The ‘bloody trail’ of the apartheid police

Investigative journalism was never the forté of the mainstream Afrikaans-language press in South Africa in the period covered by this book. The majority of Afrikaans newspapers founded in the 20th century were started for mainly political reasons, in most cases the advancement of Afrikaner nationalism. When the National Party came to power in South Africa in 1948, the Afrikaans papers considered their main mission to be the consolidation of Afrikaner political power. That was the closest they came to ‘campaigning journalism’.

What passed for investigative journalism in Afrikaans newspapers consisted mainly of exposing so-called ‘boereverneukers’ – small-town crooks, shysters and pyramid scheme operators in the Afrikaans community.

This mould was dramatically broken in the late 1980s when, at the height of the apartheid mayhem, courageous Afrikaans journalist Max du Preez founded Vrye Weekblad as an anti-apartheid weekly in Afrikaans. Du Preez cashed out his savings, asked for a few donations, took the giant leap of faith and bade farewell to the mainstream media.

Journalist Jacques Pauw was a reporter at Afrikaans Sunday paper Rapport, where he cut his teeth in investigative journalism when he helped expose the ‘Kubus’ Ponzi scheme run by serial fraudster Adriaan Nieuwoudt. When Du Preez announced the inception of Vrye Weekblad, the idealistic Pauw jumped at the opportunity.

The camaraderie between Du Preez and Pauw bore fruit less than a year later. Vrye Weekblad made the sensational revelation of the existence of apartheid South Africa’s death squads, sanctioned and authorised by the government. Their story shook the Nationalist regime to its foundations and is widely recognised as one of the decisive moments in the final implosion of apartheid, destroying what little was left of the government’s claims to moral cause.

In the early to mid-1980s, in the course of his reporting duties, Pauw had come into contact with one Dirk Coetzee, a former captain in the Gestapo-like security branch of the SA Police (SAP). Coetzee revealed to Pauw the existence of a nefarious outfit in the SAP by the name of Unit C1, based at Vlakplaas, an agricultural small-holding 30 kilometres west of Pretoria. Coetzee started the Vlakplaas operation in 1980 on instruction from the SAP high command and was its first commanding officer.

According to Coetzee, the overall mission of Vlakplaas (Unit C1) was the disruption and destruction of the activities of individuals and organisations involved in the political struggle against the apartheid regime. Their tactics were brutal and included the cold-blooded murders of activists, arson, merciless torture (often resulting in death), the bombing of buildings and carrying out assassinations using explosive devices and drive-by shootings.
But, as often happens when ‘methods of barbarism’ – to use the well-known historic phrase – are employed in the pursuit of political aims, Coetzee fell out with his superiors in the SAP. He was side-lined to a desk job and took medical retirement.
In graphic and comprehensive detail, Coetzee revealed to Pauw the full horrors of apartheid’s death squads, including his own participation in a number of murders and other serious crimes.

When Pauw first heard these stories he was still employed by Rapport and knew full well the paper would never touch them. If truth be told, very few mainstream South African newspapers would.
Coetzee also told his tale of death to a mainstream Afrikaans newspaper editor, a prominent National Party member of Parliament and a Progressive Federal Party MP. None believed him or did anything, according to Pauw.
Once at Vrye Weekblad, he regularly discussed the Vlakplaas story with the editor, Du Preez. Both agreed the story needed to be told, but also knew what risks were involved. Vrye Weekblad was small and thinly resourced. By then a full-blown national state of emergency was in force in the country, including draconian media regulations, which made provision for the arbitrary closing of publications and prison sentences for ‘transgressing’ editors and reporters who dared to ignore these. Not to mention civil law suits that could result in life-long financial ruin for the journalists.

Assassinations that fitted the pattern in Coetzee’s revelations continued to occur. On 1 May 1989, Wits academic and anti-apartheid activist David Webster was gunned down in front of his Johannesburg home and three months later, Swapo leader Anton Lubowski died a similar death in Windhoek, Namibia. But as seasoned journalists, Pauw and Du Preez knew they needed more than Coetzee’s word to publish his story. On his part, Coetzee was worried about his safety and raised the possibility of leaving the country. A breakthrough came in October 1989 when anti-apartheid paper The Weekly Mail reported that a member of the SAP, one Butana Almond Nofemela, who had been convicted of murder, made sensational allegations about the existence of a hit squad in the SAP. He confessed to being a member and to his participation in several high-profile political murders. Nofemela also revealed that Coetzee was his commander at Vlakplaas, in the process corroborating much of what Coetzee earlier told Pauw. Nofemela decided to speak up in an attempt to save his own life when he realised he was about to be executed.

At Vrye Weekblad, Pauw and Du Preez got going, now more determined than ever to get their story out. They argued that Afrikaans readers in particular needed to know what horrific deeds were being perpetrated in their name, ostensibly to retain Afrikaner political control. Nofemela’s revelations deeply rattled Coetzee. He feared assassination. He, more than anyone else, knew what these people were capable of. Since pouring his guts out to Pauw for the first time, Coetzee had also established a new life outside the SAP and was concerned over the safety of his young family. At the same time, political change was accelerating in South Africa. The air was thick with rumour that the apartheid government, realising its iron grip on the country was slipping, was ready to enter into negotiations with the then outlawed liberation movements.

National Congress (ANC), asking them to assist in getting Coetzee out of the country. Banned in apartheid South Africa, the movement by the late 1980s attained the aura of a government-in-exile. It was the pre-eminent liberation movement with more diplomatic missions abroad than the Pretoria government. When Du Preez and Pauw mentioned to Coetzee a possible escape plan involving the ANC, he was initially shocked,

In November 1989, Coetzee and Pauw travelled to the resort island of Mauritius, where he was, once again, extensively interviewed by Pauw. After that Coetzee was placed in the care of the ANC in London. The strategy to involve the then outlawed ANC was as risky as it was smart. If government agencies had found out about their plans, Du Preez and Pauw could face serious criminal charges, possibly including treason. But the plan worked. On 17 November 1989 Vrye Weekblad hit the streets with a front-page banner headline reading ‘Bloody trail of the SA Police’. In page after page the paper reported, in gruesome detail, how activists were tortured, maimed and murdered, many of them household names in the liberation struggle. By also revealing the internal structures and lines of command in Unit C2, Vrye Weekblad convincingly showed that Vlakplaas was no rogue operation, but an official project, authorised right up to the highest echelons of government.

The Vlakplaas story hit the country like a thunderbolt. It was also splashed across front pages and TV screens all over the world – an amazing achievement for a paper selling less than 20,000 copies per week and staffed by a small band of activist journalists. The reaction of the apartheid government’s propaganda machine was swift and predictable. Denial upon denial was issued. Vlakplaas was described as a mere training facility where ‘rehabilitated’ ANC cadres – called askaris – were housed. ‘Every inch of dirt against Coetzee was paraded in public. He was branded a liar, perjurer, traitor, gangster and psychopath,’ Pauw later wrote in the book Tell Me No lies. The police used their ‘contacts’ in the mainstream media to discredit Coetzee and Vrye Weekblad. Coetzee had never left South Africa and was hiding in a delusional state somewhere on a farm, said Rapport. Another Afrikaans newspaper said one had to be mad to believe Coetzee while an English-language newspaper said that the ANC had paid the apartheid hitman R1 million to say what he said.

Vrye Weekblad also exposed Coetzee’s successor at Vlakplaas, Colonel Eugene de Kock, who was dubbed ‘Prime Evil’ because of his prolific ‘kill rate’. The newspaper later revealed that Vlakplaas was not disbanded after its exposure in the newspaper as officially declared by State President F.W. de Klerk, but continued after 1990 as a ‘Third Force’ that stoked violence between the ANC and the Inkatha political movement across the country. But as the political drama of South Africa’s transition to democracy unfolded, the bulk of the allegations over the murderous activities of the apartheid state’s security apparatus was proven to be factual and correct. Pauw said in an interview that Vrye Weekblad had made only one mistake in their exposure of Vlakplaas: it was much worse than what the newspaper originally thought. Because of its involvement in the so-called ‘black-on-black’ violence in the early 1990s, the death toll of Vlakplaas ran into the hundreds, maybe thousands of victims. Testimony in courts and the proceedings of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), established two years after the new South African government took over in 1994, confirmed the Vrye Weekblad reports. Pauw and Du Preez’s decision to cooperate with the ANC in November 1989 was effectively vindicated when the TRC granted Coetzee full amnesty for the crimes he committed at Vlakplaas. Vrye Weekblad closed its doors in January 1994, bankrupted by endless tax-funded litigation embarked upon by powerful apartheid figures and bureaucrats whose activities were exposed by the paper.

The Vlakplaas commander that succeeded Coetzee, Eugene de Kock, was arrested days after South Africa’s first democratic election in April 1994 and two and a half years later, he was sentenced to several life sentences and 220 years’ imprisonment. The generals that made De Kock one of the most decorated policemen in history and gave him instructions to ‘make a plan’ to deal with targeted activists were never charged. The politicians that provided the secure environment in which the unit flourished, made available secret funds for clandestine operations and attended barbeques at Vlakplaas to thank De Kock for his sterling service denied any knowledge of the unit and its activities.

Hit Squad’s Register of Terror
Jacques Pauw, Vrye Weekblad, 17 November 1989

Captain Dirk Coetzee admits that he had, until and including 1982, actively participated and helped plan various murders and terror attacks that were committed by the South African Police’s special unit at Vlakplaas. Then he still kept in touch with several members of the hit squad and is aware of other acts of terror in the following years. Here is his register of death: The murder of the anti-apartheid activist and Durban lawyer Griffiths Mxenge: ‘In November 1981 I was called from Vlakplaas to Durban by Brigadier Van der Hoven, the then head of Security in Natal, where I was instructed to kill Mxenge. ‘The police knew that money for the ANC was channelled through him, but could not prove it. I was told to ensure that the murder looked like a robbery, because Van der Hoven said the police were not in the mood for another Biko case. The security police in Durban pointed out his home to us and informed us about his movements. Captain Koos Vermeulen, Warrant Officer (now Lieutenant) Paul van Dyk and I laced four pieces of meat with strychnine to poison his dogs with and gave it to my Askari’s, Almond Nofomela, David Tshikalange, Brian Ngulungwa and one Joe.

‘I instructed them clearly that he should be killed with knives and not be shot. I was then informed of all their movements: how they followed him, the poisoning of his three dogs and the trap they had set for him on the side of the road. They told me how they had stopped, kidnapped and taken him to the Umlazi Stadium where they stabbed him to death with knives. They also cut his throat and cut his ears off. ‘After the incident I met them late at night at a pre-arranged meeting place where they had Mxenge’s jacket, watch, wallet and car keys. They assured me that it looks like a robbery. ‘I’ve since reported back to Van der Hoven, who instructed that the team must return to Pretoria. ‘There I was called to Brigadier Marius Schoon, who very anxiously wanted to know if we had left any traces. He ordered that Mxenge’s car should be burned immediately. It was done close to the Swaziland border. ‘I later heard that General Johan Coetzee, then Head of the Security Police, after my report back, had been called out of a meeting to hear the news of the successful operation.

‘The Askaris each received a R1,000 for their good work.’ The murder of two ANC members near Komatipoort: ‘After the army’s raid into Maputo in 1980, two suspected ANC members, Vusi and Ghost, were kidnapped and brought into South Africa. Ghost was taken to Vlakplaas where he later willingly started to work with the police. Vusi was held in the police cells in Brits, where he had the attitude of “Charge me or shoot me”

‘Schoon gave the instruction that Vusi and another captive ANC member that was held at Vlakplaas, Peter, had to be gotten rid of. I collected Vusi (his MK name) from the police cells and took him to an abandoned farm near the Kopfontein border post where Captain Koos Vermeulen and Peter were already waiting for us. ‘I first let Vusi sign three different, predated invoices with three different pens so it would seem as if he was still alive and in our service three months later. ‘Vermeulen and I poured poison, that had been prepared by the forensics laboratory, into their cold drink and beer. Everyone talked about Lothar’s poison (General Lothar Neethling is head of the forensics laboratory). We were assured that 60 grams would be enough to let them die of a “heart attack”. The poison would not work. We increased the dosage to 360 grams each, but nothing happened.

‘We later took the two to Komatipoort where Paul van Dyk waited for us. From there we went to a farm nearby where Major Archie Flemington of Security at Komatipoort met us. ‘We gave Vusi and Peter sleep medication that had also been prepared by the forensics laboratory. We had been asked beforehand to keep notes of the effects of the sleep medication. When the two ‘terros/terries’ were sufficiently confused, Vermeulen shot them through the head with Makarov pistol with a silencer. ‘The two bodies were then burned along with wood and tyres that we found on a rubbish dump. It took seven hours before the bodies were burned out. The ash and the remains were dumped into the Komati River.

‘During the burning of the two “terries” (terrorists) security men of Komatipoort told me how they had distributed strong alcohol, laced with poison, among ANC members in Maputo. The poison is injected through the lids of the bottles with a micro needle.

(Other incidents listed:) The burning of a ‘second Biko’ … The murder of activist Patrick Makau and a young child … The bomb attack on Chris Hani, military leader of Umkhonto We’Sizwe … The murder of (exiled journalist, researcher and activist) Ruth First … Hit on Marius Schoon … A diamond trader is killed by the hit squad … An ANC member is blown up in Swaziland … A kidnapping from Swaziland … The blowing-up of ANC offices in London … Coetzee speaks of several other days of terror that he personally was involved in or that he knew of. He speaks of other incidents, especially in Swaziland where ANC members were murdered and kidnapped.