THERE are a few benefits to insomnia. One of them is the BBC World Service, which is where, one sleepless night last week, I stumbled across the story of Renfrew Christie — a man of whom I ought to have heard, but somehow had not.
Perhaps it was the darkness of the night, but there was something peculiarly haunting about his opening words: “They didn’t hang me.” The headlines around the world on 4 June 1980 said: “White scientist to face gallows”, but the South African apartheid authorities decided that the death penalty would be too politically damaging. He was imprisoned for ten years. “But they then put me in the hanging prison, as close as possible to the gallows, [where I was] forced to listen to about 300 people being hanged, which was a gruesome experience.”
His voice was gentle and his words were understated, but he told how, in the days before an execution, the prison would be filled with singing to give solace to the condemned man. Forty years on, he warbled the Xhosa/Zulu song “Senzenina, senzenina — what have we done, what have we done?” His voice carried a desolate melancholy in the midnight darkness.
With charges of cronyism and corruption swirling round the outgoing President of South Africa, Jacob Zuma, it was a salutary reminder of the resolute idealism that undergirded the African National Congress, which Zuma and others have done so much to discredit.
At the age of just 17, Christie was conscripted into the South African army. Guarding an arms dump one day, he saw something that made him realise that the apartheid regime must be developing a nuclear bomb. He became determined to thwart its development.
After university, he won a scholarship to do a D.Phil. at Oxford. He chose as his subject South Africa’s electricity industry. He knew that this would give him access to the library of the Electricity Supply Commission, where he would be able to work out how much electricity the regime was using to enrich uranium — and therefore how many bombs it might make.
On his return to South Africa, he was arrested and tortured. After one night of suffering, he agreed to sign a confession. But he crafted it so carefully that he managed to insert into it all the recommendations that he wanted to make to the ANC’s military wing. Christie told the World Service: “Gloriously, the judge read it out in court, and my recommendations went from the judge’s mouth to the outlawed African National Congress.”
During his time in prison, ANC militants blew up every one of the power-generating stations that he listed in his confession, which were fronts for the nuclear bomb. It set the South African bomb-programme back by several years, although, before apartheid crumbled, it did construct six Hiroshima-sized bombs.
Despite the current ANC débâcle, Christie concluded: “We won. We got a democracy. We got a Bill of Rights with a constitutional court. It worked.” All things that today’s long-suffering South Africans know are still worth fighting for.