The night Ferdi Barnard told me he killed
In an extract from his new book, Into the heart of Darkness, journalist Jacques Pauw describes a bizarre confession from the crack-smoking hoodlum who is now on trial for Webster’s murder
His head was bouncing and hopping like a rubber ball on his broad shoulders, while clutched between his thumb and forefinger was a thin glass syringe, stuffed with a mixture of tobacco and small cocaine crystals. He had lit the pipe a minute before, and a whiff of cigarette tobacco and chemical substance was filling the car.
“It’s true. I killed him,” he suddenly said, kept quiet for a second or two, and let rip again: “It’s true. I shot him.”
“Who?” I asked him.
Sitting next to me sucking on his crack pipe was Ferdi Barnard, 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 death squads.
The tiny orange coal in his crack pipe glowed brightly in the afternoon light as it slowly burned down the syringe, consuming the crystals and tobacco. He blew a streak of white smoke against the front window of the car where it exploded into a million molecules.
“He flew through the air and landed on the pavement. I saw it, because I shot him. I did it.”
Before he continued, he put the pipe in his mouth again and inhaled the mixture into his lungs. “It was all that tea parties and shit. That’s why we killed him. I pulled the trigger, I shot him.”
We looked at one another. I didn’t say anything, too scared to interrupt him and stop a confession.
“I was paid a R40 000 production bonus after the killing. For a job well done. It was an approved operation and Joe Verster [then director of the Civil Co-operation Bureau] knew about everything.”
Silence again. The coal had nearly burned its way to the bottom of the pipe.
“Who were the other two people in the car with you?”
“There was only one other person.”
“Was it Eugene Riley?”
He laughed. “I’m not going to say anything. Maybe he was, maybe he wasn’t. Make your own deduction.”
“Why don’t you confess and ask for amnesty?”
“I won’t. I won’t. I will never ask for amnesty.”
“And what about Anton Lubowski?”
“No, I didn’t kill him.”
“You told me three years ago you tried to shoot him at one stage.”
“Yes, that’s true. Everything I told you was true. But I didn’t pull the trigger.”
His pipe was finished.
“Come on.” he said, “let’s go back. People are going to think that we are two moffietjies [little gays] sitting here in the car.”
The last shred of normality in the lives of David Webster and his lover Maggie Friedman was a Saturday morning frolic with their dogs.
On May 1 1989, Dr David Webster, a university lecturer and a tireless anti- apartheid campaigner, was opening the back door of his van, parked in front of his house in Troyeville, Johannesburg, to let his dogs out. A car pulled up alongside him. A shotgun was fired at close range. Sixteeen coarse-grain pellets entered his body, and as he was dying, the assassin sped away.
The last words he spoke were: “I’ve been shot with a shotgun ... call an ambulance.” Less than 30 minutes later, he died.
David Webster was never a prominent figure in the struggle, but he was a passionate campaigner against detention without trial. Webster became famous among former detainees and detainees’ parents for intervening on their behalf and arranging gatherings at which people could sing, pray and be comforted. They became known as Webster’s “tea parties” and made him the subject of attention by the security forces.
In the days, weeks and months that followed, the murder of David Webster became one of the most highly publicised assassinations in the history of this country. Few murders in South Africa’s violent history have been the subject of so much publicity, investigation, suspicion, false leads and accusations.
Six months after the murder of Webster, a former narcotics bureau detective and convicted murderer by the name of Ferdi Barnard was detained under Section 29 of the Internal Security Act for the murder. Shortly afterwards, a former murder and robbery detective and provincial rugby player, Calla Botha, was also taken in.
Although they were released a few months later for lack of evidence, their detention led to the exposure of a sinister and secret death squad within the South African Defence Force (SADF) that was ominously known as the Civil Co-operation Bureau (CCB), a network of criminals, former reconnaissance soldiers and murder and robbery unit policemen who operated all over southern Africa.
Their actions ranged from shootings, bombings and poisoning to intimidation, breaking windows, stealing heart pills and hanging a monkey foetus in a tree at the residence of a Nobel Peace Prize laureate.
None of the long list of unsavoury CCB agents who was exposed was more menacing than Ferdi Barnard, an underworld gangster with a reputation as a man of violence. Those who dared to speak about his nefarious secrets were threatened and withdrew their statements. Several people once close to him are now dead or fear for their lives. That is probably why he was on the loose for so long.
October 23 1996, and in the car sitting next to me Ferdi Barnard was hiding his crack pipe under the carpet. He had called me earlier that morning to obtain a tape recording of a documentary I had produced on the life and times of his friend and former police death-squad commander, Colonel Eugene de Kock. The documentary had been screened the previous night and Barnard was one of the characters I had interviewed.
Barnard loved seeing himself on television. When he walked into the fish restaurant in Seventh Street in Melville, Johannesburg, he said: “It was good for business.” He was referring to the brothel he managed in the northern suburbs of Johannesburg. The killer had very much become one of the “kings of smut” of Johannesburg’s booming sex industry.
I had interviewed him 10 months earlier in another upper-class brothel, aptly named The Palace, in a double-storey house in the affluent northern suburbs.
For several days we had waited for Barnard at the brothel as young, “R300-a-time” hookers were whisked away in taxis to clients in plush hotel rooms, while others, showing off their wares in miniskirts and black stockings, lined the fake marble foyer of the brothel.
From time to time, a stolid-looking guard, an economy-size version of Barnard and armed with a sub-machine gun, scrutinised us. A night or two later, the same man grabbed one of the girls in the brothel’s strip club, pinned her to the ground and simulated sex with her.
One of the managers of the club, a former military intelligence operative, told me then that he was worried that Barnard was taking too much cocaine. The manager, a self-confessed drug smuggler and hit man, said that he personally supplied Barnard with several grams of cocaine every day.
Barnard finally walked into the plastic foyer of The Palace, followed by a blonde girl who obviously adored him, sat down on the couch in the casino and spoke about Eugene de Kock. His head was veering around, probably from too much cocaine.
I had met Ferdi Barnard for the first time at the end of 1992 after he had testified in the judicial inquest into the murder of David Webster. Barnard attended the court proceedings virtually every day as the lawyers representing the Webster family tried to pin the murder on him and the CCB.
On days when Barnard thought he might be called to testify, his big frame was tightly packed into a pink-brown double- breasted suit. On other days, he looked more comfortable in jeans, ankle-high white sneakers and a multi-coloured short-sleeved shirt.
When he finally took the witness stand, he denied any complicity in the murder.
In a crucial testimony, a Springbok sprinter and former employer of Barnard told the court that the CCB man had described how Webster’s body “flew through the air” after he had pulled the trigger. But afterwards he astounded the court when he said that his testimony was false and that he no longer wished to testify.
Years later, I was told that a close friend of Barnard had threatened the witness during the tea break: “You will be pissing in your pants when I’m finished with you.” The friend, a criminal and former military intelligence operative, mysteriously died in January 1994.
The inquest judge found that although Barnard was a prime suspect, no proof beyond a reasonable doubt could be established that Barnard had been responsible for the murder of David Webster.
Soon after the inquest, I met Barnard several times. On these occasions he volunteered information about the illegal weapons dealings of his close friend Colonel Eugene de Kock, with whom he had fallen out at the time.
One day, Barnard visited me at my home and told me how he had had to shoot Swapo leader Anton Lubowski in 1989 on the eve of the Namibian elections. He said he twice waited with an Ak-47 assault rifle to kill Lubowski, but couldn’t get a clear aim and had to abandon the project.
His CCB colleagues then flew to Namibia to finish Lubowski off, four months after the killing of Webster. When he left later that afternoon he said I was never to speak about Lubowski. “Ask Webster what happened to him,” he said and laughed.
When Ferdi Barnard arrived at the Melville restaurant, he was accompanied by a man by the name of “Rassie”, who didn’t speak much and was clearly there to look after Barnard, who would from time to time excuse himself and go to the toilet, probably to take another fix of coke.
I later discovered that “Rassie” was none other than Lieutenant Erasmus of the South African Police organised crime unit, and that instead of investigating Barnard for a series of crimes ranging from murder to diamond smuggling, was acting, it seems, as his guardian.
At about four o’clock that afternoon, Barnard must have run out of drugs and ordered me to go with him to his car.
As he was fiddling around looking for his crack and pipe, a $100 note fell out of a compartment between the two front seats. He picked it up and said: “This is for you. Take it.” I knew it had to be a counterfeit note as I had been told that Barnard and his criminal network were involved in the smuggling of bogus dollars.
I afterwards took the note to a foreign- currency dealer, who told me that it was a “near-perfect” forgery.
The same day that Barnard confided in me about Webster, I told two friends and colleagues about the confession. A few months later, I made an affidavit about what Barnard had told me, and I decided then that if ever I was subpoenaed to testify against him, I would have to do so.
I had lunch with Barnard in the same restaurant in December 1996, but when he sat down on that occasion, he said: “I’m clean. I’m not taking drugs any more.” He was indeed sober, the name of David Webster wasn’t mentioned and no further confessions were forthcoming.
Barnard clearly has a tendency to talk, especially when he is high on drugs. When he told me about Webster, he was certainly stoned and intoxicated by all the drugs he had consumed, but his speech was composed and sensible.
I have often wondered why he told me about the killing, because he knows I am a journalist and have been working on and exposing death squads for several years.
He trusts me, and the fact that I had never spoken about his attempted killing of Anton Lubowski probably reinforced that perception. Maybe he thinks that I am afraid of him, since he rules by fear and nobody dares to stand up to him.
Since his confession, I have been torn between some loyalty to Barnard, journalistic ethics and my simple citizen’s duty to report and speak of a murder that was committed.
The murder of David Webster has caused incredible pain, not only to those who were close to him, but it also contributed to tearing this country apart at a time when we were fighting for human dignity and civil rights.
I do not believe that Ferdi Barnard should go unpunished and continue his mafiosi schemes, planned and executed from his dives in Johannesburg’s northern suburbs.
Towards the end of 1996, new evidence against Ferdi Barnard emerged when his former live-in lover provided details of the murder of David Webster and a host of other crimes.
The previously bungled and half-hearted investigation was reopened, but this time it was handled by an invigorated and dedicated special team of policemen.
On September 2 1997, Barnard was arrested and charged with the murders of David Webster and a Johannesburg drug dealer, as well as 22 additional crimes ranging from attempted murder to the illegal possession of firearms.
Barnard’s reign of supremacy over Johannesburg’s gangland may at last have come to an end.
Over the past seven years, I have listened to many confessions by apartheid’s killers, some so cruel and savage they were beyond comprehension. Of how police killers had a barbecue and a drinking orgy next to the burning body of an African National Congress member they had just murdered; of three civic leaders who had iron pipes smashed into their heads; and an SADF assassin who boasted about the “mincemeat” he made out of an arm of an ANC lawyer he blew up with a car bomb.
But none was more uncanny than the confession about the activist who “flew through the air”.
—Into the Heart of Darkness, published by Jonathan Ball, is a collection of extraordinary tales of apartheid’s killers whom Pauw has personally encountered as a reporter. It is to be released on Monday, November 21