'In 1986, the SADF force conspired with Inkatha to provide Inkatha with a covert, offensive paramilitary unit (hit squad) to be deployed illegally against persons and organisations perceived to be opposed to or enemies of both the South African government and Inkatha. The SADF provided training, financial and logistical management and behind-the-scenes supervision,' the Truth and Reconciliation Commission found. Eighteen years after the commission’s special hearing on Caprivi, the ghosts of Operation Marion’s actions, cover-ups and crimes hover around our current problems with violence in post-apartheid South Africa. By ROBYN LESLIE and NALA RAMOHLOKOANE.
In early 1986, approximately 200 Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) members were flown over South Africa’s border to a South African Defence Force (SADF) base in Namibia – specifically, Caprivi. These Inkatha members were not the South African state’s prisoners, hostages or detainees, they were new recruits, ready for six months’ training from the military. Ostensibly, these recruits were part of a covert request from KwaZulu’s then chief minister Mangosuthu Buthelezi to the apartheid state, asking for aid in training his supporters to act as bodyguards and protection units for Inkatha VIPs who were being threatened (including himself). However, this only made up part of his request. Buthelezi was also asking for help in training a paramilitary force that could covertly operate against the United Democratic Front (UDF) and the African National Congress (ANC) – a force with offensive, not merely defensive capacity. The words ‘hit squad’ were soon synonymous with the Caprivi trainees.
Indeed, South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) made a comprehensive finding on this highly confidential military training, an operation code-named Marion. The commissioners didn’t mince their words: “In 1986, the SADF force conspired with Inkatha to provide Inkatha with a covert, offensive paramilitary unit (hit squad) to be deployed illegally against persons and organisations perceived to be opposed to or enemies of both the South African government and Inkatha. The SADF provided training, financial and logistical management and behind-the-scenes supervision.”
In May 1987, Michael Adriaan van den Berg was appointed to the Operation Marion Project after the trainees had already returned to KwaZulu. A colonel in the Directorate of Special Tasks, which reported to the SADF’s Intelligence Operations, Van den Berg recalls cloak-and-dagger tactics when he was appointed as logistics officer for this project. In his Section 29 inquiry, he recalled his introduction to his Inkatha counterpart and the then secretary-general of Inkatha, MZ Khumalo: “I knew he was Khumalo, but he was introduced to me as Reeva … we had decided to use codenames. I was Mr van Blerk, and the intention was that he was not to know that I was an army officer.” However, this charade was soon nipped in the bud at Van den Berg’s first meeting with Buthelezi: “Colonel van Tonder went as Colonel van Tonder, and he introduced me in Khumalo’s presence as Colonel van den Berg … so my cover was blown.”
Despite such lax behaviour at the top, secrecy was the order of the day for this extremely confidential operation that boiled down to the development and deployment of hit squads designed to remove ‘undesirables’ who stood in the way of both the apartheid state and Inkatha. But if the advantages of a trained hit squad were worth it for the SADF and Inkatha, the costs for the communities targeted were high. While some Caprivi trainees went on to fulfill their task of VIP protection units for important IFP officials, others began to put their offensive training skills to work – directed by the SADF. On 21 January 1987, 13 people, mostly women and children, were killed when gunmen opened fire with AK-47s on the home of UDF activist Bheki Ntuli, at KwaMakhutha, Amanzimtoti, near Durban. The 1996 KwaMakhutha murder trial at the Durban Supreme Court, which ended up acquitting major political figures who had been fingered in this terrible massacre (Magnus Malan and Khumalo, aka Reeva), did find that Caprivi trainees were responsible for the shootings but concluded in a much criticised judgment that the massacre could not be connected with the SADF as the trainees were merely carrying out ‘private frolics’. As they years rolled by, Caprivi trainees were implicated in numerous hits on prominent UDF and ANC activists in KwaZulu. The TRC found that “Caprivi trainees were involved in the killing of Mr Zazi Khuzwayo on 9 May 1987, the attempted killing of Ms Pearl Shabalala on 15 October 1987, the killing of Mr Emmanuel Norman Khuzwayo on 28 February 1988 and other attacks directed against UDF supporters”.
As the liaison between Inkatha and the military, Van den Berg soon became the recipient of some of Khumalo’s concerns over how the operation was panning out. In his Section 29 inquiry, Van den Berg is reticent about the exact nature of the concerns raised, but concedes that they had something to do with discipline. He explained: “It became clearer to us that there were problems with discipline and the application of this paramilitary force … they became involved in actions which did not form part in general of what the intention had been with Marion from the beginning …Then it became clear to us that a problem was developing. If people continued to act in an undisciplined way then there could be security implications.”
Khumalo explained to his SADF contacts, that a base from which the trainees could launch their operations might solve some of the disciplinary problems; and also allow Khumalo to exert more control over his reckless flock. Admiral Andries Putter, who was head of Military Intelligence when Operation Marion was conceptualised and put into operation, explains the first of many ‘misunderstandings’ between the SADF and Buthelezi. In his Section 29 inquiry, Putter confirms that a geographical base for the Caprivi trainees had been agreed upon. The SADF, Putter says, was waiting for Buthelezi to find just such a piece of land; and Buthelezi, Putter suggested, was waiting for the SADF to assign him the same thing: “It was only after this telex from the minister in 1988 that we realised that there was a huge misunderstanding here. That they were expecting us to provide a base and we were waiting for them to provide a base all the time.”
Even after a base had been provided, however, discipline remained a problem. And as long as this remained an issue, there was the constant threat that Operation Marion could be exposed. If renegade Caprivi trainees were arrested for various crimes (especially those that were, in those days, hanging offences) and arrived at court, it wouldn’t take long for this clandestine operation to become a matter of the court record. Section 29 inquiries for Basie Smit, a general and national head of Criminal Investigations in the late 1980s, alongside Putter and Van den Berg, hedge around this issue of police complicity with Caprivi. How were Caprivi trainees who had been legitimately arrested for criminal offences to be bailed and disappeared, to protect their secret hit-squad training?
Basie Smit, in his Section 29 inquiry, explains how the SADF had intimated that the Caprivi trainees might “exceed authority in exercising their protection task” and “weren’t really well-grounded in law enforcement”. Thus, Smit stated, the SADF requested that “if any of these trainee persons should break the law they should not immediately be arrested but a special team of detectives should handle the matter”. What the SADF was asking for, it seems, was co-operation with covering up crimes.
Smit was well-known as the ‘Third Force General’, and under his watch, the South African Police became very involved in ensuring that the private criminal escapades of Caprivi trainees did not threaten this top-secret project. This required the disappearance of both the guilty trainees and their cases, something which seems to have happened mostly though the arrangement of bail, and then the removal of the offending person to a secret camp or safe house. The disappearance and subsequent concealment of Caprivi trainees was a system that was working: the existence of Operation Marion was kept out of courtrooms, and those bailed for various criminal offences were kept out of jail: during the TRC’s special hearing on Caprivi, Daluxolo Luthuli explains how he would help Caprivi trainees go into hiding if they had committed crimes and were at risk of arrest. He would often send them to Mkhuze, a few hours north of Durban, where they could lie low until things had quietened down. Luthuli himself evaded the courts by being hidden at Ferntree, a secret military base in the Drakensberg, after being fingered for a variety of serious crimes.
But hide-and-seek tactics were not the solution to the blossoming problem of Caprivi trainees going rogue. Convenor of the investigation task board for the TRC and Operation Marion expert Howard Varney, in his submission to the TRC on Operation Marion, suggests that by 1988, the military were seeing this operation as an unacceptably high security risk, especially as the police force were not willing to provide ‘absolute protection’ to trainees who had been arrested for carrying our criminal activities that were not part of Marion’s plans. During his Section 29 inquiry on this issue, Putter’s words were chilling: “Our understanding was that these people would be incorporated into the police, so we couldn’t have foreseen that we would be associated with them for such a length of time that these problems would arise and if they committed contraventions or offences whilst they were in the police, then they could no longer demand membership of the group. They were then police force members and if they committed offences then it would not jeopardise the security of the project.”
Varney refutes the suggestion that Putter had originally imagined the trainees would end up in the police, and documentation certainly confirms that the trainees were destined for a career in Inkatha, not the police force; which leads to the conclusion that the incorporation of the Caprivians into the KwaZulu police was Putter’s solution to trainees behaving badly, rather than a forgone conclusion. But this was the SADF’s attempt at damage control: as Putter himself declares in his Section 29 inquiry, by June 1989, the Caprivians had been absorbed by the KwaZulu police. This is discounting the Caprivi trainees who had already been sent to Koeberg for further training for six weeks in 1988, and then assimilated into the KwaZulu police force as kitskonstables (special constables).
Putter states that just such a ‘short retraining’ would have turned them from a paramilitary force into defensive organs of state with a mandate to protect. It shouldn’t surprise the reader to know that these Caprivi-trained kitskonstables were implicated in the devastating Trust Feeds massacre in 1988, in which 11 people holding an all-night funeral vigil were mistakenly massacred under the order of Captain Brian Mitchell; the hit had been arranged for a UDF-supporter’s property, and they had targeted the wrong house.
The natural question that follows is whether Putter really believed that a group of men recruited from one specific group (Inkatha), offensively trained to act against other rival groups (including the UDF and the ANC), who had already demonstrated disciplinary issues, were appropriate police material. Never mind the fact that the SADF themselves had represented the Caprivi trainees as a group who “weren’t really well-grounded in law enforcement”. In the words of Caprivi trainee and commander Luthuli: “During the day the Caprivians work as police, go out of the police station, do their raids. However, in the evening they have to take off their uniform and get involved in the struggle. When I refer to ‘struggle’ I mean it’s getting themselves to do what they were trained to do in Caprivi.” The TRC’s findings that Caprivi trainees were involved in the eSikhawini hit squad’s activities in 1992 that included murder, arson and robbery, is but one example. Varney’s submission details how this hit-squad cell was formed around the trainees, with the KwaZulu Police commander, Brigadier CP Mzimela, covering their tracks.
The recklessness of training an offensive, paramilitary force for a faction of society (a political force, no less) – and then assimilating them into the general defensive police corps – is irresponsibility defined. Trained to handle rocket launchers and enact assassinations by night, and pulling police paychecks by day, the inherent duplicity and corruption involved in Operation Marion and its fallout is but one example of the crooked framework of law enforcement that South Africa inherited in 1994. The casual directives from those in authority to post bail for those accused of criminal offences, in order to protect the creation of an unlawful, factionalised paramilitary, is evidence of how compromised the state’s security structure had become.
And what about accountability after the fact? The major criminal trial in connection with the Caprivi trainees – the 1996 KwaMakhutha murder case in the Durban Supreme Court – ended with the acquittal of all senior figures implicated in that grisly massacre. Prosecutorial accountability for the numerous crimes committed in connection with Operation Marion (and the additional criminal cover-ups of such crimes) never seemed to get off the ground. Some Caprivi foot soldiers ended up in prison, and applied for amnesty for their cells as the TRC gained momentum; while those with the overall responsibility for planning, strategising and operationalising Operation Marion, faced no sanction at all. Did Varney know how prescient his submission to the TRC would be in 2015, when he penned these words in 1997?
“The bulk of the activities I have described took place within state structures and its security and policing organs. This culture of impunity and lawlessness still impacts on society today. Those in public office and in the service of the state should, above all others, comply with the laws of the land. They should be subject to the greatest scrutiny. Never again should they be permitted to get away with transgressions of the law.”
Eighteen years after the TRC’s special hearing on Caprivi, the ghosts of Operation Marion’s actions, cover-ups and crimes hover around our current problems with violence in post-apartheid South Africa. It’s not clear what, if anything, can lay them to rest. DM
Photo: Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) leader, Mangosuthu Buthelezi greets his supporters, 21 April 1994, at an election rally, at Nseleni (Reuters)
* The authors work for the South African History Archive (SAHA) which has a long-standing interest in the unfinished business of the TRC. This is part four in a series of articles discussing the newly-released Section 29 Materials. You can read more about SAHA, Right To Truth and SAHA here.