Sunday, December 16. As the rest of the country largely ignored the Day of Reconciliation, the gathered representatives of the ANC prepared for their most important conference in five years.
Four hundred kilometres away, in the small and utterly unassuming Northern Cape town of Prieska, a very different assembly was taking place. That meeting would later become the key to unravelling a network connecting the highest echelons of the Afrikaans entertainment industry to the murky depths of United States race-based hatred, by way of an alleged terrorist plot aimed at the ANC. Or was it, perhaps, just a mysticism-fuelled fantasy of pre-empting a localised apocalypse?
This week four men appeared in the Bloemfontein magistrate's court accused of conspiracy to commit terrorism and treason, although even defence lawyers on Thursday still did not have a final charge sheet. But even as details remained scarce, it has become clear that what seems destined to become known as the Mangaung plot was both more complex and more nebulous than it first appeared.
It has also become clear that the far right is crippled by suspicions of betrayal and deeply divided by differing interpretations of mystical visions. This raises the question of whether the four accused, Hein Boonzaaier (51) Johan Prinsloo (49) Martin Keevy (47) and Mark Trollip (48) stood any chance of actually lobbing a mortar bomb at the ANC's Mangaung conference, or had merely been swept up in flights of racist fantasy linked to prophecy.
Events at or around Prieska point to the latter, though they also hint at murderous intent.
On December 16 Prieska saw a congregation gather to commemorate the Day of the Vow, in Afrikaner history the day on which a small group of Voortrekkers defeated a larger force of Zulus, after swearing that their descendants would forever honour the day should they survive.
Organisers of the rally – initially led by Prinsloo – apparently expected up to 300000 people. Instead it attracted just more than 100. A fact that did not prevent iconic Afrikaans singer Sunette Bridges from performing for the crowd.
Much was going on beneath the surface of the event. As early as September, a loose collection of Afrikaner nationalists started sounding the alarm about "the Prieska agenda", with warnings that Prinsloo was trying to trigger events prophesied by Siener van Rensburg, an Afrikaans mystic whose visions in the early 1900s have inspired many right-wing groups, including the Boeremag terrorist group.
Accusations of false prophecy against Prinsloo aside, a major problem seemed to be his lack of militancy.
"Johan Prinsloo and all his organisational affiliates are trying hard to achieve a political dispensation through negotiations with blacks [ancestor-spirit worshippers, nation murderers and robbers]," warned Gert van Kraayenburg, a sometimes-influential religious figure within far-right circles.
But by Sunday night Prinsloo, accused of being too soft in his political approach, would be under arrest, accused of planning to decapitate the ruling party.
The ambitions of Keevy, at least, were laid out in an email he sent to Andre Visagie, the former Afrikaner Weerstandsbeweging general secretary and current leader of the Geloftevolk Republikeine (Covenant People Republicans), on March 24.
Visagie said he had written the email off as the "rantings of a madman" and dismissed the claim made in court this week that he was privy to details of the plot.
In the email to Visagie, Keevy explained that he was adopted by the Keevy family in Cape Town and that he was named after the apartheid police general John Martin Keevy. "I do not know who and what I am … But somewhere in my genes there is an unquenchable flame, which [will] only be extinguished by my death." Keevy continued to set out his vision for the day the boere would reclaim their republic. "All soldiers deployed oversees must immediately return to their bases. All radios, cellphones and TV stations will be taken over."
Keevy suggested that the Parliament buildings and the ANC headquarters be "flattened" and that public institutions be taken over and that water and electricity to black homes be cut off.
Visagie said he understood that the plot stemmed from an interpretation of Siener van Rensburg's vision in which the "boere volk" would meet in that town, be armed with weapons brought in by train from Saldanha Bay and would then reclaim the land that was once the boer republic's.
As far as he knew, plans to import the weapons had not been finalised, Visagie said.
The email and the Prieska event highlight the involvement of Prinsloo and Keevy, but a third player is central to the plot charges, and also has links to Bridges: Boonzaaier. This link also raises the prospect that foreign hate groups may have been intended to be involved – and that a money-laundering scheme involving non-profit fronts had been considered.
Boonzaaier was the president of the Federale Vryheidsparty (the Federal Freedom Party) until this week, when the party, which still insists it intends to contend in the next general election, suspended him. He was also the accountant of the Bridges Music Trust, a non-profit established by Bridges, according to a web page for the trust, which was taken off line shortly after his arrest.
The trust claims to have poverty relief as its main focus, but it is closely linked with the Boervrouliga (Boer Women League), which has the stated aim of mobilising white woman in a struggle for freedom. Bridges is a director of the league.
In response to questions from the Mail & Guardian, Bridges on Friday issued a statement distancing herself, the trust and the league from "any illegal political actions".
Boonzaaier, she said, "rendered certain financial advice", but was never in charge of bank accounts.
Boonzaaier was also the managing director of the Hausenberg Development Cooperative Limited. According to its website, that organisation is "in the process of buying a 3 000 hectare farm" on the Orange River – in the Prieska district. There, the organisation said, Afrikaners will have the opportunity to live in freedom, with R2 500 entitling approved buyers lifelong rights to a 250m2 plot.
Why Prieska? It is only about 200km away from Orania, where the same kind of Afrikaner self-determination has been practised since 1991. Those who know Boonzaaier said it is more likely that he did not approve of Orania's politics.
A reasonably affluent man, with clients including the government, Boonzaaier has travelled to the US at least twice in the past two years on missions to gather support for anti "boer genocide" campaigns. Though his success was limited, he did make contact with – and gained promises of support from – the Aryan Nations group.
In 2001 the FBI identified Aryan Nations as a "continuing terrorist threat".
During a recent such trip to the US in September, Boonzaaier told a radio blog: "I think we can assume that within the next six to eight months, I wouldn't be surprised if we had a full-scale civil war in South Africa. It's a low level war that's being waged against us and at some point any group of people or a nation would stand up and say, 'enough is enough'."
Radical youth organisation
What he proposes, however, is not violence, but a political solution cribbed directly from the Bantustan model.
Trollip, the fourth accused and an alleged leader of a radical youth organisation, is less known in right-wing circles – and less trusted. Reports that Trollip made a quick confession to the magistrate after his arrest on Sunday have focussed suspicions on him within right wing circles, where rumours are swirling over whether any of the accused conspirators may be at the sharp end of a false-flag operation.
Intelligence sources confirmed that there had been a "deep undercover" component to the investigation.
One person, with links to one of the accused told the M&G this week: "The talk in the community is that this is another Boeremag case and that they [the accused] were set up or something."
Most of the Boeremag accused, who were found guilty of high treason earlier this year, have alleged that their plot was both initiated and driven by intelligence agents, with the intent to discredit the right wing. This week a number of organisations and individuals made similar claims on the Mangaung plot.
Some, however, think the false flag may have been planted by right-wingers themselves, with sinister intent.
"They definitely do not have the structures in place to successfully stage a coup," said one source about the four accused. "Behind the scenes are more organised groups at the ready.
Groups like these are dispatched to start the unrest … [they] are the puppets of the real fanatical ideologists who stay comfortably hidden from view until the right moment."
That Prinsloo and Boonzaaier had ambitions for Afrikaner self-determination is without doubt, and there are indications that Keevy was angry enough about crime against white people to consider himself at war with the government. But it seems that only the case going to trial will be able to answer the crucial question: How far, exactly, was the group willing to go?
And that, in turn, may tell us whether South Africa still faces any true right-wing terrorist threat – or whether intelligence agencies are mistaking empty talk and fantasy with conspiracy.
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The M&G Centre for Investigative Journalism (amaBhungane) produced this story. All views are ours. See www.amabhungane.co.za for our stories, activities and funding sources.