Dirk Coetzee, Former Pro-Apartheid Death Squad Leader Who Later Embraced Mandela, Dies In South Africa

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Dirk Coetzee, the former commander of an apartheid-era death squad in South Africa, has died of kidney failure at the age of 57.

Granted amnesty for his crimes (including murder) by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) in 1997, Coetzee co-founded and ran the notorious Vlakplaas, a covert intelligence unit of the South African Police (SAP) that was involved in the murders of many anti-apartheid activists, including Sizwe Khondile and Durban human rights lawyer Griffiths Mxenge.

Coetzee ran his squad of killers from a farm called Vlakplaas outside of Pretoria during 1980 and 1981.

According to reports, some 1,000 people “disappeared” on the farm.

He admitted the existence of Vlakplaas in 1989 and admitted that his organization detained and killed many members of the African National Congress (ANC).

"It was just another job to be done," Coetzee once told journalist and author Jacques Pauw.

Those admissions, and others made to a liberal Afrikaans paper called Vrye Weekblad while he was in exile in Europe, marked him for death by other pro-apartheid security and intelligence agents in South Africa.

In 1997, Eugene de Kock, another former commander of Vlakplaas, was convicted for attempting to kill Coetzee.

Bizarrely, while in exile, Coetzee joined the ANC and expressed his support for Nelson Mandela.

After Mandela became president of South Africa in 1994, Coetzee joined the new administration as a top spy.

South African media reported that Coetzee was the first white security officer to publicly admit to and recant his apartheid-era crimes – which led to his not being charged with any offenses.

The murder of Mxenege was particularly gruesome -- after abduction, he was stabbed and struck on the head with a wheel spanner, then disemboweled, had his throat cut, and his ears nearly cut off. His body had a total of 45 lacerations and stab wounds.

Although Coetzee specifically admitted to carrying out the killing of Mxenge in 1981, the TRC declared that the police officer acted on the “advice, command or order of one or more senior members of the security branch of the former SA Police. On the evidence before us we are satisfied that none of the applicants knew the deceased, Mxenge, or had any reason to wish to bring about his death before they were ordered to do so.”

The committee added: “We are satisfied that they did what they did because they regarded it as their duty as policemen who were engaged in the struggle against the ANC and other liberation movements.”  

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