Obituary: Hendrik van den Bergh

When he died, Hendrik van den Bergh had been a farmer for almost two decades, quietly raising broiler chickens. But during the 1960s and 1970s, "Lang Hendrik" ("Tall Hendrik"), as the 6ft 5in police chief was known, was probably the most feared man in South Africa: the oppressive power behind the governments first of Hendrik Verwoerd, the architect of apartheid, and later, John Vorster.

In 1963 van den Bergh founded South Africa's first secret intelligence-gathering operation, the precursor to the dreaded Bureau of State Security (Boss), which he started in 1969. Boss was responsible for the apartheid regime's worst excesses, during a period when the Cold War provided the National Party with a front - the combating of international Communism - for its true mission, the prevention of black majority rule in South Africa.

Van den Bergh will be remembered as the sanctioner of assassination and torture in defence of the apartheid state and as a consummate blackmailer through his vast network of spies and informers. Almost anyone who was not a rampant Afrikaner was the enemy and he cast his formidable shadow far beyond South Africa's borders, seeking out anti-apartheid activists. He is believed to have been behind the downfall of the British Liberal leader Jeremy Thorpe and Peter Hain's apparent framing for a British bank robbery.

Van den Bergh's other main claim to fame still seemed to thrill him in old age. In the early 1960s his investigations led to the Rivonia trial which led to Nelson Mandela's life imprisonment. As recently as last month van den Bergh was insisting that Boss did not operate hit squads. But in the late 1970s he told a government commission investigating covert operations: "I have enough men to commit murder if I tell them to kill. I don't care who the prey is. These are the type of men I have."

Van den Bergh was born in 1914 into an Afrikaner farming family, and was a lifelong Afrikaner nationalist. His fortunes became inextricably linked with John Vorster's during the Second World War when they both joined the pro-Nazi Ossewa-Brandwag (OB), a paramiliatry movement which used terrorist tactics to oppose South Africa's siding with the Allies in Europe. The British concentration camps of the Boer War - in which tens of thousands of Afrikaner women and children died - provided the emotional bedrock of their opposition to taking Britain's side. The OB's members wore storm trooper-style uniforms and adopted the Nazi salute. Vorster and van den Bergh were interned under wartime security laws.

After the war van den Bergh was already part of the Afrikaner intelligentsia poised to take power in South Africa, and rose quickly through police ranks under Verwoerd and Vorster. His political downfall came in 1979 when he and Vorster were casualties of a political scandal after it was discovered that state funds were being used to spread disinformation and propaganda.

When Hendrik van den Bergh died many secrets went with him. He boasted that he was the only man alive to know who shopped Nelson Mandela. When he retired he said he would never give up what he knew. But two years ago a manuscript came to light which suggested he may have suffered from the old spymaster's vanity. There had in fact been a book under way, but it was apparently abandoned in 1985 after opposition from the National Party. In his manuscript van den Bergh warned that division would be the death of Afrikanerdom. He blamed poor political leadership and warned that "white survival" was more important than the settling of political scores.

Hendrik Johan van den Bergh, police officer: born Vredefort, Orange Free State 27 November 1914; twice married; died Bronkhorstpruit, Pretoria 16 August 1997.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

Guru Careers: Graduate Resourcer / Recruitment Account Executive

£18k + Bonus: Guru Careers: We are seeking a bright, enthusiastic and internet...

Reach Volunteering: Chair and trustees sought for YMCA Bolton

VOLUNTARY ONLY - EXPENSES REIMBURSED: Reach Volunteering: Bolton YMCA is now a...

Tradewind Recruitment: Geography Teacher

£150 - £180 per day: Tradewind Recruitment: Geography Teacher Geography teach...

Tradewind Recruitment: Geography Teacher

£150 - £180 per day: Tradewind Recruitment: Geography Teacher Geography teach...

Day In a Page

Sepp Blatter resignation: The beginning of Fifa's long road to reform?

Does Blatter's departure mean Fifa will automatically clean up its act?

Don't bet on it, says Tom Peck
Charles Kennedy: The baby of the House who grew into a Lib Dem giant

The baby of the House who grew into a Lib Dem giant

Charles Kennedy was consistently a man of the centre-left, dedicated to social justice, but was also a champion of liberty and an opponent of the nanny-state, says Baroness Williams
Syria civil war: The harrowing testament of a five-year-old victim of this endless conflict

The harrowing testament of a five-year-old victim of Syria's endless civil war

Sahar Qanbar lost her mother and brother as civilians and government soldiers fought side by side after being surrounded by brutal Islamist fighters. Robert Fisk visited her
The future of songwriting: How streaming is changing everything we know about making music

The future of songwriting

How streaming is changing everything we know about making music
William Shemin and Henry Johnson: Jewish and black soldiers receive World War I Medal of Honor amid claims of discrimination

Recognition at long last

Jewish and black soldiers who fought in WWI finally receive medals after claims of discrimination
Beating obesity: The new pacemaker which helps over-eaters

Beating obesity

The new pacemaker which helps over-eaters
9 best women's festival waterproofs

Ready for rain: 9 best women's festival waterproofs

These are the macs to keep your denim dry and your hair frizz-free(ish)
Cycling World Hour Record: Nervous Sir Bradley Wiggins ready for pain as he prepares to go distance

Wiggins worried

Nervous Sir Bradley ready for pain as he prepares to attempt cycling's World Hour Record
Liverpool close in on Milner signing

Liverpool close in on Milner signing

Reds baulk at Christian Benteke £32.5m release clause
On your feet! Spending at least two hours a day standing reduces the risk of heart attacks, cancer and diabetes, according to new research

On your feet!

Spending half the day standing 'reduces risk of heart attacks and cancer'
With scores of surgeries closing, what hope is there for the David Cameron's promise of 5,000 more GPs and a 24/7 NHS?

The big NHS question

Why are there so few new GPs when so many want to study medicine?
Big knickers are back: Thongs ain't what they used to be

Thongs ain't what they used to be

Big knickers are back
Thurston Moore interview

Thurston Moore interview

On living in London, Sonic Youth and musical memoirs
In full bloom

In full bloom

Floral print womenswear
From leading man to Elephant Man, Bradley Cooper is terrific

From leading man to Elephant Man

Bradley Cooper is terrific