/ 4 May 1990

The ex-cop who betrayed Dirt Coetzee

It took another former policeman, who defected to the African National Congress earlier this year, to betray Dirk Coetzee, the self – confessed leader of a security police death squad. Letters written in Lusaka by Coetzee and entrusted to former Piet Retief police constable James Stevens, who fled South Africa for Zambia earlier this year, fell into police hands when Stevens handed himself into his former masters. He was returning to the country on a mission allegedly ordered by Coetzee and directed at obtaining certain documentation from the Piet Retief police station.

The embarrassing contents of the letters were read to Coetzee during the Harm s Commission hearings in London this week. Before fleeing in February this year Stevens, together with fellow policeman and defector Marthinus Grobler, told the Weekly Mail of security police abuses in Piet Retief, notably in connection with two incidents in 1988 in which eight suspected ANC members were killed. They claimed that the eight had been gunned down in ambushes and that dates had been falsified by the police in the subsequent cover-up. Stevens, however, was evading a number of criminal investigations arising out of the use of excessive force while carrying out his duties as a policeman. They included charges of assault and illegal discharge of a firearm. In all of the cases the alleged violence was directed against blacks. 

Stevens admitted to the Weekly Mail that his motives for leaving the country had little to do with political convictions. He often had to be stopped short by Glober when racial perjoratives and gleeful descriptions of alleged police tortures slipped from his lips. A third fugitive, a woman friend who accompanied the two policemen, returned last month describing the ANC officials she had met in Lusaka as ”nice people”, but the general milieu as ”much too black for me”. It was, as Stevens said, the promise of adventure and the threat of prosecution which allowed him to be persuaded by Grobler to give corroboration to the latter’s story and to take the ”Lusaka Safari”. He was hoping to travel through Africa and eventually find his way to the United States. 

In March the Weekly Mail was informed that, after an initial period of quarantine and debriefing in a Lusaka prison, the two police defectors by this stage reportedly dressed ”like beachboys in Hawaii” – had been allowed to join the ANC and that they were working with Coetzee. In an affidavit to the police taken after his second defection, Stevens said that among the plots Coetzee master-minded in Lusaka was a plan to blow up security police headquarters. In the Coetzee letters – addressed to friends inside the country – which were led as evidence before the commission in London this week, it was revealed that Coetzee had nurtured hopes of being appointed as chief investigating officer in a ”post war Nuremburg trial in South Africa”. 

According to Sam Maritz, SC, acting certain policemen at the commission, Coetzee also pictured himself in prose as an important general in the future ANC government ‘s mili¬tary establishment. But under cross-examination by Les Roberts for the commission, Coetzee projected himself as ”accused number one in the dock” at these trials of the criminals of the apartheid war. Roberts responded by remarking that the scenario ”makes about as much sense as appointing Rudolf Hess as chief investigating officer at Nuremburg would have done”. 

Coetzee was retired from the security police in 1983, ostensibly because he had diabetes. Though the retirement came in the wake of an intra-departmental inquiry into alleged criminal activities, a senior police source said the disease had induced mood swings and described Coetzee as a ”dangerously unstable man”.

This article originally appeared in the Weekly Mail.


M&G Newspaper