New Books | Undeniable

A former journalist for the Weekly Mail documents events in South Africa between 1990 and 1994, including the demise of her newspaper after it was sued for exposing the death squads.

This is a lightly edited excerpt from Philippa Garson’s Undeniable: Memoir of a Covert War (Jacana, 2020). 

For all their muted tones, the courts exposed the sordid bigotry of our society, dragging some of its wriggling culprits into the sunlight. Now here in this courtroom another newsworthy trial was under way, and another individual with echoes of Nazi Germany reverberating around him was on display. 

But this was no grinning simpleton hauled into court for a heinous hate crime. Lothar Neethling was the acclaimed scientist heading up the South African Police forensic laboratories. As chief deputy commissioner in charge of the police’s scientific and technical services division, he was second only to police chief General Johan van der Merwe. And he was bringing this case against the bothersome political rags that his government wanted to shut down. 

This respected police general, a devout Christian, was lauded by the forces of law and order who’d awarded him many medals for faithful service and for combating terrorism. He was one of the most honoured members of the Pretoria-based Suid-Afrikaanse Akademie vir Wetenskap en Kuns. 

With his short-back-and-sides grey hair, blue suits and upright demeanour, he was the picture of Afrikaner respectability and prowess, the sort of man my Uncle Hannes would have revered. But now his reputation had been sullied, his impeccable track record of scientific endeavour and patriotic service besmirched. And here he was, a study in hubris personified, defiantly claiming it back again. 

Neethling was suing both Vrye Weekblad and Weekly Mail for a combined sum of R1.5 million for defaming him in three articles we’d published on revelations made the year before by former police hit squad boss Dirk Coetzee. Broken by Vrye Weekblad, Coetzee’s disclosures about Vlakplaas, the secret police “farm” where assassinations were planned and carried out in the 1980s, had shaken the country. And they’d implicated Neethling. The forensics boss, Coetzee alleged, had been the one to provide him with poison and “knock-out” drops concocted in his laboratories to help abduct and murder activists. 

Related article:

Now this esteemed man was being dubbed the “Dr Mengele” of South Africa. 

The Nazi label had some resonance in Neethling’s early life. He’d arrived in South Africa in 1948 as part of a group of German war orphans adopted by Hitler-supporting Afrikaner families. Many of the Afrikaners who’d backed the Nazis during World War II had been punished for it, interned for their support of the Ossewabrandwag and other groups that tried to stymie South Africa’s war efforts on the side of the Allies. Opening their arms to the orphans of the Nazis three years after the war was a retaliation of sorts. 

At 13 years of age, Lothar was the unofficial head of the group of 83 orphans who arrived in Cape Town in 1948. He was adopted by the fund’s chair, Dr JC Neethling, and did everything to prove himself worthy in the elite Afrikaner circles in which his adoptive family moved, excelling at both rugby and academics. 

Now, all the stellar career achievements he’d amassed in his adult life were under the microscope and his demeanour was one of self-righteous outrage. He was seething. “I never thought the written word could have such an influence on the thoughts and state of mind of a person,” he spluttered to the court. Coetzee’s allegations that Neethling was the “poison link” in the police hit squad death chain had created tension in his family and forced him, a 55-year-old man, to think about retiring early, he told the court. 

But then the court heard how heroic and clever Neethling was. His legal team, led by Willie Oshry, an 84-year-old QC with hair that swirled around his face like white meringue, trotted out a list of character witnesses who vouched for Neethling’s moral, intellectual and professional standing both here and around the world. 

Coetzee had talked about poisoning, Oshry argued, only because he wanted to spice up the book he ostensibly wanted to write. “The only poison in the case was that written by the ‘poison pen’ of Vrye Weekblad,” he said.

Our newspapers’ lawyers argued that it had been in the public interest to publish Coetzee’s allegations. That we, the Weekly Mail, had been singled out was pure malice, because other newspapers had also published the allegations broken by Vrye Weekblad. The lefty political papers were the ones to get a whipping. 

And now Coetzee was in fear of his life and living under ANC protection in London. Coetzee had given evidence in London to the Harms Commission, set up to assess whether the police and army had hit squads. The mild-mannered Justice Louis Harms was due to release his findings that week. Would Harms finally vindicate what Coetzee and former co-assassin and death row inmate, Almond Nofomela, whose imminent demise by hanging had prompted him to speak out in the first place, had disclosed about their police hit squad activity? Sanctioned by the state, Coetzee’s squad of cops and askaris had allegedly murdered activists, including human rights lawyer Griffiths Mxenge, who’d been abducted close to his home in Umlazi, near Durban, one night in November 1981, and stabbed 45 times. 

Related article:

And there was every possibility that these hit squads were still running amok, stoking factional violence in the townships and aiding Inkatha against their common enemy, the ANC. Maybe Harms’s findings would dislodge that brick and the termites would start streaming out. Or was the commission simply an exercise in fakery, a pseudo-investigation that allowed the government to silence its detractors? 

Just the week before, another government commission, this one headed by attorney-general Timothy McNally, had discredited Coetzee completely, ruling that his allegations were groundless and that the evidence that he and his police accomplices, Nofomela and David Tshikalange, had given was “untruthful” and “unreliable”. 

It was impossible to know whether Johann Kriegler, the judge with an intimidating air now presiding over the Neethling case, would tar Coetzee with the same brush. 

And Neethling, who’d made more than 13 000 court appearances to give forensic evidence in police cases, was supremely confident on this terrain. Right now he was on a roll, branding Coetzee a crazy idiot, a man either “short of brain power” or suffering from hallucinations. Coetzee had been plotting this saga for years, he said, though he couldn’t say whether he was a psychopath. “I’m not a psychiatrist. I cannot classify a man as such,” he told the court. 

If Coetzee had visited Neethling at his laboratory and his home to collect potions to poison and drug activists, how had he not known that the general had a Rottweiler dog, not two Dobermans, as Coetzee had claimed? And how come he’d recalled wooden floors in his house when in fact there’d been wall-to-wall carpeting since the 1970s? 

These were the intricate details being debated in court, Neethling all the while shaking his head with an incredulous chuckle, claiming he’d never even met Coetzee or spoken to him over the telephone. 

Why then was Neethling’s private telephone number in Coetzee’s police-issue notebook? I was convinced that Neethling was guilty as charged – not that any charges had been laid against him. He had brought this case himself and the state was paying his legal bills. The row of men in suits and shoes of the same grey sitting behind him in court each day were the nameless stalwarts of the mighty Department of Law and Order that was backing him. 

And Neethling was a skilled operator. It wouldn’t be easy for Kriegler, notwithstanding his sharp questions that sliced knife-like through the proceedings, to find the soft spots in the tough hide of this bullish police general.  

It had been a tumultuous week. As I drove home to Yeoville in my yellow VW Beetle, I thought of the wrap I’d just filed of the events of the past few days in court. I was pleased with it. And the case had been exciting. 

But mid-way through the week there’d been some troubling and disappointing developments. Justice Harms had dismissed Coetzee as a liar with a “fertile imagination” and “psychopathic tendencies” and found that no police hit squads existed. Although he’d referred some cases of murdered activists for further investigation, he basically exonerated the police, saying only that they should be encouraged to keep diaries so their exact whereabouts could be recorded. That was an unfunny joke. 

For the ANC, this was like being made to swallow sand. Not only had these security police killers been let off, they were “still in the business of assassinating”, as their trade union allies, the Congress of South African Trade Unions, put it.

Related article:

The military had got off a little less lightly. Harms had been scathing about the secretive Civil Cooperation Bureau (CCB) and its abuse of power. But most of the antiapartheid murders under investigation had been carried out before the CCB was set up in 1989. And with much of the evidence around the CCB destroyed or hidden, Harms’s conclusions were wishy-washy at best. His “suspicion” that “the CCB have been involved in more crimes of violence than the evidence shows” was at best a limp finding. 

The person politically responsible for the CCB, minister of defence Magnus Malan, should have been forced to resign at this point. But this was no democracy; the National Party was still in charge and Malan wasn’t going anywhere. 

Still, at least the Neethling case was ongoing. It was keeping police hit squads in the public view, despite the failure of either the Harms or the McNally commissions to believe Coetzee or apportion any real blame. There was still some hope, but it clearly didn’t reside with government-appointed commissions presided over by apartheid apologists. 

If you want to republish this article please read our guidelines.