Proudly South African

2011-11-16 00:00

PICKING up this book, I expected to be alternately bored and repelled, trudging through the life of an old-fashioned Afrikaans policeman, wallowing in the repellent murder cases which were his stock-in-trade.

A couple of pages into the volume, though, and I was hooked. Former Brigadier Piet Byleveld, the longest-serving member of the notorious Brixton Murder and Robbery Squad, was also its only member still in the SAPS by 2010 when he retired.

Unlike that of many of his former colleagues, his transition from the old order to the new was “seamless”, according to respected journalist Hanlie Retief — and she should know, for she met with and interviewed him regularly over a number of years.

Byleveld, with a 99% success rate during a career spanning four decades, is regarded as South Africa’s most successful detective. His almost uncanny ability to track down serial killers brought him international renown, and the FBI and Scotland Yard were among those who consulted him. Shortly before his retirement, the International Police Association honoured him as one of the three best detectives worldwide, and he also received the Judicial Award of the Department of Justice.

The book covers many of Byleveld’s most famous cases, including the one for which he is most noted, that of Leigh Matthews. Hideous stories, these, of blood and brutal violence; of imbeciles, psychopaths and sociopaths; of wickedness, ruthlessness and greed often bred in squalor and hopeless poverty. Yet Retief tells them simply and readably. They lack sensationalism or prurience, partly because she writes so well, partly (I’m sure), because this must have been how Byle­veld himself told them.

He describes himself as a wimpy Afrikaans farm boy from the Waterveld, who at first, and to the delight of his strictly Dutch Reformed parents, aspired to become a dominee. However, toughened by his service in the then SADF, and having enjoyed army life, he joined the police instead, and after two years in uniform became a trainee detective.

He was a natural, and he had an uncompromising sense of right and wrong, and a growing reputation for fairness, such that even the most hardened criminals trusted and respected him. Again and again, having caught his man, he would wait, benevolently Maigret-like and almost paternal, until somehow the suspect felt grateful to be able to confess to him.

As a brilliant, driven police detective “Piet Byl” was an outstanding success, never bending the law to obtain a conviction. His personal life was very different, however, dominated for many years by a miserable, childless marriage entered into for the wrong reasons, and deficient in close friendships and social activity.

It’s cheering to learn, therefore, that his retirement is proving both rewarding (he now works as a consultant) and happy: he’s to marry an attractive and warm-hearted woman, a long-time family friend, at the end of this year.

A great read, both as well-written true crime and as the story of an exceptional Afrikaner: it provides an unusual reason for being proudly South African.

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