The rise and fall of Vlakplaas’s ‘cowardly' commander

2013-03-08 00:00

“I WAS in the heart of the whore.”

With these words, uttered in November 1989, Dirk Coetzee exposed the most malignant cancer in apartheid — the headquarters of the police’s death squad on a farm outside Pretoria.

His list of participants in the murderous activities contained the names of three generals, brigadiers and a colonel by the name of Eugene de Kock.

No one believed Coetzee. Everyone said he was mad. He was suffering from diabetes, had had too much to drink and was embittered because he had been kicked out of the police force a few years earlier.

Never before in South African history had anyone ever pleaded so hard and for so long that people should believe him that he was a mass murderer.

“I was the commander of the police’s death squad at Vlakplaas. We shot, burned, abducted and tortured activists.”

A judge later listening to Coetzee shook his head and snapped at him that he was “talking crap”.

It was unthinkable that the police could have committed such atrocities and that an open-faced Afrikaner man could be capable of such things.

Coetzee, the son of a postmaster, was born in the Northern Cape town of Warrenton in the winter of 1945.

Like most other Afrikaner platteland boys he grew up with rugby and braaivleis.

When he was 18, he joined the police.

He was the best student of his intake and was sent to the then Rhodesia (Zimbabwe), where he fought shoulder to shoulder with the forces of Ian Smith against the “communistic onslaught”.

Soon afterwards he was promoted to the security police — an honour, because he was part of a small, select group of men who believed they were above the law.

In 1979, Coetzee was ordered to establish Section C1 on the police farm Vlakplaas on the western outskirts of Pretoria.

Coetzee and his handful of men had to use so-called askaris (a Swahili word for “soldier”) to track down and kill ANC sympathisers.

Askaris were captured ANC guerrillas who were tortured by the police until they agreed to co-operate. They were used to infiltrate ANC cells and circles.

However, their lives were worth nothing. Two of these guerrillas would not co-operate and Coetzee was ordered to kill them.

Coetzee and his squad took them to South Africa’s eastern border with Mozambique, where they shot and killed them on the banks of the Komati River.

“And then we burned them,” Coetzee told me.

“How?” I asked.

“On a pile of wood and tyres,” he said, without showing any emotion. “It takes about eight hours to burn a body.”

“And what were you doing the whole time?”

“Braaiing meat a little way away. We had our own fire. And we drank. Brandy and rum. We drank the whole time.”

Several ANC activists subsequently became victims of Vlakplaas: Griffiths Mxenge, Sizwe Kondile and various others.

At the end of 1982 Coetzee botched the abduction of an activist from Swaziland, sparking a diplomatic incident.

The head of the security police, General Johan Coetzee, was furious. Coetzee was transferred to the dog unit — without a dog.

Coetzee, angry and embittered, slandered his commanders and was departmentally charged. He left the police.

By the mid-eighties Coetzee had told all and sundry — including a newspaper editor and an opposition member of Parliament — about Vlakplaas.

No one would believe him, despite the fact that activists were being murdered left, right and centre. Not a single one of these crimes was ever solved by the police.

I met Coetzee as a young reporter in the mid-eighties, and he also told me how he and his squad had murdered well-known Durban ANC lawyer Griffiths Mxenge in 1981.

I saw him from time to time after that and he fed me more information.

Every murder had taken place exactly the way Coetzee told it and in not a single instance had anyone been arrested.

This was not, however, a story that any mainstream newspaper would publish at that time. There was a state of emergency and the ANC was banned.

Max du Preez, a few other Afrikaans journalists and I started Vrye Weekblad in October 1988. We had already decided sometime earlier that we had to publish Coetzee’s story.

A friend of ours, Anton Lubowski, was shot dead in Windhoek in September 1989. We must expose the death squads, said Max.

“Take me out of the country and look after me and my family,” Coetzee said in a Portuguese restaurant, as he took long, deep sips of his vodka and lemonade.

Vrye Weekblad was bankrupt; there was no way we could take Coetzee out of the country.

Then a bizarre thing happened. In October 1989, on the eve of his execution, a murderer made a statement from his death cell that he had been a member of Dirk Coetzee’s death squad.

Almond Nofemela had been a security policeman at Vlakplaas, but had been sent to the gallows after murdering a North West farmer. That murder had nothing to do with Vlakplaas.

Nofemela’s confession hit Coetzee like a bombshell. “They are going to make me the scapegoat for everything,” he said.

“Get me out of the country and I’ll talk.”

Max and I sent a message to Jacob Zuma — the ANC’s head of intelligence at the time — in Lusaka in Zambia.

Would the ANC look after Coetzee in exchange for his admitting to everything?

Zuma agreed and in November 1989 Coetzee and I left for Mauritius, where we had the interviews.

A week later we handed him over to Zuma in London.

Two weeks later Vrye Weekblad exposed the police death squads.

Coetzee spoke not only about his own murders, but also about those of Eugene de Kock. Some of Coetzee’s former men kept him informed about Vlakplaas’s murder agenda.

Coetzee told us about the security police’s foreign wing, who blew up activists like Ruth First in Mozambique.

He related how the Eastern Cape security police poisoned Sipiwe Mtimkulu and abducted and murdered the Pebco Three.

One of Coetzee’s best friends was Joe Mamasela, a Vlakplaas askari and the unit’s most unscrupulous murderer.

Mamasela later went to work the Northern Transvaal branch of the security police, during which time he killed 100 people or more.

For two years after the Vrye Weekblad interview, the ANC had to move Coetzee from African country to African country.

De Kock, Coetzee’s successor at Vlak­plaas, was after his blood.

He tracked him down in Lusaka and sent him a letter bomb.

Coetzee refused to take receipt of the parcel and eventually his lawyer opened it — and was blown up.

When that didn’t work, the police apparently set up a “honey trap” for his wife. Coetzee received messages in Zambia about their alleged affair.

When he returned to South Africa in 1993 he believed he would become commissioner of police. He claimed Zuma had promised him that.

Instead, the new ANC government gave him a minor job at the National Intelligence Service, where he sat reading newspapers in the archives.

This left Coetzee embittered towards the ANC and in his latter years he cursed them as only Dirk Coetzee could.

Coetzee’s revelations in Vrye Weekblad were proved true in the mid-nineties following De Kock’s arrest and extensive testimony before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

Coetzee himself was convicted of the murder of Griffiths Mxenge in the high court in Durban in 1997.

“I hope they believe me now,” he said after the judge had described the murder as unconscionable and cruel.

Shortly afterwards, Coetzee was granted amnesty for that murder and never served any jail time for it.

Coetzee made only one mistake in his revelations to Vrye Weekblad: De Kock killed many more people than Coetzee knew about. All the rest was true.

He went on medical pension in the early 2000s and subsequently became head of security at EduSolutions — the company that did not deliver textbooks in Limpopo last year.

He left the company after a disagreement with his boss, Shaun Battleman, but not before Battleman had flown him to France for the rugby world cup in 2007.

In France, Coetzee ran into his old comrade, Jacob Zuma, and Coetzee related with great relish how they reminisced about the old days.

I spoke to Coetzee for the last time in August last year.

He said that diabetes had caught up with him and he had only 20% kidney function left.

He could barely leave his house.

His mother’s leg had been amputated that day and he couldn’t even be with her.

“I’m finished,” he said. “It won’t be long now.”

Was Dirk sorry for everything he did, and was he insane?

That is what everyone wanted to know from me after news was received of his death.

No, he was never sorry. Except, perhaps, sorry that he was no longer commander of Vlakplaas.

The highlight of Dirk Coetzee’s life was his time at Vlakplaas.

He often told me, “If I had stayed longer at Vlakplaas, I would have killed more people than De Kock. I was better than him.”

De Kock, on the other hand, always despised Coetzee because, among other things, Coetzee was apparently a coward.

He never did the shooting or killing himself, always leaving it to his men.

It’s easy, today, to condemn Coetzee as a mere apartheid murderer, but without him there would still be questions today about the disappearance and murder of a great number of activists in the eighties.

Eugene de Kock would probably still have been a free man.

I have very mixed feelings about Dirk Coetzee.

He and his henchmen played a big part in leading South Africa into a pitch-dark era.

And yet he also played a crucial part in getting us out of there again.

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