By Brett Adkins

The confession by former Port Elizabeth human rights lawyer Vanessa Brereton that she was an apartheid spy could open a can of worms that former security police spy handlers hoped would remain firmly sealed forever.

Brereton's admission this week that she, and not Scorpions chief Bulelani Ngcuka, was Agent RS452, came after weeks of speculation sparked by claims by former transport minister Mac Maharaj that the ex-informer was the National Director of Public Prosecutions.

And the confession came as a complete surprise to former Port Elizabeth security police colonel and spy handler Karl Edwards who during the recent debacle had been desperately trying to protect the identities of his former operatives.

"I am terribly shocked," said Edwards.

Edwards had made it clear in earlier comments that the identities of former spies should remain secret "because lives could be ruined".

The unmasking of Brereton also elicited anger and shock from former anti-apartheid underground activists who expressed their dismay at being betrayed. The confession has also raised the question of who else might be exposed as the probe into the allegations against Ngcuka by the Hefer Commission continues.

One of the most notorious of the Eastern Cape spies was Agent RS407 Olivia Forsyth - code name "Lara" - who infiltrated activist groups at Rhodes University as a student and sang freedom songs while passing on information to the security police.

The "RS" tag was derived from the phrase "republican intelligence" with the second letter being changed later for some reason. Forsyth, who lives in Britain, was one of a number of high-profile security police spies, black and white, who were unmasked during and after South Africa's darkest apartheid years.

Forsyth, who gained notoriety because she was trusted highly, was a former Rhodes student who infiltrated the ANC while she was a lieutenant in the security police. She was then later alleged to have switched sides by working for the ANC.

Forsyth was regarded in intelligence circles at the time as the apartheid government's "most outstanding spy" next to the equally infamous Craig Williamson. The ANC didn't think so, however, describing the London-born agent as a "terrible, incompetent and inefficient spy".

Forsyth, who was exposed in 1989, had infiltrated the National Union of South African Students (Nusas) at Rhodes in the early 1980s.

In 1988 her cover was blown and she was detained and tortured in an ANC prison camp in Angola, from which she escaped.

She was reunited with her father in Britain soon afterwards and is believed to be living there today where, according to sources, she has apparently approached a literary agent with a book idea based on her experiences.

It was claimed in 1997 that Forsyth, who was recruited by Williamson, changed sides and began spying for the ANC but that the security police decided to keep quiet about this to use it to their advantage.

Former ANC underground operative and leading Port Elizabeth activist Janet Cherry said Forsyth had led a double life by completely "integrating herself into student life" at Rhodes University.

A self-confessed murderer and former Port Elizabeth "superspy" for the security police was former playwright Patrick Dlongwane (alias Hlongwane). He unsuccessfully applied for amnesty from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

When he appeared before the TRC's amnesty committee in 2000, Dlongwane, who is living with Aids and is now based in KwaZulu-Natal , wept and begged forgiveness from those whose houses he had petrol-bombed and who were jailed because of his false testimony.