Cape Town – Questions have been raised about the employment of a former apartheid spy as the head of history at one of the top schools in the province, Westerford High.
Gordon Brookbanks has been at the Rondebosch institution for more than a decade.
At the time of his appointment, reservations were raised by the SGB and others, but, according to a source, parents were unaware of Brookbanks’ involvement in the Security Branch, recruitment of spies and exiled South Africans.
Brookbanks was a police spy at Rhodes University campus and took over the running of the European spy network for the Security Branch when he was posted to London.
In the book, Unfinished Business: South Africa, Apartheid, and Truth by Terry Bell, Dumisa Ntsebeza mentions that Olivia Forsyth was one of a trio of agents who came from the same university.
“The most successful of the trio was Gordon Brookbanks, who was also a lieutenant in the mid-1980s when he was posted to London, apparently because he held a British passport.
"There he took over the running of the European spy network established by Craig Williamson and Johan Coetzee. It was he who ran one of the most important spies of the time, the ANC’s chief representative in London, Solly Smith.
"He is also credited with having recruited as an agent the ANC executive member and historian Francis Meli,” the book reads.
Smith, alias Samuel Khanyile, who had been the ANC’s London representative, succeeded Dulcie September, who was killed in Paris. In 1991 he confessed to being a spy. He died a few years later.
In an extract from Inside Apartheid’s Prison by Raymond Suttner, the activist writes that while at John Vorster Square, Brookbanks insisted on sitting in on a lawyer’s visit, which was illegal. Suttner said he believed Brookbanks had a lot to do with him remaining in detention.
In the amnesty hearings of January 1999, Brookbanks is also cited as the author of a document called Operation Olivetti, a motivation for the initiation of a media operation in which Forsyth was subsequently involved.
A source, privy to discussions around Brookbanks’ employment, said the matter was not brought before the SGB or parents by management until an SGB member heard about it.
According to the source, some members of the SGB and parent body felt that because Brookbanks had been an apartheid spy, it didn’t seem appropriate for him to be appointed to teach history, as he may have a particular bias on the subject matter.
“The feeling from those who supported (his employment) was that this was all in the past, and they didn’t feel he had killed anyone,” the source said.
Brookbanks told the Cape Times that he worked for state intelligence from 1979 through the 1980s and the 1990 to 1994 period, and from 1994 to 2003, when he says he resigned.
“On resigning and not knowing exactly what career I wanted to go into, I worked for a short time at the Cape Town Holocaust Centre, assisting with both their school programme and diversity workshops.
"I then responded to an advert for a teaching post, started to teach high school pupils, and found a vocation where I truly felt I could make a difference and contribute.
“In teaching topics such as Holocaust and apartheid history, to name a few, I consciously focus on the lessons for humanity we must learn and, by illustration, the consequences of racism, prejudice and stereotyping.
“I also stress that we, and I include myself, have to look into the ‘mirror’ and acknowledge that we were complicit in the crime against humanity which the UN categorised the policy of apartheid as being.”
Brookbanks said he taught that the past had resulted in much individual and collective trauma, which we had to recognise, and that we needed to constantly be vigilant for signs of this trauma, and to work through it.
“Through various initiatives pupils are given the chance to hear voices/experiences from the past, learn from this, and to engage in inter-generational conversations, such as our oral history task we provide to Grade 9 pupils,” he added.
Principal Rob le Roux said he had no reservations about the former spy teaching.
“There is no secret about the fact that he had a past where he worked with the intelligence service, but I’m not prepared to comment on that. It’s his personal life,” Le Roux said.
“One member of the SGB was not happy. It was investigated, the chairperson had a personal interview with Mr Brookbanks, and everything was cleared up.
“He is a very well reputed history teacher who works a lot in the development of history in the new syllabus.”
SGB chairperson Luyanda Mpahlwa said Brookbanks had a Bachelor of Journalism and Media Studies degree from Rhodes University, and obtained an Honours in Education from CPUT.
“There has been no issue or complaint raised about Mr Brookbanks at SGB level regarding his role and performance.
"He has been actively involved in making history alive at the school, and using his network by bringing various personalities, from opposing sides of the conflict in South Africa, during and after apartheid, to share their stories with the pupils, and organising history tours to the various countries involved in the Cold War politics.
“As a former Robben Island prisoner myself I recognise that this is the story of South Africa, where we have to face our past, as bitter as it may be, and look at the challenges we face today, find solutions and move forward.
"These are complex matters and we all know that every aspect of society faces the challenge of transformation, including schools.
“At Westerford, we are doing the best we can, but there is no question that as we look at our past, we need to create a future and the history of apartheid needs to be shared in all its facets,” Mpahlwa said.
WCED spokesperson Bronagh Hammond said Brookbanks had been employed by Westerford since 2007.