Former Vlakplaas death squad commander captain Dirk Coetzee is going to his grave a bitter, vindictive and disillusioned man.
When I spoke to him for the last time in August last year, he was already terminally ill. He suffered from diabetes and had 20% kidney function left. He died this week at the age of 57.
“I’m finished,” he told me. “My time is up.”
Yet he ranted unremittingly about the ANC “abandoning” him and how President Jacob Zuma reneged on an alleged promise 23 years ago to make him a senior police general, if not commissioner.
It was supposed to have been his reward for having exposed police death squads in the anti-apartheid newspaper Vrye Weekblad in the summer of 1989.
Coetzee’s rage about Zuma and the ANC’s purported broken promise was nothing new.
It had been going on for years.
I had told him numerous times before that he hadn’t done badly for a man who confessed his complicity in 23 serious crimes, including a host of murders, bombing, kidnapping, torture and poisoning.
His victims had all been black and mostly ANC supporters. Among them, though, were also a nine-year-old boy and a diamond dealer who paid the price for a deal gone wrong.
Most people will remember him as the police assassin who charred the bodies of his victims on pyres of wood and tyres after he and his men had executed them.
I’ll remember him for that moment in November 1989 when we sat under swaying palm trees on the beach in Mauritius and I asked him: “So Dirk, tell me what it was like to be the commander at Vlakplaas?”
He thought for a moment and said: “I was in the heart of the whore.”
With these words, Coetzee bared apartheid’s grossest secret: the existence of the police death squads.
For a decade, the men of Vlakplaas went out to kill, and kill again. Killing was their business, and, in apartheid South Africa, business was roaring.
When all else had failed, the men of Vlakplaas were sent to finally solve the problem.
They had the right to decide over life and death.
Coetzee started the Vlakplaas farm at the end of 1980, but left barely two years later.
He had botched a kidnapping that earned him the ire of the security police chief. His successor was Eugene de Kock, who killed 10 times as many people as Coetzee during his reign in the latter half of the 1980s and early 1990s.
In 1985, Coetzee was kicked out of the police. In 1989, one of his former men, who was on death row for a non-political murder, spoke about Vlakplaas.
Coetzee was scared that he was going to be the fall guy and he wanted out.
By then, a handful of Afrikaans journalists had started Vrye Weekblad.
I was one of them and I knew about Coetzee’s dirty secrets.
He said he would talk, but he wanted to leave the country and we had to look after him and his family.
The newspaper was cash-strapped and we sent a message to Zuma – then head of ANC intelligence – in Lusaka, Zambia.
Would you look after Coetzee if he fully exposes Vlakplaas, we asked?
Yes, he said, but only if he tells the whole truth.
That led to Coetzee and I leaving the country for Mauritius where he uttered his infamous words.
A week later, we handed him to Zuma in London.
Initially, nobody – at least not white people – believed him.
Never before has anyone begged so insistently to be labelled a serial killer.
In the following years, De Kock hunted Coetzee and sent him a letter bomb in Lusaka, Zambia.
It blew up Coetzee’s lawyer instead.
Coetzee returned to South Africa in 1993, but instead of becoming commissioner as he believed he would, the ANC stashed him away in the archives section of the National Intelligence Agency.
In 1997, he was convicted of killing ANC lawyer Griffiths Mxenge in Durban in the early 1980s, but he received amnesty for his crimes and never spent a day in prison.
By contrast, De Kock stayed silent and was convicted in 1996 for 212 crimes, including a host of murders. He’s still in prison.
Very few people will mourn Coetzee’s death.
I won’t either.
Yet, if it wasn’t for him, the deaths and disappearances of many activists would have remained a mystery.
Coetzee should be condemned as a man who contributed immensely to leading South Africa into the darkest of times.
But he should also be recognised for helping us to emerge on the other side.