A Convicted South African Terrorist Discusses His Country’s Future
Dr. Renfrew Christie was jailed during the early 1980s for passing on the South African government’s nuclear development plans to the African National Congress (ANC), the political party that spearheaded the campaign to end apartheid. There was some talk he would be hanged for his troubles, but the judge spared him. Instead, he was imprisoned right next to the hanging area in a Pretoria prison.
He recalls beautiful singing in the prison for two or three days before an execution, presumably to make the last days of the condemned more joyful. Or morbidly bittersweet, depending on how you look at it. He says the consecutive crash of doors signaled that the hanging party was moving its way through the prison. There was silence before the hangings, then the slam of a trap door—“that’s when you knew their necks were broken”—then more silence and then the banging of nails into the coffin. He estimates he has heard about 300 hangings during his stint in prison.
Christie’s story reads like Jean Le Carre fan fiction: conscripted into the South African army at 17, he soon “saw something I wasn’t supposed to see that told me they [the government] were playing with nuclear weapons. From then on I was hunting the apartheid atom bomb.”
He wrote his PhD thesis on the electrification of South Africa—a subject area that allowed him access to plants where he could observe “how much electricity they were using to enrich uranium.”