At the age of 17, Renfrew Leslie Christie found himself in the South African Army. He was on guard at Lenz ammunition dump (east of Johannesburg), when he saw something that made him suspect that the Apartheid state was involved with nuclear weapons. This is when his hunt for Apartheid’s nuclear bombs started.
While studying at Witwatersrand University (Wits), Johannesburg between 1968 and 1971, Christie was arrested twice for visiting students atTurfloop, the University of the North for being a White person illegally in a Black area. He was also arrested for marching illegally on John Vorster Square Police Station when Winnie Mandela was held and tortured there and for taking a guard dog to Winnie Mandela’s house in Soweto when she was being attacked at night. By the age of 21 he was already detained four times for political activism.
Christie did not complete his B.Com. Degree at Wits, but later in prison, together with his Honours in Economics.
He was elected to work for the National Union of South African Students (NUSAS) in Cape Town in 1972 and took part in the nationwide ‘Free Education Now!’ campaign at St George’s Cathedral on 2 June 1972. Christie obtained a BA, Honours and Masters (cum laude) from the University of Cape Town (UCT) between 1973 and 1975. His army regiment invaded Angola in the next month but he had won a scholarship to Oxford University (England) and left South Africa without having to join them.
While studying at Oxford, Christie returned twice to South Africa to conduct research. During these trips, in July 1976, he filmed in Soweto, Johannesburg (having just missed the June 1976 student uprising). He then made a full-length documentary film on Apartheid in August 1977. He wrote his doctoral thesis at Oxford on the electrification of South Africa, giving him an excuse to be allowed at Eskom (South Africa’s power utility) to research their plans on uranium enrichment and plutonium production at the Koeberg nuclear power station in the Western Cape.
After obtaining his DPhil at Oxford, Christie turned down an opportunity to lecture at Oxford University. He returned in 1979 and spied on South Africa’s nuclear programme for the African National Congress (ANC). Three months after his arrival, he was arrested under the Terrorism Act. He was interrogated and tortured by the Security Police. On 6 June 1980, Christie was sentenced to ten years imprisonment, with four other sentences of five years each to run concurrently. He spent seven months in solitary confinement at John Vorster Square police station. This is where he met Mordecai Tatsa who was tortured so severely that he had to be released and put under house arrest on condition of silence, as he couldn’t be shown in court in the poor state of health he was then. Helen Suzman was instrumental in arranging for Tatsa to be released.
In Christie’s so-called “confession”, he actually put down all his recommendations to the ANC. The judge read his confession out loud and thus helped his recommendations to be printed and spread, via the hands of democratic lawyers, to the ANC in London.
He was sentenced to ten years in Pretoria Central Prison, where he was forced to listen to over three hundred hangings. He was kept under very strict conditions – there were six warders for six prisoners, there were bank vault doors, listening devices and electric light beams everywhere. Through six-monthly visits, Helen Suzman and the International Committee of the Red Cross worked together to the better their prison conditions.
During Christie’s time in prison, his ex-girlfriend from his Wits years, Jeanette Curtis Schoon, and her daughter Kathryn were assassinated by parcel bomb in Angola. He also met Dimitri Tsafendas, who had, by that time, spent nearly 20 years in solitary confinement.
Nearly every power generating institution he had ever researched was blown up by units of uMkhonto we Sizwe (MK) during his imprisonment.
Professor Renfrew Leslie Christie is currently Dean of Research at the University of the Western Cape (UWC).
• Michigan State University. Renfrew Christie interviewed by Ruendree Govender, from MSU, African Studies Center, online. Available at www.overcomingapartheid.msu.edu .Accessed on 29 October 2013.
• Chronic Chimurenga. (2013). Speech to the Science Graduation Ceremony of the University of Witwatersrand, 2008, from Chronic Chimurenga online. Available at www.chimurengachronic.co.za . Accessed on 29 October 2013.
• McDonald D. A Convicted South African Terrorist Discusses the Future of His Country, from Vice online. Available at www.vice.com .Accessed on 29 October 2013.
• Ledwaba, L. (2012) My ANC: ‘We were put close to the gallows’, from City Press, 7 January, online. Available at www.citypress.co.za .Accessed on 29 October 2013.