Apartheid death squad leader Dirk Coetzee dies

Dirk Coetzee. Picture: AFP
Dirk Coetzee. Picture: AFP
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DIRK Coetzee, who led an apartheid era death squad and later sought protection from the ­resistance movement that brought down South Africa’s white ­minority government, has died.

Coetzee, 57, was a former police captain who blew the lid on his hit squad and fled the country in 1989, unleashing revelations that deepened the global isolation of the apartheid regime. He was commander of the covert police assassination unit based at Vlakplaas – a farm outside the capital Pretoria and a training base for hitmen targeting anti-apartheid leaders.

Coetzee eventually landed in London after exposing the group in an interview with a liberal Afrikaans newspaper.

Coetzee claimed responsibility for several killings of African National Congress (ANC) members. His group – also called Vlakplaas – recruited among blacks who left the liberation movement and turned them into killers.

Once he was in exile, he joined the ANC, became known as “Comrade Dirk” and turned to the group headed by men such as Nelson Mandela and OR Tambo for protection.

“They were the only people who could check my story and see if I was speaking the truth,” he said in a 1990 interview. “For me, it was a hell of a risk to come over to the ANC,” he said.

The decision to leave South Africa was not entirely an attempt to clear his conscience.

Coetzee, whose police career was in jeopardy just before he left, was also named by one of his hitmen as a co-conspirator in the killing of Durban human rights attorney Griffiths Mxenge in 1981.

Coetzee proved to be a treasure chest for the ANC, shedding a light on the brutality and dirty tricks the white-minority government used to stay in power. The country’s leaders made him an assassination target.

Coetzee returned to South Africa and became a member of the post-apartheid spy service under then president Mandela.

In 1997, he was granted amnesty by the government’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) for the killing of Mxenge, who was stabbed 45 times.

In granting amnesty for ­Mxenge’s killing, the commission concluded that Coetzee and two accomplices “considered this to be an act performed as part of their duties as policemen on the instructions of senior ­officers who would undoubtedly have satisfied themselves as to the ­necessity for it.”

It also noted that Coetzee had since acknowledged his actions to be “unjustifiable”.

Some South Africans, however, believe more perpetrators of atrocities should have been punished. Much of the response on Twitter yesterday to Coetzee’s death condemned his actions.

“So Dirk Coetzee’s dead. I wonder what stories died with him, and how many more apartheid crimes will go to the grave,” one person tweeted. Another posted: “Dirk Coetzee’s death has me thinking about the Nuremberg trials. Would that model have brought more closure than TRC?”

The National Prosecuting Authority had been working with Coetzee to help find the body of ANC activist Sizwe Kondile, who was killed by his group.

In testimony to the TRC, Coetzee talked about how his assassins started barbecuing meat for a meal after separately setting the corpse of Kondile on fire.

“I would say Coetzee was motivated by self-preservation,” said Jacques Pauw, author of two books on apartheid-era killers and death squads who interviewed Coetzee many times. “Everyone knew apartheid couldn’t go on, there were already rumbles about police death squads, so Coetzee knew that if he became the first to confess, he would not go to jail.”

Dr Anthea Jeffery, head of special research at the South African Institute of Race Relations, said there were discrepancies between Coetzee’s testimony about the murder of Mxenge and forensic evidence.

In her book People’s War, Jeffery wrote that Coetzee hated the South African police after he was dismissed from the force in 1985, and saw “a great future for himself” in the ANC.

A spokeswoman for the Life Wilgers Hospital in Pretoria, said Coetzee died on ­Wednesday.