By Norm Dixon
An inquest into the 1985 murders of several political activists by South African security forces has heard evidence that police pioneered the grisly practice of "necklacing".
South Africa's progressive weekly New Nation reported on July 1 that agents provocateurs and government death squads may have deliberately introduced the "necklace" — placing a burning tyre full of petrol around the victim's neck — into the townships.
Necklacing was widely publicised by the apartheid regime and its international supporters to discredit the African National Congress throughout the latter part of the '80s. The ANC condemned the practice and actively dissuaded its supporters from resorting to such barbaric means to punish collaborators, but this was rarely given coverage in the world media.
The inquest into the murder of Matthew Goniwe and three other activists heard of the discovery of two charred bodies in Port Elizabeth in May 1985. The bodies were those of two of three leading members of the Port Elizabeth Black Civic Organisation (PEBCO) who were missing after being arrested by police. Autopsies found that the bodies were stabbed in the face, then burned. Two weeks later, the bodies of Goniwe and his colleagues were found in the same area after having been killed in a similar manner.
In a bizarre twist, senior counsel acting for the South Africa Defence Force, Anton Mostert, said those killed in these two incidents were murdered by the same people. The SADF has strenuously denied involvement in the murders and, through Mostert, accused members of the South African Police security branch.
Mostert has also suggested that a police officer attached to the Port Elizabeth security branch, Major Gideon Niewoudt, killed colleagues investigating the Goniwe assassinations.
The inquest was called after New Nation published a leaked document in May 1992 that revealed the order to assassinate the activists came from the highest military and political levels of the South African state. The document was addressed to the State Security Council, headed by then President P.W. Botha. It detailed a telephone conversation between the commander of the Eastern Cape Joint Management Centre, Brigadier C.P. van der Westhuizen, and General Van Rensburg of the SSC Secretariat.
The two officers cold-bloodedly discussed the fate of the four activists — all leaders of the Cradock Residents' Association and the anti-apartheid United Democratic Front — and decided they should propose to the SSC that they be "permanently removed from society as a matter of urgency". The plotters considered the likely repercussions, saying a similar reaction could be expected to the protests that followed the disappearance of the three PEBCO leaders a month earlier.
President F.W. de Klerk at that time was a "coopted" member of the SSC. Van der Westhuizen has since been promoted to chief of staff of the South African Defence Force's Military Intelligence.
Former security police officer Dirk Coetzee, who over recent years has revealed damaging details about the activities of South Africa's government death squads, told the New Nation that many victims of police operations were burned with tyres.
In 1985 the necklace became infamous for its use in the eastern Cape and in the townships around Johannesburg and Pretoria. Until then, it had never featured in township violence, even at the height of repression during 1976.
Until the late June hearing, the whereabouts of the three PEBCO leaders had been unknown. Police had denied that they were ever in custody. New Nation said the SADF counsel's revelation that the two bodies were those of the PEBCO leaders and that they died in circumstances similar to those in the Goniwe killings raises the question of just how many more activists were killed in that way.
It also raises questions about the numerous unidentified corpses found in various townships, which police regularly put down to necklace murders.