KEEPING CASH SAFE FROM SECURITY POLICE THIEVES

At the height of the struggle against apartheid, money came in from all parts of the world to help liberation groups finance various activities.

But here’s the thing: and those of you who are so quick to accuse liberation fighters of theft, listen up.

Yes, money was stolen….

But it was stolen by security police, with the connivance of some of the banks.

Know this: activists could not take their money to the banks.

They didn’t – couldn’t – trust the banks.

And so, cash first had to be spirited into the country. Then it had to be shifted from safe house to safe house, much like activists on the run had to move from safe house to safe house.

A few years ago, I interviewed the well-known businessman, Fred Robertson, about the time he worked for the  economic arm of the United Democratic Front (UDF).

Essentially, his job was to move money around.

‘I would regularly take cash in flour bags to the offices of Advocate Percy Sonn,’ he said.

‘It was to pay for the court cases of activists who had been arrested and, in many instances, charged with spurious offences.

‘Often, Percy would say to me without even bothering to look up at me or to count the money: ‘Sit die geld hier’ … or ‘sit die geld daar’. [‘put the money here’ … ‘put the money there’].

‘He asked me no questions; and I asked him none.

‘Also, the people who had instructed me to take the money to him, trusted me. 

‘Nothing went missing. The money was used for its intended purpose. That was the way things rolled in those days.’

Mustaq Brey was another person who took on the responsibility of handling the cash of NGOs and activist organisations.

He opened his accountancy practise on 1 July 1985, during what he called (with typical understatedness) ‘interesting economic and political times’.

It was the same month President PW Botha declared a partial state of emergency and a month before the finger-wagging president’s Rubicon Speech, the precursor to economic sanctions against South Africa.

A few months later, on October 15, the infamous Trojan Horse massacre took place just one road from Brey’s office.

On that day security police hid behind crates in a South African Railways truck to get into the centre of a street protest, where they sprung up and opened fire on demonstrators, killing three: Jonathan Claassen, 21, Shaun Magmoed, 15, and Michael Miranda, 11.

It was in the middle of this mayhem that M Brey &Associates, as an all-black accounting firm in the epicentre of the Cape Flats’ struggle, became the go-to accounting firm for NGOs, trade unions and political groups such as the UDF.

Again, it was not easy keeping books.

‘I remember handwriting the budget for the UDF because it couldn’t be typed up — that’s how secret it was,’ Brey told me in an interview a few years ago.

He also did the books for resistance newspapers Saamstaan and South and was often responsible for scraping together bail money for jailed comrades.

And it was from the offices of M Brey & Associates that Western Cape UDF leader, the late Johnny Issel, ran the historic Free Mandela campaign.

Unsurprisingly, visits from the security police became routine.

‘They would come to reception and the first thing they would do is pull back their jackets to show me their gun holsters,’ Brey recalled.

‘Our receptionist was so used to this that she would immediately call our local attorney, E Moosa & Associates, who would send someone down to help.’

For Brey, what stood out during these heady years was not the danger, nor that he was part of history: it was the quality of the relationships that were formed. 

‘At some points I would sit with the cheque books of seven or eight NGOs, and I was given signing power because there had to be someone there to keep cash flowing while comrades were on the run or in prison. That was the kind of trust we had in each other.

‘The level of integrity was just incredible.”