/ 28 November 1997

The electrician: Looking into the face of


In an extract from his book, Into the Heart of Darkness, journalist Jacques Pauw describes his meeting with Paul van Vuuren, whose only regrets were that he lost the war, was exposed and had to confess

It is Sunday lunch on the farm “Drooglaagte” west of Warmbaths in the Northern Transvaal bushveld. The burly, moustached man at the head of the table takes his wife’s hand and asks for grace before tucking into a plate piled high with steak and chops.

As the luncheon guests sip on glasses of sweetish white wine and orange juice, conversation ranges from raised taxes to black people failing to pay their electricity bills. Somebody tells a story of a township dweller who tried to “steal” electricity and shocked himself to death. People laugh.

“Yes, and now we have our own electrician,” says the woman next to me and looks at the man at the head of the table. More laughter. He grins and demolishes another T-bone steak.

There is nothing out of the ordinary about the scene around me. Ordinary Afrikaner people having Sunday lunch, shrieking children running around on the manicured lawn outside the dining room, plates of braaied meat and debate about Currie Cup rugby.

A copper plate of a storming elephant bull decorates the wall behind me. In the study next door hang two university degree certificates and photographs of prize- winning Brahman bulls.

When only a pile of bones remains of Sunday lunch, a baby about a year old totters into the dining room. The big man picks the boy up and places him next to him on the table. “Give me a kiss, my beautiful child,” he says and hugs him. Earlier that morning, he had changed the baby’s dirty nappy.

I look at his hands comforting the child. The hardy, muscular and beefy hands of a farmer. Hands that have raised award- winning stock. The hands of a hunter that has shot hundreds of buck. The hands of a carnivore par excellence.

But also hands that were made into fists and smashed into the faces of people. Hands that have strangled, aimed guns at people, thrown bombs into houses and pushed electrical wires against living flesh.

Paul Jacobus Jansen van Vuuren was a security policeman during the 1980s. Earlier that day, we had sat down on the pink lounge suite where he had told me that the death squad he served in might have killed more people than any other security police unit. At the time, he said, he had enjoyed his work and had been proud of what he had achieved.

He had read about the torture methods of the SS in Nazi Germany and Augusto Pinochet’s secret police in Chile. He had tortured more people than he can ever remember.

One of the methods he used was to shock and electrocute people. Hence his luncheon guest’s reference to “the electrician”.

Paul van Vuuren was a master of his craft.

July 1987. In a deserted stretch of open veld north of Pretoria, three men were lying on the ground, their hands and feet tied. Hours before, they had mysteriously disappeared from their homes in townships around Pretoria and Witbank.

They were activists, members of the banned African National Congress. According to security police files, they were all trained guerrillas and deeply involved in the wave of unrest in the townships.

Standing over the activists were three security policemen, members of a secret death squad within the Northern Transvaal Security Branch. Night after night, the three men, sometimes wearing dark balaclavas, were roaming the townships around Pretoria, killing, bombing and kidnapping activists they regarded as a threat to the security of the apartheid state.

Next to the manacled activists stood a power generator that was utilised to pump water for cattle, but, on that day, it was used to extract information from the captured men.

“We put the wire on his hands and feet and shocked it until his body went rigid. We only did it for a second or two,” said Warrant Officer Paul van Vuuren, one of the three security policemen on the scene.

The other two were Captain Jacques Hechter and Warrant Officer Joe Mamasela, the killer askari who had been transferred from Vlakplaas to the Northern Transvaal security police at the end of 1985.

The death squad was playing prosecutor, judge and executioner of the three men when they decided that Andrew Makupe, Jackson Maake and Harold Sefola had to die. But they were worried that they might leave traces of blood behind if they shot them. Another method had to be found. The generator.

The previous day, Maake had been the first to be captured. According to Van Vuuren, he was a security police informant. They had previously instructed him to request the ANC to send him to Botswana to receive military training. He had reported back after three months that he had been trained by Johannes Mnisi, a suspect in the May 1983 Pretoria bomb blast.

But Van Vuuren and Hechter became suspicious of Maake. He started to visit their offices during the day, despite instructions not to do so. Another informant told them they had to watch Maake: he might be a double agent and planning an attack against them.

Maake was seen for the last time on July 13 1987. The policemen took the 19-year-old Mamelodi scholar to the stretch of open veld where they interrogated and shocked him with the generator for about three hours.

“We used the generator to send shocks through him to persuade him to talk. He admitted that he was a double agent. He had instructions to eliminate us because we were seen as a danger to the ANC. He told us that the other member of his cell was Andrew Makupe in Mamelodi, who was a courier for the ANC.”

Late that same night, Makupe was kidnapped as he got into his car. He was taken to the same spot, where his hands and feet were tied and a cloth stuffed in his mouth. The two men, guarded by two black policemen, were left in the open veld on a winter’s night.

At dawn the next morning, the security policemen returned and questioned Makupe by starting up the generator and shocking him.

Makupe spoke immediately and told the men his commander was a “Bra H” in Witbank. The policemen rushed back to security police headquarters where they discovered that “Bra H” was Harold Sefola, a trained guerrilla and, according to informants, the mastermind behind several bomb explosions, but there had never been enough information to arrest and prosecute him.

That same night, Van Vuuren, Hechter and Mamasela went to Witbank. Hechter and Van Vuuren waited alongside the highway outside the town while Mamasela went to get Sefola. The askari presented himself to the ANC activist as a trained guerrilla who had just entered the country. He said there were other people waiting for him whom he was supposed to meet.

Sefola fell in the trap, and minutes later, Mamasela led him into the waiting hands of Van Vuuren and Hechter. Sefola was taken to the open veld where his comrades were still tied up and awaiting their fate. The generator was started up.

“He admitted that he was a trained terrorist and that he was involved in bomb explosions and planted landmines and limpet mines. We had to force him to talk by shocking him with the generator. At one stage, Mamasela pushed a knife up his nose, after which he gave even more information. He pleaded for his life.”

Van Vuuren said there was something “different” about Sefola. He was stronger than the other two and believed deeply in his cause.

He asked his interrogators whether he could say anything before he died. Mamasela untied him. He stood up and sang Nkosi Sikilel i’Afrika.

“He said we can kill him, but the ANC would rule one day. He said that apartheid cannot survive and that democracy would be the end of the `Boers’. He furthermore said that the security police and Umkhonto weSizwe are puppets of the politicians.”

As the activist started singing Nkosi Sikilel i’Afrika, Joe Mamasela draped an ANC flag over Jackson Maake, who was already dead. As the final notes of Sefola’s singing faded away, the wires of the generator were attached to Andrew Makupe and he was electrocuted.

Mamasela said in an affidavit that Van Vuuren ordered Sefola to pray for the other two. He went on his knees, but put his fist in the air and said he saluted his comrades in the name of the struggle. Shortly afterwards, Sefola was also shocked to death. Mamasela said he was shocked until foam and blood came out of his mouth and ears.

“We had to kill them. We had to destroy the whole cell,” said Van Vuuren.

The three hitmen loaded the bodies into a minibus and took them to a dirt road in the homeland of Bophuthatswana, where they blew the bodies up with a landmine.

“We placed the landmine on the ground, put them on top of the landmine, we stood back and detonated the mine,” said Van Vuuren. It had to look as though the three activists tried to plant the mine and accidentally activated the device.

When Sefola had stood in the veld singing Nkosi Sikilel i’Afrika and had told the policemen that the ANC would one day rule the country, Paul van Vuuren had thought he was mad. In fact, Van Vuuren said, he was under the impression that the security police were winning the war. His death squad roamed the townships, killed and tortured activists, and bombed their houses.

It is nine years later. The ANC is ruling the country. Democracy has brought an end to 40 years of apartheid rule. And, in the chambers of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, a former security policeman takes the witness stand to plead for amnesty, forgiveness and reconciliation.

“I felt as though I was the one being tortured,” Van Vuuren described the moment he took the oath. Staring at him from the public gallery were the mothers and wives of Andrew Makupe, Jackson Maake and Harold Sefola. They were there to listen to how and why their loved ones had to die.

Elizabeth Maake spoke about the disappearance of her son. “He left on that Wednesday. That was the last time I saw him. I used to see him coming from school, but that day I didn’t see him. I kept asking people whether they’d seen him, but nobody knew where he was. When the sun shines, I think about my child. When the sun sets, I think about my child. This thing is hurting me. They must show me the place where they’ve killed my son.”

“We didn’t like what we did, but we had to stop the killing of innocent women and children,” Van Vuuren defended his actions.

Mabel Makupe’s last child was born only a month before her husband disappeared. “He was a nice guy. He was like a brother to me, like a father, he was everything to me. We were a very happy family, really. We were just looking for him. I kept on asking myself if he’s still alive, why doesn’t he come home?”

Van Vuuren: “I would never have done this under normal circumstances. I did it for my country and my people. I was fighting communism.”

Sitting across the commission room from Van Vuuren was Jacques Hechter. He told the commission that he suffered from amnesia and couldn’t remember the event. He was, however, also asking for amnesty for the murder, assault and kidnapping of the three activists.

The third member of the death squad, Joe Mamasela, was not there. The former askari said he was also a victim of the security police because they forced him to commit the murders. He, therefore, refused to apply for amnesty.

The former head of the Northern Transvaal Security Branch, Brigadier Jack Cronje, also applied for amnesty. Together, Cronje, Hechter and Van Vuuren applied for amnesty for the killing of more than 40 people during the years 1985 to 1988.

At the time of their amnesty application, murder charges had already been brought against Hechter and Cronje for the killing of 10 youths near Nietverdiend, not far from the border with Botswana. Van Vuuren attended a cattle auction that day and didn’t participate in the killings.

The men were spurred into action not only by the possibility of a lengthy jail sentence, but also by a series of affidavits Mamasela had made to the Transvaal attorney general. They applied for amnesty for the killings already confessed to by Mamasela.

In no way did their applications constitute a “full confession” of their death squad activities. Van Vuuren later told me on his farm it was impossible: they had simply tortured, bombed and killed too many people.

The men ended their opening statement to the truth commission with a poem from the Afrikaans poet C Louis Leipoldt:

“Give peace and rest to those of us who are tired of roaming,

Courage and patience to those of us who are scared of dying.”

Hours later, Van Vuuren told the commission how Andrew Makupe, Jackson Maake and Harold Sefola had pleaded for mercy in the face of death.

Is this the face of evil, I wondered as I looked at Paul van Vuuren, dressed in khaki clothes and stretched out on the pink couch in the lounge of the farmhouse.

“How does it feel to shoot a human being?” I asked him.

“To shoot a human being and a buck are basically the same.”

Silence. Then he continued: “It was exciting days, those years. At times I could not wait to do it. They say to kill is like sleeping with a woman. It’s true.”

I didn’t answer him.

“Do you understand?” he asked me.

I just looked at him. There were many things I didn’t understand. The joy of murder and torture, for one, but above all, why this man had chosen to become a killer and inflict pain and suffering on others.

I have spoken to many death squad killers. Most, if not all, have expressed a deep regret for what they had done and said how sorry they were. In most cases, they were lying.

At least Paul van Vuuren was straight and honest. He looked me squarely in the eyes and admitted that he had a task, which was to kill apartheid’s opponents. He did it, he did it with conviction, and isn’t sorry. The faces and memories of his victims and his killings don’t seem to haunt him. The only thing he regrets is that he had lost the war, was exposed and has had to confess.

On June 6 1997, the 14-year-old Tshidiso Motasi came face to face with one of the killers of his parents when Paul van Vuuren agreed to meet him in his lawyer’s office in Pretoria. Since the death of his parents, Tshidiso had been living with his grandparents in Soweto.

On the one hand, it was a public relations exercise for Van Vuuren. The meeting was going to be filmed by television cameras and would show the policeman stretching out a hand of reconciliation to a young boy he had orphaned.

On the other hand, Tshidiso Motasi had questions and wanted answers: “What happened there? Why did you think my father was a spy? What is going to happen to me?”

For many years, Tshidiso has been haunted by the memories of the killing. “All that I remember is that in the morning the neighbours came to the house and picked me up. And when I saw my mother there, she was shot in the head. My father, he was shot in the head. I didn’t know that they were dead. I just said: `Father wake up, father wake up?’ “

The young boy attended the truth commission hearing and listened to the evidence of the killers. “I thought of taking a glass, breaking it and killing him. When they said my father jumped like a tiger, he laughed, that guy. It was very painful to me because they make it like a joke.”

Across the shining table in the plush lawyer’s office, Tshidiso, dressed in his school uniform, took Van Vuuren’s hand.

Van Vuuren: How are you?

Tshidiso: I’m fine.

Van Vuuren: I’m sorry what happened to your parents and you, because it was a waste of human life. I’m sorry for that. You must just remember that in those days there was a war in the country. People were dying on both sides of the struggle. The ANC was banned and I was a security policeman. I’m sorry about the way you lost your parents. All that we did was a waste of human life.

Tshidiso: You did something very bad. I can’t forgive you, I can’t. It is very hard for me.

Van Vuuren: I know that you must hate me. I know that if somebody had taken my parents, I would have felt much more hateful than you.

Tshidiso: I don’t have parents. My granny can die any day, because she’s gone old now. If she dies, who is going to take care of me?

Van Vuuren: That’s a difficult question. You can come and live with me. I’ll look after you. If something happens to your granny, you can phone me, I will try and help you.

The meeting ended, they shook hands and parted: the young boy went back to the five-roomed house he shares with his grandparents in Jabulani in Soweto, and Van Vuuren returned to his cattle ranch near Warmbaths.

A public relations stunt it might have been for Van Vuuren, but the young Motasi, tears in his eyes, said afterwards: “This is my day. A person who killed my parents came to me and said he was sorry. It means something to me.”

I don’t know whether Van Vuuren meant what he said when he undertook to help the boy if something should happen to his grandparents.

He will, in any event, have to live with his memory of the boy for the rest of his life.

Paul van Vuuren said the killing had had a devastating effect on the personal lives of the men involved. “Hechter’s wife left him because of what he was doing. He wanted to shoot himself, but I took the pistol from him and calmed him down. I was very aggressive. If somebody hassled me, I wanted to kill him. We would play `chicken’ by driving at 200km per hour up a one-way street. I don’t know how we survived. We drank a lot, maybe because subconsciously we felt guilty.”

Van Vuuren’s marriage to Cathryn survived the upheavals of his killer existence, although she also wanted to leave him at one stage.

He said he couldn’t live with both the hate in his heart for the “enemy” and his love for her. During his death squad activities, she frequently asked him what he was busy with, but he told her she must not worry. Today, she says she supports him and understands why he did it.

It was on his game farm near Ellisras in the Northern Transvaal that Paul van Vuuren had to come to terms with his frustration of being just a farmer again. “I was very frustrated after I had left the force. In 1992, I shot 2 000 impala buck. I had to keep my mind occupied and find an outlet for my adrenalin.”

He said he was very strict with his workers. If they didn’t listen, he would “fuck them up”. He would sometimes get so angry that he would get heart palpitations and go to bed.

Van Vuuren says he is religious, but he refuses to go to church. “The Dutch Reformed Church is racist. I don’t pray that much any more. Maybe what I did is going to cost me my place in heaven, and maybe there isn’t forgiveness for people like me.”

He is adamant that he is no racist and that he didn’t wage a war against black people. He says that before the April 1994 election he was approached by rightwingers who wanted him to join them in planning a possible uprising against an ANC government. “I told them to bugger off. I’m not a racist.”

He had a fall-out with the Ellisras Farmer’s Association because he told them that they want to “fuck up the kaffirs on the one hand, but sleep with black women on the other”. He eventually left Ellisras and settled on his cattle farm near Warmbaths.

Van Vuuren says he had always voted for the National Party and believed in the reform process started by FW de Klerk. “Today, I would chase De Klerk like a dog from my farm if he ever set foot here. He sold us out. I have lots of respect for Nelson Mandela, because he came out of jail and didn’t hate white people. But Peter Mokaba with his “One settler, one bullet” slogan – I would like to show him a thing or two.”

In May 1996, Van Vuuren received a visit from the Transvaal attorney general who was investigating charges of murder against him after Mamasela had spoken. “They asked me to make a statement against Jack Cronje and Jacques Hechter. I refused. We are still closer than brothers and would rather go to jail than testify against one another.”

The only option then was for the three men to do the previously unthinkable: to confess. And so, for more than a month, the bloodbrothers of the Northern Transvaal Security Branch told their tale of death.

“I’ve never had a problem with labour on the farm. Now, for the first time, people don’t want to work for me any more. They see me on television and are scared. People recognise me in the streets. Some see me as a hero, but the higher-class Afrikaner looks down on me with contempt. It isn’t fair, because I also killed for them.”

The policemen said in their opening statement that they had decided to confess “with a purpose of cleansing our souls from the darkness of the past, and to let the truth be spoken about our deeds”.

Paul van Vuuren was not trying to cleanse his soul, he was simply trying to escape justice.

When I first saw and listened to Paul van Vuuren at the truth commission, I thought that every movement he made, every blink of his eye, every twist in his face, the clenched fists, all spoke of evil.

I then watched him on his farm, cuddling his baby and hugging his wife and I thought again: see how normal this man is. Where is the face of evil now?

Into the Heart of Darkness, published by Jonathan Ball, is a collection of extraordinary tales of apartheid’s killers whom Pauw has personally encountered as a reporter. The book was released on November 24

BLURB: `It was exciting days, those years. At times I could not wait to do it. They say to kill is like sleeping with a woman. It’s true’