TODAY marks 35 years since National Party politician Robert Smit and his wife Jean-Cora were murdered in their Springs home in what has been described as “one of the most haunting criminal mysteries in our country”.
And the National Prosecuting Authority has confirmed the case remains open, so if new evidence surfaces, it will be investigated.
At 34 Smit became the youngest deputy secretary of finance in the SA Treasury and went on to become SA’s ambassador to the International Monetary Fund in the US. He had been widely tipped to become the next finance minister.
On the evening of November 22, 1977, his wife Jean-Cora was alone in their house when she was shot a number of times and stabbed 14 times.
When Smit, 44, arrived home later, he was also shot and stabbed.
Spray painted in red in the kitchen were the mysterious words “RAU TEM.”
The killers were never arrested and no conclusive motive was ever established.
Recently an underworld source approached the Cape Times claiming he had been involved in the Smit killings.
He supplied information implicating, among others, a former fugitive from Cuba. This information corresponded with previous reports that pointed to a Cuban hit squad and named the same fugitive as being behind the killings.
Two days ago the former fugitive, Virgilio Paz Romero, with ties to the Cuban Nationalist Movement and now living in Miami, spoke out for the first time in an exclusive e-mail interview with the Cape Times.
He admitted involvement in another killing, but categorically denied involvement in the Smit murders, saying: “I’m not hiding from anyone. I did my time for the conspiracy I was involved in. I’m sure that if I had been a suspect of the South African government for whatever reason, they would have found a way, through the American government, to find me.”
In a phone interview with the Cape Times, former foreign affairs minister Pik Botha, 80, who was friends with the Smits, said: “No sufficient evidence was ever found to trace the murderers. It remains one of the most haunting criminal mysteries in our country.”
Botha had heard allegations that Smit was murdered to prevent him from speaking out about an overseas slush fund he had come across.
“Again, we don’t have evidence, but I’m inclined to think yes, it’s a possibility,” he said.
The source, 58, claimed he was present at the killings and that Romero, who he referred to as Virgilio Paz, was there.
“There were five people involved. They were flown in the week before. They flew out the night of the murder. I drove two to Lanseria Airport. Three stood watch around the house,” the source said.
Aside from Romero, others present included a man from the US, a third man who appeared to be Mexican and a fourth known as McDougal.
The source said Jean-Cora was standing at a telephone table when the “Mexican” man shot her.
“(The man from the US) sat waiting for Robert. They had taken out the lights above the stoep so Robert wouldn’t be able to see his shooter. The light was shining in front of Robert, so he was silhouetted when he was shot. I stood on the stoep,” the source said.
Smit was dragged from the point where he was shot along a passage and around a corner.
The source’s claims of who was behind the murders tallied with an article by Joe Trento, in the Sunday News Journal, Delaware, on February 24 1980, republished on the site www. politicsweb.co.za two years ago.
It said in 1973 SA’s Bureau for State Security (Boss) and its counterpart based in Chile, called Dina, had started hiring CIA-trained “anti-Castro fanatics” to do contract killings.
A “hit team” had been formed and the article said “known victims” of the team included the Smits, as well as exiled Chilean leader Bernardo Leighton and his wife Ana, who were seriously wounded in an attempted assassination in Rome on October 6, 1975.
“The Sunday News Journal investigation shows the Smit killings were carried out by members of the Cuban Nationalist Movement under orders of elements of [Boss].”
The article said Boss officials “did not want Smit releasing details of who had been paid off abroad by the South African Information Ministry”.
It said Smit had been about to speak out about a scandal he had come across after lobbying the World Bank to lend money to SA, but hearing from friends that more than R70 million had been deposited in US accounts in the name of SA.
“According to CIA and State Department sources, Smit had discovered the names of over 20 American politicians, including US senators, right-wing journalists and publishers who had received payoffs and bribes.
“Some of these people were known to be supporters of the Pinochet regime in Chile, which is said to have had close ties with South Africa.
“Both governments had a strong interest in keeping their names secret.”
The Sunday News Journal article said the bullets recovered from Jean-Cora matched those recovered in the failed assassination on Leighton and his wife. This led investigators to look into whether Romero, suspected to be behind the Leighton shooting, was behind the Smit killings.
Romero was also involved in the killing of Chilean diplomat Orlando Letelier and his colleague, Ronni Moffit, in a car bombing in Washington on September 21, 1976.
The article said a witness in the bombing told the publication Romero and his counterpart, Dionisio Suarez, had been using CIA-supplied counterfeit money and South African gold Krugerrands while on the run.
Two days ago Romero, who spent seven years in jail in the US for the Letelier incident, also denied links to the Leighton case.
“I have never been to South Africa, nor do I remember who Robert Smit was. Whatever we did was done for ideals, not money, Krugerrands or any other currency,” he said.
Yesterday Torie Pretorius of the National Prosecuting Authority, who looked into the Smit murders in the 1990s, said it remained an open case.
He said at the time investigators had worked with the Smit children, Robert, then 14 and Liza, then 13. Liza had received death threats.
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission found the Smits “were killed by members of the security forces and that their deaths constitute a gross violation of human rights”.