Last weekend, a book exposed more grim secrets from South Africa’s dark past. Shocking allegations of a child-sex ring in the 1980s involving former National Party ministers were told in The Lost Boys of Bird Island, by Mark Minnie and Chris Steyn.
It is the late 1980s. Serious allegations surface against three prominent National Party Cabinet ministers, one of them the second-most powerful man in the land. They are, it is said, regularly abusing young boys on an island just off the coast of Port Elizabeth. From opposite ends of South Africa, a brave cop and a driven journalist investigate. Mark Minnie and Chris Steyn independently uncover evidence of a dark secret. But the case only surfaces briefly before it disappears completely. Thirty years later, the two finally connect the dots to expose this shocking story of criminality, cover ups and official complicity in the rape and possible murder of children, most of them vulnerable and black.

After weeks of investigation, it was hard not to suspect that David Allen and John Wiley had died because of paedophilia, blackmail, a looming Cabinet scandal of epic proportions – and the urgent need to protect the reputations of top politicians.

It was a hell of a story. There is no other way of putting it. However, little of what I knew would eventually appear in print.

The inquest failed to establish the real reason behind Wiley’s death, and no clear picture emerged of the reason for what still appeared to be a suicide. Furthermore, it was found that no one could be held criminally responsible, either through an act or an omission.

The day before the inquest, on May 14, 1987, I wrote a story under the headline “Wiley inquest in Simon’s Town today”. I pointed out that in South African law an inquest had limited scope. That story also contained this rather promising-looking announcement:
After an intensive seven-week investigation into Mr Wiley’s life and death, the Cape Times will publish the “Wiley Dossier” after the inquest.

We were alerting readers to the fact that I had interviewed dozens of Wiley’s closest business and political associates and friends in an attempt to clear up some aspects of the mystery surrounding his death.

I had spent many hours seeking facts from every possible source willing to discuss the intimate details of the sex and professional lives of a cabinet minister and his police reservist friend, as well as a couple of Cabinet colleagues. I had spoken to a source whose information was based on the account of a Bird Island eyewitness. I knew for a fact that a child victim needed a life-saving operation. I was told of concessions lost and given, of brazen blackmail and blatant corruption. The most explosive of these allegations were not vague, but very detailed. I even had an off-the-record confirmation from a hostile cop that Cabinet ministers had been implicated in acts of sex with children.

But any hopes I might have had of seeing in print any counterbalance to official “findings” were dashed by the newspaper’s decision to handle the matter with what I deemed to be unwarranted diplomacy. I was not allowed to reveal most of what I had uncovered during my investigation. This was not something I accepted without a fight. I argued, I raged, I threw tantrums as draft after draft of the story was gutted by the news desk until there was a version deemed safe for publication.

This excessive caution exercised by the Cape Times in the case of the Wiley story was as baffling to me as it was infuriating. Various excuses were used, including the fact that my primary source was a “colourful character”, as if that automatically made him a liar.

Although I had always applied the same standards of journalistic treatment to the living and the dead, the newspaper acted like it had never heard the words “dead men can’t sue”. In fact, I had known the paper to be less cautious in accusations against people still very much alive.

The book alleges former members of PW Botha’s Cabinet, including minister of defence Magnus Malan and environmental affairs minister John Wiley, sexually abused young boys on ‘fishing trips’ on an island off the coast of Port Elizabeth.

I would like to think the newspaper was once again just being overly respectful of privacy – despite the matter clearly being in the public interest – but I could not stop wondering whether there was more to it than that. In my moments of darkest suspicion, I feared that the newspaper could be trying to protect two other Cabinet ministers who had been named to me as having been on the alleged sex tours to Bird Island. But then, I would argue with myself, why would a liberal paper that had fought so bravely to expose the excesses of the apartheid government want to protect two of its most notorious stalwarts?

Perhaps Mahogany Row (newspaper management) simply didn’t want to see the newspaper dragged through the lengthy – and expensive – ethical and legal battles my Boesak story had put The Star through. Or maybe they thought the paper would be accused of hypocrisy for allowing me to write about the private life of an NP minister (or three) when it had condemned me so strongly for exposing the private life of a Struggle icon.

I did not have the answer. And nobody ever gave me one. Although not everyone involved in the newspaper’s decision-making processes was as liberal as editor Tony Heard, I could not even begin to identify the person responsible for ensuring that the “Wiley Dossier” was reduced to an insignificant little tattletale.

Of course, it was no secret that Cape Times news editor Colin Howell had an unhealthy belief in the credibility of government officials – especially policemen. Despite the fact that I usually wrote the bigger stories of the day, he and I clashed – often. In a confidential memo that I got to read, he went as far as to describe me as “our unguided missile”. Still, he did not have sole decision-making power over what went into the paper.

I suspected then, as I still do now, that it was probably the result of a collective call by the newspaper’s hierarchy, inspired either by a lack of courage or an obligation on the part of somebody to cover up the truth.

Either way, when the “The Wiley Dossier – a Cape Times investigation” finally appeared in the paper on May 16, it was a masterpiece of understatement. The headline of the front-page piece posed the question, “Who was the real John Wiley?”

The blurb continued:  The motive behind Mr Wiley’s suicide – not clearly established in the inquest evidence this week – appears to be as baffling and secret as was the true nature of his character during the closing chapter of this life.


The newspaper then warned its readers that “during an intensive seven-week investigation into Mr Wiley’s life and death, Cape Times reporter Chris Steyn found herself bombarded with accusation, insinuation and rumour which, without specific corroboration, cannot be published”.

The paper did admit that during interviews with at least 25 people across the country, including political and business associates of Wiley, new insights had emerged:  A picture far removed from what most South Africans believed the former Oxford cricket blue and dashing man-about-town to be started taking shape… In reality, Mr Wiley preferred the company of men to women.

The story was a whitewash, so much so that on reading it the ruling NP – accustomed as it was to being subjected to a regular battering by the newspaper – must have blinked twice and double-checked that it was not reading a new English version of its beloved Cape newspaper, Die Burger. Indeed, the story as it appeared in print that day had been so watered down that, on reflection, I felt it would have been better if it had not been published at all. Even if people were able to read between the lines, they would have been hard-pressed to come to any useful conclusion.

The most glaring omission from the published story was that it contained no reference whatsoever to what had allegedly occurred on Bird Island. And the story’s only redeeming feature was that it at least included a mention of the charges against Allen. It also contained a quote from sources in the gay community who confirmed that Allen had a preference for young boys whom “he could get rid of when they turn sixteen”.

In the end the “Wiley Dossier” served mostly as a roll call of Wiley’s achievements in terms of his education, career and political life.

Yet his death stood in stark contrast to his glittering persona. He was found on his single bed surrounded by books on a bedside table next to a lamp that was nothing more than a mounted bare globe. These unglamorous surroundings were in sharp contrast to his flamboyant personal image. He was noted for his immaculate dress sense, always wearing expensive and neatly tailored suits or fashionable casual wear.

Wiley’s younger son, Mark, had told the inquest court that his father had been “bitter and disillusioned” because “exceptional pressure” had been exerted on him to sell his beloved De Goede Hoop Estate manor house in Noordhoek. Finality of the sale was to have been reached in the week ending March 30 – the day after he killed himself. His wife disputed this and said that although she was aware he had financial worries, she did not think this or the upcoming election would have driven him to kill himself.

This was corroborated by his elder son, Jeremy, who said that his father’s indirect involvement in the affairs of the company couldn’t have contributed in any way to his death; nor did his death affect the financial or trading position of the company, which was, he said, “healthy and sound”.

That Wiley had not left a note baffled everyone. This was because he was regarded as a “meticulous” man who “always wrote notes”, even to thank people for the smallest gestures.In the end, unsurprisingly, the court found that “no one could be held criminally responsible, through an act or an omission, for Mr Wiley’s death”. But the story did highlight that Wiley had died caught in a web of deceit spun of his own good intentions and colourful lifestyle. His much-publicised marriages and other liaisons with beautiful women, such as Hollywood starlet Linda Christian, turned out to be the bright side of a shadowed life. In reality, I wrote, he preferred the company of men to women.

This had become increasingly clear, I informed readers, during interviews with several of Wiley’s close associates in Port Elizabeth and Cape Town, and was something openly discussed in gay clubs in the city after Wiley’s death. This had made him vulnerable to blackmail and it was this, a source had told me, that had finally threatened to expose him. I could never corroborate this allegation.

It was easier to confirm and prove Allen’s proclivity for young boys. There was one boy who had openly admitted that he had lived with Allen for years before being turfed out when he turned 16. I also reported that sources had said that Wiley had visited Allen in the days before his death.

I was deeply disappointed that my newspaper had opted to sanitise my story. I felt it read more like a pamphlet than an exposé, and South Africans who were interested in it were left with more questions than answers. Of course, that non-story became the source of much debate and speculation over countless glasses of wine in the Café Royal, where Cape Town’s journalists met after work.

At some point the Wiley inquest docket was returned to the office of the Cape Attorney General because of the possibility that press investigations could bring new facts to light. But they never did and we never returned to the story. In all fairness, no newspaper could have afforded to let one of its most prolific hard-news reporters languish indefinitely on an investigation full of dead ends – literally and figuratively. But I never stopped thinking about it.

* This is an extract from The Lost Boys of Bird Island by Mark Minnie and Chris Steyn published by Tafelberg at a recommended retail price of R280

Author Biographies

* Mark Minnie is a former policeman who worked as a Narcotics Bureau detective for the South African Police (SAP) during the 1980s. Upon leaving South Africa in 2007, he started working as an English examiner for Cambridge University and the British Council in China. He is currently employed as an English teacher at a university in Guangzhou in China.

* Chris Steyn is an investigative writer and journalist. Over the years, she has worked for the Rand Daily Mail, The Star and the Cape Times. She was editor of the investigative unit of 16 newspapers in the Independent Newspapers group. Today she owns a bookshop in Hermanus, the seaside village which is now her home.

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