Barely three days after the South African government won international acclaim for releasing black nationalist leader Nelson Mandela from prison on Feb. 11, it found itself in the grip of a potentially devastating scandal. A senior policeman, Brig. Floris Mostert, revealed in a court affidavit the existence of a secret military assassination squad that, he said, was involved in the 1989 killings of two prominent white anti-apartheid activists. Then, last week, South Africa’s largest daily newspaper reported that Defence Minister Gen. Magnus Malan knew about the hit squad—ironically named the Civil Co-operation Bureau (CCB)—since its inception in 1987 as a special unit of the South African Defence Force. The Star of Johannesburg said that “a chain of command involving several generals and leading directly to the office of the minister of defence” controlled the CCB, which recruited former policemen to carry out assassinations of government opponents.
Although President F. W. (Frederik) de Klerk was not personally implicated, the scandal is plainly a political bombshell. It comes at a time when de Klerk’s reform-minded white-minority government is about to begin sensitive exploratory talks with the recently legalized African National Congress (ANC) about dismantling South Africa’s apartheid system. Last week, Malan, 60, the retired chief of the South African army who became defence minister in 1980, said Malan: calls he had never ordered members of the military to carry out political murders. But in what some observers claim was a partial admission that Mostert’s allegations were true, Malan said that the army had “acted in a period of high tension and bitter revolutionary attack over the past few years.” He added, “The CCB, an integral part of the special forces, performed assignments, like intelligence and infiltration, in the interests of the country and about which no army readily talks.”
On Feb. 14, Mostert stated in documents submitted to a Johannesburg court that the CCB was involved in the 1989 killings of South African anti-apartheid activist David Webster and of Anton Lubowski, a senior official of Namibia’s pro-independence South-West Africa People’s Organization. Said Mostert’s affidavit: “From all the information available to me, it appears that the CCB is an official, secret unit” of the military. Last week, The Star reported that the CCB was financed by secret appropriations running into “millions of rand” (the rand is currently worth 47 cents) and employed former policemen— technically civilians—to disguise its links to the military. That report sent reverberations throughout the security establishment and caused tensions between the police and the military.
Opposition groups quickly called on Malan to resign. Democratic Party co-leader Denis Worrall said that the disclosures “put beyond any doubt” allegations that persons employed by the army had engaged in the “calculated elimination of leading opponents of the government.” The pro-apartheid Conservative Party, which has launched a countrywide initiative to unseat the government because of de Klerk’s reforms, also called for Malan’s resignation. Among others likely to be tainted by the fallout from the scandal are Foreign Minister Roelof (Pik) Botha, Justice Minister Hendrik (Kobie) Coetsee and Law and Order Minister Adriaan Vlok. Those officials sat with Malan on the State Security Council, which played a key role in governing the country under former president P. W. (Pieter) Botha.
Although the CCB is the first South African assassination squad to be named, the existence of others has long been rumored. Human rights observers have said that they suspect death squads may have been responsible for at least 49 political killings and disappearances since 1977. In November, 1989, former policeman Butana Nofemela, a black death-row prisoner who had been convicted of killing a white farmer, revealed on the eve of his scheduled execution that he had also been a member of a police death squad used to eliminate ANC activists and supporters. In an affidavit given to human rights lawyers, Nofemela said that he was personally involved in at least eight political assassinations. He was then granted a reprieve until his revelations could be fully investigated.
Nofemela said that one of the victims was Griffiths Mxenge, a human rights lawyer with alleged ANC connections who was killed in 1981 in Durban. In a statement read to a South African court, Nofemela said: “At the time of the murder, I was a member of the special branch assassination squad. I was instructed by Brig. [Willem] Schoon and Capt. [Dirk] Coetzee to kill Griffiths Mlungisi Mxenge. I and three colleagues apprehended Mxenge and took him to the Umlazi Stadium, where we proceeded kicking him and punching him and finally stabbing him to death.”
Charges against Nofemela for Mxenge’s murder were subsequently dropped, and he is to testify before a judicial commission of inquiry set up by de Klerk to investigate political killings in South Africa. The inquiry is also eager to hear testimony from Dirk Coetzee, named by Nofemela as one of the commanders of the police death squad. Coetzee left the country shortly after the allegations surfaced and went into hiding in Mauritius, where he told a South African newspaper, Vrye Weekblad, that he had been involved in several of the death-squad murders. At least two other former policemen named by Nofemela and Coetzee have supported the damaging allegations of their colleagues and also will be called to give evidence to the commission.
The political impact of the CCB scandal, following the allegations by Coetzee and Nofemela, threatened to bog down de Klerk’s administration at the very moment when it was set to launch the historic talks with the ANC. Last week, de Klerk welcomed a decision by exiled ANC leaders in Zambia to send a delegation to South Africa, possibly within weeks, to consider starting formal negotiations on a new, nonracial constitution.
The South African president was also scheduled to attend a breakthrough summit on the weekend with several black African heads of state in Zaire. But, under pressure from the ANC and its supporters in such countries as Zambia and Zimbabwe, Zaire’s President Mobutu Sese Seko postponed the one-day meeting, which would have been a first for a National Party leader. Political observers in South Africa said that the African summit might have been postponed to avoid overshadowing Nelson Mandela’s planned reunion this week with his ANC comrades in the Zambian capital of Lusaka. Despite de Klerk’s attempt to downplay his disappointment, the postponement of the summit was plainly embarrassing, because he had hoped to convince black African leaders to drop their public hostility towards his reformist government.
In a television interview late last week, de Klerk said that the allegations against Malan would be reviewed by the Supreme Court judge who is conducting the judicial inquiry into political murders. That inquiry is expected to last several more months. But if the allegations of direct government involvement in secret death squads are substantiated, de Klerk could find his new stature in the international community—and his bargaining position in talks with the ANC—seriously undermined.
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