. History has recognised them, except for one: the Nightingale, a man then in “the cauldron”, today barely remembered, and not yet honoured.
This book is a fitting tribute to him.
Pippa Green is a print and radio journalist, author and lecturer in journalism, who is now the Press Ombud for the South African Press Council. Her gripping podcasts in the History for the Future series cover interviews with Andrew Mlangeni and TRC commissioners.