Robert McBride: The Struggle Continues (Tafelberg)
They reconnoitered Durban’s Marine Parade looking for a place to plant the bomb. They drove off, waiting to hear police sirens, but all they heard was silence
The realm of the Golden Mile is lined with hotels such as the Balmoral, the Malibu and Tropicana, as well as tall holiday flats and sleek, tiered timeshares with palatial balconies. Further along stands the solid Edward Hotel and the elegantly thin Holiday Inn. As darkness marshals and the warm breeze blows in from the ocean, the globular disks of the yellow lamp posts light up, followed sequentially by a neon waltz from bars, restaurants, nightclubs and discos.
The heavy tropical night falls upon this model amusement terrarium, aglow with a zippy tracer of playful lights, glossily slipping back between the illustrated covers of yet another frisky brochure: After a leisurely day in the warm sun at the water’s edge … there’s no finer way of showing off a golden tan than by enjoying an excellent meal in tasteful surroundings within sound of the sea. International hotels with a variety of entertainment and cuisine vie for your favours with exotic dishes … at restaurants along the scintillating stretch of the Golden Mile with its many attractions and amusements.
This, then, on the night of Saturday, June 14 1986, was the end of the rainbow that Robert and Matthew Lecordier — however differing their accounts — had agreed to attack: a target on the Marine Parade.
None of the three protagonists is keen to discuss the details and exact manoeuvres that preceded the placing of the car bomb. All of them, for entirely dissimilar motives, prefer to stick to the respective accounts that were given in court. Robert’s evidence was that he was in such an emotional state he allowed himself to be persuaded by Matthew to strike at a more vulnerable objective. Matthew agreed in court that he told Robert: “I know of one hotel where people sit on the veranda.”
But he consistently maintained that Robert had planned all along to park the car bomb outside one of the establishments along the Marine Parade and he only made his suggestion “because it would have been an easy target”. Matthew denied they had a fierce argument about the placing of the car bomb; they had only parked the Ford Cortina in West Street, which was deserted, so that they could go in the Mazda to reconnoitre the Golden Mile. Robert made the decisions, said Matthew; he was in command.
Greta Apelgren, Robert’s girlfriend, had meanwhile parked round the corner in Field Street, outside the Allied Building Society. It was dark and there were only a few people wandering about in the centre of the city. A light drizzle had begun to fall. Greta waited several minutes before the other two joined her. Robert climbed into the back and told her to head for the Marine Parade. They drove in silence, turning right into Commercial Road, right again across Pine Street and then left back into West Street and straight down to the Marine Parade, where they cruised slowly past the neon bars and crowded restaurants. As they passed the Balmoral Hotel, Matthew gestured with his head — the veranda was packed with young white people at tables, drinking.
There was no parking space, so Robert directed Greta to drive back to the Cortina and, with Greta following, they drove it down Pine Street towards the parade, parking at the bottom outside a car salesroom. Robert, said Matthew, told him to wait while they went to look for a parking space again: “And also if the police come, I must use the pistol in his jacket pocket.”
Robert told the court that as he climbed into the passenger seat of the Mazda, Greta asked if they were finished with their business. “I told her no,” he said. “This is the alternative meeting point with the people.”
He directed her back to the brightly lit esplanade. They cruised slowly down the parade, but could not find a parking space anywhere. At one point, according to Matthew, they returned and Robert told him to be patient: they were still searching for somewhere to park. Eventually, as they once again drove down the parade, Robert spotted a space on the left-hand side. It was on a corner, right next to the Parade Hotel.
At the side of the hotel was Garfunkel’s Restaurant, while in front, on either side of its entrance, were two of Durban’s most popular taverns: on the left the Why Not Bar, and on the right Magoo’s Bar. Robert told Greta to pull into the space. She noticed he was suddenly extremely tense. Greta experienced considerable difficulty manoeuvring the Mazda into that tight space on the corner, but when she had finally done so Robert told her, “Just wait here, I am coming back now.”
“So I got out and walked straight to where Matthew was parked and I got into the car with Matthew and we came back,” Robert told the court. “I drove alongside where Greta was parked. I told Matthew, ‘Wind down the window’ and I told Greta to move out. She moved out and then I parked.”
While Greta drove ahead and double-parked a little way down the street, Robert asked Matthew to pass him the number plate from the dashboard, which he slotted into the boot through a hole in the back arm-rest. This was to ensure that it, too, would be destroyed in the explosion. Robert then took hold of the black flex attached to the explosives and gave it a hard tug. It spun back through the gap in the arm-rest and he could see that the safety pin had been detached from the SPM limpet mine: the device had been activated.
By Robert’s calculations the car was due to blow up in exactly 15 minutes. However, he was anxious not to hurry in case this drew attention to themselves, so first he showed the safety pin to Matthew, who immediately began to get agitated. He told Matthew that they must act calmly and, when they got out, walk slowly over to the Mazda.
“We waited about two minutes so as not to attract attention,” said Robert. “But my main interest was to get away from the car as soon as possible without attracting attention. When we got out, we walked slowly … and then it struck me. We had made a mistake with the calculation. Because the thing had been set for 15 minutes but, because of the weather it might go off, maximum, in about 12 minutes, after which the police would seal off the town.”
Greta was parked about 180m further down the parade. They strolled to the Mazda as casually as they could and Robert told Matthew to get in the front. Abruptly, as he himself sank into the back seat, he felt absolutely exhausted; a surge of lassitude enveloped him as the tension of the last two days finally surfaced, leaving him sapped both mentally and physically. Robert realised they would not now get out of Durban before the bomb went off. Immediately, he changed plans.
He instructed Greta to fill up with petrol at the corner of Beatrice Street and Albert Road. This was another oversight. Before every operation it was standard procedure to fill the tank, but he had omitted to do so. If there were going to be road blocks, Robert realised, they would probably have to take many detours that night.
“Robert was in a state, he was very tense,” said Greta. “You couldn’t talk to him or question him. It was obviously too late to go to the drive-in, and by that time I was aware that this was some ANC activity. No one was talking. It was very quiet.”
As they pulled out of the petrol station, Robert checked his watch: it was 9.30pm. He quickly made another decision and told Greta to drive up Sydenham Road, towards Ridge Road. It was a steep drive, cresting one of the hills circling the city. The reason for heading in that direction was that Robert remembered there had once been a police squad car unit there. When the bomb went off, he reasoned, the squad cars would come racing out — and they would then follow behind the police in the Mazda.
It was one of the rules: if you follow those who are following you, they will never catch up with you.
Robert instructed Greta to pull over immediately opposite a cemetery on Ridge Road. They were high above Durban, with a view over the lights of the city and the docks. Robert rolled down the window; there was not a sound. The bomb, by his reckoning, should have gone off by now.
They sat in silence for a while. “Can you hear any sirens?’ Robert asked Matthew.
“No,” said Matthew.
Greta was baffled by their conversation, Robert claimed, and she asked, “What sirens?” It was at this point, Robert maintained in court, that he told her about the car bomb: “Well, at first she was shocked. I can’t remember her exact words, but she said something to the effect, you know, ‘How can you do that? There are people.’ She asked me, ‘How much time is left? How long did you set it for?’ So I told her, ‘No, it’s gone off already’.”
Not one of them could explain why, when the explosion was clearly audible all over the city, they heard nothing while waiting on the hill.
“Matthew began to get anxious,” said Greta. “He said, ‘We should go — we’ve been here a long time.’ Robert was very tense, he didn’t say anything. He was in the back. We were sitting in the dark. There was silence and then Matthew began to panic, and so I said we should go. Robert had his arm out of the window. He was listening. He was quiet. He didn’t speak. He looked very far away. He was preoccupied, strained. We must have sat there for 10 minutes. I started to put pressure on him. It seemed too eerie, parked there by the graveyard. It was so dark, and I started to get nervy. I said, ‘Let’s go.’ Robert didn’t reply. Then he started to talk about the time and the explosion. I was about to start the car when Robert finally said, ‘Okay.’ No one spoke on the way back.’
They drove back towards Wentworth, avoiding the freeway, down Umbilo Road, along Edwin Swales Drive to the white area of The Bluff. Here Robert threw the cord and safety pin onto the grass verge. There was no sign of any police roadblocks. They approached Wentworth up Quality Street and dropped Matthew off at his home.
“No one said a word,” remembers Greta.
When they got to Greta’s grandmother’s house she told Robert that they could not leave the car outside because it would certainly get stolen. Robert was going to return to Hardy Place for the night, so he left her there and took the car back to her parents.
“Again, we didn’t say a word about that evening,” said Greta.
Matthew went to a friend’s 21st birthday party and stayed till the early hours drinking brandy. Antonio du Preez and Alan Pearce were there, as well as Whitey and Virgil. After a while they went outside to smoke some dagga, and Matthew stayed till 4am.
Greta had wanted to hear the news, but it was too late so she went to bed. She tuned into Capital Radio at six the following morning, and that is when she heard it, although she says she did not, could not, believe the news till later that morning when her sister Penny brought over the Sunday Tribune.
Matthew also learned the news from the Sunday Tribune. When he read it, he said, and saw the pictures, he wanted to puke.
Robert read the same account. For the first time it dawned on him what they had truly done.
This is an edited extract from Robert McBride: The Struggle Continues by Bryan Rostron (Tafelberg)