Anthony Turton | Shaking Hands With Billy
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Anthony Turton | Shaking Hands With Billy

Shaking Hands with Billy is a book that goes behind the scenes into the top secret world of the South African security force community during the build-up to our first democratic elections in 1994. The book reads at three different levels, because that moment in time is embedded in a set of regional dynamics, by which the author – Anthony Turton – is profoundly affected, but has no direct control. This means that the book is about the integrity of a human being living in times of great uncertainty – when the questioning of orders is being dealt with by a secret death squad authorized under Project Barnacle to eliminate “own forces” – using only his deeply anchored moral compass as his guide. Shaking Hands with Billy is thus the story of a man accepting full responsibility for his actions as a soldier turned peace-maker, while justifying those actions to the people he cares the most for – his two children and immediate family. The book is written in a deeply personal way, as a father explaining to his two children, both now adult, why he was not always there while they were growing up, in a land divided, surrounded by secrecy.  The foreword is by James Workman and the prologue is by the author.  The structure is reflected in the Table of Contents.


The main narrative is the story of an individual who happened to be born in a period that coincided with the birth of the Armed Struggle after the Sharpeville Massacre. The narrative takes the reader through his formative years, learning from his father, often on the great plains of the Kalahari and in the vast wetlands of the Okavango and Makgadikgadi ecosystem. At this stage of the narrative it is about the richly textured relationship between a small boy and his father who had been deeply affected by war. An extract reveals this.




“My father would think nothing of taking me out of school to go on safari with him, believing that he could teach me things there that I could never learn in a classroom. These were the golden years for us both ... as [my father] had settled the demons in his head [arising from his exposure to violence during the Battle of El Alamein], and he began speaking about those wartime experiences. He never glorified war and mostly spoke in hushed tones as he recounted his fear of the Stuka dive-bombers and the horrors of combat in the Western Desert, while we were huddled around a campfire somewhere in the Kalahari Desert, with the distant roar of the lion and the hysterical laughter of the hyena as a background to our intimate conversation. It was here that I really got to know my father and it was here that my love of African oral history started to take root.”




Another extract emphasises the impact that these early years had on forging the moral compass of the main character, which was to become so important in his later life as he navigated his way through the fog of war onto a new road of peace and reconciliation.




“Making camp we silently bedded down for the night, a small group of men clustered together under the infinite vastness of the southern hemisphere night sky. I recall feeling wonderfully insignificant lying in my sleeping bag under that majestic sky, breathing the fresh icy air and watching in awe as a shooting star tracked by, listening to the sounds of the African bush – the mournful hoot of an owl and the gruff roar of a distant lion punctuated with the hysterical laughter of a hyena all merging into a mellow symphony of sound – as I nodded off into a profoundly peaceful sleep. Early the next morning we awoke and while making coffee before sunrise noticed that a leopard had walked through our small encampment during the night. I recall feeling a thrill at this revelation that I had never felt before. Being part of an ecosystem with nothing between us and the magnificent beasts that roamed free as Mother Nature intended them to, was quite liberating. The hunt began again before the sun rose. The day wore on and relentlessly we were on that spoor again, looking for the single solitary old bull whose hoof prints in the sand were so distinctive from the mass anonymity of the herd. We came over a small rise and there was the herd, the old bull standing majestically to one side facing us.”   



This small boy grows up to become a young man, deeply rooted in respect for the cultures and vitality of life sustained by these great African ecosystems. That young man then serves in the armed forces, where his life undergoes a dramatic change as he is exposed to the senseless violence of military conflict. The main character now realizes that the cyclicity of the debilitating impact of violence on society transcends generations. Deep in the bowels of a combat zone in Angola, the author makes a startling realization captured in the following extract:


“One of the casualties at the battle of Xangongo was a Russian T34 tank, which had been destroyed by a Ratel firing a 20mm APTC round. The round hit the turret and sliced through the armour and once inside, ricocheted around the close confines, igniting the on-board ammunition. With a thunderous explosion the tank hull opened up into the ground. I remember this tank clearly because we did the recovery afterwards. One of the facts of life in an armoured combat unit is related to the way that one makes the vehicle one’s home. This means that every little nook and cranny is used to stow away things that make one’s life a little easier. For example, eating utensils are too complicated to carry, so I used to only keep a spoon in the top left pocket of my fire-proof tank suit along with a small flashlight for use in emergencies. The relevance of this to the destroyed T34 tank relates to a spoon that was used by one of the now dead crewmen. When rummaging through the wreckage of that destroyed tank, I located a spoon, badly mangled through the force of the high explosives, but still discernable as a spoon. ... Suddenly I felt a connection with the crewman of that T34, because we both were confronted by the complexity of eating while on operations, and we both had resolved this issue by resorting to the exclusive use of a spoon. At the time I was struck by this human connection through an artefact found on a remote Cold War battlefield in Angola. I felt a deep reverence when rummaging through the charred remains of that T34 tank – reverence at the sanctity of human life as I tried to imagine myself in the position of that crew, as they were struck by the 20mm APTC round. ... It was here that I began to reflect on the futility of what we were doing. It was here that I first became aware of the fact that in war there are no winners. We are all victims, even those who might claim victory in a specific battle, because we all suffer the deprivations and long-term impact of violence.”




This is a moment of catharsis, because the author learns to have empathy for others – even his enemy –  and this becomes the foundation for the rest of his life. He writes of this moment.




“It was here that I first realized that my personality had indeed been forged on the anvil of Africa by the relentless hammer of violence. It is therefore befitting that a poem was stirring in my soul, capturing all of these conflicting emotions that I was trying so very hard to bottle up and control. ... I hated war. I hated the sheer violence of the act. I hated the seductive allure that weapons gave to a young man who was filled with a lethal cocktail of too much testosterone and an inordinate amount of fear. I hated the stench of burnt rubber and I hated the thought of contorted human flesh being ripped off the bones of a young human being, who happened to be at the wrong place at the wrong time. Above all, I hated what it did to young men – a mother’s son, a wife’s husband and a child’s father – all traumatized and left broken for somebody else to fix up later. ... It was at this time that I started to heal again, which is ironic because it was at a place surrounded by destruction and hopelessness. It was here that I saw the depth of suffering that had befallen our society and inwardly I wept. Unable to cry outwardly, a result of the macho years of indoctrination that frowned on young men showing signs of stress, I had no alternative but to do it in private. During the darkness of the night, when no one could see, I reflected. When I was alone with my thoughts I did battle with the demons in my head as I tried to understand. It was in this madness that I started to write short stories and poetry in an attempt to cleanse my own soul, but also to capture word pictures of the experiences of my unfortunate generation. ... Why do we do such violent things to other human beings; and why do they do them to us? Is it relevant who does what to whom first? Is violence not simply violence and is military violence not merely the ultimate form of violence? And then what of words? Are they not an instrument of violence too? When Julius Malema sings ‘Kill the Boer’ and Jacob Zuma sings ‘Umshini Wami’, are these not imprudent acts of verbal violence designed to inflame, intimidate and thus divide our fragile nation, not yet mature enough as a democracy to treat all citizens with equal respect?  Should we not be concerned about this?”  




Now psychologically stronger and thus capable of dealing with the personal fallout of war, the author is committed to what becomes known as the Township Wars, as combat units are withdrawn from Angola and inserted into the growing internal civil war. It is here that the second strand of the narrative starts to emerge. This is about the evolution of the social setting in which this institutionalized military violence is embedded. In the chapter entitled “The War Comes Home when the Townships Burn”, the author starts to become analytical and the narrative changes into a dual one – the story of the individual and the story of society in which that individual finds himself – because neither can be understood on their own. The one is but a reflection of the other. Confronted for the first time by hostile fire in the cauldron of the East Rand townships, the issue of necklacing is introduced. The author quotes from the now famous speech made by Winnie Mandela in April 1986, when she says: “They have guns and tanks, we have no arms. But we have stones. We have our boxes of matches. We have our bottles. ... With our necklaces, we will liberate this country!” This speech act lays the foundation for the brutality to come, as mobs of youths, accountable to no single higher authority, start their People’s Courts, of which Maki Skhosana becomes a victim, a glass bottled inserted into her body before she is burnt alive by the necklace of liberation. The author now relates his first necklacing in a chilling piece entitled “Thousand Yard Stare”. An extract from this captures the moment, which is a point of no return for him.




“... This is my first necklacing and I am shocked at what I see. Unable to comprehend the enormity of the scene around me I instantly understand the omnipresence of that thousand yard stare, which accompanied me to this scene in that silent Casspir with the bleeping ripple of the VHF radio and grinding machinery of war. ... A sensation goes through my body that I have never felt before and instinctively I know that my life has changed forever as I detach emotionally. I feel as if I have a golden umbilical cord connected to some massive placenta in the sky and I travel along that lifeline, looking down at the scene beneath me, ravenously searching for sustenance in the parched landscape populated by high energy electrons orbiting a burning nucleus. My spirit leaves me and dances above, flitting across the landscape at the speed of light, almost like a ball of plasma flashing beneath the loose puffs of cloud in a mirror image of the flames licking that twisted body. I see the policemen on my left and right, but this time from above. I am surprised at seeing myself milling around in the middle of an ill-defined line of order floating like a loose molecule across a flammable sea of seething anger. ... I lose all track of time as my spirit floats free of my body, refusing to come back and make me whole again, seemingly now to have a will of its own. The next I can recall we are back inside that Casspir and I too have a thousand yard stare, my spirit still absent from my body, rendering me an incomplete shell of humanity – a doer now – rather than a thinker and a feeler. I recall stopping at a fast food outlet on our way back to Skerp Punt (our tactical HQ at Esselen Park), but I found the crispy skin of the fried chicken to be distinctly unappetizing, so I chose to remain hungry instead, at least until my spirit returned from its lonely wandering.”        




This becomes a pivotal moment for the author, who now realizes that his country is at war with itself and all he can do is resolve not to become engulfed by the flames of hatred that seem to be consuming South Africa. His intellectual challenge is how to understand the concept of power, which seems only to translate into confrontation and the brutal force of military engagement. But knowing the futility of war a career change happens, with the main character being recruited into a top secret special operations unit of the National Intelligence Service (NIS). That unit is the Chief Directorate Covert Operations (CDCO) and it is tasked with a series of high-impact special operations that go on to lay the foundation for the cessation of hostilities across the entire region. The soldier thus becomes a peace-maker instead. The author is directly involved with a number of these high-impact events, three of which stand out: the strategic intelligence operations that underpin the negotiations with Cuba and Angola that end South African involvement in the Battle of Cuito Cuanavale; Operation Bush Talk that lays the foundation for the cessation of hostilities between RENAMO and FRELIMO in Mozambique; and the secret initiatives that set CODESA in motion. This phase of the book thus introduces the third strand to the narrative, which is about the role of specific institutions in bringing stability to our country at a time when the loyalty of the SADF Generals was an unknown factor. Few know today just how close we were to a military coup d’état in 1994 as F.W. de Klerk took over from a belligerent P.W. Botha, the result of the findings of the Goldstone Commission of Enquiry into the criminalization of the internal wing of SADF Special Forces.




Exposed to a vibrant process of intellectual thought taking place at the leadership level of NIS, the author now becomes aware of a new debate that will shape the future of the country of his birth. That debate, triggered by the defections of Arthur McGiven and Gordon Winter from the Bureau of State Security (BOSS), is about security and it is focussed on the distinct but subtle difference between state security versus national security. The former is about securing an embattled state, no longer capable of sustaining itself as a racial minority, confronted by sustained but massive discontent. The latter is about creating security for all by changing the rules of the game, by rewriting the constitution that will redefine the parameters in which our collective future will unfold. Linked to this is a highly nuanced intellectual understanding of power, the very concept that had been the subject of so much personal reflection by the author. Power, described as the French “puissance”, becomes the brute force of military might, which translates into the rejection of change and the entrenchment of the status quo. It was this form of power that the author had been deeply exposed to on the field of battle and he now knows it to be flawed. Power described as the French “pouvoir”, defined as the ability to embrace change and then direct it by becoming part of that process of change, translates into the benefit derived from engagement with ones enemy. This new form of power thus becomes intellectually stimulating to the author, who embraces it with all his heart as he seeks to implement this newfound enlightenment. It is during this phase of his professional life that the author is tasked to debrief one of the operatives in Operation Vula in which these two forms of power become apparent.




“After many hours we finally had a breakthrough with Apie (the code name of the operative now in NIS control) giving us details of the operational planning of Operation Vula that we did not already have. ... I will never forget the moment that Apie broke for a number of reasons. We were conducting the debriefing at this stage under a lapa, overlooking an oxbow in a river. Just after sunset a pride of lions made a kill within 100 metres of where we were sitting, so the whole night was alive with the sounds of Africa. Lions roaring and growling, hyenas laughing in insane excitement, jackals howling and the bush alive with the restlessness of a kill, we sat under the twinkling heavens and the ever present Southern Cross in a way that took me back to my childhood in the Kalahari and uMqangabhodwe [my father’s traditional Zulu name]. In the bush the natural rhythm of African life was being lived out in an orgy of physical puissance-styled violence between predator and prey, while inside our lapa we were engaged in a macabre dance of pouvoir-styled political violence that had its own set of behavioural rules known only to those who participate in this pursuit. We sat through all of this, locked like agile wrestlers in an embrace of pouvoir that was both deadly and exciting. At times we fell silent, gazing into the burning embers of the fire, mesmerized by the images dancing before our eyes, with me thinking back to the flames that had become etched in my mind when I witnessed my first necklacing so many years before, humbled by the overwhelming greatness of the African night and marvelling at my own insignificance in the greater scheme of things. As a log would settle, cinders would erupt into the night sky and the conversation would pick up again. So we went, hour after hour, locked into our circle of pouvoir-tinted light, dancing under the shadow of the raw puissance-styled violence of the lion kill taking place in the mystery of the deep African night. Our mood seemed linked to the activity of the dancing flames in the fire, falling into periods of pregnant silence as the embers settled and the blue flames dominated, only to be enticed into a renewed intercourse as the yellow flames took over each time a new bit of fuel wood was added. Then in the small hours of the morning, as our collective fatigue set in, Apie started to speak and over the next few hours he revealed the detailed planning of Operation Vula. ... As the early fingers of light gently probed the African night sky, gradually unlocking the grip of darkness once again, with the fire now reduced to nothing but a grey ash of hot cinders, Apie leant forward and spoke with a new intensity literally spitting out words. As he spoke the tears welled up in his eyes. I watched, enthralled as the first tear rolled down his face and dangled precariously on the end of his nose for what seemed like an eternity, finally succumbing to gravity, dropping into the grey ash. I recall the sound that each tear made as it hit the hot ash – tschip, tschip, tschip – leaving a small crater in the otherwise flat uniformity of the fine ash, each drop instantly erupting into angry steam like a miniature volcano. With each tear came a new revelation. We had cracked Operation Vula wide open. I felt a wave of emotion roll over me as well and for a short while Apie lay sobbing in my arms, now with the chance to unburden himself at last.”




Shaking Hands with Billy thus becomes the first credible history of the Chief Directorate Covert Operations of the National Intelligence Service known to the author, tracing its roots and analysing some of its successes and failures. This aspect was mandated by former serving officers, who felt that the time was now ripe, a decade and a half after our transition to democracy, for their story to be told for the first time. At this level the book becomes a valuable reference document, because it provides factual evidence of events that have until now, been shrouded in mystery. An attempt is made to present an accurate history of the Battle of Cuito Cuanavale and the evolution of the internal wing of the SADF Special Force community into a poorly commanded unit of criminals masquerading as soldiers. The argument is made that it is the fallout of this process of criminalization of the SADF – specifically as Operation Katzen, Operation Marion, Project Triplane, Project Barnacle and the antics of the Civil Cooperation Bureau (CCB) become public knowledge through the Goldstone Commission of Enquiry – that creates space for the new architecture of national security to emerge. The argument concludes that it is this new approach to security, focused as it is on redefining the rules of the political game through a new national constitution, that enables the cyclicity of violence to be broken, and a realistic chance for an enduring peace to emerge. The transition to democracy in 1994 is thus not driven by weakness, but rather by moral principle and deliberate design. It is this story that emerges in Shaking Hands with Billy as the truly noble one when South Africa becomes the first country in the world in which the ruling party negotiates itself out of power in the best interests of the nation; in which a nuclear-capable military voluntarily relinquishes its weapons of mass destruction; in which a prisoner of conscience realizes that his jailer is as much a victim of the system as he is himself; and in which a Truth and Reconciliation (TRC) process is launched to cleanse society. That story is remarkable, because the entire South African nation is a part of it.     




Shaking Hands with Billy concludes with a look into the future, laying the framework for a series of things that the author believes the broad public should be aware of, because our democracy is but a fledgling, and it can still mutate into a malignancy that he calls a Cleptocracy in which a powerful elite manipulate the three arms of government to become a predatory state, as a vehicle of self-enrichment for that elite. If this is allowed to happen then the author predicts that South Africa will become a darker place in future than that from which we emerged. Two scenarios are presented of the future in which we will be forced to make tough choices as a nation. Central to the author's belief in the power of engagement over the futility of confrontation, he makes the case for a National Summit on Mining and Decvelopment - a form of Economic CODESA - to create a new Social Charter for the mining industry currently being constrained by an antiquated business model that is based on the externalization of costs to artificially reflect greater profits. He makes the case that those historic externalities will increasingly constrain future economic development, so the solution is a negotiated Social Charter for Mining that will allow Greenfields operations to raise the capital needed for job creation, free of the constraints created by this unfortunate legacy of wealth plunder that started with the Second Anglo Boer War.




The three strands of the narrative are thus intertwined. The story of the individual takes meaning only when one understands the story of the social setting in which that individual exists, because it is the interaction between these two that forge the author's personality. The third strand is about institutions that structure society – providing a scaffold that prevents total collapse in times of anarchy – and shape the future of a more stable but democratic South Africa. These three strands are woven into a single and compelling narrative in the book.




Embedded within the 526 pages of Shaking Hands with Billy, the reader is exposed to a number of major lessons that form the foundation of a professional motivational talk offered by the author. These are applicable to any person in any setting, in both the corporate and the social world.

For an example of a professional talk incorporating Shaking Hands with Billy, refer to Reinventing Uncivilization presented at TEDx Cape Town on 16 April 2011. The text of this talk is available as a PDF document by clicking here.



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