Apartheid cop gives nothing away on Ernest Dipale

Former Security Branch officer Nicolaas Deetlefs maintains he had nothing to do with the death of the 21-year-old activist, who was found hanged in his cell at John Vorster Square in 1982.

Former security police officer Nicolaas Deetlefs appeared frail, exhausted and frustrated during his virtual testimony before the reopened inquest into the death of Ernest Moabi Dipale, distinctly more so than a year ago, when he testified in the Johannesburg high court at the reopened inquest into the death of Neil Aggett. 

Deetlefs is one of the few surviving former Security Branch officers to have been involved with the detention and interrogation of both Aggett and Dipale. The latter was also found hanged in his cell at the John Vorster Square police station, six months after Aggett, in August 1982.

Deetlefs, 70, had previously told Judge MA Makume that he suffers ill health and is undergoing cancer treatment, which detrimentally affects his memory. It was evident from his post-lunch testimony on 22 and 23 February that his health has significantly deteriorated. 

Whether Deetlefs may have been under the effects of medication or just weary from the barrage of questions by National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) advocate Jabulani Mlotshwa was not clear. But he struggled noticeably to focus, keep his composure and lift his head from the table to which it often sank during the afternoon sessions. 

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At one stage on 22 February, Makume’s usually saintly patience was pushed too far by Deetlefs’ repeated referrals to the court and prosecutor as “julle” [“you” / “you people”] and his dismissal of allegations put to him by Mlotshwa as “kak stories” [“bullshit stories”]. 

Makume admonished Deetlefs. “You’re here to tell us what happened. Stop using language you used when you were a policeman in 1982, this is 2021.” Makume also told Deetlefs to “stop referring to the court as ‘you’. There are people watching who want to know what happened to their brother and you are one of the only surviving people who was involved.”

An exasperated Deetlefs apologised and asked the judge, “What do you want me to say?” Makume replied, “Tell us the truth,” to which Deetlefs managed to mumble, “I am telling the truth.”

22 February 2021: A screenshot of Nicolaas Deetlefs testifying during the reopened inquest into Ernest Dipale’s death. (Source: Foundation for Human Rights)

Mlotshwa also commented on Deetlefs’ noticeable change in body language and demeanour, asking him, “Are you sober, Mr Deetlefs?” Deetlefs, clearly offended by the question, mumbled an assurance of his sobriety. 

A particular issue was a statement Deetlefs filed a decade after Dipale’s death as part of Deetlefs’ application for medical boarding from the police service. In it, he recalled that after Dipale was found hanged in his cell, his superior Brigadier “Rooi” Olivier had told him “that evening by Dipale’s cell, ‘If you had anything to do with this, you will bear the consequences.’” 

Mlotshwa interpreted this as an accusation by Olivier that indicated there was reasonable cause to suspect Deetlefs of involvement in Dipale’s death.

A police cover-up

What the state is alleging is a Security Branch cover-up to make Dipale’s death look like an accident. 

Deetlefs maintained that he included Olivier’s statement merely to show how the inexperience and judgements of “pencil-pushing” superiors created the impression that he was an officer on whose watch detainees had a tendency to die and that he had personally hanged Dipale. It’s an accusation that in spite of his ill health and fading memory, he continues to deny vehemently. 

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Deetlefs’ original statement was submitted as part of the quick, perfunctory 1983 inquest into Dipale’s death. It says Major Arthur “Benoni” Cronwright, the head of the investigations division of the Security Branch at John Vorster Square, instructed Deetlefs on 4 August 1982 to arrest Dipale. 

He was helped in locating Dipale by askari and fellow security police officer Joseph Mamasela, whose services were made available because of Mamasela’s history with the Dipale family, whom he had known while he was an ANC member in Botswana. 

Deetlefs told the inquest that Mamasela did not tell him how he and fellow askari Butana Almond Nofomela had kidnapped Dipale in October 1981, taken him for interrogation to a farm near Zeerust and beaten him so badly that he had lost consciousness. 

Neither, according to Deetlefs, did Mamasela mention to him the raid on Dipale’s sister Joyce’s Gaborone house in November 1981, in which she survived being shot in the neck. Deetlefs also claimed to have no knowledge of Dipale’s previous arrest and detention at the station from November 1981 to January 1982. 

Yellow Peugeot

What Deetlefs did testify to was coming upon Dipale in Soweto on 5 August 1982. He said Mamasela was driving and fired shots at the yellow Peugeot carrying Dipale and a fellow passenger, later known to be his friend Oupa Koapeng. The police were foiled in their chase after their car crashed into another vehicle during the pursuit. 

Deetlefs refused to acknowledge that he may have neglected his responsibilities as the senior officer by allowing Mamasela to fire at a car containing two passengers, one of whom – Koapeng – was at that stage unknown to the police and could have been an innocent civilian. 

Dipale, as a wanted “terrorist”, was fair game as far as Deetlefs was concerned and he justified Mamasela’s actions given his impression that whoever was in the car with Dipale was most likely also a “terrorist” or fellow ANC traveller. 

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Deetlefs and Mamasela spent the rest of that night patrolling the streets of Soweto looking for the Peugeot. They found it parked outside a house known as “the Big House” in Meadowlands on the morning of 5 August, where Dipale was arrested at around 7.30am before being taken to John Vorster Square. 

On the afternoon of 6 August, Dipale was brought to Deetlefs’ office on the 10th floor and told to write a statement to present before a magistrate. Deetlefs sat with Dipale, working on the statement late into the evening of 6 August. He and other officers then accompanied Dipale to his house to fetch his passport, before returning him to John Vorster Square just after midnight.

‘I didn’t hang the man’

Deetlefs took Dipale to Brixton on the afternoon of 7 August to present his statement, but no magistrate was available. Dipale was then taken to point out sites in Soweto to Deetlefs that he had mentioned in his statement. When they returned to John Vorster Square that evening, Deetlefs was told that a magistrate was now available and sent Dipale with other Security Branch officers back to Brixton to give his statement to a Magistrate Botha. 

Deetlefs did not see Dipale alive again. He received a phone call at 1am on Sunday 8 August to inform him that Dipale had been found dead in his cell and that he should report to John Vorster Square immediately. 

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Deetlefs told the inquest that he did as he was instructed but never went to the cell where Dipale was found. Neither did he see Dipale’s body or the contents of his cell. “I didn’t hang the man. I wasn’t in the cell. I don’t know anything about the cell,” insisted the battered Deetlefs in the last session of his two days of testimony. 

He would not be drawn to comment on speculation by Mlotshwa that, based on the testimony of former activist and fellow detainee Jabu Ngwenya, the blankets issued to political detainees were too thick for Dipale to have torn a strip off by hand to hang himself from the bars of the cell window. Nor would Deetlefs speculate on if, when and how Dipale may have acquired an instrument sharp enough to cut his blanket. 

He also refused to accept that one of the photographs taken during the pointing-out session in Soweto – showing Deetlefs pointing to the site of a dead letter box mentioned by Dipale in his statement – was taken on 8 August 1982, the day on which Dipale was found dead, and not on 7 August, the date on which Dipale can be seen in other photographs pointing out sites. This, said Mlotshwa, is evidence of Deetlefs’ participation in a cover-up of the circumstances surrounding Dipale’s death. 

To the grave

Deetlefs, predictably, denied any such cover-up and it’s likely that whatever he may know about the deaths of Aggett and Dipale will be buried with him. 

The testimony during the Dipale inquest has been characterised by frustrating technical glitches; a stubborn line of questioning by Mlotshwa that does not always seem to be based on evidence, but rather on the attorney’s obvious personal disdain for alleged perpetrators and their past histories; and the difficulties of translating testimony via virtual platforms. 

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These are, however, small obstacles in the face of Makume’s keen and patient observation of the proceedings, and his attention to the evidence and awareness of the hopes of the Dipale family who are watching patiently and expectantly.

He has stepped in time and again to guide the NPA’s sometimes oblique and unnecessarily repeated questions, offer tolerant assistance to beleaguered translators and keep the focus squarely on Dipale. Whether or not the patience of the Dipale family and Makume will be rewarded with something approaching the truth is uncertain as the inquest enters its final frustrating but undeniably important week. 

The Dipale Inquest continues. Proceedings are live streamed daily on the Facebook page of the Foundation for Human Rights

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