Exposing the apartheid regime's Security Branch killing machine
What with the frequent disappearances and killings of our comrades, our fears were real and this brought a constant stress into our lives.
In 1986 Security Branch headquarters sent a Colonel Johannes Steyn to ‘Bombay’ - as Durban was derogatorily known by those in the Security Branch - to stop the bombing campaign that plagued the city. At one point Steyn had been the commander of Brigadier Wikus Loots.
A few months after his arrival in Durban, Steyn was part of a team that shot and killed four unarmed comrades on the Quarry Road off-ramp of Durban’s N2 highway. Early in 1987, he was promoted to brigadier and, under his watch as the head of the city’s Security Branch, a Vlakplaas unit killed Sipho Bhila on 22 February 1987.
Bhila’s assassination came a mere three days after he had been acquitted at the end of the ‘doctors’ unit’ terrorism trial. Durban’s rolling hills were to become the theatre of many extra-judicial killings.
In the aftermath of the ANC clean-up in Swaziland towards the latter half of 1988, Phila Ndwandwe, going by the code name of ‘Zandile’, assumed responsibility for the command of some of the units operating in Durban.
Her diminutive physique masked her intense personality. Her clear eyes and ever-present lopsided smile projected an image of shyness, innocence and fragility. An image that invited protection and special care, especially from the male MK soldiers in Angola where she had undergone her military training.
In Swaziland Phila fell in love with another ANC cadre, Bheki Mabuza. As the rules of MK discipline dictated, Bheki was to know Phila only by the name Zandile. She kept all her personal details secret. A year later she gave birth to a boy and named him Thabang, meaning ‘always happy’. During her pregnancy, her relationship with Bheki ended. This notwithstanding, she regarded it as the happiest time of her life.
Zandile went about her motherly duties and her work, regularly briefing internal operatives on their tasks, always taking care to avoid Security Branch monitoring. But the newly promoted Captain Botha had other plans for her.
Late in October 1988, she received a message to meet couriers from the south who were carrying weapons and other supplies for units operating in South Africa. Zandile thought nothing of this routine request and proceeded with the necessary arrangements.
On the appointed day she asked ‘Jones’, one of her comrades, to take her to the meeting - the parking lot of The George Hotel in Manzini.
Once the couriers were identified, she jumped into their car. A few minutes later the car drove off in the direction of Big Bend, a town in the eastern part of Swaziland. Jones watched the car leave.
Everything was going according to the details that Zandile had given him. He had no reason to suspect anything was amiss.
A few hours later, Jones returned to The George Hotel to collect Zandile. There was no sign of her. He waited. As the hours ticked by his concern turned to alarm. He located Bheki who had no knowledge of Zandile’s whereabouts.
What Jones did not know was that the two bandana-wearing men who had left with Zandile were informers in the employ of Captain Botha. The informers drove to a nearby turn-off where Captain Botha and two other Durban Security Branch members, Lawrence Wasserman and Solomon du Preez, were waiting. Zandile, her hands firmly bound with adhesive tape, was bundled into a panel van and the vehicles sped off. Their destination was a remote spot on the fence between South Africa and Swaziland. On the other side of the fence waited Brigadier Steyn and Colonel Andy Taylor, the head of Durban’s Security Branch’s notorious ‘C1’ hit-squad section. Zandile was made to jump over the wire fence accompanied by Captain Botha and from here she disappeared into the night. Early the next morning, Jones alerted the ANC structures that Zandile was missing. Safe houses known to Zandile were quickly abandoned, weapon storage places were changed and all contact with people known to Zandile was broken off or changed. Everything went quiet. There was no sign of any monitoring by the Security Branch. It was as if Zandile had never existed.
The whispering campaign, influenced by askari September’s defection, soon mutated from ‘Zandile has disappeared’ to ‘Zandile has crossed over’. The ANC’s security department, ‘Mbokodo’ (the stone that crushes), investigated her disappearance. Many people were questioned and eventually Bheki was detained by them. Despite his incarceration and interrogation, beyond the rumours, Mbokodo could not establish Zandile’s whereabouts. Her fate was left to the whispers of rumours. In time she was forgotten.
Thirteen years later at the TRC hearings, Phila’s fate was revealed.
It was told that once in South Africa she was taken to a police safe house in Onverwacht, where Captain Botha interrogated her late into the night. He tried to recruit her, but she would have none of it.
He tried again the next morning, and then again as she was driven to the Elandskop farm nearby Pietermaritzburg. Her commitment to the ANC was unflagging. She refused to become another September.
Unconvinced by Captain Botha’s attempts, Brigadier Steyn tried his hand at recruiting her. Still she refused.
Defeated by her courage, Brigadier Steyn ordered her elimination.
Wasserman and Du Preez dug her grave some 80 metres from the house in which Colonel Taylor continued fruitlessly interrogating her. A short while later she was taken out of the house wearing a blindfold and led to the edge of the grave. As she stood there, Wasserman knocked her unconscious. Phila collapsed into the grave.
He then shot her in the head. She was stripped naked, her body sprinkled with lime and covered with plastic bags before the grave was covered over.
As the TRC heard, the killings did not stop. Captain Botha left the farm before Phila was killed and headed for Durban. He had another target in mind, Phumezo Nxiweni.
Lured by a police informer, on November 4, 1988 Phumezo was abducted by Captain Botha, Solomon ‘Sam’ du Preez and another Security Branch officer, Casper van der Westhuizen. He was taken to a safe house in Verulam, a small town about 30km north of Durban. Here Phumezo was interrogated and assaulted through the night. The next day Colonel Taylor took charge of his execution. He dug a grave and ordered du Preez and Wasserman to eliminate Phumezo. As with Phila, Phumezo was led blindfolded to the grave, where du Preez shot him through the head. His clothes were removed, his body covered with lime and soil.
But the killings did not stop. On 18 November, another of Captain Botha’s informers led three members of an MK unit, Sibusiso Ndlovu, Amanzi Vilakazi and Gift Matjale, to their arrest on the Avoca bridge that connects the KwaMashu township to Durban’s highways. They were driven to the ‘death’ farm in Verulam, interrogated and assaulted. From there they were taken to the Phoenix railway line. Colonel Taylor remained in the vehicle as the men were escorted by Wasserman, Botha and Du Preez to a remote section of the line. There they were made to kneel in front of the railway tracks and then assassinated from behind by the three Security Branch officers. But that was not enough for their killers, a limpet mine was placed under their bodies and detonated. This incident was ‘false-flagged’ as an explosion by MK members in which those responsible for the explosion were killed.
For all these murders, the perpetrators were granted amnesty.
Under General Steyn’s watch the Security Branch became a killing machine, and my erstwhile interrogator, Captain Botha, a significant and willing cog.
* Moe Shaik was an anti-apartheid student activist. In the late 1970s he became part of the newly formed MJK Unit (Mandla Judson Kuzwayo), with his brother Yunus and one other person. Shaik was employed in National Intelligence from 1994, moving to Foreign Affairs in 1997. He is a former head of the South African Secret Service.