/ 29 November 1996

32 Battalion to come clean on train


Former 32 Battalion members have approached the truth commission with information on the bloody pre-election train violence. Peta Thornycroft and Eddie Koch report

MORE than a dozen battle-hardened members of the former 32 Battalion are applying for amnesty for their role in the grotesque violence on South Africa’s commuter trains in the run-up to the 1994 elections.

Members of the former battalion, which was the old South African Defence Force’s battering ram during its wars in Namibia and Angola, have approached the Truth and Reconciliation Commission with information about train violence.

Hundreds died at that time on the Witwatersrand’s rail network. Most victims were first stabbed and then flung from speeding coaches.

The killings were random and singled out no political party. Among those thrown to their death was a priest, a man because he spoke Xhosa, women singing hymns, office workers, elderly men and unemployed youths. The indiscriminate attacks were a particularly brutal tentacle of the ”third force’s” destabilisation strategy.

While much is now known about the police’s hit-squad activities, the Inkatha Freedom Party’s paramilitary force and the SADF’s covert operations, the wild violence on the trains have eluded any coherent explanation until now.

This is a major breakthrough for the truth commission and is the first crack in the SADF’s denials of any human rights abuses or participation in ”third force” violence which at the time threatened the transition to democratic elections.

Investigators at the truth commission would neither confim nor deny the breakthrough this week. But the Mail & Guardian has established that the approaches about amnesty have been made by mostly black members of the disbanded battalion, and a major announcment can be expected before the cut-off date for amnesty in two weeks’ time.

The 32 Battalion included many Angolans who had fled to Namibia when the Portuguese abandoned their colony and the Marxist MPLA took over in Luanda. The men who had fought against the MPLA were absorbed into the SADF, but operated very much as a separate unit in covert operations against their countrymen in Angola and later against Swapo in Namibia.

Unita’s battlefield successes were often attributed to the logistical and physical support given by 32’s unconventional fighters, many of whom became devoted arms bearers for their white officers.

Many of them were later transferred to, or volunteered for service in the Civil Co- operation Bureau (CCB), the SADF’s covert operation which operated mostly outside South Africa.

After 32 Battalion was disbanded, members were redeployed into the new South African National Defence Force while others joined their former white officers in Executive Outcomes, which helped the MPLA to defeat Unita. Some of them are now deployed by Executive Outcomes on behalf of the government of Sierra Leone. A few have returned to Angola.

After the CCB was disbanded, many of the white officers received huge pay-outs, but the black members, mainly from 32 Battalion, were abandoned. They were finally secretly paid out a proportion of what they claimed they were owed after their commander, Joe Verster, took court action against the former government.

In 1992, as train violence was terrorising millions of Highveld commuters, ANC leader Nelson Mandela claimed the random killings were part of the vortex of ”third force” strategies. It remained the unsolved mystery of the early 1990s, and it was this episode in South Africa’s spiralling violence which finally nudged the mainstream press to take on board the possibility of the existence of a ”third force”.

l When Transvaal Attorney General Jan D’Oliveira returns from an overseas visit next week, he will decide if he is going to initiate any prosecutions of high-profile cases before the courts go into Christmas recess, or whether he will wait for confirmation that the final cut-off date for amnesty applications remains December 14.

The M&G understands D’Oliveira is in a position to prosecute scores of high-profile cases, including some involving senior former members of the SADF, but will wait to see who applies for amnesty before committing tight legal resources to drawing up prosecution indictments.

The carrot-and-stick strategy which has emerged in Gauteng has eluded KwaZulu-Natal, where almost no one involved in human rights abuses has come forward for amnesty.

Truth commissioner Richard Lyster said this week there was a direct connection between KwaZulu-Natal Attorney General Tim McNally’s decision not to prosecute hit-squad cases and the few applications for amnesty.