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Speech to the Science Graduation Ceremony of the University of Witwatersrand, 2008

Good Evening.

I will use my own life history tonight to argue that it is your duty as scientists never to allow good science to be used for bad purposes.

You have a moral duty. You know the difference between good and evil. You must do your best to ensure that your science has good outcomes for society, not bad ones.

I am not saying that you must be perfect. In this sorry world, only my wife and daughters are perfect. My daughters are perfectly beautiful. They look exactly like me! Further, they are brilliant! They have their mother’s brains! I am proud of my family.

Families matter! Honour thy father and thy mother! Do it by getting married quickly and making lots of beautiful daughters. Make some sons, too, but they will not be as beautiful.

If you cannot or don’t want to make children, adopt them. But get on with family building. The country needs strong families. I learned in prison just how important families are in times of trouble. Get married and stay married.

I ask the unmarried in this audience to choose your partners wisely; then to tie the knot of marriage; and to keep it lovingly tied.

Ties are important. I have worn ties all my life. I was wearing a tie on the second of June 1972. I was standing on the steps of St George’s Cathedral, Cape Town. I was Deputy President of the National Union of South African Students. We had launched a nationwide protest in favour of Free Education Now! The children of Soweto took up the protests in 1976. I am proud that the education protests did not stop until Nelson Mandela was elected President in 1994.

Back in 1972, the Prime Minister, Bully John Vorster, was convinced that we were working for Moscow. He locked his policemen into trucks for many hours; then he unleashed them on us, like a pack of angry wolves.

A huge copper came running up to me with a baton. He was going to wallop me on the head! Then he looked at my tie. He said ‘Sorry, Sir!’ and he clobbered the person next to me! I have worn ties ever since.

At the age of seventeen I was in the South African Army. I was on guard at the huge Lenz ammunition dump. I saw something which told me that the Apartheid state was getting involved with nuclear weapons. For the rest of my life I was hunting the Apartheid nuclear bombs.

In the end President de Klerk admitted to making six-and-a-half bombs. They were disassembled before democracy arrived.

One of the documents for which I was arrested was a study of where it would be safe, seismically, to explode nuclear weapons ‘for peaceful purposes’ in South Africa.

You might ask, ‘so what?’ But they did it by race group, and from the largest to the smallest possible bombs! In other words, where could one damage black areas but not white areas? The document could be read as a study for ethnic cleansing, for a final solution.

The Apartheid nuclear weapons are exactly what should not be done with the results of modern science! We are very lucky that they were never used in anger.

My moral for you tonight is simple: never let people abuse your science!

I am proud of my Wits years. Between 1968 and 1971, I was arrested twice for visiting students at Turfloop, the University of the North. I was a white person illegally in a black area. I was arrested for marching illegally on John Vorster Square Police Station when Winnie Mandela was being tortured there. I was arrested for taking a guard dog to Winnie Mandela’s house in Soweto, when she was being attacked at night.

I declined to hand in the hundreds of accounting tutorial exercises which Wits required; so the university declined to give me a BCom degree. I later finished the BCom and Honours in prison. My aunt said that they had to lock me up to get me to do accounting!

Elected to work for Nusas in Cape Town in 1972, I took a BA, Honours and Masters in 1973, 1974 and 1975. I am a very annoying person. My master’s thesis took me a month: three hundred pages, and cum laude from UCT. Just as well: my army regiment invaded Angola the next month, but I had won a scholarship to Oxford and I was on the boat.

In Oxford I was elected to the best committee I have ever served on: the St Antony’s College wine committee. It was our solemn duty to taste all the best French red wines of the current year and of all the previous fifty years. What an awful fate: to taste the greatest wines on earth, wines no human being could afford. I suffered.

I returned twice from Oxford on research. I didn’t make it for June 1976; but I was filming in Soweto from the fifth of July 1976; and again, making a full-length documentary film on Apartheid in August 1977. And I was researching in the Eskom archives.

Nuclear weapons require enriched uranium; or they require plutonium. Enrichment uses large quantities of electricity. The German uranium enrichment process was too expensive at German electricity prices. But Eskom made the cheapest electricity in the world. So the German process was cheap enough in South Africa to make enriched uranium for the Apartheid bombs. Furthermore, Eskom was planning to make plutonium in the Koeberg nuclear power station.

So I wrote my doctoral thesis in Oxford on the history of Eskom. It is a good thesis: you can read it in your library, published by Macmillan. But the point was that it got me into Eskom, to research their plans on uranium enrichment and plutonium production.

Having graduated from Oxford with a rather good DPhil, I was pointed to an Oxford lectureship and told I would most certainly get it, if I applied for it. I am stupid. I turned down a lifetime of drinking the great French red wines of Oxford. Instead, I returned to South Africa, as a nuclear spy for the ANC.

Within three months I was arrested and being tortured by the likes of Spyker van Wyk. Spyker means nail. He got the nickname Spyker for hammering a nail through someone’s foreskin. Not that he did that to me; but he was not a very nice man. He gave evidence to the judge that I get cheeky under interrogation. At least that part of his evidence was not a lie.

I spent seven months in solitary. Don’t let anybody kid you: no one comes out of solitary sane. I make no pretence to sanity. My nightmares are awful. But it wasn’t quite solitary. For example, the little ordinary black coppers would let prisoners shower together at weekends.

So I met Mordecai Tatsa. Picture a black man and a white man, two strangers suddenly naked together in the showers of John Vorster Square Police Station.

He shrieked, ‘I am not a terrorist! Tell them I am not!’

Later he realised I was also a prisoner and not a nark. Not that I could help him. They were torturing him endlessly. Each weekend he was worse. They beat his feet to the size of rugby balls with iron bars. They strangled him with ropes, ever tighter, leaving terrible burn marks on his throat.

In the end they tortured him so badly they couldn’t even put him in front of one of their crooked judges. A saint, Mrs Helen Suzman, did some sort of a deal. He was released into twenty-four hour house arrest, on condition he kept silent about the torture. I have no idea what happened to him; but his wrecked body haunts my dreams to this day.

My own so called ‘confession’, after much milder torture, was the best thing I ever wrote. I put into it all my recommendations to the African National Congress. It got into the hands of democratic lawyers and I understand it was transmitted to the ANC in London.

The story is told of a police raid on lawyers’ offices. Penuel Maduna, who later became a Cabinet Minister, was left hanging under a fire escape, with my confession in his shirt, until the cops left.

Anyway, the wise judge read out all my discoveries and recommendations, in his learned judgement. So they were published by the newspapers of the world for all, and the ANC, to read! There is much to be said for the thoroughness of Apartheid judges.

The next seven horrid years in prison can be summed up by saying I was forced to listen to over three hundred people being hanged; and we had sixty warders for six prisoners. There were bank vault doors; listening devices; and electric light beams everywhere.

They kept us secure! Yet no-one is secure in a security prison. Fear, loathing and paranoia stalk every corridor, every minute. I hated it.

But Mrs Suzman and the International Committee of the Red Cross visited every six months, and slowly conditions got better. Perhaps the warders were afraid they might end up as our prisoners?

While I was in prison, Jeanette Curtis Schoon and her young daughter, Katryn, were assassinated by parcel bomb in Angola. Jen and I had briefly been boyfriend and girlfriend. We had been together on the Wits SRC for a couple of years. We worked in Nusas Head Office together in 1972.

Just before her killing, Jen sent me a birthday card. The prison officials refused to give it to me. They put it on my file. When I was released they gave it to me. So I had the weird experience of receiving a birthday card from a murdered lover. She was a hero of the liberation struggle.

In prison I met Dimitri Tsafendas, who had executed Prime Minister Hendrik Verwoerd by stabbing him to death in parliament. The warders contrived to leave us alone together in a passage for a few minutes. I think they did this as a favour to Tsafendas.

By then he had been in solitary for nearly twenty years. He was white-haired and totally freaked out; but there was still backbone and integrity. The government had said he was mad to kill Verwoerd; but I believe he was completely sane when he did it. His motivations were political. He was a communist; his life had been ruined by Verwoerd who had classified him as Coloured; so he killed his political enemy. He was a hero of the liberation struggle, or he should be! Perhaps Wits might give him an honorary doctorate?

I had my wisdom tooth out in prison. I was in leg irons and handcuffed to Sergeant Arendse. A prison ambulance sped through Pretoria, sirens wailing, stopping all the traffic. In front there was a truck full of armed warders; likewise behind. At the Hendrik Verwoerd Hospital there were snipers on the roof-tops and warders with rifles every ten metres along the path. The forty-bed hospital ward had been specially cleared for me.

Sergeant Arendse put on little green surgical booties; little green surgical pants and jacket; and a little green surgical hat. Over this sterile outfit he put his unsterile holster and pistol.

The last thing I saw as I went under the anaesthetic was Sergeant Arendse’s moustache beaming down at me. I was nauseous after the operation. As the sirens wailed back to the prison, still handcuffed to Sergeant Arendse, I vomited all over him. Perhaps my wisdom had gone with the tooth, or perhaps not?

Somebody must have been following me around, because while I was in prison everything I had ever researched was blown up.

Nothing to do with me; I was thousands of kilometres away and in jail; but the Kunene River Hydroelectric Schemes, on which I wrote my master’s thesis, were blown up.

As early as the nineteen-fifties, Sasol had been experimenting with heavy water, from which nuclear bombs can be made. The Sasol oil-from-coal plants, on which I had done research, were blown up on the day my trial started.

My lawyer, Raymond Tucker, came into my police cell, with a huge front page Rand Daily Mail photograph of Sasol burning. The smoke cloud looked almost like a nuclear explosion. He said, ‘You are going to get at least thirty years in prison!’

While I was in jail, some of the Eskom coal-fired power stations, which I had researched, were also blown up.

And on 16 June 1982 the Koeberg nuclear power station was blown up by another Witsie and his wife, Rodney and Heather Wilkinson.

They had the guts to put limpet mines in their backpacks; to walk into their jobs in Koeberg; to put the bombs into the pipe works and onto the reactor heads. They did it exactly as I had recommended in my confession to Spyker van Wyk, which the judge had published for me.

That is, they bombed Koeberg just before the uranium fuel was to be added, so that they did not endanger the people of Cape Town, but so that they caused the maximum financial damage, because all the pipe works had to be rebuilt. I had recommended this strategy.

There is an audited cost on the bombing of Koeberg: 519 million 1982 rands, which were worth 519 million US dollars. That made my time in prison much easier!

If you add up the cost of all the bombing of the things I researched for my master’s and doctoral theses, it comes to about a billion US dollars in 1982. I suppose that’s worth ten or twenty billion dollars today, or a perhaps a hundred billion rand. Would I have settled for five per cent?

Nothing to do with me: all I did was read and write. I didn’t bomb Sasol or Eskom. I didn’t walk into Koeberg with bombs in my backpack. But if ever Wits wants to acknowledge real bravery in the armed struggle against Apartheid, it should give honorary doctorates to Rodney and Heather Wilkinson.

Of course, destroying the electricity supply from Eskom was an African National Congress war aim, in the struggle for the democracy you now enjoy.

I am pleased to have been a small part of that war aim, to stop the country’s electricity supply. I am very proud that the ANC achieved that war aim. I really wanted to prevent Eskom from generating electricity. But please, Alec Erwin and my other comrades in the ANC, can we stop destroying Eskom now? It is enough already! Let’s fix Eskom!

And so I come to you, the science graduands of my first university.

I have told you to marry and make or adopt babies. Get on with it. Families are crucial to our whole future.

I have told you never to let anyone do anything awful with your science, as the apartheid monsters did with nuclear science.

I have told you to wear neckties.

I will close with a story about ties from Professor Monica Wilson, the great anthropologist of the University of Cape Town in the sixties.

In about 1966, the senate of the University of Cape Town was debating whether to let students in the professional faculties, like medics and accountants, come to lectures without ties. It was a very pompous, serious, and formal debate.

The professor of surgery said this; the professor of medicine said that; a sociologist said the sorts of handwringing things which sociologists say, in words which no human being understands.

Finally, up got Monica Wilson. She was perhaps the university’s pre-eminent professor, with acclaimed status as an anthropologist across the world. Senate was hushed and silent: Monica would give wise leadership!

In her high-pitched perfect Girton College Cambridge English accent, she told the UCT Senate:

‘When I was in Nyasaland, working among the Nyakusa, we didn’t wear anything at all above the waist!’

Lo and behold: the professional students were allowed into lectures without ties on!

I have perhaps spoiled a very joyous occasion with talk of hanging and spying and nuclear weapons and torture. But I have driven home the point.

You are scientists. Never, ever let any monster abuse your science! You were put on this earth to do good: do no harm!

But this is a joyous occasion! I offer you my congratulations! I bid you a wonderful career in science. I wish you pure happiness in marriage and baby-making. I beseech you to do good and not evil on this earth. We all know the difference: be good.

And finally I ask everybody except the graduands to stand up. I ask you to give our future scientists the loudest round of applause you can. Clap! Thank you. Please be seated.

Next, would all the graduands please stand up? I want you to face your loved ones: your mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, guardians, spouses and partners. And I want you to cheer them. Cheer! Loudly! Louder! Without them you are nothing. Cheer!

Congratulations to you all! And thank you for listening.

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