Michael Schmidt, Death Flight: Apartheid’s Secret Doctrine of Disappearance (Cape Town: Tafelberg, 2020)

PARKED at an East Rand airport you may find a Piper Seneca II, registered ZS-KFG. This is the aircraft used in the 1980s to drop the bodies of anti-apartheid insurgents into the Atlantic. The advantages of such disposal were deniability and destruction of any future forensic evidence; in short total erasure of human lives – immunity added to impunity. As Nkosinathi Biko points out in his foreword to Michael Schmidt’s book, this was the policy of people acting in the name of civilisation. Most of the victims, probably hundreds of SWAPO guerrillas, remain unidentified. Mozambican RENAMO dissidents were also eliminated with at least one body dropped into the Indian Ocean off St Lucia.

The French were the first to throw bodies out of aircraft – in Madagascar in 1947 and in Algeria in the 1950s, with the Argentinian junta following suit in the 1970s. The first South African operation was ordered by Fritz Loots on 12 July 1979 from Meob Bay in South West Africa with the despatch of two dead SWAPO guerrillas. The Atlantic was deliberately chosen because of the behaviour of ocean currents that would prevent bodies washing up ashore as inconveniently happened in Argentina. Deserted beaches were used for departure and great care was taken to avoid fishing vessels. The door of the aircraft was left on the beach before a perilous round trip of 120 nautical miles that could have seen the plane disintegrate if flown too fast. The clothes of the murdered insurgents were burned.

Schmidt goes into considerable detail to show the origins of these South African flights by Delta 40 (D40, which became Operation Barnacle and eventually the Civil Co-operation Bureau or CCB) that continued until December 1987. Magnus Malan was a keen student of André Beaufre’s total strategy, which as Schmidt notes might be better named totalitarian. But the tactics lie in Rhodesia’s civil war and the pseudo operations and bio-chemical warfare it spawned. Many operators from the Rhodesian SAS, recce groups and Selous Scouts and the police special branch as well as academia moved south after 1980 and continued the fight to maintain white supremacy. Rhodesia’s poison expert, Robert Symington, ended up on the staff of University of Cape Town.

Most Rhodesian recruits quickly left the South African forces over cultural differences, but a number of individuals continued to play significant roles. Some stayed behind in Zimbabwe as a fifth column (for example the Bawdens) and were responsible for the murder of Joe Gqabi (31 July 1981), the bombing of Jeremy Brickhill (13 October 1988), sabotage of the Bulawayo armoury (16 August 1981) and the Thornhill base raid at Gweru (25 July 1982). Others simply drove tons of materiel subsequently used in South African pseudo operations over the border at Beit Bridge.

It was Neil Kriel, a former Selous Scout, who piloted the first South African death flight. His name and that of Johan Theron are a constant thread in this tale, which has been put together over many years from interviews and published sources. But the breakthrough evidence of the death flights came during the trial of Wouter Basson in 1999. South Africa’s Doctor Death was, unbelievably, acquitted, but Judge Hartzenberg accepted crucial evidence that confirmed the existence of the flights and other dirty operations.

Basson denies that he was involved in the Rhodesian war, in particular the Buffalo Range incident in which doctored bodies were dropped by parachute over Mozambique’s Gaza province. But one of the earlier South African operations misfired when a prisoner woke up in the plane and had to be killed. There were other, similar occasions. Use of a triple cocktail of drugs (Ketalar, Scoline and Tubarine) overcame the problem as the lungs and heart collapsed during a state of unconsciousness. The solution has the imprint of Basson and this led to charge 31, conspiracy to murder.

Kriel was the founder of D40, which had a number of roles, most notably long-range reconnaissance and deep penetration elimination and sabotage. For instance, it played a key role in the raids on Maseru (9 December 1982) and Gaborone (14 June 1985) and caused havoc along the Namibe-Lubango railway line in Angola. Its operators were off the army’s books, its operations fronted by civilian companies (the unconvincing cover of an estate agency was succeeded by a more plausible security company). D40 sometimes used stolen vehicles. Orders were delivered verbally and weapons were untraceable. The operational base was Renosterspruit, another example of the use of farms in South Africa’s dirty war. The most notorious was the police’s Vlakplaas.

The potential for denial, and the consequences for the operators, were well understood by Kriel and he hoarded rare documentary evidence such as organograms as future insurance. Special forces became the fifth operational arm of the South African Defence Force in 1981 and spawned a number of undercover units that treated southern Africa as a playground for clandestine operations. Reporting lines were labyrinthine and involved considerable overlap between special forces, military intelligence, police security branch and the intelligence services.

One influence hinted at by Schmidt is Argentinian, but this possibility is left unresolved. Rubén Chamorro from the notorious torture and detention centre at ESMA (Naval School of Mechanics) in Buenos Aires and architect of industrial-scale disappearances was naval attaché at the Argentinian embassy in Pretoria from June 1979. A month later South Africa started its death flights; coincidental perhaps. It is instructive that this was at the height of Operation Condor in South America, an agreement that allowed death squads to operate freely in eight military dictatorships covering 80 per cent of the continent. State terror was used to kidnap, torture, murder and disappear opponents in a fashion echoed in southern Africa in the 1980s.

The apparent reason for death flights was disposal of captured insurgents who could either not be turned, or askaris who had outlived their usefulness or proved a liability. There was also concern about overcrowding and security consequences in detention camps. But the cold-blooded nature and complexity of the solution suggest something more, and very unsavoury, about the perpetrators. One commented that certain prisoners were ‘empty of intelligence … just eating food now … useless to the organisation’.

The title of Schmidt’s book and its cover design are somewhat misleading. He has done a sterling job in piecing together the death flight operations, but his book is in fact a general survey of southern Africa’s dirty war of the 1970s and 1980s. Many of the photographs show the predictable burly, often moustachioed, figures of hard-faced military men. Every one of them has blood on his hands, directly or indirectly. They caused chaos in the region, acting criminally in the name of apartheid and anti-communism, and almost all of them evaded justice. It would be pointless to prosecute those still alive, a parade of grey old men. But this book leaves the reader questioning why international law, which has developed in leaps and bounds since World War II, was not effectively brought to bear with salutary effect.

Clandestine operations violated South African army regulations and criminal law; and international law, especially the Geneva Convention protocols I and II of 1977 that were introduced to cover civil wars. Pseudo-ops were an early example of the willingness of the security state to act criminally. The army tried to distance itself from pseudo-ops and other war crimes, but this was always unconvincing especially when murder was committed, or planned, on South African soil. It is possible that compartmentalisation was as effective as desired, although this required a particularly myopic mindset. What is clear is that verbal directives originated from the very highest levels of the state.

Yet there was to be no reckoning. Eugene de Kock (Prime Evil of the CCB), a police colonel, was the highest-ranking officer successfully prosecuted and it is not hard to appreciate his bitterness, especially since he was forthcoming with information. The apartheid state employed a deliberate policy of mass murder and politicians and officials could (and should) have been tried for war crimes and crimes against humanity, notwithstanding the blanket amnesty granted by the last administrator-general of South West Africa, Louis Pienaar. His ruling did not apply to crimes initiated on South African soil.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission dealt with the military in superficial fashion (it named just two SWAPO victims), then a group of generals requested legal absolution similar to the Spanish pact of forgetting after the fascist era. This was not granted, but effectively they were indemnified, possibly because the ANC was worried about reparation claims and repercussions for some of its own members. Amnesia suited both sides of the conflict at the expense of victims and, as Schmidt notes, the work of the Priority Crimes Litigation Unit was stalled in various ways.

Kriel resigned from D40 in 1982, although he did not resurface as a genuine civilian until 1987. He was unhappy about the appointment of Kat Liebenberg as head of special forces and opposed domestic operations that confused the roles of military and police. If this was genuine, it showed considerable prescience: the notorious and labyrinthine CCB was established in March 1986 and it discounted any vestige of military ethics, recruiting among criminals and employing policemen of dubious provenance such as Staal Burger and Ferdi Barnard. Its work carried on illegally after official disbandment in 1989 for a further four years as the Badger Unit. Unsurprisingly, the CCB’s records vanished.

Theron continued with a war that became dirtier by the year. He eventually found salvation in evangelical religion and became a pastor. Kriel, after an up and down career as businessman, committed suicide in his car in July 2018. Schmidt speculates that he may have been conscience stricken. If so, he had a great deal to repent and perhaps he may be considered the dirty war’s last victim, although this judgement requires a high dose of charity.