Getting to the bottom of what happened on Bird Island

Chris Steyn, co-author of The Lost Boys of Bird Island at the Open Book Festival in Cape Town. Photo: Jaco Marais
Chris Steyn, co-author of The Lost Boys of Bird Island at the Open Book Festival in Cape Town. Photo: Jaco Marais

When The Lost Boys of Bird Island hit shelves in August it dug up a painful part of South Africa's history barely hidden under the past 23 years' efforts to restore the dignity of its people. 

Since then the public response to the book has been a rollercoaster ride of disbelief, anger and denial by those implicated. The book's allegations have been intensely scrutinised, and the integrity of its authors in some cases questioned. 

It was therefore no surprise that the Fugard Theatre in Cape Town was packed to the rafters for the first, and only planned, public appearance by the its author, journalist Chris Steyn, for her conversation with veteran journalist Marianne Thamm at the Open Book Festival.

The book Steyn co-wrote with policeman Mark Minnie, who committed suicide shortly after its release, implicates senior National Party ministers including Magnus Malan and John Wiley in a paedophile ring in Port Elizabeth in the 1980s. It tells a brutal story of untethered power at the highest level of government; of how perverse men drugged and raped young boys on Bird Island and went to extreme measures to cover it up.

But the story has also been met with scepticism, not least from within the old Afrikaner Establishment, as well as from ordinary South Africans whom the book has left with many unanswered questions:

Why only publish the allegations now, 30 years after the fact? Why couldn't the authors find any of the victims to interview for the book? Why didn't they give those implicated who are still alive the opportunity to comment? And why didn't they name and shame those complicit in the crimes? 

As one member of the audience asked on Sunday, if we're being told that we were fed propaganda by the apartheid government in the past, how can we be expected to accept the book's allegations in good faith?

In other words, "show us the proof".

Steyn, and Thamm, who wrote the foreword to the book, have been undeterred. The proof, they say, is in the dozens of interviews with people who independently verified various and overlapping bits of information which, together, make up the pieces of the Bird Island puzzle.

"I did confront Magnus Malan," Steyn said on Sunday. "He had an opportunity to deny it. He didn't deny it. He admitted he travelled to the island with John Wiley… (he said) they were great friends and Wiley was doing experiments there. And he knew Dave Allen and that he had been implicated in paedophilia activities. He said, 'When people bring that up, I say, what is a paedophile?' That was his response."

Like any good journalist, Steyn keeps meticulous notes or recordings of her work. She still has notes going all the way back to 1987 when she started writing about Bird Island. What wasn't in her notes, she didn't include in the book for fear that she might be misremembering.

Some time that year, she received a phone call about a possible connection between Wiley and Allen's deaths. Both committed suicide under suspicious circumstances. She started investigating and it became clear that there was a financially corrupt relationship between the two, as well as a sexual relationship.

She phoned Jeff Allen, one of the top investigative journalists of the time who also happened to be Dave Allen's brother. Jeff told her the story of Allen and Wiley. 

She was then told that there was someone high up in the National Party who knew everything about the island and she went to see him. He was the first to tell her about Bird Island. 

The man had made it his business to know what was going on on the island and had somebody on the island who the people who visited there didn't view as a threat. He reported back regularly.

"Those were my first sources. And according to the National Party guy, the deepthroat, Cabinet knew. He gave me the name of the boy (who was shot in the anus) and told me the name of the surgeon (who saved his life)."

At that time, Steyn had no idea that in Port Elizabeth, Minnie was also investigating the case. 

His handling of the victims and the case docket has been met with much criticism, the latest of which claimed that it was "sloppy" and "negligent". How Minnie could allow the docket to be stolen twice and why he didn't save his notes or the recordings of one of the victim's testimonies are some of the criticisms levelled at him. 

"Why would Mark Minnie, an undercover narcotics policeman in Port Elizabeth name Magnus Malan in a docket?" Thamm asked. "Why would he attract that kind of attention to himself knowing that it would follow him for the rest of his life and probably put him in danger?

"I understand that the investigation might have been sloppy. I understand that there are questions around it. But if you're looking at what he was dealing with, you can understand that there might not have been cooperation among his colleagues. 

"People have to remember that he was dealing with a government that acted outside the law. The docket was stolen on the order of the state president. He would've known what was in that docket."

Steyn admitted that she now knows much more about the events at Bird Island than when the book was published. 

"The coverup continues. People are trying to prevent further exposure. That paedophile ring was not that small and some of those people are still alive. And some of those things happened in other places. The book is the tip of the iceberg. People are not worried about the book, they are worried about what still has to come out and they need to discredit Mark and me so that people don't believe us."

Steyn hopes to convince another man, who today holds a highly respected position in society, who was raped on Bird Island years ago to come forward. The man was lured to the island with promises of scuba diving and a braai, she says. When he arrived there he was given a drink that he believes was spiked because he woke up in the middle of the night being raped by Dave Allen. According to him, Malan and other ministers were also there at the time. 

Steyn believes because his standing in society gives him credibility, he would make a good witness that could stand up to cross examination in a court of law. Then, maybe finally, South Africans can make peace with what happened on Bird Island and all the questions may be put to bed.

UPDATE | Media24 has apologised for the publication of defamatory statements regarding Mr Barend Du Plessis in the books "The Lost Boys of Bird Island" and "Die Seuns Van Bird Island" and for the emotional harm that the publication of the books may have caused the Malan and Wiley families. Follow this link to the relevant apologies.

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