/ 4 September 1992

Why we bugged Staal

Staff Photographer
Staff Photographer

Former CCB agent “Staal” Burger won a court order this week preventing The Weekly Mail from publishing details of his activities, after his men found a private investigator — hired by The Weekly Mail — trying to bug his premises.

Why did The Weekly Mail choose to bug a private property, knowing that newspaper ethics forbid illegal eavesdropping except in circumstances of overwhelming public interest, where the information can be obtained no other way.

The answer is that, after several weeks of surveillance, we believe that Burger is indeed engaged in activities so disturbing as to be of overwhelming public interest. And the evidence could be obtained no other way.

Full details below

Staal steals WM thunder with a silencing order
The Weekly Mail bugged the Hillbrow office of former Civil Co-Operation Bureau regional boss “Staal” Burger after a lengthy investigation into secret meetings he was holding with policemen and former CCB colleagues.

It is the only time The Weekly Mail has ever attempted electronic surveillance. The newspaper was probing allegations of police involvement in illegal activity and information that former members of the CCB, a Military Intelligence “dirty tricks” operation, were involved in “privatised”, “third force” types of destabilisation.

However, The Weekly Mail was this week prevented from publishing any details of the secret meetings learnt via the bugging device.

On Wednesday, Burger obtained an urgent supreme court interdict preventing the newspaper from continuing surveillance of him and disseminating any of the information acquired through the bug. His lawyers argued that, the bug was an invasion of Burger’s privacy.

Advocate Gilbert Marcus, representing The Weekly Mail, argued that information from the bug should be allowed to be published if there was “overwhelming public interest” in the matter being made public.

“Assume that it emerges from the tape recording of Burger’s conversations that he is about to plan some crime. In these circumstances, the law would demand that the press publish the information,” Marcus argued. The judge had to balance Burger’s right to privacy against public interest and the freedom of the press, he said.

Mr Justice C Plewman issued a temporary interdict, pending further argument on September 22. For several months, The Weekly Mail has closely observed strange goings-on at the Breaker’s Hotel, owned by Burger. The hotel, in Berea, is at the centre of an underworld of prostitution, drug-dealing and other illegal activities. Various shady characters, uniformed and plainclothes policemen and ex-CCB members, including Chappie Maree and Ferdi Barnard, are often seen there.

Groups of plainclothes policemen arrive at odd hours, ostensibly to hold meetings in Burger’s office. During this time, Burger is “out” or unavailable. The men emerge hours later. The meetings happen up to two or three times a week.

The Weekly Mail hired a private investigations firm to monitor the meetings. Members of the firm were caught listening to a discussion on Monday. The private investigators had drilled a hole into Burger’s office from an adjoining room and had inserted a bug into it. The hole was spotted by a handyman.

Burger immediately called in his friends at the Brixton Murder and Robbery Squad. Burger was once a rising star in the Brixton squad, but was transferred after a scandal about the involvement of members of the unit in murder and robbery.

The Brixton squad has no jurisdiction in Hillbrow, particularly in relation to crimes other than murder and robbery. However, Burger called on the help of Colonel C Earle, head of the unit.

Major W Landman was among those who burst into the room adjoining Burger’s office on Monday, arresting four employees of the private investigations firm hired by The Weekly Mail. On the way to the Brixton Police Station, Landman asked one of them why he was messing in “police business”.

The court interdict prevents The Weekly Mail from “disposing of, disseminating, disclosing and publishing any information that (we) may have obtained as a result of the surveillance, interception and monitoring of any of (Burger’s) discussions, or interviews, whether telephonically or otherwise”.

It was during his 24-year service in the police force that the former Lieutenant Colonel Daniel Ferdinand du Toit Burger gained his reputation as a man of steel — hence the nickname “Staal”.

Gaining notoriety for his ruthless success in hunting down criminals and extracting confessions from detainees, he rose swiftly up the ranks of the Brixton Murder and Robbery Squad. After 14 years, he was promoted to head of the infamous unit which had a reputation for brutality, torture and vice.

In 1988, shortly after two of his officers, Sergeant Robert van der Merwe and Captain Jack la Grange, were found guilty of murder and sentenced to death, four police officers — Burger, Sergeant Calla Botha, Lieutenant Abram “Slang’ van ZyI and Warrant Officer Chappie Maree — resigned from the unit. They were recruited by MI as the Johannesburg CCB unit, part of the CCB’s internal wing.

In June 1988, CCB managing director Joe Verster hired Burger to head the unit. The men were to embark on shadowy missions, posing as ordinary civilians, to destabilise anti-apartheid forces. They were instructed to use any means necessary — even murder, to achieve their aims. They were to give underworld criminals false motives to do their dirty work, and were given unlimited funds to carry out their mostly unsuccessful operations.

In March 1990, “Slang” van ZyI decided to come clean about the CCB. He told the Harms Commission of Inquiry that accepted CCB activities ranged from intimidation to death. Van Zyl described how he had recruited Edward “Peaches” Gordon as an agent, to poison African National Congress lawyer Dullah Omar (a project approved by Burger), to murder Weekly Mail journalist Gavin Evans and make it look like a robbery, and to engage in a range of other violent activities.

Both Burger and Maree were implicated in the murder of Namibian lawyer Anton Lubowski on September 12 1989. Irishman Donald Acheson, recruited by the CCB, was arrested in connection with the murder and was detained for nine months. There was insufficient evidence to prosecute Acheson and he was deported to Europe. He later claimed in a newspaper interview that he was set up by the CCB.

It was discovered that Burger had entered Namibia on the day of the Lubowski murder under a codename, and that he departed the next day. Warrants for Burger and Maree’s arrests lapsed when Namibia gained independence.

Burger then decided to co-operate with the Harms Commission, but he refused to answer questions that would incriminate him and denied knowing the whereabouts of crucial CCB project files.

Editorial: Other men’s business?
So the country is left wondering: what was going on in “Staal” Burger’s hotel, up the hill in Berea? Unfortunately, The Weekly Mail is unable to tell after this week’s supreme court interdict preventing publication of information obtained by bugging the former Civil Co-Operation Bureau commander.

Was it a reunion of the CCB old boys’ club, exchanging uproarious reminiscences of the glorious days when they planted a monkey’s foetus on an archbishop’s doorstep, when they plotted to murder a Weekly Mail reporter (not to mention David Webster and Anton Lubowski)?

Or was it something more sinister? Of course, whatever it was, The Weekly Mail had no business bugging Burger. That is to say, it was no business of ours.

The surveillance of Burger was part of our long-running investigations into the possible existence of a “third force” and illegal activities by members and former members of the security forces. It is our belief that these activities have largely been “privatised”: they are now run, with some independence, by groups on the fringes of, rather than inside, the security forces.

If we are correct and such a force does exist trying to undermine political change and the constitutional process, it is serious business. In fact, it is treason. And there are men whose business it is to watch out for treason.

Men like the head of Military Intelligence, General Christoffel “Joffel” van der Westhuizen. Unfortunately, the general has been otherwise engaged over the past four months — devising a considered response, we assume, to the public charge that he played a part in the awful murders of Matthew Goniwe and his friends.

It is because men like the general remain in the key positions of power in South Africa that The Weekly Mail finds itself sticking its nose into other men’s business.

We do not do so lightly. We would only do so under extraordinary circumstances. Such as those in Staal Burger’s hotel up in Berea, where he was holding regular, lengthy and secret meetings with policemen and other former CCB members.

The professional ethics of a journalist using such methods are clear: it is an irregular activity to be undertaken only if the information acquired in this way is of such overwhelming public interest that its publication is essential, and if there is no other way to obtain it.

Both rationales applied in this case. In an affidavit supporting this week’s application for an interdict Mr Burger complained that we were “unrepentant” at having put him under surveillance.

When the likes of Staal Burger show repentance; when Justice Minister Kobie Coetsee really does “wipe the slate clean” where the security forces are concerned, by facilitating full disclosure of the covert activities of the army and police, then we will give up the hunt.

And stop sticking our noses into matters which have become, unhappily, all our business.