Dirk Coetzee’s chilling service to his country

As former security police blame fading memories to dodge questions about apartheid atrocities, an unpublished memoir breaks their code of silence.

In Cradock a red and white Volkswagen kombi filled with union members came to a stop at a police roadblock. Back in 1981 such roadblocks were routine, but what the delegation of National Automobile and Allied Workers Union members didn’t know as the police rummaged through their belongings was that there had been a tip-off.

That lead had come from their own, and it was part of a bizarre operation. Before the kombi had left Gqeberha, then known as Port Elizabeth, to attend a congress in Harare, Zimbabwe, police security branch members had poured marijuana through air vents into the engine compartment. They had orders that the vehicle was not to make it to Harare. The plan was to phone ahead to a local police station, get the vehicle pulled over and get the occupants arrested for transporting a hallucinogenic. It didn’t work out like that.   

The local police in Cradock failed to notice the strong smell of marijuana percolating from the engine compartment. In a panic, a call was placed to the commander of the C1 counter intelligence unit, Captain Dirk Coetzee. The world would later know C1 as Vlakplaas, and over the past couple of months he and his team had been responsible for a spate of killings across South Africa and its neighbouring countries. But there was to be no killing on this mission, rather the unit would be using its other honed skill – car theft.  

They learned that the union members would be overnighting at the Johannesburger hotel, and planned to head out at 3am the next day. That night the kombi was located in the hotel car park and warrant officer Koos Vermeulen opened the unlocked door to find the keys in the ignition. They had been left there so that the car park attendants could move the kombi to make space for other vehicles. Vermeulen paid the parking fee at the boom and with that scuppered the delegation’s trip to Harare.

28 November 2008: Vlakplaas, a farm 20km west of Pretoria, was the headquarters of the apartheid police’s C1 counterinsurgency unit. Eugene de Kock oversaw the unit, which functioned as a paramilitary hit squad. (Photograph by Gallo Images/ Foto24/ Craig Nieuwenhuizen)

This unusual Vlakplaas operation had a brief mention in an amnesty statement during the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), but it appears in greater detail in Coetzee’s unpublished memoir, Testimony of a South African Security Policeman: The Full Story. The book is just 120 pages and reads like a cop’s affidavit. Coetzee never found a publisher and for the past 30 years the electronic version has bounced around, appearing in the odd inbox. It was an exhibit at the TRC.

But what this book does provide is rare insight into the South African Police’s security branch, and it is relevant now with the spotlight once again on this brutal covert arm of the apartheid regime.

‘Never get caught’

A procession of stooped and greying former security branch officers have taken the stand in the Neil Aggett inquest. They have hid behind fading memories or have claimed not to have noticed the beatings and torture that was happening sometimes on the same floor where they had their offices.

“There were just a few people from the security police who did reveal a lot and significantly advanced our understanding of the way the security forces operated. Them being Almond Nofomela, Eugene de Kock and Dirk Coetzee,” says Madeleine Fullard, head of the Missing Person’s Task Team in the National Prosecuting Authority.

6 June 2000: Former apartheid police colonel Eugene de Kock. (Photograph by Gallo Images/ Foto24/ Leon Botha)

It was in 1990 when Coetzee, sitting in Lusaka, Zambia, under the protection of the ANC, began writing his memoir. He did it with the help of his brother Ben. “Dirk phoned me from exile one Sunday evening and shouted, Help!,” Ben would write in the preface to the book. With a word processor tucked in his bag, Ben flew to Lusaka.

“We sat isolated in a remote ANC sanctuary. The kind and human faces of our long-exiled compatriots came and went around us. He talked and I typed and together we fought and organised and reorganised information until he was satisfied that what he wanted to say stood there clearly for anyone to read and understand,” Ben wrote.

The book begins with an oath. Dirk Johannes Coetzee, a police pensioner, declares that everything in the book is the truth. And with that, he goes on to explain the psyche of his former colleagues and why they are so reluctant to speak of what they have done, even decades later. “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 to one another, mutual trust and mutual understanding, and of a very special relationship between superiors and subordinates.” They followed the 11th commandment, he explained: “Never get caught.” 

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Coetzee had been a poor student and joined the post office after leaving school. On April Fool’s Day in 1970, he signed up with the police. The book describes a stint with the dog unit, the flying squad and a couple of months of disposing of bodies in what was then Rhodesia. Then he was moved to the Special Branch in January 1977.

With the posting came hard drinking and a measure of freedom the other police departments didn’t allow. “A typical daily routine out in the veld was to pry around during the day, get to a bottle store before closing time, buy 12 beers and a two-litre can of wine, find a place in the great outdoors to sleep, have a braai, snorkel through the booze and fall over,” he would write of those early days while stationed in Middelburg. Fire was to play an important role in Coetzee’s new posting.

Whenever there was an opportunity they braaied, sometimes in the hours before an operation. Often, a fire was a gathering place and an excuse to drink. Fire was also part of their modus operandi. It was used to turn murder victims to ash. They even had a term for it: drops, shot and burn. The victim would be given knockout drops, then shot and the body burnt. Three years later, Coetzee became the head of Vlakplaas. He was there for only 18 months, and it is all in the book.

In detail are the many murders, each given a chapter in his memoir. His most famous was the lawyer Griffiths Mxenge. Coetzee’s death squad beat and stabbed him to death on a rainy night in Umlazi, Durban.    

February 1981: The last photo taken of Griffiths and Victoria Mxenge. A chapter in Dirk Coetzee’s memoir details Griffiths Mxenge’s murder. (Photograph by Gallo Images/ Sunday Times Archive)

Then there was the murder of Isaac “Ace” Moema. This “turned terrorist” or askari joined Vlakplaas in 1981, but it became evident that his heart wasn’t in it. He would have to die, and it was decided that the drops, shot and burn method would be used to get rid of him. “He was such a decent man,” is how Coetzee remembers Moema.

Men died, as did women and, at times, even children. These death squads led by Coetzee also kidnapped and even conducted cross-border raids. It was during these operations that Coetzee would open up the boot of his car and pull out what the police officers referred to as his toor sak, his sorcerer’s bag, that contained stage make-up to blacken their faces and hands. Next to the toor sak was an assortment of Russian weaponry used to hide the identity of the attackers.

The gruesome stories got airplay during the TRC hearings. What the book reveals are those unusual operations like the kombi theft that are not well known and show just how far the security branch went to disrupt the enemy. In 1981 Coetzee was asked to tap into a union’s phone and run up the bill. Another operation involved night vision goggles and a can of Jeyes Fluid. Coetzee and his team were also once sent to the town of Rhodes in the Eastern Cape to set fire to the vehicles of some “white leftist hippies”.

5 February 2020: Jill Burger at the memorial service at Westpark Cemetery in Johannesburg for her brother Neil Aggett, an anti-apartheid activist and trade unionist who was found hanged in his cell at John Vorster Square police station in 1982. (Photograph by Gallo Images/ Papi Morake)

A necessary voice

It is a memoir that reads as a confession, but there is no remorse. There is even a hint of boastfulness. Here was a man who followed directives from his superiors who would start sentences with, “You need to make a plan with…”. “He always had a tendency to shoot his mouth off and … I saw he wasn’t an exaggerator,” recalls Fullard. “But he doesn’t conceal his role. Most people will tend … while describing a horrific event [to] minimise their role. Dirk Coetzee did the opposite, he placed himself at the centre.”

Coetzee left Vlakplaas at the end of 1981 when he was transferred to the Pretoria narcotics branch. He found his return to conventional policing difficult. “For years my main priority was state security with the ordinary criminals my principal allies. Now I was supposed to persecute my former underworld friends who had been my main sources of information,” he wrote. In December 1984 an internal police inquiry into a number of charges of misconduct found him guilty. He was, however, allowed to retire on medical grounds.

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“His problem was that he was never a team player,” says Julian Knight, who was Coetzee’s lawyer. “If he got a sniff of something, he had to do something about it.” Coetzee might have disappeared into the world of the haasmense, police slang for civilians, had it not been for a desperate phone call from a condemned man. Nofomela, one of Coetzee’s protégés at Vlakplaas, had been convicted of the murder of a white farmer, which the police had not sanctioned.

For months, while he sat on death row, he had waited for his police superiors to spring him from jail. But when he was told by his then commanding officer Colonel Eugene De Kock that he must “take the pain” he knew he was on his own. On the night before he was to walk to the gallows, he made a phone call. “We wouldn’t have known about all this if it hadn’t been for Almond,” says Knight, who adds that Nofomela had been a model student constable and probably would have had a bright future in the police service, if he hadn’t been seconded to C1.  

As Nofomela fingered his former boss in being the leader of five hit squads operating out of Vlakplaas, Coetzee left the country. Soon he would be under the protection of the ANC, where he would start writing his memoir. Coetzee would eventually return to South Africa, where he would become one of the first apartheid police officers to apply for amnesty at the TRC.

8 July 1997: From left, Vusumzi Ntamo, Mzikhona Nofemela, Ntobeko Peni and Mongezi Manqina at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which granted the four men amnesty for their part in the mob killing of American student Amy Biehl in Gugulethu in 1993. (Photograph by MH//KM)

Later he would assist the Missing Persons Task team in locating some of the bodies he and his team had dumped. For Fullard it meant spending hours with a man who spoke and swore continuously. “He was really hard to be with, you really had to have guts of steel. You had to grit your teeth and go in,” says Fullard.

But Fullard did find that unlike those security branch members who have been appearing recently in trials and inquests, Coetzee had a good memory and he wasn’t scared to reveal what he knew. In 2013, Coetzee died of kidney failure. He had been suffering from cancer.

Coetzee may have been one of the great villains of apartheid, but historian Sipokazi Madida believes his story is important in understanding this dark time in South Africa’s past. “Little bits and pieces are coming out about apartheid, but it hasn’t been written about in an extensive way. And a lot of research still needs to be done,” explains Madida, who works at the Department of History at Unisa. 

“[Coetzee’s] is one of those voices that will always be silenced, as they don’t go along with the mainstream of history. That mainstream is being bold, being kind to humanity and if you are a villain, you are on the opposite side. No one wants to entertain that voice. But we need that voice, and there is room for that.”

When she learned of Coetzee’s death, Fullard was left with a pang of regret. There was still so much he could have told that wasn’t in his memoir, but he would have revealed if asked. “I have a strong feeling of having failed with Dirk Coetzee, perhaps [by] not being more systematic with him,” says Fullard. “There were still a few questions at the back of my mind I wanted to ask him about.”

Fullard wanted to know about the early askaris and if perhaps he had heard the names of the detainees she is trying to trace who disappeared in the 1970s and 1980s. But it is too late. “He is a historic figure in a sense, even though he was involved in those horrific killings,” she says. 

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