‘I owe everything to the man at the Soviet mission’ A former South African activist trained by the USSR to fight apartheid credits her Moscow training with saving her life
Sue Dobson is now 59 years old and living a quiet life as a retired person in Britain, but her youth as a white woman in apartheid-era South Africa was turbulent. In her 20s, she joined the African National Congress (ANC) and infiltrated the white minority government. In these endeavors, Dobson had help from the USSR: seven months of military and intelligence training in Moscow in 1986. With these skills, she returned to South Africa as an undercover agent and inserted herself into the pro-government media, eventually finding a job at the Bureau of Information, where she collected evidence of propaganda campaigns to undermine the nation’s opposition and destabilize neighboring states. When Dobson’s cover was blown, it was a Soviet official who saved her by helping her escape to London, where she ultimately won political asylum. Meduza is the second news outlet to share Dobson’s story, which first appeared earlier this week at The Observer. Her life will serve as the basis for an upcoming film, titled “Burned.”
What was it like growing up in South Africa?
I was born in 1962 in Pretoria, then the capital city of South Africa, in the middle of the apartheid years. Restrictions were being introduced at the time that later became legislation. They were discriminatory: certain places were reserved for certain races. This was what we would call “petty apartheid”: a bench, for instance, in a park, and it would have a sign on it that said, “WHITES ONLY.” Black people, or people of color, could not sit there. Black people had to queue in different places from white people, they had to use different entrances, shops, facilities; they would not be able to share public toilets. That was the time when I was born and when those legislations started to be introduced.
When did you first become aware of the apartheid system’s injustice?
I was 14, and I lived a very privileged life as a white South African teenager. I had the privilege of good education, good housing. I turned on the TV in June 1976 and I witnessed the footage of the Soweto Uprising. It changed me forever. There was a picture of a girl about my age running through the streets of Soweto. The children there had been having a peaceful protest about the use of Afrikaans as a language for instruction — a language they saw as the language of their oppressors. They wanted English instead and were peacefully protesting for it — and the South African police, predominantly white at the time, turned on them with whips, tear gas, and live munition. A lot of them were shot in the back, meaning they were running away from the police. And the only difference between these children and me was that I was white and they were black.
So I saw this footage of a black girl running down the street in an African township, holding the body — I think it was her brother — and I remember looking at her expression and the anguish and the pain in her face. And I realized then that I did not want to be part of this system. I would do whatever I could to be a part of something better. These pictures on the TV screen changed me forever and influenced me into making a lot of choices that I went on to make when I was older: to join the ANC [African National Congress] and want a better future for South Africa.
I had grown up in quite a liberal household. Politics was always discussed, and although my father was by no means a socialist or progressive, he recognized that the system that we lived under was unfair. I also was greatly influenced by the radio. I was an only child and I didn’t have much company, so I used to listen to the radio from an early age and that also helped give me a political awareness and an interest in Africa. My life took a different route — different from most South African white women who lived the life of great privilege.
So I made different choices. And it was basically down to what I saw on the TV that day. Later, I went on to meet someone who became my husband. He had a sister who was in the ANC and that’s how I was recruited. I was about 18 or 19 at that point.
Did you discuss this epiphany with your parents?
I never discussed anything with anyone and my decision to join the ANC was a secret. Because if you were an ANC sympathizer or a member of the ANC, in those days you were arrested or intimidated by the police, so it was not something that you could speak about openly. At the time of my seeing the TV broadcast, I tried to discuss my feelings with my parents, but they had a very different response. They felt that it was the beginning of an uprising, a revolution, and like most other white South Africans, they were very frightened. They thought that it was going to be a violent change. So they were very much afraid, which was very different from my reaction because I wanted to get involved. But I didn’t tell anybody that because I realized that it would be frowned upon and I would be ostracized.
I kept my political values to myself because at the time I was still a schoolgirl, and at school, the feeling was very anti-ANC. There was a lot of racism among children of my age. It was with us from the cradle to the grave. It was very much a part of South African psychology in those days, and while things are changing now, it’s a long historical process and it takes time for people to change.
But at the time, it was the height of apartheid and people were very afraid. They knew that the ANC had foreign support and they were very frightened that the Soviet Union was going to somehow access South Africa and take the minerals and gold and diamonds, which is ridiculous, but that was the propaganda that we were told at the time.
So was there political indoctrination at your school?
Absolutely, and it started at a very young age. The teachers were openly political and racist and I was in a whites-only school. There was no integration whatsoever and everyone who was black or of mixed race went to different schools in different areas because that was the policy of apartheid. I was in a white English-speaking school, and the attitudes were slightly more liberal in my later years. But in my primary school years (at the time when a child is the most vulnerable to influence), the propaganda was quite tangible. I remember a lot of very bitter experiences from my childhood, and there was also racism between English- and Afrikaans-speaking South Africans. South Africa was then divided in so many ways. There was prejudice because of your race, because of the language you speak. You grow up in an environment of prejudice and racism, and that obviously affects your psychology. It damaged everybody, whatever their skin color.
What were media and propaganda like under the apartheid regime?
Everything was heavily censored — I know that from my experience as a journalist. Everything that we wrote had to be checked and rechecked to make sure that we’re not breaking any laws of the apartheid state, that we were not revealing anything that should not be revealed. In the 1980s, there were significant attempts to keep the level of unrest and political activity out of the newspapers because they felt that it would be destabilizing. So they heavily censored everything that was published. And even though the black townships were in a state of war, with police and the army occupying them sometimes, and there was the state of emergency declared on more than one occasion, a lot of these facts were kept out of the newspaper. So the South African population in general genuinely didn’t know anything about the level of unrest and violence that was going on in their own country.
Was it self-censorship on part of the reporters and editors or was it state-sponsored censorship?
There was a censorship board that examined movies and literature and made sure that there was nothing that they considered to be of subversive nature, which was heavily censored.
Anything we had access to was heavily censored. For instance, we could not read Marx or anything about Communism or socialism. All those things were banned and we had no access to movies with any political content. Most white South Africans lived a life of ignorance and a life of privilege and didn’t realize that the country was basically at war right on their doorstep. So the apartheid machine had a very powerful and very controlling influence over what people knew and how they thought.
And there was also a great deal of self-censorship where people internalized that and did not share their true values or did not want to be seen as subversive, or liberal, or anti-government because they were afraid they would be arrested or there would be consequences. To do nothing was the easiest and safest thing to do, and it was exactly what most people did. Obviously, if you were in a community with people of color, they were far more politicized; those people’s lives were affected by apartheid on a daily basis. So they knew the deprivations, they knew the prejudice, they knew what discrimination was like. So their lives were very, very different to white people’s lives.
How did white South Africans learn about the ANC’s cause if there was such all-encompassing state censorship?
It just became too difficult for the state to contain. It became impossible to keep the magnitude of what was going on quiet, and people began to realize the injustices. They began to realize that there was a need for change, and slowly, very slowly attitudes began to change. The ANC became more accessible as it became a stronger organization. It became easier for people to approach it, and the ANC began seeking out white South Africans who were sympathetic to their values. Which was all but impossible in the ’60s and ’70s when it was a movement in exile.
Was there a significant white component to the ANC?
Yes, it was a multiracial organization. When it originated, it was — and still is, obviously — open to all South Africans of all colors and all cultures. Binding it together was being a South African, regardless of race.
And these policies of apartheid also extended to Namibia?
Yes, Namibia was always seen as almost like an extra state because they had a government that was strongly tied to South Africa, basically an extension of the South African government — of course, they would have you believe that it was different. Their liberation movement was also different, it was called SWAPO [South-West Africa People’s Organization], but it was allied to the ANC.
So it was your future husband who inspired you to join the ANC?
That’s right. When I met my future husband, he had some connections to the ANC through his sister who was an ANC number, and that’s how I became involved.
Did they welcome you immediately into their movement? How did you become a full member?
They were very suspicious at first because, at the time, in the 1970-80s, the ANC was heavily infiltrated by the South African security police. There were many informants who sought to destabilize the movement, so in the beginning, they were naturally cautious. Then, during a trip to London in 1981, we met an ANC member and she suggested that, if this was something we wanted to do, we needed to go back to South Africa and cultivate an image that was not a political one. We needed to look politically neutral. We needed to look as though we fit in, to pretend we were something that we were not — sort of blend into the South African society, so no one would be suspicious of us. That was the first stage, and the second thing they wanted us to do was to find jobs at government organizations.
With my qualifications in psychology, I became a journalist. And I worked for pro-government, pro-apartheid newspapers, and the state broadcasting corporation. I was very much involved in the distribution of news, and I could see how news was altered, how censorship prevailed. There was an open policy not to publish what was really going on in the country, to try and gloss over it, to fill the newspapers with nonsense. I saw how the news and mass media controlled people, and I saw how it influenced people’s psychology. It lulled people into a false sense of security. It stopped them from questioning, and it stopped their free thoughts. You were encouraged to toe the government line, to not cause any trouble or dissent.
And you eventually went on to work for the Bureau of Information — is that a news agency?
No, it was a propaganda department of the government. It was called the Bureau for Information, and its job was to produce glossy magazines about South Africa to encourage investment from the international community. Its job was to make South Africa look like a wonderful place for tourism. It was very much a propaganda exercise. I was involved with a political journal called “RSA Policy Review.” I was the English writer and the chief English sub-editor at that publication.
As a result, I got to interview government ministers, I went to the Parliament and reported on parliamentary activities and debates. I interviewed the minister of foreign affairs, I had access to people in the government, and my boss was the son of the minister of internal affairs. So I had access to the inner circle, which was very fortuitous, very helpful for me in terms of gathering information and finding out who was connected to whom and how systems worked.
How many years did you last in that position until your cover was eventually blown?
I was at the Bureau of Information for about two years. It was very risky for me because I had to pass three levels of security clearance. The first one was fairly simple. In the second level, I was called into a security police office in Pretoria and asked all sorts of silly questions like “How would you feel living next door to black people?” And on the basis of my answers to these questions, I was granted a security clearance. And it was only when there arose a possibility of me going into the state president’s office as a member of the media that I had to pass a third level of security clearance, which is when they discovered my connections to the ANC through my family. And that’s when my cover was blown.
How many years in total did you spend infiltrating the apartheid regime’s media institutions?
That would be from about 1983 through to 1989. In total, I worked in the media in South Africa for about six years: starting in English-language newspapers, then broadcasting, and then to the Bureau of Information. But it was my job with the Bureau that provided, by far, the most important and valuable access to information.
How did you manage to maintain the secrecy needed for your cover?
We were very disciplined, we made sure that we did not mix with people who were liberal or who had any political sensitivities that might be construed as anti-government or anti-apartheid. I actively encouraged friendships with people who were right-wing. I made sure that my family and friends knew absolutely nothing about my true political values. I did not share anything with anyone. There was no person I could confide in. My parents didn’t know. My friends didn’t know. And when my cover was finally blown, it caused enormous problems in my family. People were very shocked. They felt very betrayed. So it was for their own good that I did not share that information with them. The responsibility of them knowing would have placed them in danger, and I was not prepared to put anyone in danger, and I would rather have been completely isolated.
This sounds like a very stressful thing to do, leading a double life, pretending to be someone you’re not. What prepared you for it?
You have to be very, very disciplined, and that’s where my military training was invaluable to me. And I have the Soviet Union to thank for that because they gave me skills that protected me and kept me alive and got me out of southern Africa, as well. They gave me the strength and the confidence that I could do this, and I carried that with me, and I still have that discipline. To this day, I think it’s something I’ll never lose.
Would it have been different for a black member of the ANC to be discovered and arrested?
The difference is enormous. It would have been a question of how you would be treated once arrested. My black comrades were severely tortured during interrogation. There were terrible interrogation techniques. People were beaten to the point of brain damage. They were thrown out of windows. They had electric shocks applied to them, they were deprived of sleep for many hours. And the questioning was quite brutal — people would be beaten black and blue. But if you were white, you would not be treated so aggressively. Unfortunately, there was racism even in the interrogation rooms. Don’t get me wrong: there were still deaths of whites in detention, through interrogation that had gone violently wrong. But they were vastly outnumbered by the number of black deaths. As a white woman, I would probably have been subjected to some level of abuse, but I wouldn’t have been as brutalized as if I’d been a black woman, or if I’d been a black man.
How did you first come into contact with the Soviet operatives? And where was that?
I was recruited by Ronnie Kasrils who, I think, was the second in command of military intelligence in the ANC. I was recruited as a military intelligence officer and my training was primarily in intelligence and intelligence-gathering. There were techniques like secret writing, dead letter drops, surveillance, and counter-surveillance. How to work in the field, basically, and there were other subjects, such as explosives, radio work, hand-to-hand combat, gun warfare — that sort of thing.
And there was also political instruction to some extent. It focused a lot on the history of the Soviet Union and the Russian Revolution. There was considerable political content too, of course. But the things that were the most valuable to me were the exercises in Moscow where I would have a dummy run. I would go through Moscow on a route I had to follow. They would take me to various places, I’d go through the underground that goes with the Metro and my job was to pick up members of the surveillance team. I had to find, for instance, eight people who were following me. Those were invaluable for me because they taught me the skills I needed when I was in the field and those are the things that saved my life when I was getting out of South Africa. So I’m immensely grateful for what I learned.
How did you end up in the Soviet Union?
We were told that we would be going to the USSR and we would be trained as intelligence operatives. We flew into Moscow via Naples. We were met at the airport by a member of the organization that did this training and were taken to a secret location where we lived for seven months. And during those seven months, instructors would either come to the apartment and teach me, or I would go out into the field or out into Moscow to do exercises in surveillance.
When was that?
I started working in newspapers in 1983. Then I met Ronnie in 1985 and he proposed taking these military training courses in the Soviet Union. We went at the beginning of 1986, I spent seven months there, and then I went back to South Africa in 1987 and joined the Bureau of Information.
Did you have to come up with a “legend” [an invented background story] to tell your friends and family?
Yes, we had a legend about backpacking in Europe, seeing as many European countries as cheaply as possible, living in hostels, and that sort of thing. That’s what we told absolutely everyone, without exception. And we would send back postcards — or rather our instructors would bring us postcards from different parts of Europe. Our job was to write on these postcards and then they were taken away and they were posted and they actually reached their destination in South Africa. They reached family and friends and there would be pictures of places I’ve never been, but my family would get a postcard saying that I’m having a wonderful time. It didn’t raise any suspicion.
So, presumably, your trainers were KGB agents? Do you know which department?
I believe so. But they never identified themselves as such, and I never asked since it was made very clear to me that this is not an appropriate question to ask for security reasons. You only know what you need to know and that's it.
What was your relationship with your trainers like? Was it all strictly business or were they friendly towards you?
They were absolutely lovely. That’s probably the only way I can describe them. They were kind. They were warm. They were welcoming and it was completely different from the propaganda that the West had taught us. You knew to be frightened of Russia, to be frightened of the Russians, that Russians wanted to take away everything we had. But our trainers were compassionate, caring. They were very dedicated to their military careers and they were absolutely inspiring. As hard as you try not to develop those relationships, they became friends to us.
It’s inevitable because you see them every day, they come and they teach you and they learn about your life and you learn a bit about their lives. They were funny, they were interesting, they were motivated and they were very, very dedicated to what they did. They were absolutely and totally focused on their work. And they were so different from the South Africans that I had worked with and the South Africans that I had grown up with. They had a humility about them. That I found very endearing. And I really did care about them very deeply. And they were immensely kind to me. When they found out what happened to me, later on, a message got through to me that they sent their best wishes and they sent their congratulations. You know, that I have been successful in my work as an intelligence officer and also that I had successfully escaped from South Africa. And it meant the world to me that they knew that I was safe and I have them to thank for that.
Did you communicate in English or did you pick up some Russian while in Moscow?
I picked up a little bit of conversational Russian, but I found it extremely difficult to read because of the Cyrillic alphabet. But I did pick up some phrases for “hello” and “how are you?” — that sort of thing. But they mostly spoke excellent English. There was no issue at all over communication, but there was always an interpreter available, in case somebody didn’t speak English — say, an instructor on the military side of things, like explosives.
That interpreter was sort of like my bodyguard, my go-to person for anything I needed. He helped me navigate things like how to use the streetcars and how to buy tickets, or how to queue in shops that used to do my head in because you had to stand in one queue and then another. Anything I needed was there for me. They made sure I had everything from underwear to a winter hat. They took me to the GUM department store and everything I needed they bought for me. I had my first Russian winter there and that was something else, as well, because I was from Africa and I had never seen so much snow. I never even knew it could be so cold. They gave me this long green winter military underwear and I thought — I’m not gonna wear that. But then I was so grateful for it because I’ve never been so cold in my life. I think it was the winter of 1986 to 1987. It was terrible. It was minus-30 [-22 degrees Fahrenheit], yes, and if you walked outside to the newspaper kiosk, your earlobes would freeze. I would wear a shapka and I had a winter coat, but it didn’t stop your nose from getting cold or your ears, and my hands were permanently cold.
But I loved it; it was beautiful to me. It was beautiful to see something that I had never seen before. It was a very interesting time for me to see the Soviet Union. It was the period of Glasnost and Perestroika. Gorbachev was hailed as a hero. [Addressing Meduza’s correspondent:] Your experience must be very different. I didn’t see the shortages or the deprivation that ordinary people were suffering at the time. It was very inspiring for me.
So in 1987 you returned to South Africa and did what?
I think it was May 1987. At first, I worked for a newspaper called the Pretoria News and then I went on to work for the Bureau for Information. I realized that that was an extremely helpful job for what I needed to do. It’s difficult to tell what my most successful operation was because I was just passing on the information I learned in my job at the Bureau of Information, and I didn’t know what they did with it or what the consequences were. But I would say the most successful work I did was in Namibia.
SWAPO in Namibia was our ally. What was important is that the Bureau for Information chose me for a dirty-tricks campaign that they were running where they were trying to destabilize the outcome of the Namibian elections. And to some extent, they were successful because they undermined the party significantly with the level of propaganda. And the falsehoods that they were promoting actually got published in international media. What they were doing in Namibia was considered a blueprint for what they wanted to do in South Africa. And they felt that if they could destabilize the new Namibian government, then they could destabilize an ANC government in the same way. So in a way, it was a practice run. There was a very sinister side to it, as well, because there was a SWAPO activist called Anton Lubowski who was killed by South African agents. That’s the kind of power these people had: not just to destabilize governments through falsehoods planted in the press, but also hit squads to take out important people. I think the work I did there in Namibia was the most important work I did.
But then all the work I did was important. No time was ever wasted. Everything had a purpose. You realize your time in the field is short-lived, you’re not going to be there for long, so you had to do the best with the time you had. I didn’t have the benefit of a good controller; I had no guidance, no escape plan, no funds to get out, no papers. I had to look after myself, and that’s why I’m grateful for the skills that I learned in the Soviet Union.
Having access was the most important thing. And the reason I had access is because nobody suspected anything. I’m a very ordinary person. I was this little blonde thing in my 20s and they just thought of me like that silly little woman. You know they didn’t take me seriously and that worked to my benefit. And that was their undoing because appearances are deceptive. I saw opportunities and I would take them as far as I could. I managed to get into Parliament. I had access to the minister’s private residence. I had access to his son. I interviewed the minister of foreign affairs. I had access to the military operations and the police operations up in Namibia. I was a guest of the Namibian police force. I was what they thought was a trusted ally.
I think there was an element of me being very young and idealistic and perhaps I didn't realize the danger I was in, but I just did what I needed to do.
How were you discovered and extradited from South Africa?
My cover was blown through the additional security check. I knew something was up because they told me to wait in the house. I was waiting to be invited for a [job] interview in [South African State President] Frederik Willem de Klerk’s office. But they said, “Don’t go anywhere. We are sending a plane up from Pretoria and we will accompany you back to Pretoria,” and I thought, “That’s never happened before. Something’s going on.” And from that moment I was not left alone in the house. Some of my workmates actually worked for the security police and they would never leave me alone in the room.
So I waited until maybe two or three in the morning, and I let myself out of the front door and took one of the cars, and I attempted to go to the United Nations because I thought I would have an opportunity there to get out if they knew who I was, but they couldn’t help me.
So I had no option but to take a gamble: I thought the only people who could help me would be the Soviet mission in Botswana and I couldn’t get a flight out. There were no flights so I had to hire a car and drive from Namibia to Botswana. That journey took about three days and it meant going into South Africa and out again because the only car I could hire was a little Volkswagen and there’s a desert between Namibia and Botswana that you can only get through on a four wheeler. And again, I did what they didn’t expect me to do: They thought I would try and fly out of the country or they thought I would have another route out. They didn’t expect me to be driving, and definitely they didn’t expect me to go back through South Africa.
So when I got to Botswana, I got to the capital Gaborone and I picked up surveillance. I realized South Africans were following me. I checked myself into a hotel, picked up the phone book and dialed the Soviet mission. I explained who I was and they said: wait there and come downstairs in 20 minutes. I did, and then a car arrived and somebody said, “Get in.” I got in and they drove me to the Soviet compound. A member of the mission introduced himself and he looked after me, they got me on the flight to London, a few days later, and there I claimed political asylum.
When I got here, everything went public. There was a statement from ANC headquarters in Lusaka explaining who I was, what I was doing. Then there was a bit of a publicity rush; I had lots of interviews about what South Africa was doing in the media and the dirty-tricks campaign heavily financed by the South African government. History has proved us right because there was an admission by the then South African foreign minister years later that there was a massive budget for destabilizing SWAPO.
All this time, I was under surveillance. They could have taken me anytime they wanted. I don’t know why they didn’t. I think they wanted to see where I was going, but at the same time they were intimidating my family. My father agreed to go with the security police to Botswana to bring me back. I would have been arrested and charged with high treason. And because I was trained in the Soviet Union, because I was an intelligence officer, my sentence would’ve been longer. Probably 15 to 20 years, if not longer. And my own father was prepared to do that to me, and the only reason they didn’t pick me up apparently was that they were waiting for him to get a passport, and the passport didn’t come through in time. I heard later from my Soviet connection in Gaborone that the South Africans were only two hours behind me, so they were actually on my trail when I was in Gaborone. I was immensely lucky they didn’t pick me up.
But I survived, and I owe everything to that man who helped me at the Soviet mission. I’ve never had the chance to thank him, I was probably too traumatized at the time to thank him properly, so I’m saying it now. Thank you.
Do you remember his name?
No, but he knew exactly who I was, what military organization trained me, everything about me. I would probably recognize him if I saw him, but there’s no way of knowing his name. I was also known by a different name then — none of my instructors knew my real name. I was Diana to them. It was something of a joke because when they met me at the airport in Moscow, Igor, my interpreter, the only person who knew my real name, told me to pick a name for myself. And because Lady Diana, the wife of Prince Charles, was in the news all the time, he said: We’ll call you Diana. I quite liked it, especially when I later found out that Diana is the mythical hunter goddess. She is a strong woman and won’t be intimidated.
And you’ve lived in the UK ever since?
Yes, I’ve lived a very quiet life here in the UK. I worked as a psychologist, but now I am retired. I was never going to tell anybody, and I never did for quite some time, even though I suffered from PTSD. I’m still very vigilant to this day.
But I went back to South Africa for holidays, after the ANC had come to power and it was safe for us to go back. By that time, I had my children, and my son was about 10 years old. He picked up some spy book at the airport shop. I never told them about that part of my life, but he looked up my name in the book and shouted across the shop, “Mom, is this you?” So I had no option but to come clean to them. Otherwise, I would never have told them and taken this secret to the grave. I never wanted to tell this story, but my close friends encouraged me to, and maybe it was about time I processed it myself. So someone said: You should write about it, which I did, and I had an agent, and he distributed the manuscript among some of his contacts. And it was picked by Guy de Beaujeu who now wants to make a film of it. It’s going to be my story; it may be a drop in the ocean, but it’s my drop.