Like all good young Afrikaners fresh out of school, I started studying at the University of Stellenbosch in the late 80’s. Well, it was the only university that my dad was willing to pay for – anything else was seen as way to ‘left’ for him. He did agree for me to study political science, hoping that I would be like all good Afrikaners and become part of the Apartheid regime’s ‘braintrust’ – Stellenbosch University was the intellect behind Apartheid. Even the building that I studied at was named after one of the leading Apartheid politicians – Prime Minister BJ Vorster. Vorster was so right wing that he even opposed South Africa supporting the allies during World War II.
I was already leaning slightly left by the time I started university and decided to join the most prominent ‘leftie’ group at university – NUSAS (National Union of South African Students). NUSAS was the only liberal student group for white students during Apartheid. It was a pretty good organization at most universities – allowing for information you wouldn’t find in too many places.
The first meeting I attended was to discuss a major protest march on campus. The leading light of NUSAS in those days where a guy called Mark Behr. He was handsome and laid back – a prerequisite for any student activists who wanted to lead an organization. Just enough knowledge to pass superficial debates, but enough looks and attitude to get laid. The meeting went fairly well – a lot of talking and organizing. And it did result in a pretty good march the next day – well attended for Stellenbosch University. But I just had this gut feeling that Mark couldn’t be trusted. I didn’t say anything as I couldn’t place my finger on it – and I was a junior.
But my problems started the next day when we got back together to discuss the march. We didn’t get into what we were trying to achieve or what we managed to do. We got straight into discussing the next march. I tried to raise the point that maybe we should decide what we want to achieve and how best we can achieve this. But I was told to keep quiet. Hey, I was a junior and it was only my second meeting.
I tried to talk to Mark afterwards and said that maybe we should arrange for either the local trade union or the UDF (United Democratic Front – the ANC ally) to march with us to show unity. I can’t repeat his words – he said it in Afrikaans and it was clearly racist, even though he tried to make it sound as if he was an ‘independent thinker’. My initial distrust turned to dislike. I left NUSAS after 2 meetings.
A few month later Mark made headlines – he reportedly got shot at while studying. Boy, did this make him popular. Here is a guy who is so powerful that the Apartheid regime would actually go so far as to try to kill him. Stellenbosch University had a bona fida anti-Apartheid superstar – the man almost got killed. I didn’t buy it. The glass was on the outside of the window and they couldn’t find the bullet hole.
I shared my thoughts with a few people I knew that were still at NUSAS. But they didn’t take my bait. They supported Mark and thought of him as the ‘real thing’. In fact, a few of them made it clear that I was only going to create more trouble for myself if I don’t shut up. My parting words was – ‘I don’t trust him and it will all come out at some stage’. In the meantime Mark remained the darling of the student activists, and the ‘hit’ solidified his reputation.
But it did all come out. Many years later Mark came clean. He was a spy for the Apartheid regime. Yes, during those student days we shared.
It was a shocker to everyone. We knew there were spies everywhere. Every hostel had at least one. But we knew who they were – or most of them at least. But everyone was shocked that Mark was one. (Of course not me – I rubbed it in). He betrayed all of those who trusted him and worked with him. He went to his ‘handler’ and shared their most secret talks and made them targets for the Apartheid regime. He was everything they despised, and more because he made out as if he was one of them.
But what struck me was the timing of his announcement – 1996. It was odd. Why now? Because his first book just got published and a little publicity never hurt anyone. That’s Mark, always staying in the limelight and looking after number one.
Things have changed over the years for Mark. He moved away from South Africa and went on to study at Notre Dame. And living a quiet life in Santa Fe.