Hit squad suspect Barnard only a bit-part player

Detained David Webster murder suspect Ferdi Barnard appears to be no more than a minor pawn in a larger power play - involved only in surveillance of assassination targets and not in the ‘‘hits” themselves. A picture has emerged, from court records and legal and police sources, of Barnard as a minor player in the clandestine, state-linked death squad network. It is believed that Barnard told the police he was unable to identify the others involved in his cell because they referred to each other by code names. Nine months after Webster’s death the South African Police investigation team appears to have made little progress in cracking the case, despite holding Barnard in detention without trial for nearly three months. 

Yesterday the Pretoria Supreme Court dismissed with costs an urgent application for Barnard’s release, made by his father, former policeman Colonel Piet Barnard. The mission of the former police sergeant and convicted murderer seems to have been to stake out the movements of Webster and two other anti-apartheid activists and pass the information on to a “handler” known only by his code name.
Strong suspicions persist that members of the Department of Military Intelligence were involved in the planning of the murder. The potential targets appear to have been activists suspected by intelligence sources of being African National Congress members who for various reasons could not easily have been brought to court. 

The man heading the murder investigation, Brigadier Floris Mostert of the Brixton Murder and Robbery Squad, said yesterday that there had been no more detentions or arrests of suspects, and that he was not prepared to comment further. Earlier this week, in a replying affidavit arguing against Barnard’s release, Mostert said a “secret organisation exists in the country, with members from all levels of society, which strives to terrorise left-wing radicals with the aid of violence and intimidation.” Among the allegations mentioned in Mostert’s affidavits have been the following: 

  • Barnard had been in contact with Donald Acheson, the man charged with Anton Lubowski’s murder, on at least two occasions before September 12 last year; 
  • Barnard was detained because he refused to give information to the police and was continuing to “withhold vital information from the police”, but “possibly had valuable information about the structure members funding and modus operandi, and therefore also the transgressions of the secret organisation”; 
  • He was arrested on June 9 last year as a suspect in an alleged conspiracy to commit robbery, but further investigations revealed he was monitoring the movements of a “left-wing radical” whose name could not be released because the person’s life could be endangered. 

In his affidavit Piet Barnard said there was no direct evidence or acceptable indication that his son’s detention was related to alleged crimes. Barnard said his son had “fully co-operated” with the police, and would continue to do so, but knew nothing of the Lubowski or Webster murders. In his judgement Mr Justice HJ Press said enough facts had been revealed tor the court to reasonably judge the police’s suspicion that Barnard was withholding vital information in connection with a right-wing organisation responsible for the murders. 

The David Webster Trust yesterday reiterated its call for Barnard to be tried or released, and for a judicial commission of enquiry to be set up to investigate the death squad allegations. The Democratic Party has made a strong call for a judicial commission of enquiry and intends to raise the issue again when parliament reconvenes next month. DP law and order representative and party chairman Tiaan van der Merwe described the current system of investigations as “hopelessly inadequate”. He said “it must be asked if anxiety about the involvement ·or awareness of some cabinet ministers had not influenced President FW de Klerk’s refusal to appoint an independent investigation into police excesses. “It is simply no longer possible to suggest that the events that have been revealed were the work of a handful of maverick policemen. 

The evidence is overwhelming of a vicious and violent system of behaviour on a scale so large hat it cannot have taken place without the explicit or implied approval of people in very ugh places.” Vander Merwe said it was possible that the involvement of certain cabinet ministers ‘influenced De Klerk not to appoint a judicial commission” and said De Klerk’s response ad created the impression he had “something to hide”. It is believed that a departmental enquiry into he hit squad allegations, headed by Free State Attorney-General Tim McNally, came to the conclusion that a departmental enquiry could not deal with such a vast investigation, and that a judicial commission should be appointed. 

The McNally report has still not been released by the government. Early last month, De Klerk rejected this opinion. He said the problem could be dealt with through a thorough police investigation and by bringing the killers to court to face charges. But so far no one has been charged with the Webster assassination, while the only person brought to court in connection with the death squad allegations is former death row prisoner Butana Nofomela, who was the man who initially broke the story by admitting his own involvement in the assassinations. 

Senior policemen such as Pretoria-based security policeman Brigadier Willem Schoon, mentioned by former policemen Nofomela, Dirk Coetzee and David Tshikalange as the man behind the death squads, are still free. The Mostert investigation has confined itself to a criminal murder investigation and has not ventured into the related terrain of the death squad allegations. 

The Webster Trust believes Mostert’s team has neither the authority nor the resources to get much further in their investigation. While De Klerk has yet to budge on his refusal to consider this option, Justice Minister Kobie Coetsee was quoted by a United States congresswomen as saying that if the departmental investigation made no progress the government would consider a judicial commission. 

Another option, if De Klerk persists in his refusal, is to launch a special prosecution, headed by an attorney-general granted extraordinary powers by the state president and assisted by independent investigators. One advantage of this option is that, unlike a judicial commission, it would not have the loophole of allowing witnesses to refuse to give evidence which incriminates themselves.

This article originally appeared in the Weekly Mail.

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