What happened on Bird Island

The pain caused by the South African Apartheid government has been widely recorded. But we may not have heard the half of it.

Bird Island in the Eastern Cape, the site of sexual crimes by Apartheid government ministers. Image credit Steve McNicholas via Flickr.

“It’s about my older brother, sir … They’ve hurt him.” This startling claim is made by a young boy in a recent book, The Lost Boys of Bird Island by Mark Minnie and Chris Steyn. The hurt he describes results from paedophilic rape. The alleged perpetrators: ministers of the Apartheid nationalist government.

The pain caused by the South African Apartheid government has been widely recorded. Yet, the allegations collected in this bombshell of a book suggest new depths in the moral depravity of the regime.

In recent weeks the content of the book has received extensive media coverage in South Africa, which took a further twist when one of the authors, former detective Mark Minnie, who co-authored the book with veteran investigative journalist Chris Steyn, was found dead in an apparent suicide.

To summarize: the book details allegations against the (now deceased) former Minister of Defense in the Apartheid government, Magnus Malan, his friend John Wiley—the former Minister of Environmental Affairs—as well as a third former minister (whose name was withheld in the book, but former Apartheid Finance Minister Barend du Plessis has since, unprompted, outed himself in an interview in the Afrikaans newspaper Rapport). Minnie and Steyn allege that the men were involved in a pedophile ring organized by a businessman from Port Elizabeth, Dave Allen, on nearby Bird Island. Allen and Wiley were well acquainted, and Allen had a government permit to harvest guano on Bird Island. The men’s visits to the island in a military helicopter had previously been confirmed by Malan, who maintained until his death that they were official military business visits (even though they took their fishing rods along).

It is now alleged that the group of men took young boys along on these visits, plied them with alcohol and then raped them, forcing them to participate in sex orgies. Minnie, working as a detective in Port Elizabeth, arrested Allen in 1987 on a charge of statutory rape. Allen immediately “sang like a canary,” Minnie recalled and pointed the finger at high-ranking politicians who he alleged were complicit in the abuse. Allen died shortly after his arrest, in an apparent suicide, before the case could go to court. Within weeks, his friend Wiley was also found dead, also apparently as a result of suicide. In a chilling resonance with Minnie’s own recent death, the book alleges that the two deaths were murders that were set up to look like suicides.

The rumors of pedophilia would clearly have damaged the reputation of the NP-regime at a time when the party was fighting for its survival against growing resistance in- and outside of the country. Rumors about Wiley’s alleged sexual relations with underage boys had already been circulating. Wiley was the only English-speaking Minister in PW Botha’s cabinet and apparently such a racist that he left the Anglican church after Desmond Tutu was appointed as Archbishop. Malan defended his friend (“he’s not that type of man”), but admitted that he knew about Allen’s pedophilia. The media, then muzzled by a range of regulations under a State of Emergency, were warned by the police not to speculate about Wiley’s reasons for suicide, and refused to confirm or deny that Wiley was visited by two police colonels on the morning of his death. International news agencies such as UPI covered the issue more extensively. In his obituary at the occasion of Malan’s death in 2011, Chris Barron again referred to these allegations. Other journalists, such as Colin Urquhart of the Weekend Post and Martin Welz of Rapport, also worked on the story at the time, but like Chris Steyn, they eventually abandoned the story when the trail went cold. The Apartheid state’s machinery went into overdrive, and even former president PW Botha reportedly intervened to make the story go away.

The book’s description of the tight bond between Malan, Wiley, the third minister and Allen is not new news. Partly due to the NP government’s strict control of information, and partly due to newspaper editors’ hesitation and fears of prosecution, the story remained speculative. This book however now reconstructs the events in more detail, to the extent that the country’s National Prosecuting Authority has indicated that they would in principle be able to prosecute if presented with evidence. Both Steyn and Minnie initially worked on separate books about the story, until the publisher linked them up and they combined forces.

The book reads effortlessly, written in a pulp fiction style, with first-person narrators who become characters themselves: The flawed detective with a love of hamburgers and whisky, contending with bar fights and hangovers while chasing the bad guys. A stubborn but diligent journalist that fights for the truth, getting reined in by wimpy editors. Unidentified informants, mysterious telephone calls, disappearing dockets.

The advantage of this style is that the book sidesteps the pitfall that even excellent investigative journalism does not always manage to avoid—bombarding the reader with complex facts, dates and names that are difficult to keep track of. The disadvantage, however, is that the accessible tone can undermine the gravity and impact of the allegations—especially since the nature of the investigation, confidentiality of sources and the historic nature of the events requires a reliance on circumstantial evidence. Subsequent to the publication of the book, at least one victim—”Mr X”—has come forward to confirm the allegations, remaining anonymous out of fear for his life.

The risk of a book like this is that reading can become a voyeuristic act, the disturbing, gruesome story reduced to gossip. The journalistic norm of audi alteram partem—”listen to the other side”—is difficult to follow in such a case. Steyn had interviewed Magnus Malan before his death and also quotes from other interviews and coverage in which he denied the allegations. While the media have covered the story extensively, Afrikaans publications in particular have also given much space and credence to denials issued by Apartheid politicians such as Du Plessis,  and their friends, such as Wouter Basson. After weeks of coverage—and backlash from its conservative readers—Rapport’s editor Waldimar Pelser backtracked in an op-ed, admitting that the newspaper should have indicated more clearly that the allegations have not been proven. On the same day, the less hesitant English-language Sunday Times published a full-page obituary for Minnie, interviewed a relative of another victim, and in an editorial called for justice to be done. Even decades later, discursive power relations are still playing out. Until the lions have their own historians, indeed.

How does one read such a book in a responsible manner? Three reactions from readers are possible: anger, disgust and denial.

Anger, especially among the generation that remembers the days when Magnus Malan in his olive brown uniform was a regular and unpleasant face on our TV screens. Those on the receiving end of the military performances in the townships might potentially not be as shocked to hear about further violence from the former government’s side. It was, after all, during Malan’s tenure that the Civil Cooperation Bureau was founded, hit squads were sent into neighboring countries to murder activists, and Basson’s Project Coast was authorized. On the other end of the barrel, there were young white conscripts. There are still many enraged Boetmans who, thirty years later, live with the psychological effects rooted in the experience of being simultaneously a victim of a system that devoured its own young, and forced them to become accomplices in the systemic violence visited upon the townships, Namibia and Angola. Those men who wasted two years of their lives—and whose friends or family members lost theirs—in the service of the SADF, colloquially known as “PW, Magnus and Sons,” will probably read the book with a combination of Schadenfreude and frustration at the prospect that this story might again stay locked up in the closet of apartheid evils, rather than end up in court.

Disgust is another probable reaction to the allegations. Prudish readers might find the language crude, the topic unsavory. There is, however, no nice way to talk about rape. The revisionists will protest again that history should be left to lie: “How long do we still need to listen to these stories of apartheid?” Such a stance, at the very least, ignores  the roots of the country’s current pandemic of violence against women and children due to toxic masculinity, which cannot be addressed without acknowledging its roots in the country’s centuries of violence, dispossession and oppression.

But then there are those readers already denying these revelations, and dismissing them as malicious gossip or conspiracy theories. After all, aren’t these the upstanding leaders that told us they were defending Christian civilization in Africa against the Total Onslaught of Communism? The staunch patriarchs who turned our boys into men, taught them to proudly stand to attention and take up weapons against the enemies on our borders? Why would these good men abuse vulnerable children? It seems to have escaped these readers that they base their defence of the alleged paedophiles on the exact same model of masculinity that justified the use of shock therapy, humiliation and beatings of gay men and women in the Apartheid military, headed by Malan.

There might be potentially legitimate questions about the writers’ methods, the accuracy of every claim and the lack of concrete proof. But to acknowledge the absence of conclusive empirical proof is something completely different to greet these allegations with disbelief from the outset simply because the shocking image of molesting ministers does not fit a still deeply engrained belief among some conservative whites that their reign was at heart a moral, well-intentioned one. Perhaps there were a few bad apples in the ranks, but ultimately their intentions were good, weren’t they? A mishap here and there, but as a whole apartheid surely was not a crime against humanity, Afriforum pleads, after all. It’s that distance between the uncle in the church pews and the minister in the uniform that Hannah Arendt described as the “banality of evil.” It is precisely because that chasm is so wide, and so difficult to bridge in a collective psyche conditioned through those very same institutions, that the initial reaction among such readers would be denial. Because an acknowledgement of this evil would then lead to the most uncomfortable question of all—how, in whatever subtle way, we too have been guilty of exploitation, suppression and amnesia. Despite its shortcomings, these ethical questions make up the book’s strongest appeal—because the writers ask those questions of themselves too.

Ultimately it is not the ruined reputation of the former ministers that we should be most concerned about. The book is dedicated to “the boys of Bird Island—and all children that suffer under those who have power over them.” If the past has taught us anything about humanity, those we ought to be lying awake over at night are this country’s lost generations. How are the violated living with their memories? Did they manage to salvage their dignity, or have they succumbed to the continued cycles of abuse South Africans are all too familiar with? How do you re-learn the language of humanity and regain trust in others once you have had a pistol shoved into you?

If nothing else, the book is a powerful metaphor for an entire system that was based precisely on the stripping of human dignity, the exercise of violence and the ruthless exploitation that this story so harrowingly recounts.

Hulle was die oorlog vir die nuwe dag
Vir Harry Oppenheimer en al sy maats
Vir Rembrandt van Rijn en Alfred Dunhill
En die OK Bazaars
En die hele bloody spul by die SAUK
Julle was die oorlog vir die CIA
Generaal ry rond in sy blink swart kar
Speel skaak met die kinders van ons land
En agter hom is die wêreld nou erg aan die brand


They were the battle for the new day
For Harry Oppenheimer and all his friends
For Rembrandt van Rijn and Alfred Dunhill
And the OK Bazaars
And the whole bloody SABC gang
You were the war for the CIA
General drives around in his shiny black car
Plays chess with the children of our country
And behind him the world is now on fire

(Lyrics from “Goeienag Generaal” (Good night General) by Piet Botha)

In the bay, only half hidden under the mist, the island is still there, and always has been.

Further Reading