The man with the deadly past

Gavin Evans

General Lothar Neethling has not had a particularly good year; nor such a hot decade either, come to think of it. Previous allegations that he was apartheid South Africa’s poisoner-in- chief have been confirmed at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and he has emerged as a key player in the former regime’s biological and chemical warfare programme.

But at least the 63-year-old scientist and top cop has one thing to celebrate (quietly): September 8 1998 is the 50th anniversary of his arrival in Cape Town as the “head boy” of 83 Nazi war orphans who were resettled in South Africa by Hitler-loving Afrikaner nationalists.

The story starts during World War II when about 2 000 Afrikaners were interned by the Jan Smuts government because of their overt sympathy for the Nazi cause and their involvement in terrorist groups like the Ossewabrandwag which attempted to sabotage the war effort. The Nazis lost the war, but three years later these Nazi sympathisers won their own battle when the National Party took power with 41% of the vote.

There was a strong drive within the community to do something to help their German friends, and a plan was hatched to adopt a large number of Nazi war orphans. Under the authority of Dr Vera Buhrman and Schalk Botha, the Duitse Kinderfonds (German Children’s Fund) was established and attracted huge support from Afrikaner notables.

One of the orphans, Werner van der Merwe, later described the plan as “a protest declaration by a group of influential Afrikaners against the fact that the [Smuts] government opposed Nazi Germany during the war”.

Initially the fund had wildly ambitious plans to bring out 10 000 children, but it faced difficulties on the German side and eventually whittled this number down to 83.

The original idea was also that only children aged two to seven would be included, but during her German travels, Buhrman took pity on a bright young Prussian teenager, Lothar Paul Tietz, whose brother and sister had made the cut.

How their Nazi parents were killed is not known, but towards the end of the war the Tietz siblings were moved to an orphanage in Elbing, where Buhrman met them. In an interview with SABC television in 1989, Neethling told how he had pleaded with “Tanti Vera” for all three to be allowed to go, and eventually she conceded. No doubt she was impressed by the fact that this tall, polite 13-year-old had already experienced five years of National Socialist education and had been exposed to the Hitler Youth.

Meanwhile, back at home the Afrikaner press carried advertisements for volunteer parents. Only the Boer elite were chosen, among them the first post-war Nationalist prime minister, Dr DF Malan (himself a Nazi supporter).

The orphans arrived in Cape Town on September 8 1948. Some travelled by train to Pretoria, where they were welcomed by the Kappiekommando.

The Tietz children all went to different families. Thirteen-year-old Lothar was cherry-picked by the Pretoria-based chair of the fund, Dr JC Neethling, who was interned for pro-Nazi activities during the war. Lothar Neethling said he regarded the experience as a “big adventure”, but once he arrived in South Africa he was prepared to cut his ties with Germany, and was “pleased to adopt my new fatherland”.

After the traumas of the war, losing his parents, leaving his country and being seperated from his siblings, he was desperate for a sense of order.

Like the founder of apartheid, HF Verwoerd, who emigrated from Holland as a child, he craved acceptance into this rigid community.

He did his utmost to ingratiate himself with his hosts by becoming a better Boer than his contemporaries – excelling in rugby and at school, and absorbing every nuance of Afrikaner culture – and he was rewarded accordingly, being viewed as a fine example of the Aryan ideal and the Kinderfonds experiment.

Some of the orphans had a tougher time. Future pig farmer Herbert Leenen found himself used as no more than a farm labourer by his new family and eventually broke ties with his new “parents”.

A few followed paths which took them away from their politicised youths. Werner Nel became an internationally renowned operatic baritone, and later a professor of music at Potchefstroom University.

During the 1970s the group began a tradition of an annual get-together. There seemed to be little doubt among them that it was Neethling who had achieved the greatest success.

Perhaps one reason for this was that the apartheid security services seemed to hold Germanic scientific prowess in great esteem and tried hard to attract German chemists and biologists to South Africa, with some success. For instance, German geneticist Professor Peter Geertshen headed a wolf-breeding programme for the South African Defence Force, with the idea of creating a beast which would be trained to track down and kill “black terrorists”.

So it is not surprising Neethling moved so effortlessly through the ranks. He rose to the number two position in the South African Police – as chief deputy commissioner, scientific and technical services.

He also became a respected scientist in his own right, earning two doctorates in forensics – one from the University of California – and was honoured by several prestigious international scientific associations.

But in November 1989 Captain Dirk Coetzee pulled the plug on the official hit squads. Among his allegations was that Neethling used the police forensic laboratories he controlled to supply him with “knock-out drops” for the murder of an African National Congress suspect.

The Weekly Mail carried the story, while the Vrye Weekblad provided a fuller account of Coetzee’s take on Neethling’s role. He sued each of the papers for R500 000. Judge Johann Kriegler declared that he was, indeed, a poisoner.

But Neethling was not yet finished. He won the next round in the Appellate Division which, in a widely condemned judgment, found that although Neethling was a liar, so was Coetzee, and the papers had not discharged their onus of proof. The Weekly Mail survived, but the costs forced the Vrye Weekblad to close.

This year his past returned to haunt him. Former state functionaries who appeared before the truth commission not only confirmed the role played by Neethling’s laboratories in the production and supply of poisons to assassinate anti-apartheid activists, but also revealed he was the number-two man in Dr Wouter Basson’s biological and chemical warfare programme. He was back in disgrace – where, presumably, he will remain for the rest of his days.

When the surviving members of the Kinderfonds 83 celebrate their 50th anniversary on September 8, perhaps some of them will be pondering whether it wouldn’t have been better if their teenage head boy had stayed behind in Prussia.

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