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man sitting in a chair smoking.
Photo: Sammy Sander/Unsplash

I am the classic invisible introvert and recluse. When you open a dictionary and look up the word introvert, the listing will no doubt state something like: Introvert — a quiet and reflective person who prefers to keep to himself and shuns the company of others. See also: "Tony Matthews."

I'm that kind of introvert. I'd make it into the Oxford English Dictionary as the archetypal "quiet personality." I've taken those ubiquitous online tests to see what level of introvert I am, and they always come out at the extreme end of the scale.

I've even tweeted about the results on social media and the replies have been like, "Hey dude, with a reading like that you should be crowned the king of introverts. You could have a (quiet) coronation too!"’

So it came as something of a surprise when, one evening many years ago, while on leave from my job as a naval marine engineering writer, the C.I.A. made a hilarious attempt to recruit me for one of their operations in darkest Africa.

It was like a comedy skit from Monty Python. I had no idea that the C.I.A. liked introverts so much, but apparently we make great secret operatives and can talk our way out of a vat of boiling batter.

I was in South Africa at the time. It was during the late 1960s and the deeply desperate days of apartheid were in full swing. I learned that I wasn't allowed to sit on the same park-bench as a "coloured" person or go on a date with a "coloured" woman.

Offences could be punished with a whipping and two years in prison. All this came as a bit of a surprise to me. I'd heard of apartheid, of course, but had never really understood its true depth of mind-bending ultra right-wing depravity.

One day a middle-aged gentleman approached me in a pub at Fish Hoek, a pretty coastal town on the eastern side of the peninsula, north of Simonstown. It was fairly dark in the pub which suited me. As an introvert, I was trying to be as unobtrusive as possible and fade into the background where few would notice me.

Tony Matthews sitting on a chair
Tony Matthews

I was a fairly recent arrival in South Africa and not particularly knowledgeable on the terminology, laws or protocols surrounding apartheid. When I'd first come into the pub I'd ordered a beer from the barman and when it had been brought to my table. I'd thanked the coloured waiter, saying: "Thanks gaffer "(boss).

He'd given me a long hard look which had been a mixture of hurt and enmity. I had no idea why the waiter had reacted like that.

Seated at the next table had been an elderly gentleman, a white person, well dressed in a beige suit and sporting a precisely trimmed ginger goatee beard. He gave me one of those looks the knowledgeable reserve for really stupid people.

By now the waiter was speaking animatedly in hushed tones to a couple of other waiters on the far side of the room and they were giving me a serious dose of evil-eye.

I imagined that they might like to meet me outside when I left and hack me to bits with machetes or something equally as unpleasant. What had I said, I asked myself, that had triggered such a reaction?

The ginger goatee guy took his drink from the table and came towards me. "All right if I join you for a moment?" he asked, eyebrows raised. He placed his drink on the table and eased himself into the chair opposite, leaning forward. "Couldn't help noticing that reaction," he nodded towards the muttering waiter.

"What the hell did you say to him man?" I gave him a perplexed look. "I just thanked him." "But what did you say, exactly?" he pressed. I thought for a moment and shrugged. "Thanks gaffer," I replied.. Ginger goatee leaned back in his chair. "Gaffer?:"

I nodded. "Sure. It's kind of a compliment. It's English slang. It means boss, or chief. Someone in charge. Someone to be respected." The man threw back his head and laughed uproariously. "You bloody uitlanders don't have a clue do you?"’

I certainly didn't have a clue what a uitlander was. (Answer: Afrikaans for foreigner). He leaned forward again. "He thinks you called him a kafir. It's bloody derogatory. If he and his mates can catch you somewhere alone when you leave here you it will end up you being necklaced."

I didn't know much about South Africa but I did know what it meant to be necklaced. An old rubber tyre would be pushed down over my scrawny shoulders, locking my arms into place, before being drenched with petrol and set alight. I was aghast. I had just tried to be respectful and friendly. That's what introverts do!

I thought about that for all of five seconds. I felt sick. I'd seen how the whites were treating the coloured people of South Africa and didn't want to be associated in any way with that. I pushed back my chair and approached the waiter. He watched me coming with a mixture of surprise and bitterness.

His eyes, I remember, were heavily bloodshot with anger. I stumbled to explain what I had meant - that I had actually called him a chief in English slang. It took him a while to figure it out. Who could blame him? Idiomatic English is a mystery to most of the world, even to the English.

When he finally understood, however, he was good enough to laugh and began chattering to his friends in Afrikaans. A white man had called him a chief! It was hilarious. Soon they were all slapping me on the back which was slightly more agreeable than being roasted alive in a rubber doughnut.

Afterwards I returned to my table and it was evident that my ginger goatee companion had been thinking rather a lot while I'd been away. He called for two more beers and leaned forward confidentially.

"I can see that you have a way with people. You handled that well. How would you like to make a lot of money? "he asked, really emphasising the word, lot. "Lots and lots and lots of money," he pressed, as if I may have failed to understand.

It transpired that he was offering me a job in a covert operation with a specially formed "military group", as he described it. He wanted operatives for patrol boats on Lake Tanganyika in the middle of the Congo.

Someone who could get into a scrap and get out without any damage. Who is this guy? I thought to myself. He actually stopped short of mentioning gold bars or Swiss bank accounts and loads of beautiful women, but not far short.

It was to be an easy job, he said — slightly dangerous, obviously, that's what all the gallons of money were about, but free and easy and I'd be a rich little introvert with enough money to buy a luxury pad overlooking the harbour in Mombasa or somewhere equally as ghastly. A pad is what they called a bachelor's flat in the sixties, by the way.

However, I really didn't have to think about it for too long and said no. And I did not realise it at the time, but the ginger goatee man had actually been working as a head-hunter for the Central Intelligence Agency. It was not until 2016, almost 50 years later, while undertaking research for another project, that I discovered the full story about this incident.

From 1960 until 1968 the C.I.A. carried out a series of multifaceted actions (known as C.A. operations) in the newly independent Republic of Congo. The entire top-secret operation had come under the control of what was known as the "303 Committee."

These operations had been set in place to support the pro-western Congolese leader Joseph Mobutu who had deposed the Soviet-backed Patrice Lumumba in 1960. Lumumba had been executed by firing squad the following year.

The 303 Committee was controlling a series of special operations steeped typically in stealth and subversion. The Congo, which had formerly been a Belgian colony, about a quarter the size of the United States, was a mineral-rich Cold War prize of the first order.

As the chief of the C.I.A.s Africa Division stated in June 1960: "If Congo deteriorates and Western influence fades rapidly, the (Communist) Bloc will have a feast and will not have to work very hard for it."

Upon reflection, it seems that nothing much has changed since that time.

I didn't know any of this at the time, of course, and although the promise of vast amounts of money and battalions of beautiful girlfriends was alluring, I wasn't too happy with the thought of joining a secret C.I.A. war. Had I done so, I'm sure my bones would now be rotting at the bottom of Lake Tanganyika.

As for the waiter, well, we couldn't become friends as that was against the law, but he and some of his associates later asked me to become a spy for the African National Congress which was fighting to bring down Apartheid.

But that's another story.

Tony Matthews is a Welsh/Australian novelist and historian. He is the author of more than 30 published books including his lighthearted and humorous autobiography: Invisible - The Essential Guide for Aliens Stranded on Earth, published by Big Sky Publishing. Find out more:



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