Barry Gilder – The ANC Musician, Soldier, and Spy
Barry Gilder is one of South Africa’s most important revolutionaries that fought against the apartheid. Born into South Africa’s White community in the 1950s, Gilder followed the African National Congress into exile in 1976. He aided the ANC through his work as an anti-apartheid musician, an uMkhonto weSizwe (MK) fighter, and a top intelligence officer.
Barry Gilder, uMkhonto weSizwe, MK, African National Congress, ANC, Exile, Musician, Intelligence, Apartheid, National Union of South African Students
The Manifesto of uMkhonto weSizwe states that:
“the time comes in the life of any nation when there remain only two choices - submit or fight. That time has now come to South Africa. We shall not submit and we have no choice but to hit back by all means in our power in defense of our people, our future, and our freedom.” [i]
Barry Gilder was one South African of many that chose to “hit back by all means.” What differentiates Gilder from the rest was unusual background. Gilder used his multifaceted talents in order to aid the African National Congress towards a democratic South African government. Barry Gilder is a White revolutionary musician, uMkhonto weSizwe soldier, and intelligence officer that fought against the apartheid. The apartheid government was in power from 1948 to 1994 and created unfair laws in order to segregated Coloured and Black South Africans from the White minority. The liberation movement in South Africa proved to be a bloody war between the country’s government and anti-apartheid groups. The ANC promoted passive resistance and civil disobedience in order to fight the apartheid, but police brutality and mass killings quickly revealed the limits of peaceful protest on behalf of the anti-apartheid movements. On March 21, 1960, five thousand South Africans protested the pass laws at a police station in Sharpeville. The policemen, fearing a violent crowd, killed sixty-nine people and injured one-hundred-eighty. [ii] This was later called the Sharpeville Massacre. As a result of this tragedy, the ANC believed that they could no longer advance towards a democratic government without creating a military branch. uMkhonto weSizwe, or MK, was created by the ANC and the South African Communist Party in order to fight against the government’s military power and protect South Africa’s Black communities. The MK’s goal was to force the South African government to negotiate with the ANC. The creation of MK signalled the beginning of the armed struggle against the apartheid. Alongside the MK soldiers and ANC members, Gilder risked his life in order to end the apartheid. Gilder’s struggle songs, contribution to the ANC’s MK, and involvement in the Department of Intelligence was essential in winning the barbarous war in South Africa.
Youth in South Africa
Born in South Africa in 1950, Barry Gilder was raised in a White South African community during apartheid. In that time, Black South Africans were required to carry passes. Black communities, such as Sophiatown, were being forcefully relocated to townships. Black students were denied proper education. Most White South Africans did not recognize these governmental acts as unjust. Gilder elaborates on the viewpoints of him and his friends, and how they differed from those of many White South Africans;
“we drew our culture, our symbols, our values from the north, from the west. I was thus a child of the sixties, inspired by the same literature and music that inspired my contemporaries in America and Europe. I hated war. I hated racism. I hated exploitation.” [iii]
Unfortunately, military conscription in the South African Defense Force was required for White men over the age of 16 starting in 1967.[iv] Gilder joined the SADF in 1968 for nine months, but clearly showed his disdain for war. After his service in SADF, Gilder joined the National Union of South African Students in the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. Although many Black students felt disrespected by the NUSAS members, this organisation proved to be more radical and active than other White student organisations.[v] Gilder led protests and sang anti-apartheid songs in Johannesburg in order to motivate other students to join the anti-apartheid movement. He was also given the authority though NUSAS to research with the International University Exchange Fund. After many years of aiding NUSAS, Gilder met Ronnie Kasrils in Amsterdam during an anti-apartheid conference.[vi] Kasrils convinced Gilder to join the ANC in London. Gilder believed that he needed to join the ANC in exile in order to truly dedicate himself to the anti-apartheid movement. Gilder’s dedication to the anti-apartheid movement before joining the African National Congress was evident in his fight for equality. His devotion to the cause aided in his transition into exile.
Gilder in the ANC in London
Gilder joined the exiled ANC in London in the year 1976 to help lead cultural protests as a musician and to conduct research on the South African Defence Force. While he helped the ANC expose the SADF military strategies, Gilder travelled throughout Europe to perform his anti-apartheid songs. Gilder’s music gained worldwide recognition. His music not only provided hope for the Black South Africans suffering under apartheid, but also served as an audio representation of the horrors experienced and antagonistic treatment meted out to Black South Africans. Gilder sang his songs at protests and concerts, hoping to obtain international support.
Life as an MK soldier
Gilder’s willingness to join the ANC’s MK in Angola shows his loyalty towards the fight against inequality in South Africa. Although Gilder is known for his civil disobedience songs, he believed himself to be a soldier for freedom. He mentions that despite actively “singing, [his] culture was not doing enough.” [vii] Gilder met many future leaders of the ANC in London and a special bond developed with them. Aziz Pahad, his official ANC contact, asked him to join MK in the ANC’s training camp in Angola. Gilder was the first White member of the 1976 ANC generation to attend an MK camp. Gilder mentions, “I could not claim to be a member of the ANC if I was not willing to put myself in the same danger as the rest of my comrades.” [viii] Gilder undertook any job or opportunity the ANC enlisted him with in order to end South African inequality. He wanted to train like a soldier and fight in the war against apartheid. On April 18, 1979, Gilder travelled to Angola to start his training.
Gilder, expressing how he finally felt at home, wrote about the hardships he faced in the MK training camp. Most of the soldiers, like Gilder, were young and inexperienced. Many made the decision to join MK after the Soweto Uprising. As much as Gilder hated war, he believed it was a necessity at that point, given all the innocent Black South Africans murdered by Government police officials. He followed the quote from Victor Jara that remarked, “If the guitar is to be a weapon in the struggle, then the person behind it must be a genuine revolutionary.” [ix] He weaved his lyrics into anecdotes about the struggle the soldiers faced in the South African War and his involvement within, because international attention and support were crucial in working towards a democratic South Africa. Gilder’s song, Matola Song, is his most famous anti-apartheid song. He describes the agony he felt when learning about the death of his close friend, Mdudzi “Manqoba” Guma, during a raid in 1981. Gilder sings, “why don’t you sing something about victory, about how my small death might help you be.” [x] Gilder’s music reflects his bravery and dedication to South African equality. He sang about the struggles that he faced alongside his comrades. Mdudzi Guma and all the people who suffered under apartheid rule were his inspiration for his music and ignited the fuel he needed to continue his work. His songs personified uMkhonto we Sizwe. His time at the MK camp in Angola proved that not only was he dedicated to the ANC, but he was also more than qualified to serve in the MK army.
ANC Secret Intelligence
Gilder used his experiences as a song writer, a researcher in London, and a soldier in order to aid in the ANC’s top secret missions. He did not believe that he would get further training; in fact, he was determined to fight on the front lines in South Africa. He writes:
“my largely cerebral commitment to the struggle against apartheid had become deeply emotional, ingrained, interwoven with the past lives and newly shared experience of the people I had lived with in the Angolan bush for over a year. I was ready to leave the womb and go home and fight.” [xi]
Shortly after finishing his training, ANC officials informed him that he would not be fighting as a soldier. Instead, he was sent to Moscow for seven months to train as a secret intelligence officer. Meanwhile, Gilder looked for different ways to push himself. Although he could have continued to contribute to the ANC through the cultural struggle, he wanted to pursue using his experiences through ways other people could not. Gilder was trained as a South African Defense soldier before escaping in order to aid the ANC. With his insight to the SADF, he spent nearly two years researching the South African apartheid government. There, he obtained the knowledge of how to publically gain attention and support the freedom movement and the extent to which it helped the people. Most importantly, he had a first hand experience working alongside the MK soldiers. Gilder led the MK soldiers with great knowledge in the field of war, and genuine respect for the soldiers on the field.
Barry Gilder uses his power as a high ranking intelligence officer to led MK to great military success. In a recent article written by Gilder, he begins by informing his audience about his recurring nightmares as an intelligence officer. He aided the ANC as the
“head of the regional intelligence directorate of the African National Congress’ (ANC) underground machinery in Botswana and as a member of the Regional Political Military Committee (RPMC), who were responsible for initiating, leading, and coordinating the ANC’s military, underground, political and intelligence work inside those parts of apartheid South Africa.” [xii]
Gilder now had to live a life of secrecy, unlike his life as a famous anti-apartheid singer. He was no longer a public figure and thus was constantly worried about being assassinated. Working as an exiled intelligence officer was extremely difficult in that Gilder did not have direct contact with the South African government himself. Gilder, amongst other intelligence officers, had to find ways to infiltrate the country through MK. This included providing weapons during major protests and recruiting people to smuggle information into and out of the South African border. In 1983, Gilder began by running his own unit in Botswana and reporting back to the ANC’s National Department of Intelligence.[xiii] Only two years later, Gilder was considered one of the highest ranking officials in the Foreign Intelligence Secret Service.
Gilder also recognized that the intelligence force, along with MK, was not perfect. He writes, “our conduct of the underground struggle from the outside might not have gone precisely as we dreamed and strategized, but it was conducted – under difficult conditions – and there can be no doubt that it was at the very least one of the key pillars of the finally successful struggle against apartheid.” [xiv]
As any good leader would do, he had to assess the progress of his comrades and himself. He did not want to risk the lives of the MK soldiers more than he had to. People who were caught were imprisoned or even killed by the apartheid government. Overall, he believes that the underground was more than successful. He stated that “500 underground political cadres in over a hundred units is actually quite impressive.” [xv] Gilder was unfortunately deported from Botswana after being arrested by the Botswana Special Branch and left in 1989. [xvi] During his arrest, he was given a top secret undercover role in Botswana on Operation Vula when Southern African President De Klerk unbanned the ANC in South Africa. The role of Operation Vula was to pass crucial information into South Africa from ANC leaders in exile, prison, and home.[xvii] Despite major adversity in Gilder’s life as an intelligence officer, he became one of the ANC’s crucial weapons in defeating the apartheid government.
Gilder explains that there is much criticism today against the effectiveness and involvement of the ANC in exile during the apartheid period. Many also refrain from crediting the ANC because of their ties to communism and communist countries. Stephen Ellis, author of External Mission: The ANC in Exile 1960-1990, believed that the MK only mostly aided in “[supplying] the profile of a militant revolutionary organisation to give the ANC a political advantage.” [xviii] While it is true that MK gave the ANC political advantage entering the new anti-apartheid South Africa, this view discredits all the efforts to end the apartheid made by the leaders of the ANC. International fame and South Africa’s financial crisis was indirectly connected to the ANC. Gilder believes that,
“whatever domestic change had come, or was about to come, to South Africa was a direct result of what the ANC called the four pillars of struggle – international solidarity, mass mobilization, the underground and the armed struggle.” [xix]
Truly, leaders such as Gilder, alongside their MK comrades, were directly responsible for the ANC’s success in the underground and armed struggle. Indirectly, they caught the media’s attention internationally, which eventually caused other countries to intervene and protect their human rights.
Gilder’s ideals and beliefs are still seen in society in the way Gilder still holds the post-apartheid ANC accountable for its actions. He believes that the ANC is at war, but this time, with itself. Today’s ANC is completely different from the ANC that fought against the apartheid. In 2007, Gilder retired from working with the ANC government and has spoken out about the corruption that currently takes place in South Africa. He commented to the Mail & Guardian on current affairs, saying: “I can tell you, as a former spook, that the intelligence services of the big European/Western countries are very actively involved in trying to infiltrate our government and other parts of society, but in particular [they are] trying to influence it." [xx] His autobiography reveals that he does not write in order to negatively speak against the post-apartheid ANC, but to contribute to South African history. However, it is evident that he is unhappy with the corruption that takes place in the government. The ANC is not holding on to the values of equality and transparency it espoused during the struggle.
Gilder is an important figure who guided numerous South Africans towards freedom, and is known for leading with candor. He continues to work towards equality by telling South Africa’s history through his own experiences. He believes that, “you can’t understand history without understanding people and the way they interact with history.” [xxi] Gilder research and studies developed him into a resourceful member of the NUSAS and ANC. His experience in Angola, training as an MK soldier, enabled him to protect his comrades while he gave them missions to infiltrate the South African border. As an intelligence officer, he aided in the destruction of the apartheid government and succeeded in the war against inequality. Gilder continues to contribute to South African society. Gilder’s story serves as an inspiration to all future human activists. He is a true embodiment of a leader in the way that he is honest, trustworthy, smart, and caring. Gilder has produced powerful anti-apartheid music that all people fighting for the rights of the oppressed could relate to. The value of his contribution towards creating change for the oppressed should honoured by all.
Barry Gilder, 2013. Songs and Secrets: South Africa from Liberation to Governance (Columbia/Hurst). Columbia University Press.
Chitofiri, K. 2014. “Review of Songs and Secrets: South Africa from Liberation to Governance” from African Historical Review. [Accessed 20 October 2016]
Davies, R. 2012. “‘Ex spy: Western nations' trying to infiltrate SA’’ from Main & Guardian. [ONLINE] Available at: http://mg.co.za/. [Accessed 25 October 2016].
Duncan, J. 2007. “With Us or Against Us? South Africa’s Position in the ‘War against Terror’” from Review of African Political Economy, Vol. 34 No. 113. [Accessed 20 October 2016]
Ellis, S. 2012. “Politics and Crime: Reviewing the ANC’s Exile History” from the South African Historical Journal, Vol. 64 Issue 3. [Accessed on 15 October 2016]
Gilder, B., Alegi, P., Limb, P. 2013. “Episode 77: Barry Gilder’s Songs and Secrets”. [ONLINE] Available at: http://afripod.aodl.org. [Accessed 25 October 2016]
Gilder, B. 2015. “From the Outside Looking In by Barry Gilder” from South Africa History Online. [ONLINE] Available at: http://historymatters.co.za [Accessed 25 October 2016]
Lodge, T. 2014. “Clandestine Histories: The ANC in Exile” from Journal of Southern African Studies. [Accessed 17 October 2016]
Munusamy, R. 2016. “The spy who went into the cold, or, When the ANC turns on its own” from Daily Maverick. [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.dailymaverick.co.za. [Accessed 25 October 2016].
2011. “Sharpeville Massacre, 21 March 1960” from South Africa History Online. [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.sahistory.org.za [Accessed on 26 October 2016]
2011. “uMkhonto weSizwe (MK)” from South Africa History Online. [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.sahistory.org.za [Accessed on 25 October 2016]
2013. “Members of the ANC and SACP are detained due to Operation Vula,” from South African History Online. [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.sahistory.org.za/ [Accessed on 5 December 2016]
Barry Gilder protesting at the Cultural and Resistance Festival
Available at: http://www.africamediaonline.com/
[iii] Barry Gilder, Songs and Secrets (New York: Columbia University Press, 2012), 1. ↵
[vi] Tom Lodge, “Clandestine Histories: The ANC in Exile,” Journal of Southern African Studies, Vol. 40 Issue 2 (2014): 419-424, doi: 10.1080/03057070.2014.901642. ↵
[viii] Barry Gilder, Songs and Secrets (New York: Columbia University Press, 2012), 5. ↵
[ix] Barry Gilder, Songs and Secrets (New York: Columbia University Press, 2012), 6. ↵
[xi] Barry Gilder, Songs and Secrets (New York: Columbia University Press, 2012), 31. ↵
[xiii] Tom Lodge, “Clandestine Histories: The ANC in Exile,” Journal of Southern African Studies, Vol. 40 Issue 2 (2014): 419-424, doi: 10.1080/03057070.2014.901642. ↵
[xvi] Tom Lodge, “Clandestine Histories: The ANC in Exile,” Journal of Southern African Studies, Vol. 40 Issue 2 (2014): 419-424, doi: 10.1080/03057070.2014.901642. ↵
[xviii] Tom Lodge, “Clandestine Histories: The ANC in Exile,” Journal of Southern African Studies, Vol. 40 Issue 2 (2014): 419-424, doi: 10.1080/03057070.2014.901642. ↵
[xix] Barry Gilder, Songs and Secrets (New York: Columbia University Press, 2012), 128. ↵
This article forms part of the SAHO and Southern Methodist University partnership project