Author John Matisson began his career as a political reporter at the Rand Daily Mail in 1974. Picture: Leon Lestrade

In God, Spies and Lies, veteran journalist John Matisonn interweaves his personal story with SA’s turbulent history, particularly that of the media.

God, Spies and Lies, Finding South Africa’s future through its past offers an insider’s account of the role played by those who formulated and propagated ideas in the making of South Africa, providing new insights into the politicians of the day and introducing some of the thinkers who drove apartheid ideology and those who fought it. The author, veteran journalist John Matisonn, interweaves his personal story with the country’s turbulent history, particularly that of the media.

Thabo Mbeki was striding across the world stage. As the president, his relationship with Britain began on a high note. While the arms deal was being finalised in 1999, Queen Elizabeth made a state visit.

Unusually early for a new president, Mbeki was offered a state visit in return, in June 2001. So, sporting tails and the red sash and heraldic badge of an honorary Knight Grand Cross of the Order of the Bath, he supped on guinea fowl and raspberry soufflé at Windsor Castle with the queen and 162 members of the British establishment.

By the end of the decade he would be Thabo Mbeki, GCB, GCMG, OE (Jamaica), KStJ. For a man often uncomfortable in crowds, friends watching Mbeki on that visit to Britain said he had never looked so happy, so comfortable in his own skin.

It was not one event, it was everything. He remembered his years at Sussex University as the best of times. Sussex friends, some from the semi-aristocracy, were with him now. They had been with him when he was a poor student at the low points of the anti-apartheid struggle, and they were with him in his hour of triumph.

Too sophisticated to be swayed merely by ceremony, Mbeki felt comfortable with his political hosts, now that power had come to the Labour Party, where he and the ANC had many friends. He had marched in anti-apartheid rallies with young Labour members now in the leadership of the party in power. He was home, or as much at home as half a lifetime in exile will allow.

This state visit was intended to underline the fact that Britain’s relationship was with Mbeki too, not just the saintly Nelson Mandela. Both sides had reason to believe it would only get better.

Now the arms deal was in the bag, and British Aerospace received the biggest contract. That deal mattered to the British government. It owns a £1 golden share in British Aerospace, giving it veto power in the event of a takeover bid.

The British Foreign Office has only one economic sector with its own substantial marketing section – for military hardware. Within two years, the trust between the two governments would be in ruins. To the end of his presidency Mbeki would berate Britain in political circles at home, arguing that its colonial mentality infused Labour as much as the Tories.

Unlikely as it may seem, though Zimbabwe became the chief casualty of the fallout, the cause was not South Africa’s neighbour, but an enormous event with worldwide repercussions: the West’s invasion of Iraq.

At the heart of the fallout with Britain would be a clash over information: what the press said, what intelligence services said, what experts advised, and what Tony Blair and Mbeki believed when confronted with half-baked intelligence.

When the fallout on Iraq came, Mbeki was spectacularly, history-jarringly, correct. In the subsequent events, of more direct importance to southern Africa, he would prove just as ill-served by unsatisfactory intelligence and just as uncritical when confronted with one-sided assessments that he wanted to hear, as Blair was in Iraq.

Iraq was a toxic mix of bad American and British intelligence, weak American journalism (with honourable exceptions), uncannily and unexpectedly good South African intelligence, and power politics driven by the myopic judgement of both the American president and the British prime minister.

Mbeki had face-to-face contact with both George W Bush and Blair, alongside their senior cabinet members, on this issue. And Mbeki was right. The reason was that he had his own ace in the hole: he brought back the apartheid-era weapons of mass destruction (WMD) team, Project Coast, and sent them to Iraq to investigate the claims Bush and Blair gave as the cause of the war.

They already knew the terrain, because they had travelled there as welcome guests of Saddam Hussein in the apartheid era, when both countries were building WMD.

Mbeki had excellent relations with Saddam. In the strange ways of diplomacy, the apartheid government’s relations were likewise excellent. Saddam gave the South African team the freedom to roam unfettered throughout Iraq.

They had access to UN intelligence on possible WMD sites. The US, UK and UN were kept informed of the mission and its progress. The South African team used their own prior knowledge of the facilities, and followed UN data leads.

They reported that there were no WMD in Iraq. By contrast, they described sites they had seen in Israel on other trips, where they were able to identify Israeli WMD sites.

They knew where the sites in Iraq had been, and what they needed to look like. But there were now none in Iraq.

In 2003, Mbeki sent a team to Washington ahead of a meeting between Bush and Blair to explain the findings to the Bush administration and appeal for peace.

South Africa’s delegation in Washington did not make headway. That Friday, Blair was in the White House meeting Bush, and he pledged his support. Blair flew straight home and met Mbeki himself on Saturday, February 1, 2003, at Chequers, the country estate of British prime ministers.

It began with three hours face-to-face, with Blair and Mbeki alone. Then Mbeki, Rev Frank Chikane, the director-general in the presidency, and others met the British side for another hour.

“Besides the issue of WMD, which we submitted did not exist, we discussed tactical issues that also suggested that the war would not in our view produce the desired outcome,” Chikane wrote afterwards.

The Chequers meeting did not go well. Blair’s decision was made. When Chikane realised these arguments would be ignored, it was “one of the greatest shocks of my life”, he said.

Thabo Mbeki was right. But, in politics, being right too early can be more damaging than being wrong along with everyone else. What Mbeki read into these experiences led him further towards his own Iraq moment. When the most important foreign policy crisis of his presidency came along in Zimbabwe, he felt he had a basis to believe Western governments could not be trusted, and were reckless about going to war to overthrow governments.

He believed they used the press as their witting or unwitting tool, and used intelligence services even against friendly governments.

Mbeki looked at Zimbabwe’s crisis ready to believe he would get only double-dealing from Washington and London.

He was not always wrong.

The ANC and Mugabe’s Zanu were not allies until very late in the apartheid era. “In the beginning Mugabe was very hostile,” then ANC president Oliver Tambo told the ANC’s Kabwe National Consultative Conference in June of 1985.

Stanley Manong was a delegate, and remembered Tambo saying Mugabe set appointments with him in Harare, and cancelled them after Tambo had made the flight.

Manong, an MK veteran, said Tambo attributed Mugabe’s thawing of relations with him to the growing strength of the United Democratic Front (UDF) at home.

“Mugabe did not want to be seen as openly hostile against the ANC as the UDF was its ally.”

Mugabe’s test came from the emergence of a new party, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) from within the Zanu supporting trade union movement. Economic decline inevitably fuelled political opposition. The MDC was about to become a political threat.

The decline in Zimbabwe began when Mugabe succumbed to war veterans’ demands for more money when the government did not have the funds. He gave in. Economic decline increased political pressure. He now presented himself as the champion of war veterans, using the Central Intelligence Organisation (CIO), Zanu party formations and Zanu youth militia, who were encouraged to attack white farms.

The Zimbabwean economy went into free-fall. The loss of the rule of law came next, as judges were interfered with or forced out. Deeds of ownership could not be enforced. Zimbabwean citizens were described as “vermin” and invaders filled themselves with drink to do what they were about to do. The vicious economic cycle got more vicious. Tens of thousands of black farm workers lost their jobs and eight white farmers died.

Meanwhile, Mugabe’s efficient CIO, operating as Zanu’s political informer and enforcer, kept South African intelligence supplied with its narrative. The MDC was the bastard child of Britain, the US and racist white farmers. In short, it was the “counter-revolution”. Harare knew exactly the language conspiracy-theorists in South Africa were disposed to believe.

To make that argument plausible, two factual frameworks had to be constructed: one, that the violence was sparked by the MDC; two, that the MDC were puppets of these sinister reactionary forces.

This is exactly what the CIO advised South African intelligence, and SA intelligence bought the false claims. The MDC was not primarily responsible for the violence, and the MDC had bona fide Zimbabwe union roots. But the damage was done.

* This excerpt from God, Spies and Lies was adapted for The Sunday Independent by Matisonn.

God, Spies and Lies is published by Ideas for Africa in association with Missing Ink. It is available from retail outlets from Monday.

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.

The Sunday Independent