UNDER FIRE IN SOUTH AFRICA
by Schalk Visagie
Christian Liberty Books, Cape Town
Paperback: 318 pages
Reviewed by John Elsegood
In the Book of Ephesians, we are told about having to wrestle not against flesh and blood but against principalities and powers of darkness.
In fact, a South African police officer, Lieutenant Colonel Schalk Visagie, did both, in scenes reminiscent of Dante’s Inferno, an Italian poem of the 14th century about a journey through hell, where those who have yielded to bestial acts of fraud, violence and malice against their fellowman are punished.
In arguably the toughest police beat in the world in the 1980s and 1990s, such was the lot of a young family man who lived out his daily occupation in an environment of bombings, shootings and even massacres.
Even during the years when South Africa enjoyed a professional police force, instead of the failed service due to the incompetence of the ANC for the past 25 years, it was a distinctive entity. Unlike the Australian or the American and British police forces, the South Africans had paramilitary experience and were fighting terrorists in mechanised units as well as solving crimes. Their training came in the long Border War (in South West Africa/Angola) and the Rhodesian Bush War.
The recent murders of Muslims at mosques in New Zealand would have brought back memories for Visagie, of dealing with the traumatic St James Church Massacre, at Kenilworth, in the Cape (1993), when Christian worshippers were mowed down in the pews by racist criminal thugs.
It is one of the things he discusses in his aptly named book, Under Fire in South Africa. Other topics include his work on the bombing at Planet Hollywood, leading the Gang Investigation Unit to counter the terrorist and hit-squad campaigns, including one aimed at him where he miraculously survived an ambush in 1999; his counter insurgency work; his years in the presidential protection service to P.W. Botha; his successful wooing of the president’s youngest daughter, Rozanne, while still a sergeant; his Christian faith; and much more, in a policeman’s typically understated style.
Yet the impact on investigators of the St James Church Massacre (11 dead, 58 wounded) is made harrowingly apparent, including descriptions of individual acts of courage. The impact of that atrocity, on the writer, is apparent. After 24 hours on the job Visagie went home briefly for a shower and to get fresh clothes but said he had to pull over because of a surge of anger caused by the carnage he had witnessed and having to work in a charnel house since shortly after the attack.
Visagie reveals the stress on home life and attending the funeral service of the victims. He sent Rozanne to her parents’ home during his investigation work. Team leader Colonel Leonard Knipe also led a solitary life at that time, and most of the team were awake for 75 hours straight after the attack.
He mentions at the later funeral service for the victims that a fellow investigator had to leave the church. This happened when the pastor-father of a victim, Richard O’Kill, was forgiving the murderers for the death of his son. Richard had died trying to protect two girls in the congregation.
The leads, and the intuition of another fellow police officer, Sergeant Casper Rossouw, that led to arrests are all covered in this chapter.
What clearly disappointed Visagie was the reaction to the crime of those who should have known the truth. In contrast to Pastor O’Kill was the Methodist Bishop (and later Pan Africanist Congress president), Stanley Mogoba, who lauded the guilty man, Gcinikhaya Makoma, as a hero.
Released after serving just five years of his 23-year sentence by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission – that pardoned many crimes of the Apartheid era – Makoma returned to the streets to kill others before being jailed again.
APLA (Azanian People’s Liberation Army) criminals were responsible for murdering four students in the Heidelberg Tavern, in Observatory, in much the same cowardly fashion.
When three of Makoma’s accomplices were arrested later, they had achieved officer status in the new army. This was a telling illustration of how Africa’s most professional army had undergone a rapid deterioration under the ANC regime. That decline would continue in both defence and police services. Bar and restaurant bomber Robert McBride was just one of the criminals to achieve high police officer status under the new regime.
During McBride’s service in the armed wing of the ANC, Umkhonto we Sizwe, he was responsible for the bombing of a bar and restaurant that claimed the lives of three women and injured 69 others. Given amnesty by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, his “service” against civilians was apparently deemed worthy of recognition by the South African National Defence Force, being awarded the Merit Medal in Silver and the Conspicuous Leadership Star, presumably for military actions against civilians!
Today, 32 senior South African Police Service officers have criminal records, as do 4,174 in the ranks.
Schalk Visagie does not make such critical references as above but he describes the integration of ANC personnel with the old regime from 1994 onwards. During this era, Visagie, by then a Lieutenant Colonel, had moved from Security Branch to Covert Intelligence, the Gang Investigation Unit and finally to being in charge of the unit formed to confront the People Against Gangsterism and Drugs (PAGAD) by mid 1997.
This last mentioned unit was formed because of the rise in vigilantism. PAGAD would organise huge marches to the homes of gangsters and drug bosses after gaining information about them. However, the potential to settle private scores with innocent people falling victim in the process, also resulted. Shootings and burnings became the modus operandi.
Visagie’s unit was therefore deemed “oppressors”. From PAGAD marching on police stations to actually brazenly stealing arms from them at gunpoint, to standoffs with the police in suburban streets, is all told by this officer, then at the cutting edge, as an agent of a secular state despised by PAGAD.
The alarming slide from the old regime to the new makes for riveting reading as the drama of policing changed from that of the 1960s. While the murder of nine South Africa Police officers (five of them black) at Cato Manor (January 24, 1960) remains unparalleled, in those days it was death by the panga, a type of machete. In the 1990s, the police were confronted by an arsenal of the most sophisticated kind, including having hand grenades thrown at them!
The standoff at Athlone, while protecting a businessman from PAGAD, had all the potential of turning into another Cato Manor but was averted narrowly by the wise police decision not to open fire. Even so it required Casspir armed vehicles and riot police in the Cape suburb.
The bomb attack outside Visagie’s office was another brazen act of contempt and a reminder of how callous and indiscriminate criminals and religious zealots are in their total lack of concern for the lives of ordinary people who happen to be near their target.
Nolu, the shoe vendor, was such a person. Minutes before the bomb exploded, Visagie had asked her to get a pair of shoes ready for his daughter, Shanna. He told Nolu he would return soon and get them. He then went into his office. If he had stayed and waited, he would have died with Nolu.
It is the scale and constancy of the bombings and shootings that is striking to an international reader. Australians were shocked by the parcel bomb killing of a Perth Detective-Sergeant Geoffrey Bowen at the National Crime Authority building, in Adelaide (March 2, 1986), and by the callous “bushwhacking” Walsh Street killings of two Victorian constables, Steven Tynan (22) and Damien Eyre (20), in October 1988. However, much of the shock was because such violence was a rarity, whereas in South Africa it was becoming a regular occurrence.
Indeed, the bombings continued in Cape Town; and, just after terrorist attacks in Tanzania and Kenya at U.S. embassies, the terrorists targeted Planet Hollywood in Cape Town. The photo taken of senior officers Schalk Visagie, Leonard Knipe and Kerrie Heyliger outside the restaurant shows faces of utter despair as they waited for clearance by the bomb squad. But worse would follow with the assassination of Captain Bennie Lategan, from the Murder and Robbery Squad. He was the target of a professional hit on January 14, 1999.
The murder of Lategan saw changes in the Serious Violent Crimes Unit, with Heyliger taking over the Murder and Robbery Squad plus the PAGAD (or Crimes Against the State) unit, while Visagie went back to Gangs as head. Lategan’s death should have been a flashing red light as police personnel changes meant little to hoodlums and fanatics. Visagie’s turn was to come a month later.
The “hit” on the senior detective is covered in depth and makes for grim reading in his book. In fact, the attack would make most law-abiding readers very angry that a young family man in his 39th year should be assailed in such a fashion. Some 26 shells were recovered from the highway scene and, by the laws of statistics, he should not have survived.
Although Visagie was badly wounded, as the medical report revealed, no vital organs were destroyed. But it was a close run thing, and the neck and leg wounds would have killed most people.
Visagie, although stricken and in shock, remembers praying that his small children continue to have their father with them. Far away in the Karoo town of Calvinia, his devoted mother, at 3.15pm (the time of the attack), was led to pray for her son and did so fervently.
“The prayer of a righteous man availeth much” (5:16); and, according to the surgeon, Arend Louw, Visagie received God’s abundance in the hospital theatre on February 19, 1999.
If at Calvary the Son told the Father, “It is finished”, in a role reversal it was now his earthly father, a retired policeman, who told Visagie that policing was finished for him. He had “lost enough skin” in the game.
Indeed, Schalk Visagie had given enough of himself in the fight against Powers and Principalities but at least his time in the Inferno was over.
In resisting the temptation to write a political book, despite his knowledge of Presidents Botha and Nelson Mandela, and to show humility towards God, Schalk Visagie has primarily written a policeman’s tale that deserves to be read by people who respect those who serve along the increasingly dangerous thin blue line.