Saturday Star

A grim, remorseles­s confession


IN CRADOCK, a red and white Volkswagen Kombi filled with union members came to a stop at a police roadblock. Back in 1981 such roadblocks were routine, but what the delegation of National Automobile and Allied Workers Union members didn’t know as the police rummaged through their belongings was that there had been a tip-off.

That lead had come from their own, and it was part of a bizarre operation. Before the Kombi had left Port Elizabeth, to attend a congress in Harare, Zimbabwe, police security branch members had poured marijuana through air vents into the engine compartmen­t. They had orders that the vehicle was not to make it to Harare. The plan was to phone ahead to a local police station, get the vehicle pulled over and get the occupants arrested for transporti­ng a hallucinog­enic. It didn’t work out like that.

The local police in Cradock failed to notice the strong smell of marijuana percolatin­g from the engine compartmen­t. In a panic, a call was placed to the commander of the C1 counter intelligen­ce unit, Captain Dirk Coetzee. The world would later know C1 as Vlakplaas, and over the past couple of months he and his team had been responsibl­e for a spate of killings across South Africa and neighbouri­ng countries. But there was to be no killing on this mission, rather the unit would be using its other honed skill – car theft.

They learnt that the union members would be overnighti­ng at the Johannesbu­rger Hotel, and planned to head out at 3am the next day.

That night the Kombi was located in the hotel car park and warrant officer Koos Vermeulen opened the unlocked door to find the keys in the ignition. They had been left there so that the car park attendants could move the Kombi to make space for other vehicles. Vermeulen paid the parking fee at the boom and so scuppered the delegation’s trip to Harare.

This unusual Vlakplaas operation had a brief mention in an amnesty statement during the Truth and Reconcilia­tion Commission (TRC), but it appears in greater detail in Coetzee’s unpublishe­d memoir, Testimony of a South African Security Policeman: The Full Story. The book is just 120 pages and reads like a cop’s affidavit. Coetzee never found a publisher and for the past 30 years the electronic version has bounced around, appearing in the odd inbox. It was an exhibit at the TRC.

But what this book does provide is rare insight into the South African Police’s security branch, relevant now with the spotlight again on this brutal, covert arm of the apartheid regime.

A procession of stooped and greying former security branch officers have taken the stand in the Neil Aggett inquest. They have hid behind fading memories or have claimed not to have noticed the beatings and torture that was happening, sometimes on the same floor as they had their offices.

“There were just a few people from the security police who revealed a lot, and significan­tly advanced our understand­ing of the way the security forces operated. Them being Almond Nofomela, Eugene de Kock and Dirk Coetzee,” says Madeleine Fullard, the head of the Missing Person’s Task Team in the National Prosecutin­g Authority.

It was in 1990 when Coetzee, sitting in Lusaka, Zambia, under the protection of the ANC, began writing his memoir with the help of his brother, Ben. “Dirk phoned me from exile one Sunday evening and shouted, ‘Help!’,” Ben would write in the preface to the book. With a word processor tucked in his bag, Ben flew to Lusaka.

“We sat isolated in a remote ANC sanctuary. The kind and human faces of our long-exiled compatriot­s came and went around us. He talked and I typed and together we fought and organised and reorganise­d informatio­n until he was satisfied that what he wanted to say stood there clearly for anyone to read and understand,” Ben wrote.

The book begins with an oath. Dirk Johannes Coetzee, a police pensioner, declares that everything in the book is the truth. And with that, he goes on to explain the psyche of his former colleagues and why they are so reluctant to speak of what they have done, even decades later.

“It is vested in a culture of belonging to a clique that is more like a closeknit family. The culture is a syndrome of arrogant exclusiven­ess – of being above the law – of secrecy, necessity, loyalty to one another, mutual trust and mutual understand­ing, and of a very special relationsh­ip between superiors and subordinat­es.” They followed the 11th commandmen­t, he explained: “Never get caught.”

Coetzee had been a poor student and joined the post office after leaving school. On April Fool’s Day in 1970, he signed up with the police. The book describes a stint with the dog unit, the flying squad and a couple of months of disposing of bodies in what was then Rhodesia. Then he was moved to the

Special Branch in January 1977.

With the posting came hard drinking and a measure of freedom the other police department­s didn’t allow.

“A typical daily routine out in the veld was to pry around during the day, get to a bottle store before closing time, buy 12 beers and a two-litre can of wine, find a place in the great outdoors to sleep, have a braai, snorkel through the booze and fall over,” he would write of those early days while stationed in Middelburg.

Fire was to play an important role in Coetzee’s new posting.

Whenever there was an opportunit­y they braaied, sometimes in the hours before an operation. Often, a fire was a gathering place and an excuse to drink. Fire was also part of their modus operandi. It was used to turn murder victims to ash. They even had a term for it: drops, shot and burn. The victim would be given knock-out drops, then shot and the body burnt.

Three years later, Coetzee became the head of Vlakplaas. He was there for only 18 months, and it is all in the book.

In detail are the many murders, each given a chapter in his memoir. His most famous victim was the lawyer, Griffiths Mxenge. Coetzee’s death squad beat and stabbed him to death on a rainy night in Umlazi, Durban.

Then there was the murder of Isaac “Ace” Moema. This “turned terrorist” or askari joined Vlakplaas in 1981, but it became evident that his heart wasn’t in it. He would have to die, and it was decided that the drops, shot and burn method would be used to get rid of him. “He was such a decent man,” is how Coetzee remembers Moema.

Men died, as did women and, at times, even children. The death squads led by Coetzee also kidnapped and even conducted cross-border raids. It was during these operations that Coetzee would open the boot of his car and pull out what the police officers referred to as his toor sak, his sorcerer’s bag, that contained stage make-up to blacken their faces and hands. Next to the toor sak was an assortment of Russian weaponry used to hide the identity of the attackers.

The gruesome stories got airplay during the TRC hearings. What the book reveals are those unusual operations like the Kombi theft that are not well known and show just how far the security branch went to disrupt the enemy.

In 1981, Coetzee was asked to tap into a union’s phone and run up the bill. Another operation involved night-vision goggles and a can of Jeyes Fluid. Coetzee and his team were also once sent to the town of Rhodes in the Eastern Cape to set fire to the vehicles of some “white, leftist hippies”.

It is a memoir that reads as a confession, but there is no remorse. There is even a hint of boastfulne­ss. Here was a man who followed directives from his superiors who would start sentences with, “You need to make a plan with…”. “He always had a tendency to shoot his mouth off and… I saw he wasn’t an exaggerato­r,” recalls Fullard.

“But he doesn’t conceal his role. Most people will tend… while describing a horrific event (to) minimise their role. Dirk Coetzee did the opposite; he placed himself at the centre.”

Coetzee left Vlakplaas at the end of 1981 when he was transferre­d to the Pretoria narcotics branch. He found his return to convention­al policing difficult.

“For years my main priority was state security, with the ordinary criminals my principal allies. Now I was supposed to persecute my former underworld friends who had been my main sources of informatio­n,” he wrote.

In December 1984, an internal police inquiry into misconduct found him guilty. He was, however, allowed to retire on medical grounds.

“His problem was that he was never a team player,” says Julian Knight, who was Coetzee’s lawyer. “If he got a sniff of something, he had to do something about it.” Coetzee might have disappeare­d into the world of the haasmense, police slang for civilians, had it not been for a desperate phone call from a condemned man.

Nofomela, one of Coetzee’s protégés at Vlakplaas, had been convicted of the murder of a white farmer, which the police had not sanctioned.

For months, while he sat on death row, he had waited for his police superiors to spring him from jail. But when he was told by his then commanding officer, Colonel Eugene de Kock, that he must “take the pain”, he knew he was on his own. On the night before he was to walk to the gallows, he made a phone call.

“We wouldn’t have known about all this if it hadn’t been for Almond,” says Knight, who adds that Nofomela had been a model student constable and probably would have had a bright future in the police service – if he hadn’t been seconded to C1.

As Nofomela fingered his former boss as being the leader of five hit squads operating out of Vlakplaas, Coetzee left the country. Soon he would be under the protection of the ANC. Coetzee eventually returned to South Africa, where he would become one of the first apartheid police officers to apply for amnesty at the TRC.

Later, he would assist the Missing Persons Task team in locating some of the bodies he and his team had dumped. For Fullard, it meant spending hours with a man who spoke and swore continuous­ly. “He was really hard to be with, you really had to have guts of steel. You had to grit your teeth and go in,” says Fullard.

But Fullard did find that, unlike security branch members who had been appearing recently in trials and inquests, Coetzee had a good memory and wasn’t scared to reveal what he knew. In 2013, Coetzee died of kidney failure. He had been suffering from cancer.

When she learnt of Coetzee’s death, Fullard was left with a pang of regret. There was so much he could have told that wasn’t in his memoir, but he would have revealed if asked.

“I have a strong feeling of having failed with Dirk Coetzee, perhaps (by) not being more systematic with him,” says Fullard. “There were still questions I wanted to ask him.”

Fullard wanted to know about the early askaris and if perhaps he had heard the names of detainees she is trying to trace who disappeare­d in the 1970s and 1980s. But it is too late.

This article was first published by New Frame.

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 ??  ?? COSATU members protest outside Johannesbu­rg Central police station in 2014, demanding that the investigat­ion into the death of Neil Aggett be reopened. Aggett was held at the police station in 1982, which was then known as John Vorster Square. | WESLEY FESTER
COSATU members protest outside Johannesbu­rg Central police station in 2014, demanding that the investigat­ion into the death of Neil Aggett be reopened. Aggett was held at the police station in 1982, which was then known as John Vorster Square. | WESLEY FESTER

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