/ 14 February 1997

Truth dies at spy’s grave

The bizarre life of the man who bombed ANC headquarters in London, and who was crushed to death last week, is recounted by Phillip van Niekerk

WHEN a spy dies, one is left guessing what knowledge he has taken to the grave with him. Peter Casselton, London spymaster of the apartheid government, resident of Vlakplaas, confidant of the likes of Craig Williamson and Eugene de Kock, died last week and now will never be heard at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

Perusing the notebooks of the hours I spent with him I am not sure, at the end of the day, whether he would have helped solve any great mysteries. But he did have a story to tell.

More than a year ago Casselton contacted me, through self-confessed hit-squad killer and journalist’s friend Dirk Coetzee, with one intention: to reveal the dirt on his long-time associate Craig Williamson, whom he believed had swindled him out of a small fortune.

The Peter Casselton I met was haunted by failure. Once he had been a blue-eyed young pilot and warrior for Ian Smith’s thousand- year Reich who in the promise of his youth had married a former beauty queen from Rhodesia. He once sailed the Mediterranean in his own yacht and had an unlimited expense account paid for by the South African taxpayer. His friends were powerful and untouchable.

By the time I got to know him, his cherubic face had gone florid from hard living and quantities of booze consumed at Pretoria’s drinking taverns where the detritus of apartheid’s wars hang out.

When South African agents bombed the African National Congress’s headquarters in Penton Street, London, in 1982, Casselton was the only team member not to receive the Police Star for Outstanding Service that the wise-cracking minister of law and order, Louis le Grange, bestowed on Eugene De Kock, Williamson, Vic McPherson and four others.

As the agent in the field they didn’t want to blow Casselton’s cover. However, he was caught burgling the offices of the ANC and Swapo and spent two years and eight months in tjoekie in Britain where he was regularly beaten to a pulp by black fellow- prisoners delighted to discover a representative of the apartheid regime in their midst.

Casselton was physically tough. Despite being given the third degree by the anti- terrorist squad at Scotland Yard, he held his tongue and never disclosed the identity of the bombers until Williamson himself spoke out in early 1995, 13 years after the event.

This was part of the reason for Casselton’s bitterness towards Williamson and his desire to tell me the “whole story” that began to pour out during Sunday morning breakfast sessions at the Wimpy in the Quagga Centre in Pretoria West.

He told me of Swiss bank accounts set up with millions stolen from the ANC, of a business partnership with the notorious drug dealer El Hajj, of the ivory trade and collusion with the Mozambican security police to ship the Burundi stockpile from Beira. And then there were the swindles. Always the swindles.

It was impossible to tell which tales were planted to get Williamson, where fantasy began or ended. Yet I was intrigued and hoped that a real nugget would be unearthed.

Casselton’s hostility towards Williamson began when he was released from prison to find he had lost his pilot’s licence, he was blown as an agent and he believed that Williamson had plundered his money. He and Williamson had created a business, Beach Port, in the Channel Islands and purchased a yacht.

They named it The Two Lisas in memory of Williamson’s sister, Lisa, a lecturer at the spy school, and Casselton’s beloved poodle, also Lisa, who died together in a motor accident.

When Casselton tried to sell the yacht to a South African businessman after his release from prison, a check through the books and a visit to St Heliers revealed that the company had become a conduit for all sorts of nefarious activities, and was under surveillance by various authorities. Casselton never got a cent from his investment, which was a lifetime of savings from crop-spraying and dodgy operations.

Casselton’s first problem was that the stories that he knew the most about implicated himself. Being a pilot he had first hand knowledge of drug and ivory smuggling and illicit supplies to Unita and Renamo.

He confessed that only months before he had transported a load of contraband whiskey and a box of rhino horn by yacht to a beach on the Mozambican coast. From there, he had personally delivered the horn to the embassy of the People’s Republic of China in Maputo, or so he claimed.

He described the purchase of a leather- seated Cessna that was based in Nairobi to fly quantities of the drug mira to the Somali fighters at Kismaya. That scheme ended when the plane got lost in the Ogaden desert and a former South African Air force pilot, a man described as being driven more by his dick than good sense, absconded with female company and the keys to the plane.

The stories of intrigue and recruitment in London would have made interesting material for the truth commission. Casselton claimed that he had put an ANC cabinet minister through university at Oxford and that he handled apartheid’s snitches in London and Holland. One was a Dutch policeman, a former bodyguard to Prince Bernhard, who retired to Johannesburg to start a dog grooming parlour.

Once Casselton broke into a London art gallery to test its burglar alarm system – it was identical to the make used in the ANC offices. It was probably the first time that he found himself inside an art gallery, but he knew what he liked. He nicked a magnificent painting of a South African racehorse.

It was shipped to South Africa and presented as a gift to the then police commissioner. It was placed in a prominent place in the commissioner’s lounge where it became one of the best in-jokes in the force.

After his fall, Casselton was always coming up with new and unsuccessful schemes to make money – he tried to buy Russian helicopters as scrap from the Mozambican air force and repair them to sell to a theme park in Nevada.

He once told me he was looking into participating in a scam to marry Russian women, bring them to South Africa to work as prostitutes and live off the commission. Before he could participate, he asked me to use my contacts to find out if he was still married in London.

While in prison during the eighties, he explained, he had married Claire, “just a bird I knew from the pub”, at the Wandsworth prison registry office to bolster his parole application. She drove off with the Mercedes 450 bought with secret funds and he never saw her again. All he knew was that her father was an artist who lived in Kent and painted equestrian portraits for the Queen Mother.

There was reason to despise Casselton. The way he bragged about his intelligence role in the Chimoio massacre by the Rhodesian security forces in 1976 in which hundreds of refugees, including women and children, were slaughtered, was enough to book his place in hell.

And yet, strangely, there was a softness to the man. Long after the hard men of Vlakplaas had abandoned De Kock to enlist as state witnesses, Casselton would buy meat and cook it for him every Sunday in the kitchen of the Brass Inn, driven by a touching loyalty and admiration for Prime Evil and concern that someone might want to poison him.

De Kock’s only other regular visitors were an elderly aunt from the East Rand and a black Angolan comrade in arms from Koevoet who had named his son Eugene. One Sunday the Angolan came to the prison and presented De Kock with a pen and pencil set and a bible inscribed with the words “the Lord will decide what is right and what is not”.

This advice did not prevent him from travelling to northern Mozambique to search earnestly for a magical beetle that would grant De Kock the power to get out of prison.

Casselton also remained loyal to the widows and orphans of the apartheid system long after they had been abandoned to their fate by the National Party.

He tried to secure financial compensation for the widow of Frakkie Zihamba, Malawi’s first Boeing pilot, an agent for the South African security police who was tortured to death in Banda’s prison.

There was no doubt that Casselton was a racist, but he hated Afrikaners even more than blacks. And some of his closest associates were De Kock’s former black troops with whom he had lived at Vlakplaas and Daisy Farm. He was trusted by these Bakongo veterans – ex-FNLA, ex-Koevoet, ex- Vlakplaas, ex-Executive Outcomes – living in a tight suspicious circle at Lethlabile, loyal only to Eugene de Kock and Holden Roberto.

In a sense they were kindred spirits. The evil that accompanied white rule has passed with defeat into history, but the individuals, white and black, who were corrupted by it are fated to live out their days like misfits, beached whales on the shore.

In Tom Stoppard’s Rosencratz and Guildenstern Are Dead, a play on the existential meaninglessness of the lives of the two minor characters sent to spy on Hamlet, Guildenstern says: “We cross our bridges when we come to them and burn them behind us, with nothing to show for our progress except a memory of the smell of smoke, and a presumption that once our eyes watered.”

After the wars were lost, the emptiness was so deep that Casselton’s closest relationship was with a miniature black poodle called Poepas who went everywhere with him. After a bar brawl with a group of Afrikaners last year, Poepas was abducted and a poodlehunt through Pretoria by old mates still in uniform proved fruitless. It almost broke his heart.

After that he broke down one morning, almost crying: “Look I am over 50. I have nothing. Nothing.” He had no property, no fixed abode, and was reduced to living off the charity of a dwindling group of drinking buddies.

He died last week after being squashed against the wall by a truck he was working on.

Fate appeared in the garb of liquor rather than assassination, but they were both milestones on the road to nowhere.

“There must have been a moment at the beginning,” says Guildenstern to Rosencrantz, awaiting their predestined death at the end of the play, “where we all could have said – no. But somehow we missed it.”