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The men were told to bring a Bible and a hymn book. They were ordered to pack medication and suntan lotion, and equip themselves with umbrellas, tents and enough food and water to last three days.
It was the beautiful spring of 2002, perfect for camping under the stars and hazy days outdoors. But this was not a game of soldier-soldier for the Boeremag. The men had been given instructions.
They had to dress in military uniform, and bring their own guns and ammunition. The weapons were not a choice. They were mandatory.
All over the country’s white-right communities, word had started to spread. The “Interim Government of the South African Boer Republic” had ordered its troops to assemble at the headquarters of the Lichtenburg Commando on September 14, 2002.
That date – which marked the day Boer leader Koos de la Rey was killed in a police roadblock in 1914, when SA was still a union – was when they would declare an independent nation.
And they weren’t doing it quietly. The “government” announced to the media it intended to start a war against the country, SA’s supporters abroad, “traitors of the Boerevolk and any other ally who tried to assist the ANC regime”. It demanded an autonomous state where God would be its only leader.
Racists in white enclaves around SA fervently believed this call to arms was the beginning of the end of imminent black rule. The ANC had been unbanned. Nelson Mandela, Joe Slovo and Chris Hani were free. Violence was growing in townships.
This was the dark unravelling they had feared all their lives, and they believed they could turn it around by stirring terror. They hoped to create countrywide anarchy that would halt the peace process and force a reversion to white rule.
But last week, more than 10 years after a cabal of bearded zealots in khaki shorts planned horror attacks and murders in the land of their birth, 17 accused stood emotionless in the dock at the Pretoria High Court.
All except one are waiting to be sentenced on 42 charges relating to plans to overthrow the government by staging a violent coup.
Charges include high treason, murder, attempted murder, sabotage, terrorism, manufacturing explosives and the illegal possession of firearms.
The accused who are still awaiting trial in prison are among the men out on bail in the dock. Two among the total of 22 have been allowed to skip court proceedings, as one, Fritz Naude, has had a stroke and another, Vis Visagie, a back operation.
Last week, the Boeremag made a last-ditch attempt to stall the court process by claiming the description of high treason was so wide it violated several rights guaranteed by the constitution.
But Judge Eben Jordaan rejected that argument, saying the constitution granted rights and responsibilities to the state, its structures and its citizens, and specifically forbade citizens to take part in an armed struggle.
These were men who had not only plotted but staged explosions. The shrapnel from one had killed a woman called Claudia Mokone in Soweto.
They had planned to murder Mandela with a car bomb. They had conspired to attack government planes with hunting rifles. The shocking list for disorder and death goes on and on.
The judge said armed struggle was unconstitutional, and the freedom to exercise self-determination – such as the men have persistently demanded – could only be realised through negotiation and legislation.
It’s been a long time since anyone was convicted of high treason in this country.
Those charged in more recent history were a number of soldiers in the old Bophuthatswana defence force who had attempted a coup d’état in 1988, and Belgian-born anti-apartheid activist Hélène Passtoors, who was convicted of high treason and jailed from 1985 to 1989.
But it’s not a forgotten charge by any means.
The Boeremag look like ordinary men in court, some clutching their Bibles, ankles clanking in leg irons and wrists straining in handcuffs.
Only one, Kobus Pretorius, has changed his views in the decade that has passed since the desperate dream of the Lichtenburg Commando.
It’s been the longest and most expensive trial in SA history, with more than 40 separate applications having been filed, packed with complaints from the accused.
Some have had breakdowns behind bars, and everything has been anathema to them – from wearing leg chains to being transported to court with loud sirens blaring.
At one time, they wept over Metro FM being played in prison. Although the judge at the time, Eberhardt Bertelsmann, ultimately forbade warders from switching on the radio station, he compelled the Boeremag accused to buy radios and batteries for other inmates who liked the music.
All denied the charges against them at the start of the trial, and over the years, many have changed their versions of events and made fresh, different admissions.
At one time, defence lawyer Paul Kruger argued the SA government was illegitimate and unconstitutional, and the first elections in 1994 had been invalid.
The list of witnesses was almost as long as the trial, with nearly 200 people testifying, and a few state witnesses standing in the box to tell their stories over several months.
It’s taken so long that South Africans have remembered and forgotten it over the years as thousands of pages of legal documents have passed between advocates and prosecutors.
Only the first and second accused, Boeremag leader Mike du Toit and his brother Andre, have so far been found guilty of high treason. Andre is an intellectual and former university history lecturer at the old Vista University who had intimate knowledge of the coup.
Despite his social and academic credentials, he was in charge of the Boeremag’s communications, and would have known about the plan to declare war in September 2002.
He would have known about the conspiracy to launch explosives at the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Sandton that month. He would have known about a scheme to attack the Johannesburg Securities Exchange and the main bridge from Sandton across the M1 freeway.
He would have been aware of a truck parked in an industrial area of Lichtenburg which had been equipped with a computer, scanner, medical equipment, food and two-way radios.
More deadly was the rest of the cargo: thousands of R1 rifles, shotguns, .22 rifle rounds of ammunition, an AK-47, pipe and petrol bombs, and base compounds for homemade explosives.
Andre du Toit would have known about the chaos caused when the plotters hit Lenasia railway tracks on the main line between Soweto and Johannesburg. That was when Claudia Mokone was killed and her husband severely injured.
Another bomb was placed at the Nan Hua Buddhist temple in Bronkhorstspruit. Petrol stations were targeted.
Jordaan, who started delivering his judgment on Monday and pronounced on the Du Toit brothers on Thursday and Friday, is expected to take at least three weeks to sentence the rest of the men in the trial which started nine years ago.
The Mail & Guardian wrote last week that the contrite prisoner, Kobus Pretorius, has had to face off against others down in the cells. One of them is his father and another two, his brothers.
To those accused of treason, he is the traitor. They want nothing to do with him even though, as the old hierarchy went, Pretorius was near the top.
In October 2004, the court heard testimony from witness Deon Crous who said he had helped Pretorius and another rightwinger, Jacques Jordaan, to manufacture a terrifying 1 500kg of explosives.
The plot was to detonate the homemade bombs and follow up with savage attacks, poisonings, blackouts and widescale assassinations.
In the years that have passed since the men were arrested, everyone but Pretorius has drawn closer, some attempting to escape, others going back on statements they had made, most revealing the once-top secret details of bloodthirsty plots.
And all except Pretorius were determined to stay true to the apocalyptic vision of Nicolaas Janse van Rensburg, the 19th-century Afrikaner soothsayer or siener who, it was claimed, had foreseen the rise of white rule.
The Institute for Security Studies (ISS) said not much of this came as a surprise to the old NP police force, which had been onto the Boeremag for more than a year before arrests were made.
They had quietly launched Operation Zealot – which placed rightwing extremists under surveillance – back in May 2001. Much more was to come as they bided their time, using informants embedded in rightwing communities.
In September that year, members of the movement contacted a high-ranking officer in the SANDF and gave him a detailed military plan, called Document 12.
In it, they targeted “the enemies of the Boer” and described how they planned to take over strategic military, economic and communication centres.
Document 12 revealed top-secret information about police stations and military installations.
The Boeremag had personnel numbers. They knew details about weapons, aircraft and military vehicles. But the document was quickly handed over to the SA Police Crime Intelligence, putting the movement squarely in their crosshairs.
The game was finally up, 10 years ago. Now, it’s only a matter of time. - Sunday Independent