It was easier to kill than do paper work

Almond Nofemela told the Harms Commission that he had made only one arrest in his eight years as a policeman. There is no reliable estimate of how many people he killed but 50 is not an unreasonable number. Mr Justice Louis Harms expressed some surprise: were people not at least occasionally processed through the usual channels in the special branch’s anti-terrorist unit? “Too much paperwork,” Les Roberts, deputising for state attorney general Tim McNally, muttered under his breath.
The picture which emerged this week of the Cl branch of the SB’s anti-terrorist unit involved, so to speak, little paperwork. It was easier to simply kill or destroy. 

When Nofemela - brought up from death row to give evidence described the training he received at the unit’s base on the police farm, Vlakplaas, he detailed three areas of instruction: ambushing, kidnapping and shooting (mainly with Soviet made weapons) and knifing. Arson might also have been mentioned and assault and torture, but in the main, the job description- at least on Nofemela’s testimony - was accurate enough. Nofomela showed few signs of remorse during the approximately six hours he spent in the witness box. His only emotive gesture came right at the beginning of his examination when he refused to take the oath. . It went against his beliefs, he said tersely, to swear before God. Prison life had made him an atheist, it seemed. 

Describing the killing of human rights lawyer Griffiths Mxenge he calmly went into clinical detail. The four security police assassins were busy stabbing Mxenge, as ordered by his commander, former Captain Dirk Coetzee. But fellow assassin David Tshikalange’s knife got stuck in the victim’s throat and the killer lost his grip. Already pierced with more than a score of stab wounds, Mxenge managed to pull the knife out of his throat and turn it on his attackers. But despite his desperate attempt, Mxenge soon lay dead on the ground and the four security police killers could report a mission accomplished. 

According to Nofemela’s evidence, the Mxenge killing was the first secret mission in which he was involved. His role, as a trained policeman - he attended police college at Hammanskraal for six months in 1980 before joining the security police - was to supervise the Askaris, former ANC guerrillas now working for the SAP. Nofemela said at least one trained policeman always accompanied the Askaris on missions. One week after the Mxenge mission, Nofemela returned to Vlakplaas. His next mission he said, was to “steal” an ANC suspect by the name of Moabi from his Soweto home. After being taken to a police-owned farmhouse outside Zeerust, Moabi was systematically beaten and tortured. 

Finally Coetzee asked Nofemela whether he thought the man would be able to recognise his assailants. When Nofemela said yes, Coetzee replied: “Then we must get rid of him.” This dialogue, more a ritualised formality, was repeated on other occasions. As when Japie Maponye, a Krugersdorp building society guard and the brother of a suspected ANC guerrilla, was “arrested” by Nofemela on a supposed fraud charge, then taken back to Vlakplaas. There Maponye was interrogated and assaulted at the hands of Coetzee.’ s successor Major Eugene de Kock, Nofemela and two Askaris. 

When the interrogation proved fruitless - the man knew nothing of his brother’s whereabouts - Nofomela was asked: “Will he be able to recognise you?” When Nofemela said the man probably would, De Kock shot Maponye in the head. “Coetzee said if we can’t ‘steal’ people, we must make them worry,” Nofemela told the commission. In this way instructions were given to Vlakplaas operatives to kidnap a particular individual or to steal his car. In one such incident, under orders from a Colonel Cronje, Nofemela stole a car belonging to a Vryburg UDF activist, having failed to find an opportunity to kidnap the man. He drove it to a disused mine near Kuruman, as arranged. There the car was “stripped”. The hubcaps were removed (and given to Nofemela as a present), the car’s clock was taken out, possessions were divided up as spoils. And the five live chickens which were found in the boot of the car were promptly eaten. Then, as was the usual practice, the car was set alight. 

Vlakplaas under Coetzee and equally under De Kock, appears to have been as much a place of mindless criminality as it was of political repression. It was standard practice to destroy a whole motorcar for the sake of a set of wheelcaps. In one incident, a Lesotho man was murdered by Nofomela Coetzee’s orders after he had tried to palm off inferior quality diamonds to Coetzee. Asked by Harms whether he did not feel that it was wrong to pursue criminal activities under the protection of the police, Nofemela thought for a while. Then he shrugged in the witness box. “Private enterprise,” he said.

This article originally appeared in the Weekly Mail.

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