Niel Barnard

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Person.png Niël BarnardRdf-entity.pngRdf-icon.png
(spook, academic)
Niel Barnard.jpg
BornLukas Daniel Barnard
Objiwarongo, South-West Africa
NationalitySouth African
Alma materUniversity of the Orange Free State
Children • Nico Barnard
• Hannes Barnard
SpouseEngela Brand
University professor and leader of the apartheid National Intelligence Service during the dirty wars in the 1980s.

Dr Niël Barnard is a former head of South Africa's National Intelligence Service during the 1980s, when the apartheid government's dirty wars were at their bloodiest.

Later, he was notable for his behind-the-scenes role in preparing Nelson Mandela and apartheid-era presidents P W Botha and F W de Klerk for Mandela's eventual release from prison and rise to political power as the first black president of South Africa in May 1994.[1]

When Mandela was finally freed from prison on 11 February 1990 he reportedly wanted Niël Barnard at his side, but Barnard told him:

"Sir, this is your moment, besides how is it going to look if you walk out of prison with a Boer Spy?"[2]

Early life

Niël Barnard was born in 1949 in Objiwarongo, South-West Africa (Namibia).[3] His father was headmaster and chief-inspector of education in SWA/Namibia. Barnard was in his teens at the time of the Rivonia Trial of 1963, in which Nelson Mandela and several other African National Congress leaders were convicted of treason and sentenced to life in prison. He did his compulsory military service in the commando system reaching the rank of captain and joining the Citizen Force in Bloemfontein. He met his wife, Engela Brand in 1968 and they married on 1 April 1972.

Education and University career

Barnard began his education at the University of the Orange Free State in 1968 obtaining a Bachelor of Arts in Political Science and History. He followed this up by completing a Master of Arts in 1972 and a PhD in 1975. By 1973 Barnard was a Political Science lecturer at the same university. In 1977 he was a Senior lecturer and by 1978 a professor of Political Studies.

Intelligence career

He first came to the attention of P W Botha after he had written a PhD thesis at the University of Free State though Barnard would claim in a 1992 newspaper interview that he was unsure as to why he was chosen, not having an intelligence background. In the wake of the Muldergate Scandal in which the Bureau for State Security (BOSS) had become mired, Botha appointed Barnard in November 1979 to form a new intelligence service. He started at the Department of National Security (DONS) as Chief Deputy Secretary on 3 December 1979. He would take over at DONS on 1 June 1980 after the retirement of the existing head Alec van Wyk.[4] The Department of National Security was the new name of the Bureau of State Security (BOSS) and was renamed in September 1978 after the retirement of its head Hendrik van den Berg in June 1978. The National Intelligence Service came into operation in 1980.

The logic underpinning the new service was one of national security, which differed fundamentally from the state security paradigm that had underpinned BOSS. Central to this new vision was the core belief that the only way to find lasting security was to develop a nation, and that meant renegotiating the constitution to include all South Africans irrespective of race[citation needed]. As the head of South Africa's National Intelligence Service (NIS), he recognised[When?] that his country would have to find a political settlement to eliminate apartheid and that Nelson Mandela would have to play a fundamental role in the process.

In December 1988, Barnard first met with Mandela at his secure accommodation adjacent to Victor Verster prison near the town of Paarl, some 30 miles from Cape Town. Thereafter, he met many times with Mandela in order to inform him about the political situation outside the prison and advise him on how to negotiate with South African president P W Botha. He arranged for Mandela to be given a suit of clothes befitting a future leader, and for future meetings to take place in a private residence near the prison. While counselling both parties on how to come to some agreements on the terms for Mandela's eventual release, he arranged several more meetings. In 1989, when Botha's health forced him to resign, Barnard continued to facilitate discussions between Mandela and the new president, F W de Klerk.

Career after the NIS

Barnard was Director of the NIS from 1980 to 1992, when he was replaced by his long standing deputy Mike Louw. In 1994 Barnard took over a post in the Department of Constitutional Development and Provincial Affairs under Roelf Meyer in the Government of National Unity.[5] It was this core logic that defined the ultimate role that Barnard was to play in creating the political climate behind the scenes for the Convention for a Democratic South Africa (CODESA) that ultimately drafted the constitution underpinning the transition to democracy in 1994.


  1. Turton, Anthony (2010). Shaking Hands with Billy. Durban: Just Done Productions Publishing (published 1 December 2010). ISBN 978-1-920315-58-0.
  2. "Opening Pandora’s Apartheid Box - Part 29 – Secret talks with the Enemy"
  3. {Sanders, James (2006). Apartheid's Friends. The Rise and Fall of South Africa's Secret Services. Great Britain: John Murray(Publishers). ISBN 978-0719566752.
  4. Barnard, Niël (2015). Secret Revolution: Memoirs of a spy boss. South Africa: Tafelberg. ISBN 978-0624074571.

Further reading

  • Barnard, Niël (2015). Secret Revolution: Memoirs of a spy boss (Kindle ed.). South Africa: Tafelberg. ISBN 978-0624074571.
  • O'Brien, Kevin A (2011). The South African intelligence services: from apartheid to Democracy, 1948-2005 (Kindle ed.). Abingdon, Oxfordshire: Taylor and Francis. ISBN 978-0-203-84061-0.
  • Sanders, James (2006). Apartheid's Friends. The Rise and Fall of South Africa's Secret Services. Great Britain: John Murray(Publishers). ISBN 978-0719566752.
  • Barnard, Niël (2015). Secret Revolution: Memoirs of a spy boss. South Africa: Tafelberg. ISBN 978-0624074571.

External links

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