EPISODE 86

WHITE TRAITOR

WHITE TRAITOR

Sue Dobson was a a white woman who wanted to spy for the African National Congress - making her a minority within a minority in apartheid-era South Africa. Dobson spent seven months training in the USSR to learn her tradecraft. Now she wasn’t just a traitor, she was a turncoat with the training to kill.
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True Spies Episode 86 - Sue Dobson: White Traitor

NARRATOR: Welcome to True Spies. Week by week, mission by mission you’ll hear the true stories behind the world’s greatest espionage operations. You’ll meet the people who navigate this secret world. What do they know? What are their secret skills? And what would you do in their position?

SUE DOBSON: I think it's the danger, really, that unpredictability of living dangerously. It makes you feel truly alive. 

NARRATOR: What does it take to survive undercover, without backup, at the center of a hostile regime for years at a time?

SUE DOBSON: I trust no one except myself. Doing what I did, I learned the hard way that I had to look after myself and that nobody could look after me except me.

NARRATOR: This is True Spies. Episode 86: White Traitor. In the late 1980s, Sue Dobson was known to friends and colleagues as a successful, white, South African journalist. She was also assumed by all who knew her to be a firm supporter of apartheid, the system of racial discrimination that privileged South Africa's white minority over all other races. But Sue had held a secret for years. She was working for the other side. A traitor to the regime and to her race. And a traitor with the training to kill. 

SUE DOBSON: I have a healthy respect for weaponry, I think that's what determines whether you're going to live or die, whether you walk away or the other guy walks away.

NARRATOR: And on one occasion in 1989 she realized she had a chance to use that training. 

SUE DOBSON: You have to remember that we were at war and this person is actively an enemy.

NARRATOR: It's an opportunity that arises one night in a luxurious house in Windhoek, the capital of South African-controlled Namibia. It's past midnight, the damp heat of the day still lingering, undeterred by the lazy spin of a ceiling fan. This house is the residence of a senior, white South African police officer, a man responsible for the persecution, interrogation, and torture of anti-apartheid activists across the country. And he and Sue are in a relationship - or what he believes is a relationship. Gradually he has begun to let his guard down, forgetting how little he really knows about her or her intentions, leaving himself open. 

SUE DOBSON: It's probably the most dangerous thing you could do because you, at your most vulnerable, you're at your most exposed.

NARRATOR And, right now, he is sleeping softly in the bed next to her naked, defenseless. The opportunity is there to eliminate an enemy. 

SUE DOBSON: It would have been very easy for me to do because he had a loaded weapon at the side of the bed at all times. He slept quite deeply.

NARRATOR: Sue considers her options. The loaded revolver is holstered, within reach across the bed. Her target snores softly, spread naked on the sheets. He shifts slightly,.about to wake.

SUE DOBSON: He could have been removed from that scenario and I could've got away without too much difficulty.

NARRATOR: Sue rises, picks up his weapon, holds it in her hands, drawing a bead on his forehead. The trigger is under her finger but sometimes it pays to bide your time.

SUE DOBSON: I had to weigh up whether it was worth blowing my cover for. Was there more that I could do? Were there more important things? Was there more out there where I would be used better in actual fact? 

NARRATOR: When Sue Dobson was born in the early 1960s, the apartheid system was already an established fact. One factor above all shaped life for every South African: the color of their skin. 

SUE DOBSON: There was what we used to call petty apartheid, where there would be signs on benches, for instance, that would say ‘Whites Only’, or entrances to public buildings that would say ‘Whites Only’. And then the other entrance from the back of the building would say ‘Non-whites’.

NARRATOR: 'Grand ' apartheid worked on a larger economic and political scale ensuring that non-white people were restricted in where and how they could work, live, own property, or even be educated. Basic civil rights including the right to vote were reserved for the white minority alone.

SUE DOBSON: So that division was very much part of my consciousness growing up, that there were people different to myself and that those people were a different color.

NARRATOR: Indoctrination starts young. One incident happens when Sue is at primary school, an all-white primary school, of course. 

SUE DOBSON: It was the end of term, and I was quite excited to show my parents the report card and the school photograph. And I remember getting into the back of the car saying: “This is the photograph.” And I was sort of waiting with bated breath for them to look at it and to comment on it. And my father said: “Who's that?” And he homed in on a particular little girl that was darker skin than I was because I was very blonde and very fair. And he said: “Sue, is that kid black?” And I said: “Dad, I don't know.” 

NARRATOR: Of course, if the child really were black, she wouldn't have been allowed in the school at all. But even the hint of a darker complexion has consequences. 

SUE DOBSON: And he said: “You mustn't touch her hey? You mustn't play with her. You mustn't hold their hand.” And they found that quite funny. And they said: “Oh, just leave her alone. There's a touch of the tar brush there.” And I didn't know what that meant. 

NARRATOR: But the lesson sinks in.

SUE DOBSON: And I kept looking at that picture afterward and thinking: “Is she black?” It made me wonder if that color actually washed off. “Was she painted black? Did the black wash off in the rain or in the bath or in the shower? Why was she black and why was I different?” I couldn't quite grasp that. I thought we were all the same. So that was my first experience of understanding color.

NARRATOR: For all the power that whites hold, there is a constant awareness that they are a minority in the country. Sometimes a hated minority. And as Sue grows up, there are independence movements gaining power elsewhere in Africa rejecting white colonial rule, often backed by the Soviet Union. The apartheid government feels - knows - it is under siege.

SUE DOBSON: There was very little international news and quite a lot of anti-communist and in particular anti-Soviet propaganda, where we were led to believe that the communist block was after South Africa's minerals and wealth, our gold and our diamonds. And that we needed to fear everything. We needed to hang on to what we had because everything we had was under threat, whether it be from the liberation movements in new African countries, or whether it be the threat from further abroad. So we were hyped up into this state of vigilance, that we had to look out for the reds under the bed. And we had to look out for communists. And for a child that was quite scary to hear, really.

NARRATOR: Sue retreats into a world of her own.

SUE DOBSON: One of my companions at the time was the radio because I was quite a solitary only child and I took a lot of comfort in listening to the radio. And they imported a lot of British programs.

NARRATOR: Comedies, BBC programs, that kind of thing.

SUE DOBSON: … which I used to listen to, even though I was a child, and I think I had a curiosity about the outside world from then. 

NARRATOR: Even if those programs weren't political, they gave Sue a sense that there was a different world out there. One that didn't follow the same rules as South Africa. 

SUE DOBSON: I really wanted to see the rest of the world and see what that was like.

NARRATOR: One afternoon, the family is watching TV when the news comes on. Even in the censored, ponderous world of apartheid media it is clear something momentous is happening. In the black township of Soweto, near Johannesburg, a protest movement is growing. 

SUE DOBSON: Initially these uprisings started off as peaceful marches where it was a protest. We're not talking about adults. We're talking about children and teenagers.

NARRATOR: Black children and teenagers have been objecting to being taught in Afrikaans, the preferred language of the apartheid government, the language of the oppressor.

SUE DOBSON: But unfortunately the police opened fire on these children. And a lot of them were wounded in the back, which indicates that they were running away. They were defenseless unarmed children. 

NARRATOR: The first students to be killed are 15-year-old Hastings Ndlovu and 12-year-old Hector Pieterson. Over 100 more black students are shot dead during the day and more than 1,000 injured. But the killings don't subdue the townships. This is the start of the Soweto uprising, a rejection of apartheid spreading across the country. 

SUE DOBSON: I must have been 14 and I remember watching that uprising on TV with my parents. And my parents were absolutely horrified. They believed that the final uprisings had happened and that we were all in danger that these black school children were actually going to march out of the black townships into the white areas and were going to harm us. So there was a great deal of fear.

NARRATOR: Gripped by the images on the TV, the family each reacted in different ways. 

SUE DOBSON: My father's reaction was: “Look at what's happening on the screen. You can see it's begun. You should get out of South Africa because there's no future for the white man here. This whole process of change and revolution is happening in front of us.”

NARRATOR: But Sue's response is different.

SUE DOBSON: I think that was probably the most politicizing moment in my life. The turning point for me was definitely seeing those images on the screen. There's a particular image, a black girl holding the body of - I think it's her brother - and the torment and the pain and the anguish, and this girl's face as she holds the dead body of her brother. And that had enormous resonance for me. And I wanted to remove myself from that and to be part of something different. I didn't want to be associated with anything that could cause that torment. I wanted nothing to do with a regime that could do that.

NARRATOR: A few years later, Sue's chance to be part of something different emerges. Sue is an older teenager now, studying before going to university. And in her free time she hangs out with a group of local kids in her middle-class neighborhood. All white of course. This afternoon they are enjoying that most South African activity, the braai or barbecue. 

SUE DOBSON: I was attending a barbecue with some friends who were. young South Africans like myself, probably late teens, early 20s, and the beer was flowing at the barbecue and somebody was enacting the death of Steve Biko.

NARRATOR: Biko, the leader of South Africa's Black Consciousness movement, one of the most important figures in the anti-apartheid movement. Biko had recently died in custody as a result of injuries from torture. Some in the government tried to claim he had beaten himself to death while chained to the floor of his cell. South Africa's Minister of Justice said Biko's death left him cold. 

SUE DOBSON: Well, it didn't leave me cold. It angered me immensely. 

NARRATOR: And now, one of the guests at the braai is re-enacting the killing for the entertainment of the whole group. 

SUE DOBSON: He was actively lying on the ground and pretending to beat out his own brains, which was one of the myths that were perpetuated at the time about how Biko died. And I found that immensely distasteful and incredibly disturbing that people could view that with such brutality and that it was amusing. That struck me - just, how brutalized we've become whatever our color in South Africa - that we were so immune to the suffering of another human being, that he had been tortured, that he had been tormented, that he had been killed. And this is how people responded. I felt that I'd almost been tainted by witnessing that. And I wanted actively to take up arms and to do something about that.

NARRATOR: Surprisingly, the route to doing just that also lies at that same barbeque. One of the other students, Simon, a serious boy a few years older than Sue, is also disgusted by their friends' behavior. They start talking and gradually begin a relationship. Over the next few years, as they get closer, Simon reveals that he too has decided to devote his life to the struggle against apartheid. The difference is that he has the contacts to make that a reality. Simon's sister is a white journalist living in exile and an active member of the ANC, the African National Congress, the country's main anti-apartheid organization. The ANC is banned, and its most famous leader Nelson Mandela is in jail. But through Simon's sister, the couple can get an introduction to meet senior ANC staff. His sister's name carries weight in these circles. The rendezvous needs to happen on safe ground, outside South Africa, in London. But in a struggle like this, safety is never guaranteed. South African intelligence is both highly capable and ruthless. 

SUE DOBSON: it was a very dangerous thing to be doing because if they knew that you were contacting someone who was an active ANC member you might be arrested. You might be questioned. You had to be extremely careful.

NARRATOR: The young couple arranges a trip to Britain posing as tourists. The crucial meeting takes place near London's Paddington Station, a long way from the sunshine and clear skies of Pretoria.

SUE DOBSON: It was a pub in London and it was a typical sort of rainy, miserable winter evening. And I think I was probably more horrified by the weather than anything else.

NARRATOR: They are due to meet Aziz Pahad, a member of the National Executive Council of the ANC, part of the inner leadership circle.

SUE DOBSON: We had been taught that these people were the devil incarnate. They were people to be feared and loathed, and they wanted to take away what we had. And I met a perfectly ordinary person who was very committed to the struggle for democratic South Africa.

NARRATOR: Sue and Simon offer their services to the cause in whatever way the ANC needs them. But Aziz's advice is… well, not what they had hoped: “Go home and continue to lead your ordinary white lives.”

SUE DOBSON: I think I was perhaps a little bit disappointed that he'd said: “Go home and blend in.” But I understood that later on, how important that was, that that was sowing the seeds of an image that I really needed to have in order to be successful.

NARRATOR: Perhaps also a very polite way of saying: “You're not ready. And we can't be sure we should trust you anyway.”

SUE DOBSON: Absolutely. I wouldn't be surprised if that was the case at all, because I was very young. I was very naive and I think he wanted me to go back and live a bit more and understand a bit more about my own society. I needed to be older, I suppose, more mature. So I think he gave me good advice. 

NARRATOR: Simon and Sue follow the advice, however disappointing. They are married by now and settle into a comfortable, conservative, white suburban lifestyle - everything they had vowed to overthrow.

SUE DOBSON: The early years were quite frustrating because it was a question of actively leaving behind everything I wanted to do and the things that I sympathized with. I had to actively cultivate friendships with people who were politically neutral or who were actively racist.

NARRATOR: Meeting Aziz had, in fact, resulted in them both being even further removed from the struggle than before. But it also created their greatest future asset as undercover agents: a deep cover story, an unblemished record as middle-class apartheid supporters going back years. What the ANC called creating a 'legend' for themselves. 

SUE DOBSON: And I would have to create a legend for myself of not being interested in politics, not being interested in current affairs, just being interested in the things that young South Africans were interested in... having a good time or maybe settling down and having families of their own. And to some extent that was quite difficult. 

NARRATOR: Sue gets a job as a journalist at a conservative, pro-apartheid newspaper, then moves to the national broadcaster, the South African Broadcasting Corporation, oving closer to the apartheid elite. And she is miserable.

SUE DOBSON: Living the legend is not easy. It can be incredibly isolating and lonely. And there were times where I felt this is not what I want. I'm impatient. I want to see results. I want to get out there and do something.

NARRATOR: Simon is less impatient. He's working in the corporate world building his own legend. Then, a few years later, another chance arises to meet the ANC. Again, the meeting takes place in London. And again they are granted an audience with a very senior figure, Ronnie Kasrils, chief of intelligence for MK, the ANC's military wing. Kasrils is responsible for training and managing the ANC's entire network of undercover operatives and fighters around the world and in South Africa. In other words, the ANC's chief spymaster. A man with a price on his head.

SUE DOBSON: I was very nervous because Ronnie had been made up to be this very dangerous character, this Public Enemy Number One, someone who was very frightening and very powerful.

NARRATOR: This time the appointment takes place in a restaurant in the comfortable London suburb of Golders Green. The couple enters to find a balding middle-aged man with a warm smile waiting to greet them.

SUE DOBSON: And I was quite nervous to meet him but I found him very reassuring. He was very warm but very vigilant.

NARRATOR: Kasrils is right to be vigilant. The Bureau of State Security, the apartheid government's intelligence agency, is a ruthless opponent.

SUE DOBSON: His eyes never strayed from the door. He was always watching what was going on. He was very conscious of everything that was going on around us but he also had a deadliness about him, if I could describe it like that. I would say he was someone to treat cautiously.

NARRATOR: They put their case, their legends are in place. They have proved their trustworthiness. They can move within white society in a way that many ANC activists cannot. 

SUE DOBSON: I think that's a tremendous advantage. I had a very healthy pro-government profile, so it would be very easy for me to blend in and not be suspected. And I think that was my greatest strength.

NARRATOR: Kasrils hears them out, watching, observing, listening. 

SUE DOBSON: I was aware that he had power and I was aware that he had influence. And I knew that that was a very important meeting. And perhaps his impression of me that night would be very important. And I think it was.

NARRATOR: Kasrils reveals he has a suggestion for them, a suggestion that will change their lives forever. Join the struggle, not as amateurs but as fully trained secret agents. If Sue and Simon accept, the ANC will make all the arrangements for them to receive a full year of intensive military training in intelligence and guerrilla work in a friendly superpower, the Soviet Union, an honor extended to a limited number of activists. 

SUE DOBSON: I don't know how many there were but I do understand that they were quite few and far between, and I was fortunate enough to be one of them.

NARRATOR: The meeting is over. Sue and Simon leave the restaurant separately from Ronnie to throw off anyone who may have been tailing him. A new chapter is about to begin. Of course, leaving family, friends, and careers in South Africa for an entire year requires its own legend.

SUE DOBSON: Fortunately, it was a time where young South Africans really enjoyed travel. And we were able to say to our families that we were backpacking through Europe for a year and that after that we would settle down and we would think about starting a family and living an ordinary life.

NARRATOR: A gap year. The ultimate white South African excuse for disappearing and appearing to do absolutely nothing provocative for 12 months. The only problem is how to convince friends and family that they really have youth hostelled their way through the great cities of Europe? Well, the ANC has a plan. Before arriving in Russia, the couple are given a genuine whistle-stop tour of several European capitals just to ensure they can bluff their way through conversations about the Colosseum and the Arc De Triomphe over a braai. But it goes further than that. 

SUE DOBSON: What we did is, we collected as many postcards as possible and we wrote on these postcards saying we were having a wonderful time and we were seeing all these wonderful tourist places and we were living a wonderful life.

NARRATOR: Soviet intelligence collects all these pre-written cards, and then posts them to South Africa at a steady pace throughout the year. Postcards about Paris are posted from France. Messages about the Parthenon are sent from Greece, all to ensure the correct postmark. To Sue's parents, it seems like she is writing to them from a new country every month. 

SUE DOBSON: In actual fact, some of those places we'd never seen and never would see, but it worked well and it was a good legend. No one suspected anything at that point. 

NARRATOR: Welcome to Soviet spy school. Location: a highly secure military shooting range just outside Moscow. A light snowfall coats the grass around the targets and settles on the ammo boxes. In the crisp air, the crack of the assault rifle carries far. Sue is being introduced to the AK47 - Russia's gift to guerrilla fighters across the world. It's got quite a kick.

SUE DOBSON: You could understand why it's a weapon of choice because it's easy to have in the field. It's easy to clean. It's easy to carry. It's easy to maintain. 

NARRATOR: But working for MK - the ANC's armed wing - also involves understanding the weapons of the enemy.

SUE DOBSON: The weaponry that the United States might use or the South African Defense Force would use, like the Browning machine gun, so I got to fire and work with all those things.

NARRATOR: And training for sabotage... the application of plastic explosives.

SUE DOBSON: Also the opportunity to use limpet mines, land mines - which I actually really don't approve of - and things like the RPG, rocket launcher. So I got to fire and work with all those things. The theater of war is a very fluid thing. It can change very quickly. And there were circumstances that were still to come where I would have access to those weapons. 

NARRATOR: The only device she really doesn't take to is the hand grenade.

SUE DOBSON: I really don't have that ability. And I realized that I had certain strengths and those are the things that I should stick to.

NARRATOR: It's not just the training that is a contrast to their life in South Africa.

SUE DOBSON: That first journey into Moscow, I remember seeing all the golden trees. It was autumn at that time, what they call golden autumn, and that was very different for me because I was used to Africa. I was used to the color and the sound of Africa and Russia is very different. It's a different kind of beauty.

NARRATOR: Like South Africa, the Soviet Union is going through profound changes at this point. 

SUE DOBSON: There were demonstrators on the street. People demonstrated for peace. At the time, it was a time of perestroika and glasnost, a period of reform and relative freedom. 

SUE DOBSON: Gorbachev was in power. There was this new attitude of openness toward the west, and it was very surprising to me to see people standing in these little parks with placards calling for world peace. And that really touched me. 

NARRATOR: On arrival, they are met at the airport by the men who will become their instructors for the next year. These men are friendly, helpful and are careful never to identify themselves by their real names. It's crucial that students on this course only know what is essential about their hosts.

SUE DOBSON: We knew they were a military organization or the Russian military, or aligned to the Russian military or to the KGB. And this gentleman introduced himself as my translator, my protector, my go-between. And he looked after me during my stay in Moscow. 

NARRATOR: The instructor goes by the name Igor. Information security goes both ways of course. Students also need a codename.

SUE DOBSON: I was given a choice and I was a bit stumped. I couldn't think of anything. And Igor said to me: “You know, princess Diana, don't you?” And I said: “Well, I know of her.” And he said: “I know we'll call you Deanna, which is the Russian for Diana.” So I was known as Diana during my time there, and nobody ever knew my real name. 

NARRATOR: Sue isn't quite what the Soviet instructors are expecting from a revolutionary African freedom fighter.

SUE DOBSON: They had assumed that I would be black and we had a very awkward conversation on the way into Moscow. Igor, who had met me, kept looking at me and said: “I can't get over it. I can't get over the fact that you're white. We only ever see black Africans here.” 

NARRATOR: The training is intense. As well as weaponry, Sue and Simon are given a political education.

SUE DOBSON: … which comprised the political history of the USSR. And to some extent, the history of South Africa and other liberation movements in Southern Africa that the Soviets also helped at that time.

NARRATOR: Then there are field tactics. How to plan an assault on a defended position. How to navigate through unfamiliar terrain. Ways to conduct surveillance. The instructors know that Sue will not have access to the kind of technology a KGB or CIA agent would be able to depend on. So they focus instead on techniques that are low-tech but effective. For example, homemade invisible ink.

SUE DOBSON: I used lemon juice as part of my secret writing technique but you can use other materials.

NARRATOR: When heated, the lemon juice becomes visible so secret messages can be incorporated inside an apparently innocent-looking letter or parcel. 

SUE DOBSON: The idea is that there are sort of everyday household materials that you could actually use to communicate if necessary. And I was not in a position when I was in the field to actually carry any recording equipment.

NARRATOR: Also included is cryptography, the study of codes, and dead letter drops for passing information or documents.

SUE DOBSON: It's quite involved, but you agree on a particular feature, for instance, like a tree or a postbox. You know that you could make a mark on so that you could signal to the person who's going to receive something that there is something hidden nearby, or there's something buried nearby. If there's no mark or no signal on this object, there's nothing to receive. If there is, then they need to look closer.

NARRATOR: The advantage is that a system like this can't be intercepted electronically. It's too simple. And while all this is taking place, fake postcards from Stockholm, London, and Berlin are piling up at their friends and families' address, building lie upon lie, strengthening the legend. Deception starts with those you are closest to. 

SUE DOBSON: You might want to share something. You can't do that because you're putting someone else in danger. You can't give them the responsibility of knowing because you're exposing them. You're exposing them to danger. And you have to keep that in mind at all times. And if you love them and you care for them, your responsibility is to keep them safe. So it's better that they don't know. Yes, they will be hurt. Yes, they will be betrayed, but they'll be alive at the end of the day. And that's how you have to see it. The best thing to do is to keep those people safe.

NARRATOR: Igor and the other instructors have a final set of skills to impart: surveillance and counter-surveillance.

SUE DOBSON: Either actively following somebody or watching somebody and also watching somebody watching you, if you like. 

NARRATOR: And the classroom for this lesson is Moscow itself. 

SUE DOBSON: So, my instruction would be to find six people who would be following me, for instance, and they could be on foot or they would be in a car, or they could be on a bicycle.

NARRATOR: When you are up against a police state like apartheid South Africa, you can expect the enemy to deploy multiple agents against you.

SUE DOBSON: And I would follow a set route. And my brief was to pick out as many people as possible who were following me.

NARRATOR: Sue begins on foot, walking through the center of Moscow, scanning the crowds for anyone tailing her.

SUE DOBSON: They could be absolutely anywhere around me in the streets of Moscow.

NARRATOR: The first tail blows his cover easily. Sue ducks into a telephone booth and sees a man watching her a few meters behind.

SUE DOBSON: There were various techniques. For instance, one would be to cross a road suddenly so you would see who's behind you.

NARRATOR: Other agents fall to similar tricks. 

SUE DOBSON: You would stop suddenly to ask someone a question: “Where do I go to get here, there, or whatever.” And you get the opportunity to look behind you to look around you. You can make use of shopfronts. You can make use of mirrors.

NARRATOR: The exercise moves to the Moscow Metro, which presents different challenges and opportunities. It helps to jump on or off the train at the last possible second, forcing a tail to show their hand or lose you. 

SUE DOBSON: I'd make sure I could find the exit if necessary, whatever I needed to do to keep myself safe. A favorite of mine was a makeup mirror. That way I could check who was behind me. I would make sure I always sat in a particular place so I could see the door.

NARRATOR: Eventually, every surveillance agent on her tail is spotted by Sue. She's passed. 

SUE DOBSON: I was a dedicated student. And I think that I had a hunger for this. And I still believe, because of the outcome I had, that training saved my life. 

NARRATOR: Time to put that training into practice. The goal: to use their white identities as a cover to infiltrate the heart of apartheid. Sue and Simon return to South Africa.

SUE DOBSON: And that was actually very difficult to blend into South African society again. There was a new vigilance, obviously because of where we'd been and what we'd been taught. And we were very much at risk because our training itself could count for high treason. And I could easily have been arrested and charged with high treason for being trained abroad.

NARRATOR: Sue's career progresses well at first. She gets more jobs in conservative-leaning newspapers and outlets, eventually landing a job offer as a journalist in the government's propaganda department, the Bureau of Information. She accepts. And then hears that there is now a small formality to be dealt with. A security background check.

SUE DOBSON: As government employees, we had levels of security clearance that we had to pass through. I had a face-to-face interview with the security police.

NARRATOR: The appointment is due to take place at Security Police HQ. And she opts to lean on her legend, to depend on the prejudices of the interviewing officer, portray herself as... 

SUE DOBSON: … Dumb and blonde is probably the best way to put it, and just sort of ditzy and he liked that. He asked me some stupid questions about how I felt about living next door to black people, things like that. It was easy enough to get through that and I passed with flying colors.

NARRATOR: Sue is in. She's now chief copy editor and translator for a government mouthpiece, a magazine called RSA Policy Review. She is assigned to work on a series of stories about Namibia, one of the countries which neighbors South Africa. For decades, Namibia has been ruled by South Africa and follows apartheid, but it is soon to be granted independence and achieve black majority rule. The South African government - and Sue's publication - is far from happy about this. And the South African security forces are now waging a covert dirty tricks campaign to control the outcome of Namibian elections. Abductions, beatings, torture, disappearances. They aren't the only ones. Other armed groups are also flexing their muscles in brutal ways.

SUE DOBSON: And I went up to Namibia and during one of those trips, I met Derek Brune, who was the chief inspector of police up at Oshakati.

NARRATOR: A powerful man in the conflict. A significant player on behalf of the apartheid government. They meet in the field.

SUE DOBSON: I was part of a news crew And we'd been dumped out of a military aircraft and there was nobody in sight. And then he came strolling through the dust and introduced himself and I was immediately aware of the fact that he was different. He was interesting. And I think there was an immediate rapport, straight away there was a connection.

NARRATOR: They have more in common than Mr. Brune realizes. He too had once had his own 'legend'. In the ‘70s, he was a covert agent on behalf of the government, infiltrating anti-apartheid student groups. Sue decides that he could be a useful source of intelligence for the ANC. 

SUE DOBSON: We speak about the honey trap. The honey trap is not something frivolous. It's probably the most dangerous thing you could do because you, at your most vulnerable, you're at your most exposed. If you get attached, you have to retreat.

NARRATOR: The relationship between the two of them progresses. Brune is also engaged to another woman at this point. But he begins to trust Sue and lets his guard down. 

SUE DOBSON: I was fond of him, but I didn't like him, particularly, and I certainly didn't like what he did.

NARRATOR: Brune is connected with covert raids by the police on those that oppose South Africa's influence in the region. Sue begins feeding intel back to Ronnie Kasrils and the ANC. But she doesn't get the enthusiastic response she expected. 

SUE DOBSON: I honestly believe that they didn't know what to do. They didn't know how to handle this. And that was very frustrating. We had stumbled on this person who was actively an enemy of the ANC. We'd stumbled upon gold, if you like. And there just wasn't the coordination about how to use it.

NARRATOR: When the day comes when Brune falls asleep in front of her, with his loaded revolver nearby, she decides not to take that opportunity but to continue to use her relationship with Brune to uncover intelligence whether the ANC makes use of it or not. 

SUE DOBSON: I did report back. I did say: “This is who I found. This is what's happened. This is how things are progressing. This is what I can do.” And there was very little direction regarding that.

NARRATOR: As all this is happening, another job opportunity arises, this time even closer to the center of power. A job as a press officer for the Office of the President of South Africa himself, F.W. de Klerk, a role that would have had access to some of the most sensitive material in government. And she's been headhunted for the role. 

SUE DOBSON: And I thought: “This is brilliant because this is the ‘belly of the beast’ stuff. Now I've got as close as I can possibly get, and I'm going to do this and I'm going to wing it. I can do this.”

NARRATOR: She accepts. Of course, there will be more background checks.

SUE DOBSON: If I can get through the others, I can get through this. And what I knew could happen - but I probably pushed it to the back of my mind - was that they could check on family connections and that's exactly what they did.

NARRATOR: Simon's sister, the ANC supporter who had first arranged their meetings in London, was well known to the government. In fact, she and her husband had narrowly survived a car bombing organized by South African Military Intelligence. A few days after the job offer the phone rings. It's from Pretoria, the South African capital. Sue is still in Namibia. 

SUE DOBSON: It was a voice I didn't know, someone who didn't identify themselves. 

NARRATOR: And the instruction: “We are sending a plane up to get you to accompany you back to Pretoria so you can have your interview. Don't move. Don't leave the house. Stay exactly where you are.”

SUE DOBSON: The alarm bells rang immediately then because if I was going back to Pretoria for an interview, then I could just rock up at the airport, get on a plane and go back to Pretoria.

NARRATOR: Sue's staying in a hostel with other pro-government journalists and civil servants and she realizes that something else has changed.

SUE DOBSON: I noticed that the demeanor of those in the safe house that I was staying in had changed. All of a sudden, I was really interesting, and they wanted to engage me in conversation. They wanted to sit with me or be with me. I wasn't left alone. And I found that really suspicious.

NARRATOR: What would you do? Make a break for it immediately knowing you are already under surveillance? Or bide your time hoping for a better opportunity?

SUE DOBSON: And I thought that: “Yes. Maybe I can gamble. Maybe I can try and string this out a bit longer.” But I wasn't prepared to take the risk in the end.

NARRATOR: The Soviet training kicks in. Sue waits until evening then goes to bed as usual, under the watchful eyes of her 'friendly' colleagues. Eventually, the hostel is quiet. This is the point of no return, the end of years living undercover. And, that is, assuming she can make an escape. For her exit to work she needs two things: a place of refuge and means of transport. At first, it seems that transport won’t be a problem. She has the keys to one of the government cars parked outside the hostel. 

SUE DOBSON: And I waited until, probably, 1 am or 2am, and I let myself out at the house. I took one of the government cars and I drove to the UN compound. I explained who I was and they couldn't help me.

NARRATOR: She then tries the Soviet attaché's office in Namibia planning to ask for asylum as an ANC agent. But, to her disappointment, they also aren't interested. By now it's around 6 am. It won't be long before the alarm is raised. 

SUE DOBSON: So I get to the airport and I find that there are no planes to Europe for several days. And I think: “Okay, now they're going to expect me to run and to run as quickly as I can. I'm going to do what they don't expect me to do.”

NARRATOR: Things they might not expect could include going overland to Gaborone, the capital of neighboring Botswana, to seek asylum, several days' drive away by road. 

SUE DOBSON: And that's what I planned to do. I'm going to actually drive to Gaborone, to a more established Soviet mission, and hope that they can help me. 

NARRATOR: To be clear- this is no longer Plan A, the UN compound; or Plan B, the Soviet Mission; or C, a flight to Europe. This is now Plan D. Staying on the run for that long is a huge gamble. And she knows that a stolen government car is hardly an ideal getaway car.

SUE DOBSON: And I managed to hire a beat-up little Volkswagen Golf, I think it was. And because I had a rickety little car, I had to drive back into South Africa from Namibia.

NARRATOR: The direct route to Botswana goes through the desert. The Volkswagen Golf wouldn't make it. So reaching Botswana on paved roads will require back-driving into South Africa, running toward the enemy. 

SUE DOBSON: And that's the route I took. So I did the unexpected. I thought that this was ludicrous. They are going to pick me up at the first opportunity.

NARRATOR: There is also the problem of navigation. This is the late 80s. 

SUE DOBSON: It wasn't a question of being able to look anything up on my phone or anything that was impossible. I had a rudimentary map that came out of my diary. I had a pocket diary and I literally had a pen line drawn from Namibia through to South Africa back out again through the Gaborone. And that was the route that I followed.

NARRATOR: At several points, the South African authorities appear to be tailing her but her counter-surveillance training helps once again. She's able to slip past them.

SUE DOBSON: And I stuck to that route. It took a few days to get out And when I did get to Gaborone I discovered that they were a few hours behind. And if I delayed anymore I would have been picked up.

NARRATOR: In Gaborone, the Soviet mission is helpful. They allow her to claim asylum. The chase is over. 

SUE DOBSON: When I was in the Soviet compound, that's when I felt safe. The South Africans couldn't get to me so I'm immensely grateful.

NARRATOR: Sue's not the only one whose cover has been blown. Remember Simon, her husband and fellow undercover?

SUE DOBSON: I managed to call him and give him a code. And he got out before me. He was working in Pretoria at the time and he went straight to the UK and he was safely in the UK while I was still trying to get out of Southern Africa. And then we reunite in the UK.

NARRATOR: Today Sue still lives in Britain. She is currently writing her memoirs and she still misses the adrenaline of living a legend.

SUE DOBSON: I think it's the danger, really. It's living on a knife-edge. That unpredictability makes you feel truly alive. I think if you've had a taste of that, it's quite difficult to lose that and I'm very pleased that I was able to do it. And I really do value the contribution that every South African has made in the struggle. Mine is only a drop in the ocean. There are many, many people who have sacrificed their lives and who've suffered greatly. And I really salute them.

NARRATOR: I’m Vanessa Kirby.

Guest Bio

Sue Dobson was born in 1962 in Pretoria, the former capital of South Africa. She grew up in the midst of apartheid when laws were introduced to ensure the white minority continued to rule. Dobson couldn’t live within the law, however, so she volunteered to go undercover for Nelson Mandela’s African National Congress. All was going to plan until one fateful day when her cover was blown. Dobson was ‘burned’.

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