South Africa

Apartheid policing: The Section 29 inquiry of Frank Sandy Bennetts

By Robyn Leslie & Sameena Khan 27 July 2015

Frank Sandy Bennetts’ testimony is a fascinating study of how apartheid’s policemen coped with jobs that involved committing outrageous acts of torture, violence and intimidation on a daily basis, and justified their actions. By ROBYN LESLIE & SAMEENA KHAN.

A few days after his first Section 29 inquiry hearing on 13h November 1996, Frank Sandy Bennetts received a phone call from a former security-branch-colleague-turned-picture-framer, Don Clark. They had some business to discuss, but first, Clark made a joke: “I understand you’re becoming Catholic!” Confused, Bennetts replied that his wife is Catholic – and their kids probably would be too. “No, you know what I mean,” said Clark. “You’ve been to confession”.

Normally an extremely private undertaking, Bennetts wasn’t surprised that old police colleagues were aware of his Section 29 inquiry hearings. He waived his right to confidentiality at the time so his wife could sit with him while he answered questions about his career in the apartheid state’s police service. And when asked to identify fellow Durban members of the notorious C-Section – a group of security branch personnel dedicated to “investigate terrorists” with almost no accountability – he reeled off a string of names until he came to one familiar to the panel: “Tjaard Fourie, who I believe is now your witness protector, if I’m not mistaken, which is ironic in a way.”

The panel, confused, asked: “What’s ironic about that?” One can almost imagine Bennetts rolling his eyes as he replied: “Most of your guys who come forward and testify here from the SAP side or from the security branch side are going to be known to this guy, and you’ve got him working for you guys. I mean, look at the stuff I’ve been involved in. Why not appoint me as investigator here?” A member of the panel asks, “Are you saying his hands are pretty dirty?” In characteristic fashion, he replied “I’m not saying that, Sir. But I’m saying they’re not pretty clean either.”

***

Bennetts’s career path seemed decided at a young age. A Pretoria schoolboy, after finishing matric he began his seamless integration from school into the security infrastructure. Subsequent to doing his national service with the South African Police (SAP), he became a permanent member of the uniform branch in December of 1982, and was posted to CR Swart police station in Durban. After a few years’ service, Frank was transferred to the riot squad – a reaction unit nominally based at Durban’s Point Prison, but practically operating out of a burnt-out beerhall in the Chesterville location – where he would remain for most of the late 1980s.

Chesterville was a “black spot” in the apartheid regime’s otherwise meticulous removal of Indian and African residents from the Cato Manor area, a large tract of land that bordered the then white suburbs of Westville and Sherwood. Unrest and discontent were rife in the area in the 1980s, with violence flaring up among the police and various political groupings. Bennetts’s blunt appraisal of his time in the locations? “I spent half the time there pissed, half the time running around, half the time shit-scared”. He recalls a particular incident that seems to demonstrate the scale of the chaos in Chesterville: he was responding to the scene of a house that had been petrol-bombed, with small children sleeping inside. Bennetts says his team broke the door down to drag the children out, and arranged safe passage for ambulances (“soft” vehicles were often targeted for gunfire, stones or other destruction).

In his own words: “The bloody owners of the house even had the audacity to moan at us for breaking the door, but it’s their own children … the ambulance attendants actually didn’t do anything for the children. Just left them to die there on the scene”. He continues: “That’s enough to drive anybody round the bend, man, but when you go and approach the guy, he says the best thing for them is to die. They are so badly burned.” And lastly: “It was just one of many incidents”. In Chesterville, Bennetts says he would never respond to an incident in any vehicle other than a Casspir – “I wasn’t paid enough to die there”.

Part of this violent melting pot was a mysterious group known as the A Team. Bennetts described the A Team as Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) supporters who were commonly used by the security branch as informers. A Team members were also used to identify suspected criminals the uniform branch of the SAP were after, but were too afraid to go searching for in the broken-down communities they purportedly retreated to. Places such as Chesterville were designated “no-go” areas for the uniform branch in the 1980s, at risk of being shot and attacked when entering the area. So the riot squad, Bennetts explained, would end up detaining suspects, and delivering them to police stations for questioning. Then an A Team member would be summoned “and peep through a little hole or something and positively identify the guy for us”. If you’re wondering whether this was strictly due process, you’re right to be skeptical. Bennetts was happy to state “it was not done as a proper ID parade is done, legally, but it was sufficient .. (to) give us reason to detain”.

Alongside being informers and identifying criminals (a service for which, Bennetts states, he never paid), A Team members were given escorts in and out of the locations, and streets where they lived were granted extra patrols. A speedy response to any incidents that threatened the A Team also seemed part of the riot squad’s quid pro quo agreement. And Bennetts recalls an incident in which the police skimmed items from an aid delivery by the International Red Cross to provide for the A Team’s needs.

Bennetts goes on to explain that subsequent discussion with colleagues led him to believe that the Civil Co-operation Bureau – a secret agency dedicated to “dirty tricks” tactics, as well as murder and disappearances – was behind the creation and sustenance of the A Team. “I believe … most of the A Team’s activities were probably orchestrated by somebody from outside”, he said. Such destabilisation activities, also known as “third force” tactics, were not unknown to the apartheid state. The Caprivi training operation – whereby 300-odd IFP supporters were taken to Caprivi, and trained in “VIP protection” by the South Africa military – was taking place at roughly the same time.

Bennetts’s own record, however, is not exactly clean. He did not merely observe violence, and acknowledges the steady stream of complaints against him from residents of Chesterville and other suburbs he worked in – complaints of assault, intimidation and thuggery. There are records of restraining orders taken out against him by community members, and allegations of torture. He explains this away. Every time a white policeman was asked to identify himself, he’d say: “I’m Sergeant Frank”. “Sergeant Frank” became a ubiquitous identifier, and thus (says Frank) his name became connected with many things in which he was never involved. He says the effect of this identifier was fear and co-operation and thus, he never rectified the error. But why did the words “Sergeant Frank” inspire such fear and co-operation?

***

Torture, if Bennetts is to be believed, was a matter of course during interrogation and although not officially condoned, he says his superiors were well aware it went on, and did nothing to stop it. Although initially coy, Bennetts admits to knowing about a wide variety of torture tactics, including the aeroplane, and admits to electro-shocking in order to get information, specifically about weapons recovery. Bennetts explains that he would tie a normal metal door key onto each wire of an old crank telephone. The victim, who was normally hooded, would then have a key placed just touching the palm of each hand. Then the handle would be wound, and as the first electric current shocked the victim, their hands automatically closed over the keys and they would be unable to open their palms and break the current. After being told that a blood test could reveal if someone had been electro-shocked, Bennetts explains, he stopped using this method and got rid of any evidence – “my device is lying in Durban harbour”.

Other methods Bennetts was familiar with included pushing ice blocks up the anus – “similar to having a red hot iron rod pushed up there except it leaves no traces”, the wet bag method – “canvas bag over the head and wet it. Just sufficient air so the oke doesn’t pass out”. Physical assault too? “That goes without saying.” Bennets would use a flat hand and aim for just above the kidneys – “A good tight slap there … it doesn’t draw blood and it hurts like hell.” “The art of it is watching the oke so that he doesn’t have a heart attack or drop dead on you,” he explains.

Psychological torture was also part of Bennetts’s repertoire. He explains that there was no need to physically torture those detained under Section 29 of the Internal Security Act 1982, which allowed indefinite detention without a warrant. “Chuck an okie in a cell and leave him alone for six months I promise you, he’ll talk.” Bennetts explains how police would visit detainees every half hour around the clock, preventing any sleep; or how they would butter detainees up by giving them cigarettes, but wet the matches they also provided. “It was a head game,” he says.

***

While working for the riot squad, Bennetts was recruited into the security branch by Andy Taylor, whose first task as his big boss was to “chuck down this copy of the Official Secrets Act – we all signed it”. Bennetts began splitting his time between his duties at the locations and the investigation of people who were suspected of leaving the country to undergo military training – the so-called terrorists, or landverlaters. This job involved a miscellany of tasks, from extracting photographs of suspected terrorists from their families (to contribute to the big book of identification that was put in front of many detained persons so they could identify comrades); to warning family members that failing to declare a person on their return would result in prosecution.

It was a quiet life after patrolling Chesterville in a Casspir. Bennetts says he enjoyed the down-time and took advantage of being able to enjoy a “good couple of piss-ups and bar lunches”. He interspersed investigating landverlaters, he says, with fishing.

That was, until the security branch underwent a shake-up. Around 1990, Colonel Waring took over C Section, and Bennetts’s old boss, Taylor, began operating from a farm at Umlaas, between Camperdown and Pietermaritzburg. This farm was leased to Taylor by Peter Franklin, and allegedly became a base for setting up KwaZulu-Natal’s askari operations, with input from Eugene de Kock and his Vlakplaas buddies. Bennetts became the caretaker for this farm, and describes the succession of askaris who came and went – some with drinking problems, some with criminal records, some out to make “head money”. “Head money”, he explains, was money paid by the security branch for the identification and detention of known political activists. The amount paid was the same for delivery in hand-cuffs, or body bags. It was towards the end of his time at the farm in Umlaas Road when Bennetts’s drinking habits – always robust – became problematic. He recalls finishing a bottle of Red Heart rum a night.

***

Dirty tricks” tactics used in the commercial and political spheres were described as deceitful, underhand strategies designed to bring an opponent into disrepute. Bennetts was the implementer of many of the apartheid state’s dirty tricks tactics to undermine the liberation movement. Some were pretty standard – Bennetts remembers being given boxes of pamphlets to distribute while he was driving around the Chesterville location. Others were more invidious. Bennetts was aware that the slogan “justice for Stompie” that was spray-painted all over Durban was a security branch campaign to discredit Winnie Mandela. In fact, after getting lashed with a few colleagues from intelligence, he faintly remembers doing some spray-painting himself “on a wall somewhere … I don’t know. I was lekker on the night”.

He also remembers the bumper stickers saying “support the indaba” that were distributed by the intelligence units – stickers that had paint remover mixed in with the sticker glue. This was reserved, implies Bennetts, for the wealthier, white liberals who drove fancy cars – “your Black Sash movements” – whose car paint would soon start to bubble after the sticker had been affixed.

Bumper stickers seemed a popular “dirty tricks” tactic, especially at universities. Bennetts recounts a strategy whereby bumper stickers stating “adopt a cop” or similar supporting statements for the police would be stuck onto cars at the Natal University campus on a Friday evening. The next night – Saturday – Bennetts would return with his colleagues and a baseball bat, smashing windows and tail lights of the very cars they had stuck these stickers onto, fomenting confusion and distrust. Bennetts recalls a particular night of car-smashing: “Again lekker drunk [that] night – it’s the usual thing we did. Before we went out, go and (get) a good couple of drinks down.

And it didn’t stop there. Bennetts explains that often, the security branch would know when African National Congress or other liberation movement couriers were re-entering the country with large amounts of cash. He recalls an incident whereby one courier was stopped and his briefcase – containing a large amount of money – was searched. The tactic was to skim a little off the top, and send the courier on his way, hoping his inability to explain the missing money would sow seeds of distrust.

What happened to that skimmed money? It’s anyone’s guess, but with no accountability, it was cash for grabs. Somewhat embarrassed , Bennetts remembers an evening where he and some colleagues helped themselves to most of Durban city centre’s parking meter coins, using a basic lock-pick. They averaged R8 a meter that night.

Money was often used in “dirty tricks” operations. Bennetts says he was involved with “hundreds” of operations, whereby an envelope stuffed with cash was delivered, in a police vehicle, to certain houses and individuals in townships. This was staged to look as if the person – most likely a political activist – was a police informant. Bennetts knows a few of these people died as the furious community meted out mob justice, as a direct result of the planting of the cash.

***

Bennetts voluntarily transferred back into the uniform branch in 1991, and left the SAP in 1996. He was denied amnesty by the Truth and Reconciliatin Commission (TRC) in 2000, based on his lack of accurate and informative details on the crimes he allegedly committed, and he subsequently disappeared from public view.

In his various testimony,Bennetts’s attempts to explain his actions focused on so-called indoctrination of the security forces: tacit complicity with and encouragement of racist attitutdes of senior staffers, the normalisation of violence against presumed enemies, and a focus on young recruits being appropriately “educated” by their superiors. As Bennetts says, he was “young, I was foolish and I was easily influenced”. Paul Erasmus, a former security policeman, concurs: “Much of the influences that influenced me to do what I was doing went back to my high school days.”

Bennetts often refers to comments passed and attitudes transferred by senior figures in authority, as he attempts to explain his past. He seems to think that his actions were not part of his character, but rather, the climate in South Africa during the 1980s. As he says in his amnesty application: “I believe that the incidents in which I was involved in in the riot unit were as a result of circumstances that I found myself in at the time. I didn’t go in there with the intention of becoming a violent person and treating violence with violence.”

Bennetts wouldn’t be the first to cry indoctrination as an explanation of apartheid evils. A notorious assassin also verbalised it: “We were brainwashed to the extent that you believe these okes … are not human beings … it’s them or us”. That was Dirk Coetzee, speaking moments before he met with the brother of Griffiths Mxenge, whom he had murdered in 1981. He continues: “We were like a close-knit gang of thugs. We differed from other thugs (in) that we formed part of the broader police family … a mafia.” He continues: “I believed in it, because I grew up with the system … I was a result of the system”.

Bennetts and Coetzee both blame the system for their actions, a convenient excuse as apartheid crumbled around them – but it can’t be the whole truth. For as many who were brought to heel by apartheid, there were others who refused to be party to it. And are Bennetts’s stories of chaos and abuse even true?

As mentioned in a previous story, Rownan Fernandes – one of Bennetts’s security branch colleagues – was less than complimentary about his veracity. Called as a witness to Bennetts’s amnesty hearing in 2000, Fernandes had this to say: “Mr Bennetts has a reputation among the people who worked with him, he likes to be in charge, he likes to be important in a certain sense. He has been known to tell stories about various things, that in the end is not true. To put it blatantly, I knew him or I got to know him as a liar.

A second policeman, Andre Fivas, summoned to Bennetts’s amnesty hearing said: “in the first place I didn’t trust him that much. I actually warned Shaun Fourie about Bennetts, I said to him ‘he is only going to get you in trouble… you are living dangerously by going around with Bennetts’. I heard rumours and certain stories about Frank Bennetts.

Reviewing Bennetts’s testimony to the TRC’s public and private forums makes for a fascinating study of how apartheid’s policemen – committing outrageous acts of torture, violence and intimidation on a daily basis – coped with their jobs and justified their actions. To make the matter more complex, we’re not even sure what we can believe of his testimony. And so we review this chaotic collision course of being a victim – of a system designed to indoctrinate – and of violation, by complying with it. How many South Africans, with less horrific acts to their names, have ignored this critical aspect of coming to terms with their personal pasts? DM

Leslie and Khan work for the South African History Archive (SAHA), and this article forms part of SAHA’s long-standing work on the unfinished business of the TRC. This is part three in a series of articles discussing the newly released Section 29 materials. You can read more about SAHA and Section 29 here.

Photo: Police remove tyres from a burning tyre barricade in the black squatter township of Khayelitsha April 11, 1993, as news of the death of the General Secretary of the South African Communist Party Chris Hani began to filter down to the black townships outside Cape Town. (Reuters)

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