Butana Almond Nofomela broke down in tears during his testimony on Thursday 25 February at the reopened inquest into the 1982 death of Ernest Dipale, as he recalled the fate of Vlakplaas askari Isaac “Ace” Moema.
Nofomela remembered Moema warmly as an enthusiastic soccer player, a gentle and intelligent man who was the victim of unwarranted suspicion regarding where his loyalties lay because of Vlakplaas operative Captain Koos Vermeulen’s racism.
Vermeulen questioned Moema’s loyalty to then Vlakplaas commander Dirk Coetzee, who instructed Nofomela to keep an eye on Moema, according to Nofomela and substantiated by Coetzee before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) in 1997. Following Coetzee’s evidence, Vermeulen broached the subject of assassinating Moema at a meeting between Coetzee, Vermeulen and their commanding officer Brigadier Willem Schoon, who told the Vlakplaas operatives that “they should do what they deemed best”. Nofomela told the Dipale inquest that Vermeulen, “did not like black people,” and that his suspicions of Moema were motivated by racism rather than any evidence of disloyalty.
Thereafter, Nofomela was instructed to tell Moema to cancel a planned football match and accompany Vermeulen on an unspecified operation in late 1981. Neither Nofomela nor Moema knew that, in the interim, Vermeulen had obtained “knock-out drops” from Brigadier Lothar Neethling, which he intended to use on an unsuspecting Moema. Coetzee told the TRC that he did not see Moema again or know what had happened to him, but that Vermeulen had later reported to him that he “had taken care of Moema”. Coetzee told the TRC that he understood this to mean Moema “was doped, shot and that the body was disposed of by burning”.
Nofomela was remembering the fate of Moema in response to a question by National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) advocate Jabulani Mlotshwa, about how the threat of death was extremely real for Vlakplaas operatives who were Black, ensuring they did not dare question or fail to follow orders given by white superiors. Mlotshwa put it to Nofomela that, “When you no longer served any use at Vlakplaas, they killed you.” Nofomela welled up with tears in response.
Apartheid death squads
Nofomela made his indelible mark on South African history on 19 October 1989, the night before he was scheduled to be executed for the September 1987 murder of a Brits farmer.
For two years, Nofomela had been waiting for his commanders in the security police and the C1 unit at Vlakplaas, where he had served since 1981, to rescue him from the hangman’s noose. After receiving a message from then Vlakplaas commander Colonel Eugene de Kock that there was nothing to be done and he “should take the pain”, Nofomela signed an affidavit for Lawyers for Human Rights in which he made explosive allegations that blew the whistle on the existence of apartheid death squads.
He was 32 and claimed that he had worked for six years as a member of one of “the Security Branch’s assassination squads”; been involved in the murder of Durban anti-apartheid activist and lawyer Griffiths Mxenge in 1981; and been involved “in approximately eight other assassinations during my stint in the assassination squad, and also numerous kidnappings”.
The Weekly Mail newspaper published Nofomela’s affidavit and Coetzee fled the country, defected to the ANC and made a full confession, which was published in November 1981 in the Vrye Weekblad newspaper.
The revelations of Nofomela, Coetzee and another Vlakplaas askari, David Tshikalange, led FW de Klerk’s government to establish the Harms Commission of Inquiry into the activities of security force assassination squads in 1990.
Many members of Vlakplaas and the Civil Cooperation Bureau lied under oath during the six months of testimony, doing their best to cast aspersions on Nofomela, Coetzee and Tshikalange and rubbish their revelations. Judge Louis Harms was unable to come to a conclusion as to whether or not the apartheid army and police had systematically murdered and terrorised opponents of the state and found the three former members and their testimony to be unreliable.
Telling the truth
Nofomela would go on to give evidence before the TRC and history would show that he had been telling the truth. Although he was granted amnesty for many crimes committed in the service of the apartheid regime, the murder for which he had been sentenced to death was not politically motivated and his sentence was commuted to life imprisonment.
He left prison in 2009, after serving 22 years, and has been living under parole conditions that the Department of Correctional Services has never made public. But he told Judge MA Makume and the Dipale family on Thursday 25 February about his involvement in the kidnapping of Dipale in October 1981, a crime for which the TRC granted him amnesty.
Nofomela was born in 1957. He dropped out of school in standard 9 (grade 11) and worked briefly as a bricklayer before joining the police at the age of 22 in 1979. Nofomela trained at the police college in Hammanskraal before being recruited into the security police in 1980 and assigned to Vlakplaas under Coetzee. Nofomela has always been adamant that he was a security police officer and not an askari like Joe Mamasela, who was a member of the ANC before the security police turned him.
Nofomela worked alongside many askaris at Vlakplaas – the 44-hectare farm on the banks of the Hennops River west of Pretoria established in 1979 for the purpose of “using a handful of defectors and captured ANC and PAC insurgents as part of a campaign to improve South Africa’s domestic counterinsurgency capabilities”, as Jacob Dlamini writes in his book Askari – but had never been a member of the ANC.
A farm in Zeerust
Captain Jan Coetzee of the West Rand division of the security police and Vermeulen instructed Nofomela on around 12 October 1981 to accompany Mamasela to Soweto, to kidnap Dipale and bring him to a farm near Zeerust for interrogation. Nofomela told the inquest that Mamasela was tasked with locating Dipale because it was known that he had a history with the Dipale family.
The two men found Dipale hiding behind a bedroom door at the Dipale home in Dube, Soweto. Mamasela, enacting a cover story, assaulted Dipale and shouted at him about money he supposedly owed Mamasela. The men then dragged Dipale out of the house and bundled him into Nofomela’s waiting Mazda 616.
During the three-hour drive to Zeerust, Mamasela sat in the back with Dipale, assaulting him and demanding to know the whereabouts of Dipale’s sister Joyce. Nofomela said that when they arrived in Zeerust that evening, he and Mamasela handed Dipale over to Coetzee, Vermeulen and a Captain Grobbelaar. Dipale was led to a bedroom in the farmhouse, where Vermeulen tied him up and proceeded, along with Mamasela, to punch Dipale repeatedly while Nofomela kicked him.
Nofomela said Dipale was asked repeatedly about the whereabouts of his sister, but he would only answer that she was in Botswana and he did not know where exactly. Dipale was so badly beaten that his eyes swelled up and he fell to the floor unconscious. Nofomela testified that Dipale was revived but he did not know what happened to him after that, as he was instructed to return to Vlakplaas and left Zeerust, possibly with Mamasela, although he could not be sure.
What he was sure of is that he never saw Dipale again and that he did not know what information, if any, the young man had given to his interrogators once Nofomela had left. He later learned of Dipale’s death by hanging in his cell at the John Vorster Square police station in August 1982, but had no knowledge of Dipale’s previous detention at the police station, shortly after his abduction, from November 1981 to January 1982.
A month after kidnapping Dipale, Nofomela, Mamasela, Coetzee, Vermeulen, Tshikalange and fellow Vlakplaas operative Paul van Dyk raided the home in Gaborone where Joyce and her husband Roller Masinga lived. Mamasela shot Joyce in the neck, but she survived and made a statement to the Botswana police in which she named Mamasela as one of her attackers.
Nofomela told Makume that he suspected Mamasela orchestrated the raid for personal revenge against the Dipale family.
Mamasela claimed in highly unreliable testimony before the Harms commission in 1990 that Dipale and others had kidnapped him and a friend in Botswana in the winter of 1981, and that his friend had been murdered during this incident. Nofomela told the inquest that Mamasela had been ecstatic about finding Joyce in the house and that Mamasela may have been motivated by revenge for his friend’s death. Nofomela described Mamasela and others’ testimony to the Harms commission as a farce and referred to it as a “commission of lies”.
What little hope remains to shed new light on what happened to Dipale in the final months of his life is now in the hands of two former collaborators of the apartheid state, whose confessions historically have been motivated by self-interest.
Nofomela has served time in prison, made a full disclosure to the TRC and now lives with the ghosts of the men and women he helped kill, as well as those of his fellow askaris who did not survive their time at Vlakplaas. He has at least come forward to offer what little information he has to the Dipale inquest.
Mamasela is a far more slippery customer. Though he testified before the TRC, Mamasela refused to apply for amnesty and was never prosecuted for any of the crimes he committed as a Security Branch officer. He claimed in a 2016 interview with the Mail & Guardian newspaper that, “In the TRC, you go and you lie, you get your amnesty … I never asked for amnesty from the TRC because I knew what I was doing and why I was doing what I was doing. And I know the policies of the African National Congress [ANC] and I said to them: Anyone who thinks I still owe them anything, let them challenge me in a court of law. And then let’s unravel what went wrong where.” To date, no one has taken Mamasela up on his challenge.
Avoiding the inquest
South African Police Service lawyers told Makume at the beginning of the Dipale inquest that they had contacted Mamasela, who had been brusque and irritated with their request to testify but said he would make himself available should he be served a subpoena. However, Mamasela has been avoiding the officers of the court tasked with serving his subpoena. And although he has promised in various phone calls to meet the police and sign the subpoena, he has not honoured any of these appointments.
The police have been unable to trace Mamasela to any of the addresses they have on record for him. They are now waiting to see if a tracing team provided by the Directorate for Priority Crime Investigation is able to find him using cellphone tracking technology.
For the moment, no one seems to know where Mamasela is, although he does answer his cellphone when called. At the time of writing, it had been reported to Makume that Mamsela had said he would appear to testify on Wednesday 3 March.
Failing that, Mamasela, the NPA’s last hope for answers about what happened to Dipale, faces possible arrest. And if he does turn up, Makume would be wise to bear in mind the assessment of Mamasela’s character offered by Nofomela, who said during his testimony, “If Mamasela says it’s raining, I have to go outside and feel the rain on me before I believe it’s raining.”
The Dipale inquest proceedings are live streamed on the Facebook page of the Foundation for Human Rights.