History in the active voice

Research and investigative journalism have begun to identify the agents of Apartheid South Africa's violent history.

A beach for Whites only near the integrated fishing village of Kalk Bay, not far from Capetown. January 1, 1970. Image credit UN Photo.

The covert nature of the apartheid regime’s “total strategy” to combat revolution rendered much of South Africa’s deadliest years of history in the passive voice. Griffiths Mxenge: discovered dead by the side of the road. Sizwe Khondile: disappeared. The Cradock Four: burnt bodies found. Inkosi Mhlabunzima Maphumulo: murdered by “persons unknown.”

To justify repressive measures against growing anti-apartheid resistance, South Africa under then State President P.W. Botha adopted a “total strategy” to counter the “total onslaught” of international communism. Botha declared that the South African Communist Party (SACP) was using the African National Congress (ANC) as a front for communist penetration, comparing the situation to Mozambique and Angola. All radical opposition was put down as furthering the aims of communism as South Africa set out on a campaign of “low-intensity conflict.”

According to Jackie Dugard, a researcher then with the Community Agency for Social Enquiry (CASE) that monitored South Africa’s political violence, low-intensity conflict pursued by the regime in South Africa was characterized by the use of covert action and non-conventional methods of warfare that served to spread fear, insecurity, and internal divisions among target populations. This type of warfare had the benefit of being cost effective and less internationally visible than conventional war.

The apartheid government effected repression through bannings, detentions, assassinations, kidnappings, and torture and included forming pacts with dissatisfied and marginalized elements of society that resulted in hit squads and vigilante groups.

But the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (however incomplete), so also the work of the investigative journalism of Jacques Pauw and his then-Vrye Weekblad Max du Preez, and other research in the last twenty years or earlier (the revelations published in The New Nation, for example) has begun to identify the agents of this violent history. More often, these sources identify lower level foot soldiers of the apartheid regime. In most cases, the TRC struggled to bring those giving the orders before the commission and officials such as P.W. Botha refused to appear.

Perhaps best known of the apartheid’s counter-revolutionary agents are Dirk Coetzee and Eugene de Kock, former commanders of Vlakplaas. Coetzee, Jan Viktor and Jac Buchner (later transferred to the KwaZulu Police) founded a paramilitary team that operated from the Vlakplaas farm. Coetzee led the Vlakplaas squads that murdered prominent ANC activist and attorney Griffiths Mxenge, Vuyani Mavuso (an ANC member captured by the Apartheid South African Defense Force in the Matola Raid), and Sizwe Khondile, among others.

When Coetzee turned to share his story with Jacques Pauw and the ANC, the Security Branch targeted him for removal. Colonel Waal du Toit gave the order and Japie F. Kok and Captain Kobus Kok, employees of the technical division of the Security Branch, constructed the bomb, which they mailed to him in London. Coetzee believed it to be a bomb and ordered it returned to “sender.” The Security Branch had labeled the package as being sent by Bheki Mlangeni, ANC activist and lawyer. On 15 February 1991, the Koks’ bomb exploded at the Soweto home of Mlangeni. The TRC granted these men amnesty, as well as Eugene de Kock, Kobus Klopper, Izak Daniel Bosch, Wybrand Andreas Lodewicus, Williem Riaan Bellingan, and Simon Makopo Radebe, for the killing of Mlangeni.

Eugene de Kock, a veteran of the Special Air Services in the Rhodesian war and of the Koevoet Police Counter-Insurgency Unit in Namibia, took over as Coetzee’s successor at Vlakplaas.  Minister of Law and Order Adriaan Vlok and Chief of Security Branch Velde van der Merwe ordered de Kock to render COSATU House in Johannesburg (where the main trade unions were based) unusable. De Kock also orchestrated the bombing of Khotso House, the headquarters of the South African Council of Churches, in 1988. In his TRC testimonies and interviews with Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela, a TRC commissioner, De Kock declares himself the scapegoat for the apartheid officials who previously sought him out as a counterinsurgency strategist.

In the Eastern Cape, security officials targeted activists known as the PEBCO Three and Cradock Four in 1985. At the TRC, security officers Johannes Martin Van Zyl, Lieutenant Gideon Nieuwoudt, Sergeant Gerhardus Lotz, Harold Snyman, Gerhardus Beeslaar, Johannes Koole, Kimani Mogai and Hermanus du Plessis took responsibility for the drugging and murder of Sipho Hashe, Champion Galela and Qaqawuli Godolozi of the Port Elizabeth Black Civic Organization before burning their bodies. According to Terry Bell and Dumisa Ntsebeza (who co-authored the book, Unfinished Business), the killers burned the men’s bodies on makeshift pyres while roasting their dinner and consuming beer (see page 170 of Unfinished Business).

Two months after the murder of the PEBCO 3 (activists from Port Elizabeth in the Eastern Cape), several of these same security officers plus Eric Alexander, Nicolaas Janse van Rensburg, and Eugene de Kock orchestrated the deaths of the Cradock Four. The security men kidnapped, stabbed, and burnt to death Matthew Goniwe, Fort Calata, Sparrow Mkonto, and Sicelo Mhlauli. The security officers kidnapped the Cradock Four and designed their deaths to look like a vigilante attack. They stabbed the four activists and burnt their bodies and van.

Another death squad included Warrant Officer Paul Jacobus Jansen van Vurren, “the electrician,” Captain Jacques Hechter and the notorious Joe Mamasela, who had earlier worked at Vlakplaas. Van Vuuren boasted to Jacques Pauw that this death squad might have killed more people than any other security unit. Van Vuuren and his team brutally murdered ANC members Andrew Makupe, Jackson Maake, and Harold Sefola in 1987. Van Vurren allowed Sefola to sing “Nkosi Sikilel I’Afrika” before his team electrocuted him. Van Vurren, Brigadier Jack Cronje, and Captain James Hector applied for amnesty at the TRC for the murder of more 40 people between 1985 and 1988, but van Vurren made clear their applications could not be considered full confessions. They had killed too many to keep track (Into the Heart of Darkness, page 181-185).

Members of the Civil Cooperation Bureau (CCB) of the South African Defence Force (SADF) also wrecked destruction across southern Africa. Pieter Botes, a senior member of the CCB, ordered the planting of the bomb that exploded in ANC activist Albie Sachs’ car in Maputo in 1988. He later boasted he made “mincemeat” out of the future Constitutional Court judge’s right arm (Pauw, 221). He also received orders from the CCB to assassinate SWAPO officials Hidipo Hamutenya and Danny Tsjongerero but the plans fell through and Botes turned to SWAPO member Anton Lubowski. Ferdi Barnard, Calla Botha and Chappies Maree hired an Irish hitman to assassinate Lubowski in Windhoek in 1989. CCB operative Abram van Zyl hung the foetus of an ape in a tree at the home of Archbishop Desmond Tutu (Pauw, 225). Ferdi Bernard, who Jacques Pauw has described as “one of apartheid’s most infamous hoodlums, a Rambo-esque killer who moved between the criminal underworld of drug dealing, prostitution, and diamond smuggling, and South Africa’s official business in the government’s dirty tricks units and deaths squads,” assassinated anti-apartheid activist David Webster in 1989 and attempted to murder Dullah Omar.

In KwaZulu-Natal, the apartheid government fueled violence between the ethnic nationalist Inkatha and the ANC/UDF. While the media described violence on the ground as “black on black,” white South Africans of the military and police played an active role. The Directorate of Military Intelligence spearheaded Operation Marion to provide military support for Inkatha against ANC aligned organizations. Recent research by Jabulani Sithole suggests Minister of Defence Magnus Malan and Chief of the SADF General J.J. Geldenhuys attended a 1985 State Security Council meeting that discussed using Inkatha as a third force. Geldenhuys joined Deputy Minister of Defence and Law and Order Adriaan Vlok, Commissioner of Police General P.J. Coetzee, and Secretary of State Security Council Lt. General P.W. van der Westhuizen on the Third Force Working Committee that began working with Inkatha on preparations for military training in 1986. Perhaps most importantly, Sithole’s research places then Minister of National Education and later President F.W. de Klerk, who has always maintained his “clean hands,” at a meeting that approved the plan (Sithole in SADET v. 6, 851).

As a result of the cooperation, the SADF Military Intelligence directed 18 weeks of paramilitary training in the Caprivi Strip for Inkatha recruits as part of Operation Marion beginning in April 1986. Major Johan Pieter Opperman gave testimony that he took part in this top secret training of an Inkatha army alongside Major Jakes Jacobs, Colonel Jan Breytenbach, and a Colonel Blaauw (Sithole, 854). The SADF deliberately mislead the Inkatha trainees to think they were being trained by a private company in Israel to take part in the struggle against the ANC and communism.

The returned Caprivians were deployed to local Inkatha leaders and chiefs across KwaZulu-Natal in “contra-mobilization” squads, defensive groups, offensive teams, and VIP protection units. The contra-mobilization squads served as Inkatha field organizers and recruiters and also identified local UDF leaders. An offensive squad, located at Port Dunfort under Opperman and Colonel Jan van der Merwe, undertook ambushes, abductions, and assassinations. SAP security branch member Rolf Warber, among others, supplied weapons in the Pietermaritzburg area. The TRC found the SADF-trained Caprivians responsible for many of the most infamous and deadly incidents, including instigation of violence in Mpumalanga and Clermont townships, the Sarmcol shopsteward murders, the KwaMakhutha massacre of 1987, the Midlands War in Edendale and Vulindlela, and the 1990 Seven Days War.

The rural Table Mountain area east of Pietermaritzburg serves as an example in which SADF-trained Caprivians and biased policing fueled civil war. TRC and oral history testimonies related the presence of Inkatha strongman Philip Powell, who received weapons from Vlakplaas’ de Kock and fled South Africa on the eve of arrest in 2000, before and after massacres. The TRC testimony of officer William Basil Harrington of Riot Unit 8 reveals the manner in which the police would selectively involve themselves in the civil war. He explains the police presence occurred “… to prevent [the UDF-aligned] Chief Maphumulo’s people launching an attack on the other [Inkatha aligned] area. Whilst we were having our braai and drinking beer [with Inkatha members] an Inkatha group came around the hillside unseen and launched a new attack on the ANC area.”

We were assured by the group that were [sic] providing the meat and the beer that they were Inkatha people and we had nothing to fear regarding the attack. According to them it also wouldn’t last for very long. After the valley had been burnt we then fired 1000 feet flares for two reasons, namely, firstly to see whether any groups were moving in the direction of the koppie to attack people in the Inkatha area, and secondly, to prove to the ANC people that we were present in the area…

In addition to the biased policing of weapons and attacks, SADF-trained Caprivians took responsibility for the murder of one of Table Mountain’s traditional leaders, the United Democratic Front-aligned Inkosi Mhlabunzima Maphumulo.

This is just a sampling of the apartheid agents worthy of White History Month. It is also a testimony to the investigative reporters and TRC investigators who helped to make this history known. To learn more, we’d recommend Terry Bell and Dumisa Ntsebeza, Unfinished Business; Jacques Pauw, Into the Heart of Darkness and In the Heart of the Whore; De Wet Potgieter, Total Onslaught  (Potgieter’s interviews are available online with African Oral Narratives); James Sanders, Apartheid’s Friends;  and Jabulani Sithole, “The Inkatha Freedom Party and the Multiparty Negotiations,” in The Road to Democracy in South Africa, Volume 6.

Further Reading