/ 2 February 1990

Policemen ‘lied to inquest’

The Weekly Mail has evidence of a security police cover-up in the inquest into the deaths of four suspected African National Congress members near Piet Retief in June 1988. Evidence suggests not only that a cold-blooded and premeditated murder was committed on four unarmed people, but that there has been a deliberate falsification of both dates and crucial evidence. 

The operation was carried out under the leadership of Major Eugene Alexander de Kock. De Kock replaced Captain Dirk Coetzee as head of the notorious Vlakplaas-based security police ”death squad”. The Vlakplaas unit is attached to the notorious C1 ”anti-terrorist” unit in Pretoria. Two former policemen – one of whom claims he was severely victimised and put out of commission when he made it clear that he would not go along with the falsification of evidence if called to testify to the inquest – have come forward with what they claim is the real story and the hard evidence to back it up. 

The two, both of whom left the police force last year, were present at the Piet Retief police station when the incident happened in 1988 and have given eyewitness accounts of they saw. They have given Weekly Mail a detailed account of the behaviour of the ”hit squad” and a startling insider’s view of police life, including how their riot squad training consisted mostly of le3flling ”dirty tricks”. Not only were the four people gunned down by police in the first of two incidents near Piet Retief in June 1988 unarmed – contrary to security police evidence – but the date of the incident has been falsified. Also, one of the policemen involved confessed that the wrong people had been killed. Hence, two days later, another operation was launched and four more corpses were delivered to the mortuary- this time supposedly the ”right people”. 

The two former policemen, Marthinus Grobler and James Stevens, said no weapons or other effects of the deceased were booked in at the charge office after the killings. According to strict police procedure such items must immediately be registered as evidence. Later that night, one of the killers confessed that the hit had been made on the ”wrong people”. This Grobler interpreted to mean that the weapons police intelligence had led them to expect, had not been found. Despite the absence of weaponry in the immediate aftermath of the event, a Makarov pistol was handed to the inquest by police claiming it had been found in the possession of the alleged guerrillas. Moreover, both policemen say they can prove that the intention was to kill the ANC suspects and not to arrest them as claimed by the security police.

Grobler and Stevens further claim that the incident happened nearly a week earlier than the court has been led to believe. Grobler, former constable, was on duty in the Piet Relief charge office on the night the four ANC members – one man and three women were killed in a hail of police bullets near the Swaziland border. It was Grobler who signed the firearm register recording the drawing of certain firearms from the safe. Also present was Stevens, another former constable, who, though officially off duty, was hanging around the station because ”there’s not a lot else to do in Piet Retief”. Both men are ”100 percent sure” that it was not after the night of June 4 1988 when the incident occurred. Among other pieces of corroborating evidence is the fact that one of the policemen involved in the killings is referred to by a rank which he no longer held on the date given to the in¬ quest. 

In the court record, Major Eugene de Kock, who commanded the operation, refers to a certain sergeant as being present during the killings. However, on the date given by the police for one of the incidents, the said sergeant, according to Grobler and Stevens, had already been promoted to the rank of warrant officer. Regarding the question of the firearm register, the Weekly Mail is in possession of photocopies of relevant pages of the register which show that the policemen involved in the shooting did not draw weapons on the day the incident supposedly took place. According to the two former policemen, certain security policemen collected firearms about 7pm on the night in question, saying they were going off on ”special duties”. Around midnight they returned with four bodies – one male and three female, and all shot literally to pieces -in the back of a police van. 

Grobler said the bodies and the vehicle in which they were travelling were riddled with lead and steelpoint bullets. Leadpoints are illegal according to police standing orders. The bodies were moved into the adjoining mortuary where a woman constable was called in to perform internal searches on the women. According to Grobler, one of the women was wearing a light blue blouse and powder burns indicated that shots had been fired at point blank range. Later Barnard told Grobler the story of her death: the door of the Toyota Corolla had fallen half open and she had been silhouetted, begging for mercy before he (Barnard) shot her from close up. Once the bodies were in the mortuary, they were stripped and the clothes burnt, Grobler alleges.

In the inquest a Warrant Officer Pienaar said the clothes were only burned after June 21, when the families of the victims identified the bodies. According to Grobler and Stevens, a bizarre party was held in the mortuary where the policemen sang and drank beer and sherry. Grobler found this too much to stomach and re¬ turned to the police station. About a half hour later, the men left the mortuary and returned the keys to Grobler – but not before Barnard had told him that ”the wrong people had been killed”. During the course of the evening Grobler and Stevens inspected the Toyota Corolla. 

Grobler said it was remarkable how little blood there was. All he noticed was a mess of brains splattered on the roof of the car. This is in line with a widely held theory that the occupants were taken out of the car before being shot, then the bodies were returned to the car and further shots fired in order to tie the evidence in with the police version of events. In cross-examination regarding the surprising contention that none of the four travellers was carrying baggage in the boot of the car, de Kock informed the court that the boot had been immobilised, since it contained a hidden police radio, and it was impossible to gain access to it. Grobler claims however that he sent a black policeman down with the keys and that the boot was easily opened.

This article originally appeared in the Weekly Mail.


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