General Johann Coetzee’s unexpected decision to abandon the massive powers he has as Commissioner of Police, giving no explanation and handing over to a virtually unknown “administrative man”, has raised a number of crucial questions.
As the man at the centre of the State of Emergency, Coetzee has held one of the most powerful positions in the country. He has been personally responsible for some of the most severe Emergency restrictions. He was head of the joint security forces during a period when the power and influence of the security forces reached unprecedented levels. This was done through the creation of the National Security Management System, headed by the State Security Council, in which Coetzee is a key member, and the powers of decree given to him under Emergency regulations.
Virtually the only hold on his power in recent months has been the annulment of a number of his most contentious decrees by the Supreme Court Coetzee has now announced his “retirement” at a crucial time — on the eve of the first anniversary of the June 12 Emergency and June 16 and June 26 commemorations. He has been commissioner for only four years, although he has spent all 41 years of his career in the police and previously headed the Security Police.
There is no suggestion that this is a routine retirement due to age or health. Indeed, he is handing over to a man who is roughly the same age as he. Speculation around his resignation has centred on what role he will now play, why he has chosen this time to leave, and what role his successor will play. It seems certain that he is to join the Department of Foreign Affairs, probably as a major trouble-shooter. He will start with the tricky question of the conflict between the Transkei and Ciskei homelands, according to government sources.
Coetzee gained some experience in a similiar area when he played an important role in the negotiations that led to the Nkomati Accord with Mozambique. Other speculation has been that he is going to be involved in the crucial area of sanctions-busting or that he will be playing a key role in renewed efforts to clamp down on the press, an area in which Coetzee has shown some interest.
One thing is clear: Coetzee is not likely to disappear into oblivion. Even though his move is a prima facie demotion, it is likely that his new position is temporary and that a more important role has been earmarked for him. There is equal interest in the man who will take his place.
The man who will now run the Emergency, exercise powers of decree and play a crucial role in the State Security Council is Lieutenant-General Hendrik Gideon de Witt, who yesterday described himself as a “desk man” and an “administrative man”. In an interview yesterday, he joked that the only newspaper he believes is the government gazette. “There used to be only two newspapers to believe — the government gazette and the police gazette. Now they’ve done away with the police gazette there’s only one,” he said.
But the incoming Commissioner of Police, who will take over from Coetzee on August 1, is looking forward to meeting the press despite the fact that personally he doesn’t “have much to say”. “I’m not a low profile person, but for many years I’ve been an administrative man. So outside people wouldn’t know me. But I can assure you the police force does.”
The commissioner’s job “is a difficult one now”, he says. “It’s quite a hot seat. But one can never do that alone. We’ve got a good team.” His birthday is ironically also a hotspot falling on December 16. Officially the Day of the Vow, to anti-apartheid groupings it is commemorated as Heroes Day.
He was born in the Upington district 59 years ago and joined the police force in 1946, the year after he matriculated. Most of his work has involved administering the police force. “I don’t hunt criminals,” he says.
For seventeen-and-a-half years he was stationed at the quarter-master general’s office in Pretoria, which was followed by two-and-a-half years as divisional commissioner for Port Natal. He went on to command the counter-insurgency unit and headed the Inspectorate Division in Pretoria. For the last two-and-a-half years he has been chief deputy commissioner.