Vlakplaas and the murder of Griffiths Mxenge

Dirk Coetzee

The Hidden Hand: Covert Operations in South Africa

Editors: Anthony Minnaar, Ian Liebenberg, Charl Schutte

ISBN 0 7969 1563 6 (1994) Human Sciences Research Council, Pretoria.

Background

Covert operations are not unique to any particular security agency in any particular country, and they obviously occur in South Africa as well.

However, one must keep in mind that in South Africa a particular situation has developed. The Total Onslaught ideology was developed in 1972 and South Africa's political leaders saw themselves as defending a white Christian civilization against a terrorist assault planned from Moscow and spearheaded by the liberation movements, namely the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC) and the African National Congress (ANC)/South African Communist Party (SACP) alliance with its military wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK).

Part of their defence against this 'onslaught' included using covert operations and/or clandestine operations. In the words of the insiders:

Law enforcement officers, such as members of the SAP and other organs of the security forces understand that the RSA is faced with a revolutionary onslaught which, if it is ever allowed to succeed, will plunge the southern tip of Africa into chaos. (1)

This is a very devious way of talking, but it is something that security people will understand. [175]

I think for people in the profession, people who speak deviously to each other and who have a very intimate rapport with each other understand intimately, understand very well what is going on in this type of conversation. (2)

The security culture of the South African Police

During the five years from 1977 to 1981, I served in the Security Branch of the South African Police. As members of this branch, my colleagues and I enjoyed a special protection that enabled us to perform various operations, that could be considered illegal, inside and outside the borders of the Republic of South Africa, as well as inside and outside the course of duty.

This protection, which enabled us to operate above the laws of the country and above the rules and regulations of the police, is not statutory and is of an ambiguous nature. It is vested in a culture belonging to a clique that is more like a close-knit family. The culture is a syndrome of arrogant exclusiveness, of being above the law, of secrecy, necessity, loyalty, mutual trust, mutual understanding, and special relationships between superiors and subordinates. Aspects of this culture, such as the exclusivity, secrecy and necessity are explicitly and implicitly respected by the rest of the police force and by the community beyond it.

This special protection, however, became a liability once I fell into disfavour with the security clique. For a long time they have tried overt as well as covert means of incrimination to destroy and discredit me. It is practically impossible to substantiate or expose these actions against me.

The security culture encompassed our dispositions, skills, methods and techniques. We shared many commonalities with a familial gang of thugs. We differed from other thugs in that we formed part of the broader police community appointed to bring other thugs to justice. We also differed from other thugs in that our dispositions and skills [176] were employed 'constructively' in terms of the government's aims and policies which were being furthered by our operations.

The security culture was not formally taught. We grew into it, with our progress depending on attitudes towards the ANC and the individual personalities and skills which each of us had. Progress in learning the culture in turn determined our acceptability and direction of specialisation. The contrast in my behaviour between the uniform and security branches illustrates the changed working culture that I grew into, although my single authentic personality was clearly discernible in both environments.

Our operations often spanned more than one country, with illegalities on both sides of the border. The crimes included murder, attempted murder, victimisation, assault, theft, border violations and others. Flagrant violations in the course of duty often gave rise to illegalities outside the call of duty; and illegalities outside the call of duty were condoned so long as they served the ends of Security Police operations. We were, as part of the security culture, quite unconcerned with general crime prevention, for example bringing a car thief to justice even if apprehending such a car thief could serve police ends. Our informants were typically common criminals.

To evaluate my testimony on the indiscriminate violations of law by the Security Police, these introductory remarks are necessary. It must be understood that the South African Police Security Branch, most importantly Sections A and C, do not necessarily recruit citizens of integrity, as the sections referred to operate with minimal restrictions or oversight by superiors.

These introductory comments provide an understanding of the impropriety of appointing a member of the Security Police to investigate allegations of Security Police irregularities. A member of the Security Police is fully aware of where loyalties are to be placed. Accordingly an investigation should be delegated to a person [177] whose interests would not be served by the discovery of incriminating evidence.

 

Entering the career

Born in Pokwani in 1945, I matriculated in 1963 and joined the Post Office where I served in the Post Office Investigation Branch for over six years.

After nine months of military training in the South African Navy, I joined the South African Police in 1970. Completing training with distinction, I served in the uniform branch and in the CID or detective branch. Trained also as a dog handler, I was allowed to work on the border between South Africa and former Rhodesia. Further training led to my acquiring the skills of scuba diving and the use of light watercraft. In 1976, the South African Police College invited me to lecture. After ten years of service, I was awarded a medal for faithful service in the SAP. In the following years I was station commander and border post commander at Oshoek on the border of Swaziland. My socialisation into the culture of the Security Forces began at Oshoek.(3) The Oshoek border post, being under local regional security headquarters, fell under the command of Middelburg, Transvaal.

In 1979, I was transferred from the Oshoek border post to the Middelburg Security Branch after which I was again transferred to Security Headquarters in Pretoria. There I served with Section C on the ANC/PAC desk with a specific assignment to Vlakplaas. With the rank of Captain, I became commander of Vlakplaas.

Brig. Johan Coetzee was chief of the Security Police. He was a senior brigadier, that is a brigadier, deputy commissioner. His second-in-command was Brig. Jan du Preez, who was a junior brigadier, assistant commissioner. Under Brigs Coetzee and Du Preez the Security Head Office consisted of Sections A to F. [178]

Each section has its own commander with the rank of colonel or lower. Section A, the one to which Craig Williamson belonged, was commanded by Col Piet Goosen. Section C was the ANC/PAC desk.

Each section was subdivided to suit its specific needs and each subsection had its own commander. I was commander for sub-section C1, Vlakplaas.

Every weekday morning at 07h30, the sub-section officers met with their section commander to keep him informed on all matters. At 08h00 the section chiefs and the security second-in-command met with the Security Police chief.

While I was at Vlakplaas, the chief of Section C was G.G. Viktor, later to become Maj. Gen. Viktor before retiring and then taking the position of Police Commissioner for Brig. Oupa Gqozo in Ciskei at the time of the Bisho massacre.

Viktor put me in charge of Section C1, Vlakplaas, and I occupied this position between August 1980 and December 1981. Vlakplaas is a farm, seven kilometres from Erasmia, on the Schurveberg road west of Pretoria which had been hired by the police in 1978. The farm's southern border is the Hennops River. There was an old farm house with an outbuilding, a garage, and two domestic houses.

The farm was used to convert ANC/MK soldiers into police informants. These informants were called 'askaris', a Swahili word meaning 'black soldier'. The task of the askaris was to mix with the population at public places such as 'shebeens' (illegal taverns), bus stops, railway stations, and taxi ranks in order to locate other members of the ANC to be arrested by the police. The askaris were registered as police informants, receiving a salary of R200 per month. I administered the farm and the lives of the askaris. The askaris remained at Vlakplaas until needed by a branch of the Security Forces. [179]

Our fleet of official vehicles included three Cortina bakkies with BPC registration plates; a white Datsun Laurel with false registration`s plates; a blue Datsun Laurel; four Toyota bakkies with white canopies; a Toyota Hi Ace minibus; a Ford F100; a flatbed Bedford truck, and three or four askaris vehicles of dubious origin.

At Vlakplaas I was present during various conversations between Viktor and friends from the Rhodesian Special Branch. I heard about booby traps in arms caches, poisoned food caches, poisoned clothing, and poisoned water holes. Viktor was also involved in operations in Zimbabwe and Mozambique which included car bombings. Viktor was less approachable than Nick van Rensburg, Brig. Van der Hoven and Brig. Jan du Preez, so I do not know extensive details of such activities. Viktor housed the exiled Lesotho opposition party leader, Nsu Semogetle, at Vlakplaas while the details of arms smuggling were being discussed with him.

When Col Schoon took over Section C from Viktor, one of his Oshakati police colleagues, Lt-Col. Piet Viljoen, today a brigadier at Security Head Office, was transferred from Oshakati to Security Head Office. Piet Viljoen’s wife, Joan, worked as a typist in Section C, which was headed by Schoon. Joan missed the South West African allowances and Brig. Schoon instructed me to register a fake informer so the money could be passed on to Joan Viljoen.

Another important aspect of covert operations is the tapping of phones, referred to as 'legal tapping'. Amongst other things, we 'charged up' the phone bill of a union, stole activists' cars, and committed murder. One such murder was that of Sizwe Kondile.

 

The murder of Sizwe Kondile

Sizwe Kondile was an activist arrested by the Security Police in Bloemfontein upon crossing from Lesotho into South Africa in Chris Hani's car. He was transferred for interrogation to the Port Elizabeth branch of the Security Police. During interrogation he dived [180] through a window, hitting his head on the concrete. He incurred serious injuries and, according to the opinion of a doctor, 'You've got another Biko case coming up! He was then taken to Bloemfontein and released with his car and personal possessions in the presence of uniformed police.

After leaving Bloemfontein he was abducted by the same group which had brought him from Port Elizabeth. Sizwe Kondile was then held illegally in the single quarters for whites of a police station. After being given a powerful drug called knock-out drops, he was shot and his body burned.

His car was then taken to Swaziland with false number plates and parked in front of the Lugogo Holiday Inn. This story was reported in Vrye Weekblad.

 

The Mxenge murder

I am not able to recall many of the details of the Mxenge murder but it should be remembered that this murder happened quite some time ago. Moreover, I only remember the things that were important to me. At that stage I considered important those details required to carry out the task on hand and not those details that would be useful one day when testifying to a Commission of Inquiry.

During November 1981, the four groups from Vlakplaas were all sent to Durban for surveillance purposes. The askaris and black policemen slept in a dormitory next to the dog unit at C.R. Swart Square Police Station in Durban. The white policemen stayed in the single and officers' quarters in a building next to the police office block.

While in Durban, I reported to Brig. Van der Hoven, the regional security commander, every morning at about 07h30 and in the [181] afternoon before 16h00, which was when he retired for the day, for briefing, messages, and instructions.

One morning, at such a meeting, Brig. Van der Hoven gave me background information on a certain Griffiths Mxenge and said we should make a plan with him ('maak ‘n plan met hom'). He explained that Mxenge was an ex-Robben Island convict and an attorney. He acted as an attorney in many trials of activists and ANC members. Van der Hoven said that more than R10 000 from the ANC had passed through Mxenge's account during the past year and that the Security Police were trying to build a case against Mxenge to take him to court.

When I agreed to make a plan with Mxenge, Brig. Van der Hoven said that we should not shoot or abduct him, but that we should rather make it look like a robbery. They took me to Capt. Andy Taylor, whom I know and who was working on the Mxenge case. Van der Hoven asked Taylor to give me some information on Mxenge and left.

Taylor and I did not specifically discuss the reason for my requiring this information. We talked a little and basically he repeated things which Brig. van der Hoven had told me.

Taylor assigned one of his staff to me to point out Mxenge's residence, work place, and car. At some stage everybody from Vlakplaas, who eventually formed the hit squad, was shown these places. I cannot recall how many trips were made.

An important point is that I asked Brig. Van der Hoven to arrange with Brig. Schoon for Joe Mamasela to be sent to Durban. Mamasela and Almond Nofomela (of the Vlakplaas people) did not smoke or drink, were intelligent, healthy and displayed the ability to kill. I intended Mamasela and Nofomela to form the core of the hit squad. [182]

Mamasela, as an ex-criminal, was recruited by the West Rand Security Branch and handled by Capt. Jan Coetzee, who later succeeded me at Vlakplaas. Mamasela had undergone several crash courses with the ANC in Botswana. He worked with Capt. Jan Coetzee at West Rand Security when Coetzee needed him. Otherwise he worked with my group. In response to my call Sgt Koos Schutte, mechanic and foreman at Vlakplaas, brought Mamasela to Durban.

I was in charge of this operation. The other Vlakplaas people involved were Capt. Koos Vermeulen, W/O Paul van Dyk, Const. Almond Nofomela, Student Cons David Tshikalanga, and askari Brian Ngulungwa. Ngulungwa was involved because he was a Zulu and the only one who knew the Umlazi area.

Mxenge's office was in the centre of Durban in an Indian area on the northern side of a street running from East to West. He parked his car in an open parking lot behind the buildings across the street from his office. We also thoroughly examined approaches to his residence.

From the mess at the C.R. Swart single quarters, I obtained a chunk of meat. I cut this into four pieces and treated it with strychnine obtained from Capt. Wahl du Toit of the technical division at Security Head Office. Each piece of meat was given a cut into which

a knife point of strychnine was inserted. The meat should not be too big, so that a dog could swallow it whole. The strychnine was put inside so that a dog would not taste it. Only a knife point was used otherwise the dog would vomit out the meat and with it the poison. This was intended for Mxenge's dogs.

Again I cannot be sure, but I vaguely recall Koos Vermeulen, Paul van Dyk, Almond Nofomela, and Joe Mamasela being present at the preparation of the meat. There may have been others. That evening Koos Vermeulen, Paul van Dyk, Almond Nofomela, Joe Mamasela and I drove to Mxenge's place where Nofomela threw out the meat [183] for the dogs. I think after the murder, the newspapers reported that Mxenge's dogs had been poisoned.

I left the details of the murder to be worked out by Nofomela and Mamasela. My instructions were that they were not allowed to shoot and that it should look like a robbery. They were therefore to take some of his personal possessions such as his wallet, watch and jacket. If the opportunity arose, they should take his car as well. I cautioned them to wear old clothes and old shoes that I could destroy if necessary. They were also to see that their pockets were empty so that nothing could be lost at the site of the crime - no cigarettes, no I.D. documents, no watches with names or serial numbers, etc. I arranged to meet them at a bar.

At some stage I assigned Spyker and Brian Ngulungwa to Nofomela and Mamasela. The four of them had to murder Mxenge. I let them have a big hunting knife which Koos Schutte had with him and two Okapi knives.

One rainy Thursday night - I worked out afterwards that it must have been a Thursday and the newspapers confirmed this - when I stopped at the bar at approximately 22h00, I found them in the bar. Mamasela was wearing Mxenge's jacket and watch. The sleeves of Mxenge's jacket were too short for Mamasela. The jacket was grey and of a coarse texture.

I called them out and they gave me a brief account in the street. They had already changed and put their clothes and shoes, the knives, and Mxenge's belongings in the boot of the car. They gave me the keys to Mxenge's car and told me the car had been parked right next to the entrance of the C.R. Swart Police Station in an open parking lot.

I went to the single quarters, called Paul van Dyk and Const. Braam du Preez asking them to pack and prepare to leave. I waited for them and took them to Mxenge's car. Here we fitted false number [184] plates and I asked them to leave immediately for the Goleta border post where W/O Freek Pienaar was stationed. Van Dyk and I knew Pienaar well. Pienaar was the only security policeman at Goleta and fell under the Ermelo Security Branch. I said they should wait for me just outside Goleta on the North Coast road.

It was fairly late when I reported to Brig. Van der Hoven at his flat in the married quarters of C.R. Swart Square. I told him the job had been done and he was concerned to know whether we had left any traces. I said then that Van Dyk and Const. Du Preez had left with the car and that I would report back to him the next morning.

I reported to Brig. Van der Hoven the next morning just after seven. He said that Mxenge's wife had phoned to say Mxenge had not returned home and wanted to know whether he had been arrested. Van der Hoven said that Schoon had given instructions that the entire Vlakplaas contingent should pack up and return to Pretoria. I instructed everybody accordingly and I left alone in my Datsun for Goleta where I met Van Dyk and Du Preez as arranged.

Van Dyk and Du Preez waited for me some distance before the huge river (the Phongolo River) immediately south of the Goleta border post turn off. I cannot remember whether Freek Pienaar was with them. We continued to the border post and Pienaar accompanied us to a vacant police house with a garage outbuilding. We parked Mxenge's white Audi in the garage, closed the garage windows with newspapers, locked the door, and asked Pienaar to keep it secure.

From there, Pienaar again accompanied us to where we disposed of Mxenge's belongings. For this purpose we drove back to the North Coast road. Just before crossing the river, we pulled off the road. We burnt the wallet, jacket and number plates with petrol. The number was still discernible on the blackened number plates, so Van Dyk rolled them up. We threw the number plates and the watch into the river. [185]

I do not know what happened to the Okapi knives, but the hunting knife was returned to Paul Pretorius, a friend of Koos Schulte.

That Friday night we returned to Pretoria. On Saturday morning I went to Brig. Jan du Preez' house to enquire what we should do with the car. Brig. Du Preez was outside in the fruit orchard on his smallholding. As I approached he said that the world was buzzing with the Mxenge story. He also told me that Gen. Johan Coetzee, Chief of the Security Police, had been in a meeting on the Friday morning when the news broke and that the meeting had been interrupted to inform him. He said that the General wanted to know whose work it was. Brig. Du Preez said something to the effect that it was better for both of them that the General did not know.

I suggested to Brig. Jan du Preez that bearing in mind that Mxenge's car was brand new, we could exchange it with Brig. Hans Dreyer from Koevoet for a good askari car. Brig. Du Preez would not hear of this and he instructed me to burn the car.

The next day, Sunday afternoon, Paul van Dyk, Koos Schulte and I left. Before we left I checked and found that my spare wheel was flat. We therefore stopped at Bronkhorstspruit and borrowed the spare wheel of Koos Vermeulen’s Datsun. Vermeulen lived at Bronkhorstspruit.

Vermeulen insisted on accompanying us and from there the four of us set off for Goleta. At some stage during the night, either on the way to Goleta or coming back, we refuelled at Piet Relief Police Station and Paul van Dyk signed the petrol register.

Van Dyk drove, Vermeulen sat in the front passenger seat and I sat behind him with Schulte on my right. Schulte played his mouth organ and guitar - he played them together, managing some singing in between. I poured the drinks as I had a full bar. Vermeulen was an abstainer, Schulte drank brandy, I drank beer and Van Dyk drank anything which made him drunk. [186]

At the Goleta border post we fetched Pienaar and collected the Audi. Schulte at some stage crawled under the Audi and drained some petrol into a five-litre can so that we could burn the car. Van Dyk and Vermeulen went ahead with the official car to check for road blocks. I drove the Audi while Schulte clambered to and fro in the car, taking out the radio and speakers.

Before Piet Relief we turned off to the right towards Mahamba and before Mahamba we turned left and right again towards Botha's Hoop border post. A short distance before the border post, we turned right into a plantation road and proceeded until we found an opening between two plantations. It turned left into the veld towards the border fence for some distance and stopped. Van Dyk, who knew the Swaziland border very well, had taken us to this spot which in security circles was a well known crossing point of ANC freedom fighters entering and leaving the country illegally.

Schulte was trying to remove the battery from under the left back seat, but without success. He did not have the necessary spanners. I do not remember what else he stripped from the car. We opened the boot and bonnet and poured petrol into the boot, on the seats, on the dash board and on the engine. We did not close the bonnet fully. Schulte struck the match and that was it.

As we drove away we could see the red glow of the burning car in the distance. Pienaar informed me that on Monday morning forestry workers found the still smouldering car. They notified the local police. The Durban murder and robbery squad came and took photographs of the car.

On Monday morning back in the office, before I could say anything about the incident, Schoon asked me whether we had left any tracks. I said not as far as I knew. At some stage Brig. Jan du Preez entered and with only the three of us present, they decided that Nofomela, Mamasela and Spyker would each receive R1 000 for the good work. This would be arranged as a R3 000 claim by Brig. Hans [187] Dreyer of Koevoet. Ngulungwa, who played the most passive role in the murder, did not receive any reward.

Some time later, I received R3 000 cash from Schoon to distribute among the three. I did not sign for this and handed it over to them; I cannot remember when and where. I do know that by nature and habit I would have handed it out with more than one person present as a witness. I also know that none of them signed for the money.

The radio of Mxenge's Audi was installed in Brig. Jan du Preez' Mercedes 230E subsidised car by Sgt Koos Schulte. In Mauritius, after fleeing the country, I revealed that the radio was put either into Brig. Jan du Preez' or Brig. Schoon’s car. This was because Brig. Jan du Preez was so close to me that I found it difficult to incriminate him. (A radio did at one stage go into Schoon's official Corona, but this was from a Lesotho diamond dealer.) I learnt from Brig. Jan du Preez last year (I992) that the Mercedes with the radio had been stolen and later found. When he got it back the radio was missing.

Later when Schoon told me that the detectives could not find any leads, I returned the foursome's old clothes and shoes to them.

This type of operation illustrates what I have said about the security culture and activities surrounding it. The Griffiths Mxenge murder can be seen as a typical hit squad operation. The same can be asked about the assassinations of Rick Turner, Victoria Mxenge (Griffiths' wife), Mtikulu, Robert Smith, David Webster and many others.

 

Conclusion

My contention is that covert operations, as in any other country, existed in South Africa. However, in South Africa, the situation was exacerbated by the one-sided mind frame of the time (security police culture and 'Total Onslaught'), lack of controls and other [188] factors. These operations existed then, they existed before my time at Vlakplaas, and most likely continue to exist today.

 

Endnotes

(1.) The words of Capt. Craig Williamson in an article entitled: Why spy? in the October 1981 issue of the police magazine Servamus. Williamson, a former Security Branch policeman (Section A), is at present a National Party member of the President's Council.

(2.) The words of Craig Williamson at my internal trial on 10 June 1985 (Vol. 6, pp. 292-293 of the proceedings).

(3.) The following activities at the Oshoek border post introduced me to a Security Force apprenticeship:

• Car thefts

For more details of these activities and the publicity surrounding my decision to reveal my past role by 'going public' see the Vrye Weekblad (11, 17 & 24 November 1989 & 12 January 1990). [189]


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