Men behind terror squad that killed opponents of the apartheid regime
- A special squad of the South African Police used to abduct anti-government activists, beat them to death and burn their bodies. Their colleagues burnt the midnight oil in labs making poisons to kill blacks.
There were mixed reactions to news last month of the death of Dirk Coetzee, one of the most infamous figures of South Africa’s apartheid era.
Coetzee, who died in Pretoria on March 6 aged 57, was a former police captain who reportedly ran a death squad from Vlakplaas, a farm outside Pretoria. Having been privy to many secrets of the apartheid era, he was the first white police officer to lift the lid on a death squad that targeted opponents of the apartheid government.
In blowing the whistle on the activities of the regime’s terror machine, Coetzee also revealed the gruesome murder of many freedom fighters by the squad.
Coetzee was the chief of the secret Vlakplaas unit between 1980 and ‘81.
“It was just another job to be done,” Mr Coetzee told journalist and author Jacques Pauw, whose liberal Afrikaans newspaper, Vrye Weekblad, broke his story in 1989.
Coetzee then went into exile, having been smuggled out of South Africa to write his story, and reportedly took refuge in London after exposing the group and its activities.
While in exile, Coetzee joined the anti-apartheid African National Congress, was named Comrade Dirk, and swore allegiance to Nelson Mandela. He consequently became an assassination target for the white minority government but, intriguingly, and despite his remarkably dark past, he later returned to his native South Africa.
Back home, he joined the post-apartheid spy service after Mandela became president in 1994. He was also to reveal how, during its heyday, the death squad recruited renegade black liberation movement members whom it turned into killers.
Having had his epiphany, Coetzee revealed how police officers working at the behest of the apartheid regime would build two fires, one to burn the bodies of slain anti-apartheid activists and another to barbeque meat.
“In the beginning, it smells like a normal braai (barbecue) but, by the end all you can smell are the burning bones,” he was quoted by Pauw as saying, in the book Dances with Devils.
Coetzee was later convicted of murder, but granted amnesty by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) in 1997 after he publicly confessed to having murdered a Durban-based human rights lawyer, Griffiths Mxenge.
In granting him amnesty the TRC, which had been set up to probe apartheid-era atrocities, and was chaired by Archbishop Desmond Tutu, found that he and two partners had acted on the instructions of the police security branch, and had simply been following orders from security police commanders.
The finding did not, however, assuage the shock of South Africans, who heard that the murdered lawyer had been abducted, stabbed and struck on the head with a wheel spanner. He was then disembowelled and his throat cut, while both his ears were also nearly cut off. In all, his body had 45 lacerations and stab wounds.
Killed and burnt
The horror of that particular murder aside, even after his confession, Coetzee failed to reveal the place where another activist, Sizwe Kondile, had been buried after being killed and burnt.
Madeleine Fullard, a state investigator, said that before his death, Coetzee could have still been of help in finding the remains of activists who disappeared without a trace during the apartheid regime.
“Just heard that former Vlakplaas commander Dirk Coetzee has died,” she reportedly tweeted soon after learning of his death in March. “Still needed him to point out one last site.”
But Coetzee’s reputation as an important cog in the apartheid killing machine did not make him anything as notorious as other operatives who loyally served the racist regime. Among them was one Gen Lothar Neethling, who, in the late 1970s, had risen to South Africa Police’s, chief deputy commissioner, the second-in-command.
Gen Neethling, who died of lung cancer in Pretoria in July 2005, aged 69, had founded SAP’s Forensics Unit in 1971. A highly qualified scientist, he held two doctorates in chemistry, one from the University of California. His genius was, however, put to evil use, and he was alleged to have used police forensic laboratories for the production of poisons to kill anti-apartheid activists. He was also said to have developed chemical and biological weapons for use against the black population.
A leading member of the Afrikaans Academy of Arts and Science, which awarded him a gold medal for his contribution to society, Gen Neethling was also a respected figure. He described himself as a staunch Christian.
But in November 1989, Gen Neethling’s dark side was exposed, and he was often referred to as South Africa’s own Dr Mengele, a comparison to the notorious Nazi evil genius. The comparison arose from the fact that Gen Neethling was born in Germany in August 1935 and went to South Africa as one of the German war orphans who were adopted by Afrikaan couples at the time.
He was among 83 orphans who arrived in Cape Town in September 1948. Then aged 13, his name was Lothar Paul Tietz, and he was adopted by Dr J C Neethling.
He excelled academically and, having absorbed all the elements of the Boer culture in his teenage years, was fully accepted into the Afrikaaner community. His rise to fame was meteoric, and he became a legend among police officers and reportedly received seven SAP medals before his dark side was exposed by Coetzee. Neethling denied Coetzee’s allegations, which were also published by UK’s Daily Mail.
Coetzee narrated how he had visited Neethling at home and in his laboratory to collect “knock-out drops” and toxins, which he then administered to ANC cadres. That assertion was later given credence when the ANC documented many cases of its guerrillas dying mysteriously. It would later be established that they were poisoned.
Coetzee further revealed details about Neethling’s reputation as a “genius chemist,” who had developed all kinds of “remedies” to use on anti-apartheid activists. Among his deadliest concoctions was “Lothar se doepa” (Lothar’s potion).
Gen Neethling denied the allegations and even sued Vrye Weekblad and Daily Mail for R1 million (about $110,000 at current rates) each for defamation. The scientist said he only carried out forensic work in his laboratory.
During the court case that followed the 1989 revelations, other allegations were made against Neethling. For instance, Leslie Lesia, an agent of the security forces, alleged she had been given some Lothar’s potion to kill ANC activists in Mozambique and Zimbabwe.
Although found guilty, Neethling was undaunted and took the judgment to the Appellate Division in Bloemfontein, where the judges declared that both he and Coetzee had probably lied, and said that they found it impossible to determine the truth. That notwithstanding, they found that Vrye Weekblad, the paper that had run the story about the scientist, had defamed him, and ordered it to pay him R90,000 ($9,850 at current rates) as well as the legal costs.
The controversial judgment was roundly criticised and labelled a blow against press freedom in South Africa, but was applied nevertheless.
Forced into bankruptcy, Vrye Weekblad folded in February 1994. Its editor Max du Preez was adamant in his onslaught against Neethling, insisting he had lied in court and, after TRC hearings in September 1997, he instituted criminal charges of murder, perjury and fraud against him. But, according to Du Preez, his charges against the scientist were never thoroughly investigated.
The Neethling saga became even more intriguing after the passing of the judgment, with a Cape Town prosecutor reportedly declaring that Neethling had once boasted to him of how he had developed a potion that would simulate a heart attack. At about the same time another police officer allegedly said the scientist had offered to give him a capsule that he could use to kill ANC leader Tony Yengeni by giving him a heart attack.
More allegations against the scientist were to come up during TRC hearings in 1996, during which it was revealed that Neethling was, in fact, the one-time mentor of Dr Wouter Basson, a cardiologist who had earned the nickname Dr Death, but who portrayed himself as a scientist who had sought ways to combat potato blight and hepatitis A.
In another experiment dubbed Project Coast, Basson reportedly sought to create “smart” poisons, that would only affect blacks while also hoarding enough cholera and anthrax bacilli to start epidemics.
At other times he focused on developing weapons such as sugar laced with salmonella, cigarettes with anthrax, chocolates with botulism and whisky with herbicide.
Basson was, in 2002, acquitted of charges of murder, conspiracy, fraud and drug possession.
Portrayed by the media as a monster, the cardiologist reportedly only smiled briefly when he was acquitted of 46 charges. The doctor had adamantly refused to apply for amnesty at the TRC hearings, a stance viewed by civil rights groups as proof that he was unrepentant about his contribution to the terror unleashed by the apartheid regime on independence activists.
“For me, the issue is not whether or not somebody gets found guilty,” said former anti-apartheid activist, the Rev Frank Chikane. “The real issue is whether or not the person is able to come to me and say, ‘I did this and I’m very sorry.’”