07/11/2017 13:49 SAST | Updated 07/11/2017 14:48 SAST

Jacques Pauw And State Spies: Not His First Rodeo

The journalist has kicked up a hornet's nest with his book The President's Keepers. But it's not his first time.

The threats against Jacques Pauw by the State Security Agency (SSA) and the family of its director-general, Arthur Fraser, are not the first the journalist has received from government and its cronies.

Pauw was part of the anti-establishment and anti-apartheid newspaper "Vrye Weekblad" (The Free Weekly) between 1988 and 1994, when the Afrikaans publication exposed the apartheid government's death squads, revealing who the commanders were and exactly how they operated. His and his colleagues' reports -- including those by "Vrye Weekblad" editor Max du Preez -- blasted the lid off of the National Party government's murderous "total strategy".

Vrye Weekblad

Du Preez, in his book "Oranje, Blanje, Blues", writes he always believed that "if normal, decent Afrikaners knew what apartheid really did to black South Africans and that is wasn't this well-intentioned 'separate development of peoples', they would never have supported the system for so long".

This informed the newspaper's ethos and Pauw took up the challenge to expose the apartheid state for what it was: a broken, racist and murderous system. Pauw told Du Preez of a man he met claiming to be in command of Vlakplaas, a police unit that allegedly had the powers to eliminate state enemies without any fear of repercussion. When Anton Lubowski, another Afrikaner who was reviled because of his affiliation to Swapo in Namibia, was suspiciously murdered, Du Preez instructed Pauw to find this so-called Vlakplaas commander.

"My instincts told me it was the handiwork of South African forces and I swore we were going to smoke them out and identify them. I raced to the office and when I walked in Jacques said: 'Its Vlakplaas.' I replied he should go and fetch the Vlakplaas guy. It was time to unmask the whole thing. We needed a smoking gun," Du Preez writes.

Vrye Weekblad

The Vlakplaas commander's name was Dirk Coetzee, and his revelations in "Vrye Weekblad" exposed the government, police, political leaders and police officers who ran a covert, illegal war against South Africans who were opposed to the political dispensation of the day.

Coetzee explained to Pauw and Du Preez he was commander of police unit C1 based at Vlakplaas, a farm between Johannesburg and Pretoria. "Where courts and laws didn't work, Vlakplaas stepped in. Assassinations, executions, bombings, kidnappings, poisonings and disinformation," Du Preez writes.

Coetzee told the journalists: "I was in the heart of the whore."

The police commander wasn't innocent. He admitted his complicity in the murder of Durban struggle lawyer Griffiths Mnxenge, how he bombed an ANC safe house in Swaziland, killing a child, how they murdered Botswana nationals with ties to the ANC and how he helped murder two ANC members and burnt their bodies. He also explained to Pauw and Du Preez how he was handed poison by the police's head of forensics, Lothar Neethling. He implicated a number of senior police officials and provided information about the bomb that killed activist Ruth First.

Oranje, Blanje, Blues/Max du Preez

Du Preez: "I sat there, flabbergasted, actually I was paralysed. It sounded like something from a South American dictatorship. We had our smoking gun, but I felt like a fox terrier that caught the bus he was chasing for so long. It had to be exposed, I knew, but at what price? There was no chance that the apartheid state will let this slide. It could be a serious blow to the apartheid regime, we knew. And if it meant the end of 'Vrye Weekblad', then so be it."

When Coetzee received death threats (and after the "Weekly Mail" published an exposé about one of Vlakplaas's operatives, Almond Nofomela), Du Preez decided to hand over Coetzee to the ANC for safety. Pauw and Coetzee flew to Mauritius where the former Vlakplaas commander told his whole story to the journalist.

On 17 November 1989, "Vrye Weekblad" led with a banner headline: "Bloedspoor van die SAP" ("Blood Trail of the South African Police") -- written by Pauw -- and exposing the police and government. Four full pages told the whole gruesome story: "Murder squad's trail of terror", "I was in the heart of the whore", "Vlakplaas: headquarters of the murder squad", "I detest myself" and "Police officers told to deny everything".

Oranje, Blanje, Blues/Max du Preez

The story was a bombshell. "It [the death squads] was Muammar Gaddafi's style, not a Christian government who at that exact moment was expecting Nelson Mandela to denounce violence if he wanted to be released. As we asked in a leader article on 17 November: Who are the real terrorists?" Du Preez said.

"Vrye Weekblad" started publishing a deluge of stories about the death squads and numerous policemen beat down a path to Pauw and Du Preez's door to confess.

But the powers-that-be did not hold back. The offices of "Vrye Weekblad" were bombed and its journalists harassed. Neethling also sued the paper for defamation, but Judge Johann Kriegler of the then Rand Supreme Court found in Du Preez and Pauw's favour. In a remarkable about-turn four years after the first reports the Supreme Court of Appeal found in Neethling's favour -- and "Vrye Weekblad" was shut down.

Vrye Weekblad

In an interview with News24's Pieter-Louis Myburgh on Tuesday, Pauw said that Du Preez joked that "The President's Keepers" is his (Pauw's) third stint doing national service. "This first was in the army, the second was on 'Vrye Weekblad' . . . this is the third!"

He's survived apartheid apparatchiks. He'll probably survive Zuma's too.