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.

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