Readers might be surprised, even disturbed, to note that in this issue we run a sympathetic obituary for Dirk Coetzee, founding commander of the apartheid-era’s murderous police hit squads, while at the same time running a considerably less sympathetic report on the murder and mayhem once sown by the Mandela United Football Club under the command of Winnie Madikizela-Mandela. It certainly calls for some explanation.
There is a personal element involved. I met Dirk Coetzee in 1983 and was the first journalist to whom he confided his shocking tale – and his growing disillusionment and disgust in what he was required to do in the service of the “volk”. He was the son of the then Commissioner of Prisons, a senior Broederbonder.
Encouraged by his father, and a touch delinquent, he had initially regarded it an honour to have been chosen for this daring, secret role in the war against the enemies of the volk. It was all gung-ho and bravado. But soon enough life beyond the law became plain lawlessness. Tacky, ultimately despicable. It is difficult to be proud of being an assassin, a sneak murderer. He would later declare: “I was in the heart of the whore. I despise myself.”
It was a gradual process. But he grew up and began to long for a respectable, open life. In mid-life he registered for a Unisa law course, signed up for extra Latin lessons, began to plan his escape from the underworld – which is, indirectly, how I came to meet him.
I believe that even the worst person can redeem himself. And that he did by coming clean; by taking that great leap of faith which allows one to believe that it is better to tell the truth, no matter how ghastly it might be.
In her obituary Susan Puren describes Coetzee correctly as an intelligent raconteur with a surprising sense of humour. Initially I found it easier to treat his tales as fiction, but they were all true.
The first problem we faced was that in 1984 I, in turn, dared tell his tale to no-one. Few would believe it and those who could were too dangerous to tell. When, six years later he, and I and my friends at VryeWeekblad, Jacques Pauw and Max du Preez, finally had the courage to tell the world his story, most of our worst fears were soon realised: the Supreme Court of Appeal, in a moment of judicial depravity (see noses6&7) unanimously found his story unbelievable (resulting in VryeWeekblad’s closure). They went on to snidely suggest that if we actually believed his terrible story, we should have privately confided it to the Commissioner of Police and the Minister of Law and Order. More or less as they were speaking, the police were dispatching hit squads all the way to London to kill Coetzee.
As fate would have it, he escaped death then and got to die in his own bed last month. So much for Coetzee.
Winnie Mandela is still very much with us. Ignore which side she’s on, and the history of how she became involved in secret murder and mayhem at about the same time is not dissimilar to that of Coetzee. The radical difference, so far, is that Mrs Mandela has apparently, until now, not felt the need to come clean – or shared our belief in the power of truth.
But that is not the point of our incredible story: our story is about political expediency – necessity, if you like – and just how far it will stretch and bend. And where could you have found a better team of journalists to write it?
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