In 1991, a year after the unbanning of liberation movements, a bombshell hit the front pages: fiery youth leader Peter Mokaba had been investigated by the exiled ANC in the 1980s for being an apartheid agent.
The story sent shock waves through the ANC and society at large. Mokaba had been one of the bravest and most popular United Democratic Front leaders during the 1980s uprisings. He had been harassed, detained and threatened with death. When the ANC returned from exile, his popularity ranked right up there with the exiled leadership about whom songs had been sung. He was spoken of as a future president of the ANC and the country.
The story, which was sourced from within the ANC, was officially condemned and pooh-poohed by the party. After the April 1994 elections, Mokaba became an MP and President Nelson Mandela made him a deputy minister.
The allegation was to return in 1997, when then Pan Africanist Congress MP Patricia de Lille used the cover of parliamentary privilege to claim that Mandela and his deputy Thabo Mbeki had a list of 12 Cabinet members who had been apartheid spies. Mokaba was among them.
Mandela dismissed this as "just politicking from a politician". He said the old apartheid securocrats gave him a list of four names at the time of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Two were dead, one was a junior soldier and the other was unknown to the ANC. "What is the basis for this rumour?" Mandela asked.
Mokaba did not shy away from publicly confronting these rumours and even encouraged his political party to help him take legal action to clear his name. Despite this, the rumours followed him to his grave.
Whatever the motive, what was clear was that there was a concerted effort by some in the ANC to smear his name and block his rise. And what better way than to label him a spy, a claim that does not need proving. Once suspicion is placed, it sticks. It is the planting of doubt that matters. It was a tactic apartheid police used very effectively to get comrades to eliminate comrades. Valuable activists were killed and isolated because police managed to sneak in a rumour and solidify suspicions.
Sadly, this poisonous habit was to continue deep into the democratic era. Because it is widely believed that the ANC in exile and the democratic forces inside the country of exile were heavily infiltrated, the questions still persist about who worked for the apartheid system. People whisper authoritatively about Cabinet ministers, premiers and senior parliamentarians having been on the security police's payroll.
Although the whispers are always there, they gain momentum in the run-up to electoral conferences, when rivals want to bump each other out of leadership contests. The run-up to the ANC's conference last year was awash with whispered allegations and counter-allegations from the factions. If all the names were to be put into a box and then read out, you would easily believe that this country has been and continues to be run by the National Party.
The spying allegations have been used by corrupt politicians and dodgy individuals trying to evade investigations and prosecutions. It's an ugly, ugly phenomenon that has refused to go away.
The phenomenon raised its head again this week, when a clip of the now late Winnie Madikizela-Mandela accusing journalists who had written critically about her surfaced. The clip went viral and dominated the social-media universe for days. Due to the fact that it was a credible person going on the record with names, the Twitterverse tried and convicted those individuals. Now can you imagine the personal security implications of all of that?
The question that has to be asked is whether it still matters who did or didn't work for the apartheid security system. Twenty-four years down the line, when real spies from foreign powers infiltrate various sectors of society, should we be consumed by allegations that are based on suppositions and circumstantial "evidence" and, worse, opportunistic ulterior motives?
We all know there was heavy infiltration and that some of the most credible people in our midst were on the security branch's payroll. That from Lusaka to Angola to Mdantsane to Nelspruit the apartheid system was hard at work, recruiting agents and turning revolutionaries into collaborators.
A way to end this would be a full-scale inquiry in the form of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, to reveal and prove once and for all who was on the branch's payroll. But I somehow doubt there would be much enthusiasm in the governing party for this, as it would kill off whatever little is left of its unity.
But then again the question would need to be asked as to the end objective. Would the proven spies be prosecuted? Using what legislation? Would they be denied public sector employment? Based on what laws? Or would we just be engaging in a destructive, voyeuristic exercise?
Whatever we do, we need to bring to an end to this very dangerous weapon that is used for nefarious and opportunistic ends.