Did apartheid SA kill its ris­ing star?

The shock­ing mur­der of Nat wun­derkind Robert Smit and his wife 40 years ago still baf­fles peo­ple. Their daugh­ter searches for an­swers in a new book

Sunday Times - - Insight | Books - By TYMON SMITH

RAU TEM — cryp­tic let­ters that have haunted the imag­i­na­tion of a gen­er­a­tion of white South Africans ever since they were dis­cov­ered scrawled in red spray-paint on the kitchen cup­boards and fridge of a house in Springs on Novem­ber 22 1977.

For four decades the mean­ing of these let­ters has been seen as ei­ther the key clue or a red her­ring in solv­ing the mys­tery of who killed econ­o­mist Dr Robert Smit and his wife, Jeanne-Cora, at the house the cou­ple were oc­cu­py­ing in the East Rand town ahead of Smit’s cam­paign to be­come the Na­tional Party MP for the area.

The mur­ders rocked South Africa and were seen as the apartheid era’s “most no­to­ri­ous un­solved po­lit­i­cal mur­der” — that is if you ex­clude the many po­lit­i­cal as­sas­si­na­tions car­ried out by the regime against its en­e­mies — be­cause Smit was a ris­ing star in the ad­min­is­tra­tion of then prime min­is­ter BJ Vorster and tipped for a high-level po­si­tion in a fu­ture cabi­net, pos­si­bly that of fi­nance min­is­ter.

More than 40 years later the mys­tery of why the Smits were killed and by who has re­fused to go away — pur­sued doggedly by re­porters, for­mer se­cu­rity po­lice­men, am­a­teur sleuths, re­searchers, con­spir­acy the­o­rists and the Smit fam­ily them­selves.

A new book by the Smits’ daugh­ter, Liza, de­tails her quest for an­swers over the past two decades since she sub­mit­ted ev­i­dence to the Truth and Rec­on­cil­i­a­tion Com­mis­sion in 1997, and the tragic and emo­tion­ally tax­ing ef­fect that the mur­der of her par­ents has had on her life.

At the time of the mur­ders, Liza, then 13, and her brother, Robert, were stay­ing with cousins in the fam­ily home in Pretoria.

It has gen­er­ally been as­sumed that Smit — an Ox­ford- and Stel­len­bosch Univer­si­tye­d­u­cated econ­o­mist who served as the regime’s rep­re­sen­ta­tive to the IMF in Wash­ing­ton be­fore re­turn­ing to take up a se­nior po­si­tion at sanc­tions-bust­ing front com­pany San­tam In­ter­na­tional — had un­cov­ered ev­i­dence of large-scale fi­nan­cial cor­rup­tion by the gov­ern­ment.

This might have pro­vided the first ev­i­dence of the In­for­ma­tion Scan­dal, which even­tu­ally brought down the three most pow­er­ful men in the coun­try — Vorster, Transvaal NP head Con­nie Mul­der and ne­far­i­ous Bureau of State Se­cu­rity head Gen­eral “Lang” Hen­drik van den Bergh.

Over the years there have been whis­pers of gold bul­lion, Swiss bank ac­counts, crooked oil deals and money flow­ing into the pock­ets of cor­rupt South African politi­cians and US sen­a­tors.

How­ever, even if Smit had un­cov­ered such damn­ing ev­i­dence, the idea that his as­sas­si­na­tion was or­dered by mem­bers of his own party has been a bit­ter pill for many to swal­low — cer­tainly the regime pro­tected it­self against those who would over­throw it, but the idea that it would go so far as to kill one of its own rocked the Afrikaner es­tab­lish­ment to its core.

Liza’s in­ves­ti­ga­tion, in­cluded in the book in the form of her de­tailed sub­mis­sion to the TRC and con­ducted pre­dom­i­nantly with the as­sis­tance of jour­nal­ist Alet van Rens­burg, is no­table for her de­ter­mi­na­tion to meet as many as pos­si­ble of the peo­ple whose names she was given by jour­nal­ists, for­mer se­cu­rity op­er­a­tives and col­leagues of her fa­ther.

‘Tak­ing with me to the grave’

There is a chilling ac­count of her 1992 en­counter with Van den Bergh, who de­nied, as he al­ways had, that he had any clue as to who might have been re­spon­si­ble. She writes: “I gath­ered my courage and asked him what his eyes were hid­ing. He smiled and an­swered: ‘That which I am tak­ing with me to the grave.’ But his smile did not reach his eyes.” Even when con­fronted with the pleas of the Smits’ then 28-year-old daugh­ter, the feared for­mer in­tel­li­gence chief would not con­cede any­thing he might have known. He died five years later.

More dis­turb­ing is Liza’s meet­ing with ev­ery­body’s favourite for­mer for­eign af­fairs min­is­ter and potjie-cook­ing oom, Pik Botha. Botha had known Smit dur­ing his time in Wash­ing­ton and was a friend of the fam­ily. At her par­ents’ funeral, Liza re­calls Botha telling her: “My God, child . . . I wish I could help you, but my hands have been chopped off.”

Twenty years later when she vis­its him to ask questions re­lated to her in­ves­ti­ga­tion, she de­scribes Botha as eva­sive and sex­u­ally in­ap­pro­pri­ate, ul­ti­mately forc­ing a kiss from her as she jumps in her car to es­cape his clutches. Liza writes that at the time, she “wanted to tell the world about the con­duct of this ‘oom’, but I knew it would be fu­tile. It was my word against his. There­fore, to now be able to write about it gives me some sat­is­fac­tion.”

She adds that Botha, of all the peo­ple she saw dur­ing her in­ves­ti­ga­tions, was “the man who irked me the most. He is the one per­son I still feel has in­for­ma­tion that could ex­plain what hap­pened here.”

The TRC made lit­tle head­way in get­ting to the bottom of the mur­ders and con­cluded in its fi­nal re­port that “Robert and Jean­neCora Smit were killed by mem­bers of the se­cu­rity forces and that their deaths con­sti­tute a gross vi­o­la­tion of hu­man rights”. No ap­pli­ca­tions for amnesty were re­ceived in re­spect of the mur­ders.

Re­ports over the years linked the names of three for­mer se­cu­rity op­er­a­tives — Dries “Krulle­bol” Ver­wey, Jack Wid­dow­son and Roy Allen — to the mur­ders, as sus­pects. Allen, the only sur­viv­ing mem­ber, who em­i­grated to Aus­tralia, wrote a re­sponse to a Pol­i­tic­sweb re­port in 2013 in which he de­nied any in­volve­ment and placed the blame on Ver­wey and another dead op­er­a­tive, Phil Free­man, whose name came up at the TRC in re­la­tion to the death of ac­tivist Rick Turner.

When Allen’s name was first men­tioned, RAU TEM the­o­rists spec­u­lated that his ini­tials con­sti­tuted some of the let­ters.

Allen’s re­sponse was prompted by a 2012 in­ves­ti­ga­tion by Pol­i­tic­sweb ed­i­tor James My­burgh that dug up a 1980 ar­ti­cle by US in­ves­tiga­tive jour­nal­ist Joe Trento of the Sun­day News Jour­nal of Wilm­ing­ton, Delaware. Trento’s in­ves­ti­ga­tion de­tailed the CIA’s use of a hit squad made up of Cuban ex­iles that as­sas­si­nated op­po­nents of the Chilean regime of Gen­eral Au­gusto Pinochet and “a South African econ­o­mist and his wife who were shot to death in their South African home in Novem­ber 1977”.

Allen dis­counted these ru­mours and con­cluded that he was “sadly of the opin­ion that the Smit mur­ders will never be solved. This is a pity to their chil­dren, who would like some clo­sure on the mat­ter — and my heart goes out to them.”

‘RAU Tech­ni­cal and Mur­der’

In 2009, for­mer se­cu­rity po­lice­man Alan D Els­don claimed to have fi­nally cracked the mys­tery of RAU TEM in his book The Tall As­sas­sin, a “fic­tion­alised” ac­count of the ca­reer of Van Den Bergh. Els­don be­lieved the let­ters were an acro­nym for an is­land on the Vaal Dam hous­ing a se­cret fa­cil­ity used by BOSS and owned by what is now the Univer­sity of Jo­han­nes­burg. Ac­cord­ing to Els­don, the let­ters stood for Randse Afrikaanse Univer­siteit Teg­nies en Mo­ord (Rand Afrikaans Univer­sity Tech­ni­cal and Mur­der). What­ever the mean­ing of the let­ters scrawled in the Smits’ kitchen, the fact re­mains that with so many of those im­pli­cated ei­ther dead or near death and un­will­ing to pro­vide the an­swers which Liza and her fam­ily have spent so long search­ing for, Allen is prob­a­bly right — the mur­ders, while still con­sid­ered an open case by the

At her par­ents’ funeral, Liza re­calls Pik Botha telling her: ‘My God, child . . . I wish I could help you, but my hands have been chopped off’

NPA, will not be solved.

Liza’s book (writ­ten in col­lab­o­ra­tion with first-time au­thor Raquel Lewis), while com­mend­able for its hon­esty, is un­for­tu­nately a some­what shod­dily as­sem­bled and ran­dom col­lec­tion of im­pres­sions and in­ves­ti­ga­tions. It of­fers lit­tle in the way of new in­for­ma­tion about the mur­ders but does help one to un­der­stand some of the de­bil­i­tat­ing ef­fects of the mur­der­ous ac­tions of the apartheid regime on the fam­i­lies of their vic­tims.

You need no more pow­er­ful ev­i­dence of this than to page to the crime-scene pho­tos of the Smits, show­ing Liza’s fa­ther shot in the head, her mother stabbed 14 times in the back, and bear­ing the cap­tion: “Yes! I saw this. This is my re­al­ity . . .”

Pic­ture: Black­star Me­dia Ar­chive

DEV­AS­TATED Liza Smit, 13, and her grand­mother, GA Kachel­hof­fer, at the funeral in Pretoria of Liza’s par­ents in 1977.

I am Liza Smit, by Liza Smit with Raquel Lewis, is pub­lished by Ja­cana (R240)

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