/ 24 November 1989

Hit-squad clues could be seen long before Coetzee

That, at Ieast is the implication of the separate accounts of death-squad actions by former policemen Captain Dirk Coetzee, Butana Nofomela and David Tshikalange. Past assumptions that assassinations were carried out by civilian right-wingers or "rogues" within the security forces are being swept aside by the sudden flood of new allegations which implicate senior officers. 

Coetzee' s account names former police commissioner General Johann Coetzee as approving the hit squad murders and both Coetzee and Nofomela name recently retired police Brigadier Willem Schoon as the man behind several of the slayings. According to Coetzee another senior police officer involved was Lieutenant-General Lothar Neethling, head of the South African Forensic Bureau, which is said to have prepared the poisoned whiskey allegedly sent lo ANC members in Maputo.

Also named was former police spy, and current National Party President's Councillor Major Craig Williamson, who Captain Coetzee said told him that security police were responsible for the letter-bomb murder of ANC member Ruth First. All four former policemen have categorically   denied the assassination allegations, although General Coetzee has admitted that the account of a security police kidnapping of a Swazi- based ANC member may be true. The heat is now on the police to bring the death-squad activities to an abrupt halt.

Local and international attention focused on the Coetzee case has ensured that further assassinations are likely to be blamed on the police – even if they are not responsible. The Nofomela affidavits and the Coetzee and Tshikalange "confessions" are by no means the first evidence of hit-squad activity.

Over the past 18 months evidence of direct police and army sanction for such activities has steadily emerged in a number of trials and inquests. But it is only now, with me claims of the three policemen, that the pattern is becoming clear. Previous allegations include:

  • The first evidence of the existence of "Askari" death squads organised and led by police officers, was revealed in the Yengeni ANC trial in Cape Town earlier this year. Explaining why he refused to testify as a state witness detainee Bongani Jonas told the court that police attempted to recruit him into an "Askari" group whose task was to go around the townships acting on information of the security police … and seek out and kill their "former colleagues". He said such teams existed in Pretoria East London and the Eastern Cape and a further group was being set up in Cape Town. Last week Captain Coetzee referred to a Pretoria "Askari" group, made up of captured former ANC members, who were involved in political assassinations. This prompted the police to acknowledge the existence of the Vlakplaas base for captured guerrillas, but they denied these squads were involved with assassinations.
  • The Parsons Commission of Inquiry into the kwaNdebele unrest, which is still hearing evidence, was recently told that the homeland's former police commissioner, Brigadier Hertzog Lerm, placed a tyre around the neck of a man poured oil over his head and instructed his underlings to set him alight. Collins Mahlangu, a member of the Ndzundza royal family, told the commission the incident took place on May 12, 1987 after he failed to reveal the whereabouts of his activist brother. His clothes caught fire but he survived the attack. In the same hearing, Lebowa Police Commissioner Brigadier J J de Swardt said Lerm obtained a cabinet order forbidding the Joint Operations Centre of the security forces from acting against the Mbokhoto, the right-wing vigilante groups which conducted a reign of terror in the region. The JOC wanted to investigate a large Mbokhoto camp because they had evidence that a large arms cache was hidden there, De Swardt said.
  • In the 1988 murder trial of police Sergeant Robert van der Merwe evidence was heard how police accepted the activities of death squads. Van der Merwe said he had not hesitated to kill two men he believed had ANC links "because I knew it-happened before". He explained that on the night of the July 1987 Swaziland murder of ANC leader Cassius Make and two others he had been on the Swazi border and had overheard a team of security policemen discussing plans for the assassinations.
  • Support for the view that such activities on the part of the security forces had official support was provided by P W Botha's decision to issue a certificate preventing the prosecution of six South African soldiers accused of murdering Swapo leader Immanuel Shifidi. It emerged at the inquest that over 50 members of the defence force's 101 Battalion had been ferried to Windhoek with the express purpose of disrupting a Swapo meeting. Shifidi was stabbed to death. Four white officers – two colonels, a commandant and a lieutenant " a black corporal and a black private were charged with murder. Since the incident one of the men has been promoted to brigadier.
  • An SADF approach to covert actions came to light in September last year when the defence force was interdicted by the Cape Supreme Court from illegally harassing the End Conscription Campaign. The SADF admitted involvement in a variety of illegal incidents aimed at smearing the ECC. One of them was using a helicopter to drop pamphlets in the name of the "anti-Liberal Alliance" at an ECC fair. Defence Minister Magnus Malan had earlier told parliament the SADF had not been involved with the incident the SADF described the operations, controlled by its Communications Operations Division at Western Province Command headquarters, as "legitimate counter-measures". Lieutenant General Jan van Loggerenberg justified the covert campaign on the basis that the SADF was on a "war footing". Addressing Pretoria University's Institute for Strategic Studies last year General Malan said South Africa had to use "unconventional methods" to achieve its aims. "Like others we do not talk about them " he added. In similar vein Law and Order Minister Adriaan Vlok told a 1988 National Party meeting that it was government policy to "take out" activists. Even more remarkable was a report this week of the response of the Speaker of the House, Louis le Grange to Coetzee's allegations. Le Grange who was Law and Order Minister at the time of the assassinations, was reported to have said, "It does not me now and it did not concern me" and that "I have absolutely no comment to make". A Department of Military Intelligence booklet circulated to state officials last year explains that among the keys to "defeating the enemy" was the "annihilation/neutralisation of the enemy political organisation". A suggestion that De Klerk may be concerned about such an approach is provided by Mozambican Prime Minister Mario Machungo. He was quoted last week as saying that De Klerk promised his government that "the commanding levels" of the SADF would be "reshuffled" to ensure its ties with the MNR were broken. De Klerk and Malan have since denied the truth of the report and insist that SADF support for the MNR has ceased. Until 1984 the government denied all support for the MNR. However, in 1984 Foreign Minister Pik Botha tacitly acknowledged he had previously lied about this, and admitted that such support had occurred, but had been brought to an end by the Nkomati Accord. One of Nofomela's affidavits is believed to state that MNR personnel were sometimes based at the Vlakplaas "Askari" base for the alleged death squads. This has been denied by SA Police PR chief General Herman Stadler.  

An increasing number of assassinations

In the six months since the murder of Dr David Webster the rate of assassinations, murder attempts, death threats and political vandalism aimed at anti-apartheid individuals has grown, according to the Human Rights Commission. Between February and August this year at least 10 activists were assassinated while between April and October this year 23 attempted assassinations were recorded by the HRC. No arrests have been made. "There is a great deal of frustration within the security apparatus, and I'm afraid we're seeing expressions of this in a wide range of illegal activities", said HRC representative Dr Max Coleman. But human rights activists are hopeful that the rifts opened by the current spate of allegations will grow – and that further evidence of security farce atrocities will emerge. HRC figures show that between 1977 and August 1989 at least 49 political activists were assassinated and another 10 were abducted or have disappeared. Since 1985 there have been at least 163 attempted assassinations and there have been over 200 recorded incidents of political vandalism, death threat and other forms of harassment aimed at anti-apartheid activists. According to the Community Resources Information Centre in the 11 years up to Iast April 61 anti-apartheid exiles were assassinated.

This article originally appeared in the Weekly Mail.



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