Lies, cover-ups and brutality for bloody ‘proof’

The young men were hunted and killed, so their bodies could be filmed to showcase the efficiency of Vlakplaas as a killing machine, writes Roos-Muller. Picture: Ayanda Ndamane/Independent Newspapers

The young men were hunted and killed, so their bodies could be filmed to showcase the efficiency of Vlakplaas as a killing machine, writes Roos-Muller. Picture: Ayanda Ndamane/Independent Newspapers

Published Jun 30, 2024


The streets of Gugulethu were quiet.

Then just after 7am on March 3, 1986, sounds of violence erupted. Minutes later the bloody bullet-ridden bodies of seven young men lay scattered on the ground. All in their 20s, all of them dead.

Christopher Piet, Jabulani Godfrey Miya, Zabonke John Konile, Mandla Simon Mxinwa, Themba Mlifi, Zola Alfred Swelani and Zandisile “Sammi” Mjobo.

Their biggest crime was that they were black and their lives expendable to the white police officers who murdered them. None of the policemen responsible for the killings paid any price.

In her book, Hunting The Seven, Dr Beverley Roos-Muller said public shootings in Cape Town's townships were frequent but this was different; “large, violent, very public”.

And then the lies and cover-ups began.

Some journalists lapped up the disinformation spread by the police who said the men were part of the ANC's military wing cell plotting to attack a police unit.

Then there was Cape Times reporter Chris Bateman, who quickly realised something was off. Bateman had rushed to the scene with photographer Obed Zilwa.

Apart from being fobbed off when he questioned the officers, townships were notoriously under policed and to have such a massive presence on site was another red flag.

He turned to the nearby hostel where a different picture emerged of seven young men deliberately hunted by the police. As he and colleague Tony Weaver continued their investigation, they became targets because they would not peddle police lies.

Despite two inquests and a trial, the police were exonerated.

In her book's prologue Roos-Muller, a former journalist and activist, writes: “Seldom have seven young men been so hunted by so many. First, assassins hunted them to their deaths.

Then, two news reporters who viewed the gruesome crime scene and its aftermath, troubled by the stark inconsistencies in the police account, hunted to establish what had actually happened… I, too, hunted the Gugulethu Seven for years, after meeting some of their families in bereaved shock, witnessing the funerals and attending the hearings, trying to catch the drifting ghost of truth within the fog of denials and lies. How does one grasp such depravity? By hunting it.”

She said that 10 years later it emerged at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that the murder of the Gugulethu Seven was planned by Vlakplaas, the apartheid police's counterinsurgency unit, led by Eugene de Kock, operating from a farm near Pretoria.

The truth finally came out during an amnesty hearing.

The young men were hunted and killed, so their bodies could be filmed to showcase the efficiency of Vlakplaas as a killing machine, writes Roos-Muller.

“The aim of this cynical, murderous exercise was to increase their ever-burgeoning slush fund for the death farm. As well as those who fed off it.”

Journalist, academic and author Dr Beverley Roos-Muller recently released her latest book; Hunting the Seven: How the Gugulethu Seven Assassins were Exposed. She is also the author of Bullet in the Heart. Supplied

The amnesty hearings were not widely followed and it was only while sifting through copious amounts of documents that she stumbled across the truth.

Roos-Muller said she waded through “thousands and thousands of pages” trial records, inquest records, police affidavits, the TRC and the amnesty hearings, and visual footage to tell the story.

She told sister newspaper, the Saturday Star that it was only her academic background and experience in dealing with vast amounts of information that helped her in the “daunting” task.

“One of the things that still makes me really angry is that only three people ever applied for amnesty for this assassination, these cold-blooded murders, and they were all three from Vlakplaas.

“Not one single Cape cop ever applied for amnesty, never admitted their role in the killings. They walked away from this scot-free and those inquests still stand The police were exonerated of any wrongdoing, 'justified in killing in self-defence'. And the mothers still have not received acknowledgement of the fact that their sons were deliberately murdered.”

While the families of the slain men were never compensated, those who plotted their murders and many others had amassed fortunes from their killings.

Roos-Muller has offered her archive and assistance to advocate Dumisa Ntsebeza who has been tasked with reopening some of the TRC cases with the National Prosecuting Authority.

Hunting the Seven was written concurrently with her other book, Bullet in the Heart, which was released last year. She said writing two big books at the same time was “daunting” but “what isn't written down never happens”.

“I thought that if I didn't do it now, all of this material might eventually be swallowed up in the great, awful history of this country. No one will ever know about it.”

She said many people still had unanswered questions and were hurting from the country's brutal past and that something needed to be done to acknowledge and heal those memories before we can “go on to the future properly”. That was partly the reason for writing Bullet in the Heart.

“I think that one of the things we did not understand was why apartheid happened. Until you look at what happened with the women and the children who died in the Boer War, and the Boer saying, well, ‘we're never going to let that happen to us again, are we?'.

“Every war and every violent situation results years later in generational trauma that will come out again unless you fully deal with it,” she said.