Dirk Coetzee: Death squad commander who helped expose apartheid's killing machine

Dirk Coetzee burst into the limelight in 1989 with a declaration of guilt that helped nobble the apartheid killing machine. "I was the commander of the South African Police death squad," he declared in an interview with the anti-apartheid Afrikaner newspaper Vrye Weekblad. "I was in the heart of the whore."

It could be said that Coetzee was a neat fit for the "psychopath test" devised by the American psychiatrist, Bob Hare – garrulous, charming, cunning, manipulative, with a need for constant stimulation, a grandiose sense of self and an absence of guilt. He was also a murderer – and a particularly brutal one at that. But in 1989 he was just the thing the anti-apartheid cause needed: a major league killer from the inside of the security establishment who could name names and give details.

Coetzee was the son of a postmaster whose heavy-handed ways may have prompted his stutter. He was an indifferent high school student, but found his vocation at police college where he was top student in his year. Starting out as a constable in 1972 he rose through the ranks, and advanced his cause on secondment with the Rhodesian armed forces

He was promoted to captain in the security police and in 1980 became the first commander of the secret police base on the Vlakplaas farm near Pretoria. His main job was to command "Askaris" ("terrorists" who were captured, tortured and turned into apartheid killers) and train infiltrators, but he admitted direct involvement in 23 crimes, including seven murders.

One of his victims was the prominent anti-apartheid lawyer Griffiths Mxenge, who was stabbed 45 times. Another was an ANC member, Vuyani Muvaso, who was poisoned, viciously tortured and finally shot, after which they burned his body while having a barbecue. "They braaied my son while they drank and laughed," Muvaso's mother told the country's Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 1997.

All of those he killed and tortured were black, but Coetzee showed no sign of overt racism – and no sign of genuine remorse, either. His motives in confessing related to revenge against the generals who had thwarted his ambitions, and perhaps also to self-preservation, because he could see that apartheid could not last forever.

His role as Vlakplaas commander ended after 18 months, following a disaster when two of his operatives were arrested on a sortie in Swaziland, prompting an international incident. After that he drifted, with spells in narcotics and the flying squad. An internal disciplinary inquiry found him guilty of insubordination, obscene phone calls and distribution of a pornographic video. Finally, in 1986, he was found medically unfit to serve because of diabetes, and was discharged on a meagre pension.

His resentment bubbled over as his fortunes declined (he worked as a casual labourer for a while). He leaked information to the press about illegal police wiretapping and approached various politicians with allegations about the security police, but made no progress until the Vrye Weekblad checked out his stories and discovered they all held up.

The key figure he brought down was his Vlakplaas successor, Colonel Eugene de Kock, a killer known as "Prime Evil", with a legendary reputation within the security forces. He was later convicted on 89 charges, including six murders. Coetzee told the Vrye Weekblad journalist Jacques Pauw that he would have "outclassed" De Kock if he'd stayed at Vlakplaas. "I would have been involved in more atrocities than him."

Among the convictions that sent De Kock to jail for life was the attempted murder of Coetzee, who went on the run after his public confession, staying in 38 houses in four countries – including a spell in London, where he joined the ANC, was minded by the current president Jacob Zuma, and learnt the jargon of "the struggle". De Kock was relentless in his pursuit of Coetzee, who had become a figure of hate within police circles. One plot involved a poisoned bottle of wine; another, recruiting two Loyalist terrorists to assist his assassination in London (scotched by MI5, who arrested the plotters); yet another, a plan to abduct his two sons.

The most disastrous involved a booby-trapped set of headphones and Walkman, sent to Coetzee when he was living in Lusaka, from the work address of an innocent black lawyer, Bheki Mlangeni. The parcel, containing the words, "Evidence: Hit Squad", was returned to sender. Mlangeni put on the headphones, which exploded. He died instantly.

In the meantime, the police branded Coetzee as mentally unstable while President De Klerk set up the Harms Commission, headed by a tame judge, to look into the hit squad allegations. Harms duly absolved the police and called Coetzee a liar, but the damage had been done, and it opened the way to stream of revelations about state-sponsored assassinations.

Coetzee returned home in 1993, harbouring dreams of becoming the first post-apartheid police commissioner. Instead he was given a backroom desk job in intelligence. He was convicted of Mxenge's murder but received amnesty from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (unlike De Kock, who was refused amnesty).

He soon fell out with the ANC and was employed by EduSolutions, which supplied textbooks on behalf of the government to Limpopo province. Last July Coetzee returned to form, telling the media about huge piles of undelivered textbooks.

After that, he went into rapid decline. Suffering from cancer and kidney disease, and losing his memory, he was described as bitter and unhappy. He died of kidney failure.

Dirk Johannes Coetzee, policeman and death squad commander: born Pretoria, South Africa 1945, married Karin (two sons); died Pretoria 6 March 2013.

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