Johan Greeff had been in the Force for a year. It wasn't a bad job for the son of a bricklayer. He'd left school with a Junior Certificate, and at police college in Pretoria he 'studied laws, did a hell of a lot of PT and marching', before being posted to Johannesburg police headquarters in Marshall Square. He was still only 18, had been on the beat in central Johannesburg, and had done a turn in the charge office. He was considered a promising policeman, and yet he was turned down for the CID course when his friends were accepted. It was heart-breaking. Was it the fast cars, perhaps, or the girls? Or the time he'd punched that drunk in the charge office? Whatever the reason, Greeff was moved behind the scenes to mind the cells, where, for the most part, he passed his working days with petty thieves, drunks, prostitutes, the occasional murderer awaiting trial - hoi polloi of the City of Gold.
It was the sunny year of 1963. The Prime Minister, Dr Hendrik Verwoerd, was making real progress with separating the races, foreign investment was returning, and the miracle batsman Graeme Pollock was preparing to tour Australia with the Springbok cricket team. But below the smiling surface, South Africa was in ferment. The shooting of the innocents at Sharpeville and the outlawing of the African National Congress in 1960 had been the final straws. Nelson Mandela and friends in the ANC, the Communist Party and the Indian Congress had regretfully abandoned the path of peaceful protest and launched Umkhonto we Sizwe (Spear of the Nation), arm of the people's liberation. On 16 December 1961, as the Afrikaners honoured their victory over the Zulu king Dingaan at Blood River a century earlier, the freedom fighters attacked government buildings and other symbols of apartheid.
The Boers had been taken by surprise. But John Balthazar Vorster, Minister of Justice, Police and Prisons, was the man for the occasion. No doubt drawing on his own experience of internment in the Second World War, when he'd been a general in the Nazi-friendly Ossewabrandwag, he rammed the notorious '90-day' detention clause through parliament, warning the while of terrorists and communists. Soon, through infiltration and brutal interrogation, the security police had begun to cut off the limbs of the rebellion. Political 'troublemakers' - kaffirs, coolies, Jode (Jews) - started to appear at Marshall Square and other prisons and police stations, and the existing cell categories of European male, European female, Asian and Coloured male and female and Bantu male and female were further sub-divided into 'criminal' and 'political'. These subtleties were way over the head of the happy-go- lucky Johan Greeff, who 'didn't really know what they was in for'. But it was impossible to remain apolitical for long in a South African police station. Four of these new arrivals were to have a profound impact on his life.
BY DAY, Charlie Jassat was a commercial traveller specialising in men's and women's clothing. By night he was an urban guerrilla. He had blown up the Vrededorp post office, an electricity sub-station and a pylon or two. His proudest achievement was the Nana Sita job. Sita, an elderly Indian and devout disciple of Mahatma Gandhi, lived in a 'mixed area' of Pretoria. The authorities imprisoned him for refusing to move to Laudium, an Indian group area way out of town. So one night Charlie and friends blew up the house that had been allocated to him.
Some time later, three of Charlie's comrades were caught in the act of dynamiting a railway signals box. Charlie himself had the night off; none the less, within hours the police were hammering on his door. He was taken to a disused railway station and tortured with electricity, along with a fellow saboteur called Laloo Chiba, who lost the hearing in one ear as a result. He and Chiba were taken to Marshall Square and charged under the Sabotage Act, then detained without trial.
Jassat was just a squaddie in Umkhonto. His orders originated from Lilliesleaf Farm, Rivonia, in the secluded countryside north of Johannesburg, where Arthur Goldreich and his schoolteacher wife, Hazel, lived a life of seemingly harmless luxury. There were the usual South African domestics, and until recently a well-spoken black man called David had occupied a cottage to the rear.
Goldreich worked as an industrial designer with Greatermans chain store, and was also a successful set designer. But these were not his only talents. As a teenager, he had waded ashore in Palestine from a Displaced Persons boat under the noses of the British, then fought in Israel's war of independence. This military experience had been enough for Mandela to recommend Goldreich to the Umkhonto High Command, which now had its headquarters at Rivonia. But too many people knew the secret.
On 11 July 1963, Colonel George Klindt, the Transvaal security police chief, descended on Rivonia with two van-loads of eager constables in a coup that put the revolution on hold for a dozen years. They netted Walter Sisulu, ANC secretary-general, and much of the High Command assembled in quorate conclave. They would have nabbed commander-in-chief Mandela, too, had he not already been in prison for sedition. He was 'David', the one-time tenant. They also took away 200 copies of 'Operation Mayibuye', a thoroughly researched outline plan for the overthrow of the state, devised and written by Goldreich.
It looked like a rope around Goldreich's neck. In those days, the government wanted people to believe that blacks, even Mandela, were being led astray by left-wing whites, who had to be taught a lesson. Joel Joffe, the Rivonia Trial attorney, says that he would not, at the time, 'have given Goldreich much chance of survival'.
Awaiting trial in Marshall Square, Goldreich was joined by Harold Wolpe. Wolpe was neither military commander nor saboteur. Since the legal firm of Mandela & Tambo had been destroyed by prison and exile, he had become Johannesburg's busiest radical attorney. This was his role in the struggle; he rarely asked for payment. Wolpe handled the Rivonia purchase. He also drew up a document on disciplinary procedures for Umkhonto - in his own handwriting. After the Rivonia raid, he tried to flee the country but was arrested on the border of British Bechuanaland (now Botswana).
And then there was Mosie Moola, chairman of the Indian Youth Congress. Like Charlie Jassat (and many other members of 'the Movement'), he was the son of parents who had emigrated from India's Gujarat countryside a generation before. As a schoolboy in 1952, he had walked out of his classroom to join the Defiance Campaign, the protest which would culminate in black rule four decades later. Afterwards, he had been the youngest of the 156 activists in the Treason Trial (1956-1961), the failed attempt by the Afrikaner government to destroy its enemies by legal means. Moola, with Mandela, Sisulu and Oliver Tambo, was acquitted.
Now the police suspected him of involvement in the Umkhonto bombing campaign, or at least of knowing about it. He wasn't part of it, but the new detention laws rendered such niceties irrelevant. Mosie Moola became Marshall Square's first 90-day detainee.
JOHANNESBURG'S police headquarters since the turn-of-the-century mining camp era was a rambling red-brick building hemmed in by the skyscrapers of the Rand gold-mining houses. Behind the double doors leading from the charge office, the inmates lived in conditions that varied dramatically according to race, sex and political status.
The three Indians on the first floor - Jassat, Moola and Laloo Chiba - were sealed off both from the outside world and from each other. Unrelieved isolation was by then recognised as an effective way of bringing suspects under control - a form of torture in itself. 'Ninety-days' suspects, in particular, were allowed no hobnobbing with other prisoners, no visits by family, lawyer, priest, imam or rabbi, just the occasional inquiry about their well-being from a cowed magistrate. The good news for the Indians was that their cells lacked lavatories. When one of them was marched along the corridor to relieve himself, he could open one of the others' doors while Ben, a friendly African warder, looked the other way. Then they sat in the corridor, looking down on the mesh ceiling of the exercise yard, and harmonised their answers to Special Branch questions. If the key turned in the door from the charge office they would scuttle back to their cells. The Special Branch were a worry - it took much to withstand requests to 'talk or you'll shit yourself' - but they were housed elsewhere, and they had the decency to ring three times when they came to collect a victim.
Goldreich and Wolpe had things slightly easier. Whites were not as yet being beaten up, merely spoken to sharply. A lawyer like Wolpe could demand accommodation appropriate to his station and race. He complained about his 10ft by 8ft cell, with bucket toilet, and was moved to a 'suite' on the first floor, with shower, hand-basin and lavatory (although the lavatory had no seat and the bowl was stained). And it got better. His wife, AnnMarie, was allowed to leave a basket of meatballs and salad, toiletries and clean clothes. She went away with the dirty washing. Mr Vorster would not have been pleased.
By and by, again courtesy of Ben, Goldreich and Wolpe were standing in the corridor discussing escape plans with the other three through the grille separating white from Asiatic. They decided to saw their way out. AnnMarie's next roast chicken had a hacksaw in the stuffing. They sawed and sawed, but there was barely a nick in the bar. Escape seemed no nearer. Still, the blades flooded in, 20 in a baguette, which Wolpe stuffed under a mattress in an empty cell for fear of the Special Branch finding them.
ONE SUNDAY, a new face appeared on the block. He smiled a lot, talked to his charges as if they were blameless human beings, and spent a lot of time in his hokkie (small office) smoking Texans and gossiping on the phone about girls and cars. It was Johan Greeff.
'Extremely purposeful, very strong physically, a kind man,' Arthur Goldreich recalls. The Afrikaner lad was at ease with people of colour. He and the mature Chiba reminisced about Rustenburg, the platinum-mining town where they both had family. 'They seemed quite nice blokes,' Greeff says. 'I let them out of their cells so they could speak to each other. It didn't seem right that they should spend all that time alone.'
He would go to Jassat's house and bring back food and cigarettes and 'never take his half or quarter, like the other policemen'. He deserved a present. They gave him a note for a shopkeeper friend telling him to give the man a pair of Dr Watson's shoes. The opportunity to offer help constantly presented itself. Greeff was facing a charge for having given that stroppy white drunk 'one of the best' in the charge office, and he didn't have a decent suit for his court appearance. Moola gave him a note for another friendly shopkeeper, adding in Gujerati: 'If he doesn't pay, put it on Mr Moola's account.' The suit must have impressed the magistrate: Greeff was acquitted. The whites proffered presents as well. Wolpe's tobacco pouch and Goldreich's pipe had the air of a planned campaign.
As the friendships grew, so did laxity in the police station. Goldreich, who was being touted by the government as the largest fish netted at Rivonia, the country's ace terrorist, popped out for a haircut with the teenage policeman. 'Arthur could charm the birds off the trees,' says Hazel Goldreich, 'and Greeff was very easy meat.' Then Wolpe, flanked by Special Branch officers, turned up for the funeral of an aunt, where AnnMarie told him that a friend had made available pounds 3,000 to use 'in any way you see fit'. The pieces were falling into place.
Then, one night, a policeman lent Greeff a Renault Dauphine, and he and Dawie van Wyk of the CID drove down to Carletonville to see some pals. On the way back, at 5am, he turned it over. The damage was R400 (then about pounds 200); Greeff's annual salary was R900. 'I had to pay R90 down before we could make the insurance claim, and I didn't have it. A few days later, Goldreich asked me why I looked so worried. I told him, and he said, 'No problem', and he gave me a note for his brother-in-law, a Dr Arenstein, a dentist. I went there and he paid me the money, no questions asked.'
Greeff, that bunch of keys dangling on his hip, was going to have to reciprocate. But Chiba objected. He would not have them implicating Greeff in their plans. 'The man has been my friend. We can't take advantage of him. Those guys (the Special Branch) will donner (beat) him up.' Then the problem went away. Chiba was released, having agreed not to lay assault charges against the police for his deafness. Jassat still had the burn marks on his toes, and he was determined to sue. He stayed.
Jassat and Moola were closest to Greeff, and the move would have to come from them. They called him into Moola's cell. It was dangerous work. It was one thing to exchange pleasantries with an Afrikaner, quite another to expect him to rat on his own people. Moola, talking rather too fast, said: 'Look, Johan, what we are about to say is between us, the four walls and God.' Greeff, surprised, smiled. The Indian atheist asked him to put his hand on the only reading matter allowed to prisoners, the Dutch Reformed Church version of the Bible. He took the oath. Greeff picks up the story of those tense minutes. 'Jassat made the approach. He said they had helped me, now I might like to help them. I can see him trailing his finger on the wall - a pound mark and then a thousand - if I helped them to get out. That was R2,000. I said I couldn't. It was too dangerous.'
Two days later, the offer was doubled. The Studebaker Lark was irresistible. Yes, it would be done on Saturday night, four days hence.
exercise yard, was told by her husband through the wire mesh that she was included in the escape party. 'I asked him when I'd see my children again. He couldn't say. So I stayed. But I had nothing to fear from a court case, whereas he faced the gallows. It was right for him to go.'
Then there were those along the first-floor corridor in the 'Bantu' section. Patrick Mthembu, Transvaal vice-president of the ANC, wasn't interested. 'He'd been behaving strangely,' Moola recalls. 'He faced many years in prison, and we found this refusal fishy. I went back and told him that the plan was hare-brained and we were calling it off.'
But Andrew Mashaba, an ANC campaigner from the early Fifties, was anxious to go. He was put on the escape list. Then there were second thoughts. An African walking the streets of a 'white' city in the early hours without a 'pass' document would have attracted the attention of police patrols, putting the whole party in jeopardy. And Greeff, now showing signs of jumpiness, thought that the extra gate to the 'Bantu' section was a key too many. Mashaba was left behind.
Greeff, meanwhile, was beginning to appreciate the dangers of what he was doing. He had a deserved reputation as a good-hearted but wild ou (guy). Jassat had warned him not to tell anyone that he planned to buy a car, but the fellows at the police hostel knew he was desperate for that auto. He had been talking about cars since long before the escape offer, and he continued to be indiscreet. He even discussed the escape plan with a colleague, and was reassured. 'Take the money, man,' his friend advised. 'Didn't they deport those political prisoners Wolf Kodesh and Leon Levy to England? So why shouldn't these four go too?'
Greeff allowed the escapers to phone from his office to organise the money. 'It was supposed to be brought to me at the police station before I let them out, but they said if I was caught it would be damning evidence for all of us. So we arranged for the money to be collected at Chiba's house in Fordsburg (an inner Johannesburg suburb).'
On the Thursday before the attempt, the 89th day of his detention, Moola was collected by the Special Branch, driven to a part of Johannesburg he didn't know and told he was free to go. He hurried along the street, but the same officers drove up and held him once again under '90 days'. Nothing to do with the previous '90 days', to be sure. He was back at Marshall Square within the hour.
On the Saturday evening, AnnMarie was ushered into the cell section by the friendly Ben. She handed over the usual basket of goodies. 'It's tonight,' her husband told her.
It was all too easy, really, except for the man who did the springing. At midnight, Greeff would come to Goldreich's cell, be hit over the head and be relieved of his bunch of keys; the doors would open; and the escapers would be whistled off in a waiting car.
The pick-up arrived on time. Jassat saw it from his window, the bonnet up and the driver fiddling with the engine. But Greeff was delayed by a trio of drunks who had to be checked into their cells. The car drove off. The driver had decided that they weren't coming out that night. 'I think they were worried that I'd have the Special Branch waiting outside the walls,' says Greeff. 'But if I make an agreement with someone, I keep it.'
Greeff came at 1am. He unlocked the gates to the exercise yard and let the four prisoners out into the detectives' car park. 'Each man touched Greeff in acknowledgement of what he had done for them,' says Wolpe. They threaded through the Volkswagen Beetles and Nash Ramblers and went out of the gate into Main Street.
Greeff hurried back to Goldreich's cell. He closed his eyes and bumped his head as hard as he could against the wall. He swears it was 'a bloody big bump. I tied my hands behind my back . . . don't remember how, but I did it. After some time I got worried as I was due to make my hourly report to the charge office that everything was all right. But I'd thrown my keys into the car park after locking the door. I cut the rope with some glass from Arthur's spectacles and rang through to say some blokes had escaped . . . I didn't say it was Goldreich.'
The four men walked with determined casualness, whites in front, Indians behind. The pick-up car was no longer there. They split up, Goldreich and Wolpe heading for the Jewish sanctuary of Hillbrow, Moola and Jassat for the Ferreirasdorp Indian ghetto. The whites were near to panic. Greeff could not hold out for more than an hour, and pretty soon police cars would be combing the streets for them. They came across a man having an early-morning pee next to his car - it was an old friend, the theatre director, Barney Simon. He took them to his flat and made them a cup of tea.
IF HE hadn't known before, Greeff now realised that he'd let loose four pretty important men. 'Lieutenant van Wyk, the station commander, saw straight away that something isn't right. He said, these guys were communists and were wanted for sabotage, and why didn't I talk to him and he would help me. I told him about the money and we drove off to Chiba's brother's house in Rustenburg (Greeff seems to have been deliberately misleading here) to see if it was waiting, but it wasn't. We came back, and they locked me in Arthur Goldreich's cell.'
A vast manhunt was set in motion. Police stations were inundated with conflicting reports of sightings of Goldreich and Wolpe. Special Branch men were said to have had little sleep since the escape, and to have travelled hundreds of miles. Braam Fischer, the Afrikaner lawyer who had taken over the reins of the 'Movement' since Mandela's imprisonment, had initially been against the break-out, fearing that it would stretch manpower. He had not anticipated the boost to morale, the jubilation in the townships and dismay in the suburbs, at the banner headlines. 'The biggest defeat these bastards have had' was one measured opinion.
Mannie Brown, the driver who had waited outside the prison, set up an escape committee. He moved Goldreich and Wolpe to a safe hideout, then bought a second-hand car with Movement funds and recruited a sympathetic student to drive them, hidden in the boot, the six-hour journey into Swaziland. They holed out at St Michael's Mission School, where Charles Hooper, a no-nonsense political priest who had been expelled from South Africa, was chaplain. He dressed them in dog-collars, and, despite Wolpe's worries about his Jewish nose, the Reverends Shippon and Mitchell were flown in a single-engined Cessna across South Africa to the comparative safety of Bechuanaland.
Jassat and Moola, meanwhile, had also struck it lucky as they scurried through the threatening streets. They ran into a friend, an Indian waiter on his way home from a late shift. Thereafter, says Jassat, 'The press made such a hullabaloo about the whites that we Indians could get about more comfortably.' The two men split up. Then, one day, a beautiful Punjabi woman wearing 'trousers, scarf and lipstick, the bloody works' was driven by a Muslim holy man through three police road- blocks to Mafikeng. The Punjabi thereupon changed into a boiler suit and climbed through the border fence into British Bechuanaland. Charlie Jassat was in exile.
Moola was last out, seven weeks after the jailbreak, likewise courtesy of Islam. His Gujarati driver, Babla Salojee, would be dead within a year, 'falling out of a seventh-floor window' at security police headquarters.
Those who stayed behind enjoyed mixed fortunes. Hazel Goldreich, still in detention, was at the hairdresser's when she read in a bound volume of the London Daily Mirror about her husband's priestly deliverance. She was released three days short of her '90 days'. She subsequently divorced her husband and has taught in a primary school in north London for many years. Laloo Chiba was re-arrested in 1964 and spent 18 years on Robben Island. He says that he has no regrets about missing the escape. 'These are accidents of the freedom struggle.' He is now an MP in the Cape Town parliament. Andrew Mashaba served 15 years on the island and died in exile. Patrick Mthembu was the 'Mr Y' who gave state evidence against his former comrades at the Rivonia Trial and others. He was later assassinated by the ANC. Marshall Square was pulled down soon after the great escape. Police headquarters moved down the road to John Vorster Square.
Johan Greeff went to prison and was paroled after serving more than two years of his six-year sentence. The press dubbed him the 'Smiling Policeman'. He said he did not hold a grudge against the escapers. But he never did get the money, though it was there for the taking.
The collection point that had finally been agreed upon was Laloo Chiba's house in Fordsburg. On the Sunday morning after the escape, the R4,000 in cash was handed to Paul Joseph, an Indian factory hand, by Yusuf Cachalia, a wealthy merchant. 'I wrapped the money in a handkerchief,' says Joseph, 'and walked to Chiba's house in Crown Road. No one was there. I left after 20 minutes, and returned the money to Cachalia.' The police raided the house later that day. (Greeff must have felt free to divulge the real collection place by then.) Thenceforward, until the Mandela thaw 27 years later, it would have been difficult to pay the money. But now?
I first heard the story four years ago, when it became safe for Charlie Jassat to tell it. He was insistent that the debt should be honoured. But where had Greeff gone to ground? He was surely no longer a policeman - though stranger things have happened in South Africa. Then, four months ago, the Afrikaans newspaper Rapport found him in Postmasburg.
You can't trust a communist, he told them. Look how many years of prison I saved them, and they didn't pay me a cent. He didn't wish to see them again, 'except through the sights of a gun'. I phoned him and suggested that maybe I knew the whereabouts of the four men he had sent off into the night.
POSTMASBURG is in white conservative country, and I feared the worst as I drove across the vast dolomite plain to this small iron-mining town on the edge of the Kalahari desert. I needn't have worried. Greeff, though no longer a cop, is still 'Smiling', the contented owner of a motor repair shop employing his younger boy Fanie, three 'bruin mense' (Coloureds, or mixed-race), with his wife Dupie doing the books. He is an elder of the Dutch Reformed Church. He voted for the conservative Constand Viljoen in the elections. And his views are unreconstructed - 'if you let all the animals on the farm vote as well as the farmer, of course the animals will win.'
But yes, please, he would like the money, and his son, Gawie, who belongs to Eugene Terre'blanche's Afrikaner Resistance Movement (AWB), doesn't mind either. 'It was a long time ago,' says Greeff, 'but they buggered up my life. If I'd stayed in the police, I might have been a general by now. I saved them 28 years in prison, and it could have been a death sentence.'
We sat at the Postmasburg Hotel bar. Members of the local CID cursed each other over the pool table. There was a black government out there, but here all the punters were white. We sipped Castle lager and nibbled biltong (the Voortrekkers' dried meat) sliced on a miniature guillotine. How much? He had calculated that the money would have grown to R200,000 (now only about pounds 40,000) - enough for a new repair shop. He rents his premises now.
On the back of a beer mat I calculated that at 10 per cent compound interest he should get R70,000 ( pounds 14,000). In sterling, however, as Jassat had shadowed it on the cell wall, it would be two-and-a-half times as much, owing to the long-term decline of the rand. Another way of calculating it would be to compare a policeman's annual starting wage today (R19,938) with Greeff's R900 - an increase of slightly more than 22-fold - and then to multiply the debt accordingly. This gives R88,613, or just over pounds 17,700. Whichever figure you choose, it would still be peanuts weighed against the years not spent in prison, especially when divided between the four men.
Jassat and Moola have always wanted the debt honoured. 'I'd like to pay that money,' Jassat told me, 'even if it is 31 years later. It's a debt of honour.' But Wolpe at first was doubtful. His wife's recent book, The Long Way Home (published by Virago), barely mentions the debt. I phoned Wolpe when the manuscript was already at the printers, to be asked, 'Shouldn't the story just be left to die?' Happily, the book now carries a postscript saying that, as he has been traced, 'steps have been initiated to compensate Greeff'.
Wolpe is today director of an educational planning unit at the University of the Western Cape. Mosie Moola is national organising co- ordinator at ANC headquarters. Charlie Jassat, whose central nervous system never got over his police 'interrogation', lives in semi- retirement in Johannesburg. Arthur Goldreich, who is professor of architecture at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, has not been back to South Africa since 1963.
Goldreich says that Greeff was 'a kind man and he paid a severe price. We owe him a lot. We certainly need to pay.' (Goldreich can afford to do so, according to his old friend Mannie Brown: 'He married a rich girl.') The three now back in South Africa have written to President Mandela suggesting that the 'Movement' square the debt. But Wolpe warns that Greeff cannot expect 'a fully capitalised demand'. Would the four be willing to top up the Movement's contribution with their own money? 'I do not rule that out,' says Wolpe. 'But we went to prison for the Movement, and the escape was part of the struggle. It is difficult to separate the personal from the political element of the debt. They impregnate each other.'
Moola is more adamant. 'We absolutely must settle it. Yes, the whole escape was in concurrence with the Movement. But if push comes to shove, we are morally bound to pay.'
The ANC, as the 'Movement' is now known, seems certain to stump up something. The conscience of the party, Walter Sisulu, has been troubled by the debt for some time. 'I would be very happy to see this matter settled. But it is not fair to expect the individuals to pay themselves. We can ask them to make a contribution, especially as our MPs and ministers are giving part of their salaries to ANC funds.'
The 'handkerchief man', Paul Joseph, now living in north London, disagrees. 'The deal was not done for political reasons, but to get them out of prison. These men are not destitute, and if they pay out of their own pockets it will go a long way towards reconciliation.'
There are also those in the Movement who do not think that Greeff deserves anything at all. He was just another Afrikaner, their argument goes, an oppressor, and should have left the country, like so many black teenagers, to be trained as a guerrilla. However, it is likely that the debt will be settled, and settled soon.
Meanwhile, Johan Greeff promises not to shoot his former charges. Indeed, he looks forward to shaking their hands. These days, he drives a six-cylinder Ford Sierra, and drives it fast. His eyes light up. 'Hell, you know, after my release, they clocked a bloke called Van Heerden doing 142mph in a Studebaker Lark on the road between Rustenburg and Thabazimbi.' The Smiling Policeman smiles.
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