Espionage, nuclear secrets, and the struggle for a democratic South Africa
Elliott Stam, Photography by Stephanie Ebbs and Articles made available by the Mayibuye Archives
On the morning of Renfrew Christie’s trial he looked past a set of iron jail cell bars to see the newspaper photograph held in front of him. “You’re going to get at least 30 years,” his lawyer said. The image showed the charred remains of South Africa’s Sasol facility, bombed in the night by the African National Congress. Christie had recently confessed to spying on that facility, one of his many crimes against apartheid, after being tortured by the notorious security police. On June 5, 1980, news outlets around the world were buzzing about the white scientist facing the gallows. Christie says he never believed they were going to execute him; perhaps years of research and spying had made him wise to their methods. He despised the injustice of apartheid and was fueled by a desire to eliminate it. As a brilliant and rebellious youth, Christie believed in hope and democracy so fiercely that he risked his life to fight for both. Coming from a line of World War II heroes, you might say it ran in his blood.
Fighting the Nazis introduced a variety of new experiences to the men in Christie’s family. His would-be father traded the stable life of an accountant for that of a path finder, a pilot who clears the way for bombers. He was killed in the later stages of the war, but many of his brothers lived. One of Christie’s uncles froze his fingers off on a convoy to Russia; another dropped supplies to the Warsaw ghetto with the South African Air Force’s 24th squadron; others survived navigating fields of land mines. Christie’s mother kept his father’s medals and photograph all her life and went on to marry her dead lover’s best friend, who carried on the job of 12 accountants serving overseas. He later died of a heart attack and from then on Christie was raised by a single mother. After the war ended, he couldn’t understand why his family stopped fighting for democracy. In his eyes Nazism and apartheid were one in the same. From his earliest days, he was compelled to go on fighting against that same evil.
Born in 1949, Christie attended the family school in Johannesburg as a young boy. Most of the children at school were jewish, many having parents who had been on the last trains out of Germany in 1934 and 1939. Hearing their stories gave him a feel for the second world war and reinforced his resolve that all frameworks of oppression – fascism, Nazism, apartheid – had to be fought. Christie’s musical talent led him to play a part in over 200 performances on the Johannesburg professional stage. At the age of 12 the London west-end senior cast treated him and his young cohort as adults, infusing him with a confidence he still carries today. Now a professor at the University of Western Cape (UWC), Christie makes the first speech during graduation and can sing to a crowd of 4,000 people with no accompanying music – it’s a gift he is quite proud of.
A spy is born
Childhood had an abrupt end for the young performer at the age of 17, when he was conscripted into the South African Army. He laments the fact that he carried a gun for apartheid before he could vote, but it was through his military service that the government unwittingly provided him with another weapon: military secrets. While in the army Christie saw something that told him South Africa was actively pursuing nuclear technology. By his calculation the world was better off without apartheid having a nuclear arsenal, and so his life as a soldier evolved into the life of a spy. Upon closer inspection he determined that South Africa had help; the bombs were developed through collaboration with several western nations. Numerous bombs were produced, and Christie was a whistleblower who alerted the world to their existence.
Western support of apartheid
If there is one grudge Christie holds against western nations, it seems to be their support of apartheid until the very end when the system dissolved. He holds the firm belief that until you understand why the west vetoed anti-apartheid motions at the United Nations – until you understand what the western motivations were – you don’t understand apartheid. He asserts that there was common ground in shared racist tendencies, but that the strongest incentive was something else entirely. The real reason was born from strategy: cheap Cold War minerals. In 1948 what mattered most in the entire world was uranium supply. During the Cold War, the West was after the cheapest possible uranium they could get. Between 1952 and 1990 South Africa produced over 100,000 tons of pure uranium, drastically reducing the West’s production costs for nuclear weapons. When the National Party gained power in 1948 they birthed apartheid, and with it came a series of acts tightening up the pass law system.
Pass laws and forced labor
The pass law system in South Africa dictated that if you were a black African male born outside the city then you were not allowed to live in the city, and you had to work. Black men also had to carry passes at all times or risk going to jail. The passes were stamped for mines or farm zones, indicating the occupation each man would have. So black South African men from outside the city either worked on the farms, which fed the mines, or spent their days mining for gold, uranium, and diamonds. One of Christie’s uncles was a mining compound manager, so from a young age he witnessed the conditions with his own eyes. Sixteen to twenty men would sleep in one room, their dormitories surrounded by barbed wire cages. A man was allowed to visit his meager home to be with his wife and children for three weeks around Christmas, but for the rest of the year he was laboring in the mines.
Rebel with a cause
When asked how he went about hunting apartheid’s atom bombs, Christie explains with a dubious smile, “It’s a bit like the same way porcupines make love – very, very carefully!” In true academic fashion, his search began by building a base of knowledge. Christie attended Wits University where he became president of the debating society and dove head first into politics. He got on board with the National Union of South African Students (NUSAS), joining the radical wing that had come to ascendency in the late 1960’s.
Christie took great delight in bending and breaking apartheid’s rules, and his political feather-ruffling did not go unnoticed by the police. A natural born trouble maker, he was arrested four times before he was 21. The first arrest occurred when Christie was at Turfloop with a university Christian movement doing joint, non-racial prayers and servicing the local church. The police came in and arrested everybody. Someone later asked if the officers took off their hats when they entered the church, leading to Christie’s first and most famous newspaper quote:
“I don’t know, I was praying.”
He was arrested at Turfloop again a year or two later while taking a man from London’s anti-apartheid movement to visit Tiro, a member of the South African Student’s Organization; Tiro was later assassinated. The third arrest was in John Vorster’s Square, when Winnie Mandela was being tortured. Winnie was released under house arrest some time later, and Christie was arrested shortly thereafter while helping her train a German Shepherd named Henry to attack on command. Thugs operating under the police’s orders would come by and occasionally shoot her place up, so she welcomed the extra protection. Christie was fined for being a white man in a black area without a permit, and was pressured to submit evidence against Winnie Mandela, but in the end he weaseled his way out by paying a fine and got Winnie off the hook as well.
Down the political rabbit hole
During Christie’s final year attending Wits University he found himself with a new roommate named Cos Desmond. Desmond, a Franciscan priest who spoke flawless Zulu, made it his mission to tell the story of South African oppression through books and film. There were “black spots” all over the country, meaning areas black people lived where apartheid didn’t want them to. The black people living in these areas were systematically removed from their homes; families were loaded into trucks and dumped somewhere with or without water, homes, or jobs. Desmond traveled around the country to interview people whose lives had been violated by this policy and wrote a book about it – a book that was banned by the government and landed him under house arrest. Desmond could not receive any visitors, but his white roommate Christie could. And so the rebellious youth went about bending apartheid’s rules once more by taking in the likes of banned ANC photographers and underground intelligence operatives as his guests, when they were in fact visiting Desmond. One extra perk came with this partnership – Winnie Mandela occasionally cooked Christie lunch. He quickly grew fond of her.
The final year at Wits found Christie elected as deputy president of NASUS. In 1972 he moved to Cape Town to help run a “Free Education Now!” picket protest around the country. NASUS also played a role in founding the black trade union movement, whose mission was to spread the trade unions from Durban all the way across South Africa. Christie briefly dated and shared an office with Jeanette Curtis, who later became the organization’s vice president. Jeanette was then exiled and fled the country, hiding in Angola with her family. It was here that she and her eight-year-old daughter Kathryn were assassinated by a parcel bomber. They often received packages of sweets from their old granny in Johannesburg and were aware that their lives were marked by the apartheid security forces. When they received a package, young Kathryn would throw it against the garden wall; if it didn’t explode, she could open it up. She performed the normal ritual and upon opening it the parcel exploded, killing her and her mother but leaving her father and brother alive.
Knowledge was his weapon
Christie completed his Bachelor’s of Arts in African history at the University of Cape Town (UCT) in 1973, an honors degree in 1974, and followed up with his master’s in 1975. The primary subjects of his studies were history and politics, and they allowed him to track apartheid’s nuclear progress. His master’s thesis was on the Kunene River Hydroelectric schemes and his interests in studying the electrical power systems in South Africa were directly tied into the uranium enrichment he suspected the government was using them for. The uranium enrichment process is very energy intensive, and he figured that the best way to keep an eye on the nuclear weapons was to monitor the facilities that could enrich the nuclear material. Christie surreptitiously forwarded his thesis to militant opposition groups, and at a later stage the Kunene hydroelectric schemes were bombed.
A scholarship to Oxford gave Christie a brief reprieve from South Africa, and with good timing. While he was on the boat to England his regiment was invading Angola. Christie greatly enjoyed his time at Oxford, and has fond memories of the best committee he’s ever been a part of: the Saint Anthony’s College Wine Committee. He tried his hand at cricket and soccer, but it should suffice to say he was a more valuable asset in the realm of academics.
But Oxford was not all fun and games; Christie was there to do more than sip wine. Continuing his research into the nuclear capabilities of his country, he wrote a thesis on the economic history of South Africa and the growth of its electricity system. This thesis was ultimately a front to get inside Eskom and gain access to thorough documentation of South Africa’s electricity production. By infiltrating Eskom’s libraries and archives Christie tracked the bomb’s progress by monitoring how much electricity was being used for uranium enrichment. With this information he then calculated when there would be enough uranium to make a bomb. It may seem a long and arduous process, working through years of education to obtain this information, but Christie believes it was the best way to get inside and that’s exactly what he did. When his Oxford studies came to a close he was offered a full time position as a professor. For better or worse he declined and returned to South Africa.
Caught in the act
In 1979, three months after returning to South Africa, Christie was arrested while working under his new front writing an economic history of coal mining. He was captured by the infamous policeman Spyker van Wyk and was forced to stand until he offered a confession. Christie wrote his confession and was moved to Johannesburg where he was met by some equally nasty torturers. Here he wrote a new confession, and in it he included as explicit instructions as he could on how to bomb the Koeberg nuclear power station being built in Cape Town. The government claimed the new power station was for commercial electricity, but from his research Christie had deduced that it was merely a front to build atom bombs. In his confession he explained that the best point of attack would be the facility’s pipeworks, since it would need those to be perfect to operate properly. In order to inflict the highest amount of financial damage possible, the bombing would need to be timed so that the nuclear material was in the station but not yet being used. In an effort to demonize Christie to the public, the judge read his full confession out loud.
Koeberg bombed to Christie’s specifications
Two and a half years after the judge publicly read the confession, Heather and Rodney Wilkinson bombed Koeberg by Christie’s recipe. The couple had been hired at the nuclear power station, smuggled bombs in with their backpacks, and walked them in without incident. Koeberg was bombed without harming anyone in the city.
Waiting for the trial
Christie was locked in solitary confinement for seven months until his trial. During this time he saw one of his fellow inmates, an ANC recruit named Mordecai Tatsa, face torture so extreme that the man slowly turned into little but a withered corpse. Every Saturday Christie saw him in the showers, decorated with new markings on his neck from being choked by a rope, and noticed his feet grow increasingly swollen from being beaten with iron bars. There was nothing Christie could do to help the man; such were the conditions in prison. The torture took a great toll on Mordecai, and eventually he could not even be placed in front of apartheid judges. He was freed from jail after the progressive party’s MP, Helen Suzman, negotiated his release into house arrest under the condition that he never tell his story.
Pretoria’s hanging prison
Christie wasn’t sentenced to death, but he was placed on death row to witness it. For over two years he sat as close to death as one could get in prison, forced to listen to the hangings of over three hundred men throughout his incarceration. Around midnight the hanging party made their way through the prison, slamming doors as they passed. The whole prison was singing for two or three days before the hangings to make things easier for the condemned. Christie recalls it being the most beautiful music on earth. Once the footsteps stopped and the nooses were set, the soothing voices grew silent. The trap doors slammed open. Soon after there was only the sound of nails being hammered into coffins – this was the worst part.
Seven prison guards committed suicide during the years that Christie was locked away. He believes they did it because they realized they had been raised on a lie. They had been taught that all liberals were communists, and that the power of the apartheid government was ordained by God. Once they interacted with the political prisoners, however, their world view was shaken. To escape it all, a troubled young prison guard might put a rifle in his mouth and pull the trigger.
An offer and a contract
Years after Christie had been locked away in Pretoria, an offer was extended to Nelson Mandela and the rest of South Africa’s political prisoners: release from prison in exchange for a promise to renounce violent political activism. Mandela refused this offer out of principle, but many other prisoners accepted. Dennis Goldberg, who had been in solitary confinement for 20 years, was one of those who took the offer – but he didn’t want to do it alone, so Christie and another prisoner named Robert Adam accepted alongside him. The police released Goldberg, but not Adam or Christie. Helen Suzman privately asked the Justice Minister why he wouldn’t let Christie out of prison and his response was that Christie was too dangerous because he knew too much, and the Justice Minister didn’t care what Christie signed because he wasn’t going to be released. Luckily, Christie’s best friend from high school was by then an accomplished lawyer.
Botha, the South African president, eventually settled in court to grant Christie parole. Christie was a free man and had served just over seven years of his thirty year sentence. Soon after his release, Christie made the mistake of telling an interviewer that he had not had mutton for over seven years. During the following months every banquet and reception that he attended featured the same dish, and by the twelfth meal he was regretting having ever mentioned it. But there were other perks – job offers and congratulations from wealthy liberals who supported his political activism, and eventually a position at UCT as the Academic Planning Officer, a change agent position within the university.
A new era
In 1990 Christie was recruited by the University of Western Cape, traditionally a university for black and “colored” students, as the first Dean of Research. He was tasked with transforming a teaching university with very little research and publications into a doctoral granting, full-blown research institution. By almost every metric used to compare universities, UWC ranked around 25th in South Africa when he was hired. By 2008, they had climbed to 5th in the nation. Christie attributes a great deal of the progress to his habit of hiring what he calls the “crazies”, which he defines as revolutionary and original thinkers. He went out of his way to hire them, and the crazier their theories the more interested he was. Years later their odd theories often turned out to be correct and the eccentric professors became leaders in their respective fields.
As of 2014 Christie is still the Dean of Research at UWC. South African law may require him to retire at the age of 65, but then again Renfrew Christie was never much of a rule follower. He lived as a neighbor to death for over two years, wore the stealthy shoes of a spy chasing after government secrets, saw many of his good friends fall at the hands of a tyrannical government, and has dedicated his entire life to transforming South Africa from a country of oppression and injustice to one with the most progressive bill of rights on the planet –and yes, he also helped write that document. But there is always room for improvement.
As Renfrew Christie would say:
“Are we Perfect? No. My wife and daughters are perfect – I don’t know about the rest of the world.”