The Goldstone Commission this week uncovered a covert Koevoet unit at a Gold Fields mine hostel in the eastern Transvaal after being tipped off that the squad had been ferried into the Vaal to take part in the Boipatong massacre.
The discovery – which may corroborate information that security forces were involved in the massacre – has highly damaging implications for President FW de Klerk’s government. The presence of a “third force” on a British-owned mine will also have major international repercussions. More than 40 members of the police counter-insurgency unit, including two white officers, were found in a hostel room at the Greenside colliery near Ogies when the commission swooped on the mine premises on Wednesday afternoon.
At a special hearing of the Goldstone Commission in Pretoria yesterday, police admitted the unit of ex-Koevoet men existed. But they denied the men were linked to violence, saying they were used to combat stock-theft in the area. The African National Congress says it has witnesses who will testify before the commission of the unit’s role in the Boipatong slaughter. Interviewed last year, renegade police captain Dirk Coetzee said he believed disbanded Koevoet members were behind much acme violence in the townships, and had a particular role in the “random massacres disrupting negotiations between the government and the ANC.
The lightning raid – carried out jointly by the ANC’s intelligence department a Goldstone commissioner and a special police task force – took place after the ANC obtained evidence that members of the secret unit had been involved in the massacre at Boipatong in an effort to undermine the ANC mass action campaign. When the raiding party arrived on the mine it found a group of surprised Koevoet fighters – members of a police counter-insurgency unit that was supposed to have been disbanded two years ago – present in a section of the hostel. The mom was located in a section of the hostel set aside for Cold Fields’ mine security personnel.
The commission found at least two licensed handguns as well as nine R-1 rifles in a trunk at a house in the married of the mine complex. Most members of the 40-strong squad said they were Namibian nationals, although some spoke Portuguese indicating they belong either to the army’s controversial 32 Battalion or are elements of Renamo that may have been involved in “third-force” attacks. Two white officers who appeared to have been in charge of the unit were found at the mine when the raid took place.
One of these men, a Sergeant Taljaard, took the commission to a nearby house where the cache of R-1 rifles was discovered. The rifles were found in a locked trunk and the raiding party was told that the keys were not available. Arrangements had to be made for the trunk to be broken open.The head of the police special task force, Colonel Henk Esslinger, recused himself during the raid as he was a former Koevoet officer.
ANC official Sydney Mufamadi, who took part in the operation told the Weekly Mail that the lack of police command had made it difficult to proceed with the raid. He added that the white Koevoet officers instructed black members of the unit not to answer any questions. Members of the Koevoet squad were hauled before an emergency session of the Goldstone Commission yesterday in Pretoria.
In their opening statement police lawyers acknowledged the unit was made up of former Koevoet members now under the control of the South African Police and that “there was no secret about this”. But police counsel Phillip Hattingh then asked for the hearing to be in camera a request refused by the presiding commissioner, Mr Justice Steyn. The police claimed they had rented the premises from Gold Fields and that the unit was based at the mine to control stock theft in the area.
Mufamadi told the Weekly Mail that none of the unit’s members appeared to speak local black languages. During the raid one of the counter-insurgency men said he was from Rustenburg but was unable to speak seTswana. He conceded under questioning that he was from Oshakati. ANC officials say they know of two witnesses who will testify that members of the Koevoet squad at Ogies travelled to Boipatong to take part in the massacre. One of these witnesses failed to appear at the hearing yesterday and the commission will sit today to hear his evidence. Mufamadi said ANC sources on the mine had seen vehicles pick up the Koevoet members from the hostel in the evening and return them in the early hours of the morning.
Philippa Garson reports a member of the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) who went to investigate the mine on Saturday last week, after the ANC had received evidence linking its occupants to the Boipatong as saying that he saw about seven unit members standing outside the security barracks. They were talking a strange language I didn’t understand”.
The official said he received information that about 30 dark-skinned men had arrived at the mine on May 25 and were staying in special quarters in the security barracks. “I was told that during the day they sometimes wore overalls and were taken to the shaft and that at night they went elsewhere. They do not eat in the mine kitchen. They eat special food which is cooked for them which is sent to their room.”
The NUM official said he personally witnessed two police vans collect a group of the men, who were carrying two large canvas bags, at about 9.30 on the night he visited the hostel. In his opening statement to the commission yesterday, ANC counsel Gys Rautenbach said: “We do not allege at the outset that these people were responsible for the Boipatong massacre, but evidence needs to be led and people questioned to get to the bottom of this.”
Police lawyers said in their statement: “We deny that this unit was involved in the planning or execution of any acts of violence in Boipatong or elsewhere. This is not the only premises the police rents to house its units. “We are not going to make the news public and say that there are ex-Koevoet people around but we are also not going to hide it.”
NUM president James Motlatsi said the union had called for an urgent meeting with the Chamber of Mines today on the matter. He said he had no doubt that Gold Fields’ management was aware of covert practices at its mine.
Gold Fields’ public affairs department has refused to comment on the issue, but confirmed that the Goldstone Commission had visited its Greenside Colliery on Wednesday. “Management does not wish to comment on the purpose of the visit as it concerns one of the tenants who is leasing property from the mine which is currently in excess of the mine’s requirements. This is a normal commercial transaction,” the company said availing itself to provide further information the commission may require. – Eddie Koch and Portia Maurice
This article originally appeared in the Weekly Mail newspaper