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
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 . . .”
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)