The Lost Boys of Bird Island: Secrets, lies and cover-ups
The book is a collaboration between journalist Chris Steyn and former undercover narcotics agent Mark Anthony Dawid Minnie. They compare notes to deliver a shocking story of apartheid-era criminality, cover-ups and official complicity in the rape and murder of children. Here is the foreword, written by Marianne Thamm.
In January 2015, an investigative team consisting of South African and Belgian police swooped on the home of a 37-year-old computer engineer, William Beale, located in the popular Garden Route seaside town of Plettenberg Bay. The raid on Beale came after months of meticulous planning that was part of an intercontinental investigation into an online child sex and pornography ring. The investigation was code-named Operation Cloud 9.
Beale was the first South African to be arrested. He was snagged as a direct result of the October 2014 arrest by members of the Antwerp Child Sexual Exploitation Team of a Belgian paedophile implicated in the ring. South African police, under the leadership of Lieutenant Colonel Heila Niemand, co-operated with Belgian counterparts to expose the sinister network, which extended across South Africa and the globe. By July 2017, at least 40 suspects had been arrested, including a 64-year-old Johannesburg legal consultant and a 20-year-old Johannesburg student.
What police found on Beale’s computer was horrifying. There were thousands of images and videos of children, and even babies, being abused, tortured, raped and murdered. In November 2017, Beale pleaded guilty to around 19,000 counts of possession of child pornography and was sentenced to 15 years in jail, the harshest punishment ever handed down in a South African court for the possession of child pornography.
While Beale himself had not been arrested or convicted for physically harming the children, the court found that the possession of pornography is not a victimless crime. Somewhere in the world babies and children who featured in the hideous images had been abused, raped and murdered.
In 2014, Peter McKelvie, a retired officer with the Hereford and Worcester Child Protection Team in the UK, disclosed that a list of child abusers, which included the names of at least 20 current and former UK politicians, existed and claimed that there had been a massive official cover-up of this in the 1980s. He was adamant that his findings warranted a formal investigation.
McKelvie had compiled the list after interviewing myriad survivors, as well as officials in the care system who had dealt with them in the aftermath. The site of the abuse was the Elm Guest House in Barnes, South London. Prompted by McKelvie’s dossier, Scotland Yard eventually launched Operation Fernbridge.
In May 2015, the British police launched Operation Hydrant, an overarching investigation that included Operation Fernbridge and an astounding number of smaller investigations into child sex abuse by prominent individuals in the UK. The police released statistics indicating that more than 1,400 men, including 261 high-profile individuals, were being investigated in relation to allegations of historical child abuse.
While many ordinary people can, at a push, imagine themselves in the mind of a criminal – be it a thief, a cheat, an embezzler or even a murderer – it is virtually impossible to fathom the mind of the child sex offender. Perhaps it is because this crime – when adults tasked with caring for and protecting children actually abuse, rape and harm them – goes so against nature that it requires an enormous effort to engage and not look away in utter horror and disgust or, worse, retreat into denial. One need only read or listen to the testimony of those who have survived serial sexual abuse and rape as children to understand the havoc and damage this causes, leaving victims with wounds and scars that linger for the rest of their lives.
There have been several exposures of child sex and paedophile rings in South Africa in recent years, but back in the late 1980s these cases seldom made headlines. The secrecy of the transgressions, and the close proximity to the victims by predatory adults, often in trusted or powerful positions, made this a difficult crime to detect and expose. But in 1986–87 a high-profile investigation involving three prominent National Party cabinet ministers and one of their associates suspected of abusing young boys blipped briefly on to the radar before disappearing completely. South Africans who were alive at the time may have a vague recollection of rather sanitised reports involving these political leaders – but that’s about it. Until now.
The 1980s marked the beginning of the end of Nationalist government rule in South Africa, with increased violence, state repression and an iron-fisted clampdown on those considered by authorities to be political opponents. Apart from mass arrests, there were also several political assassinations by state-sanctioned secret death squads. Media freedom and freedom of speech and movement were severely curtailed, and the restriction and intimidation of newspaper editors and journalists was routine.
The tumultuous era saw the declaration of two states of emergency, one in 1985 and another in 1988, which suspended the country’s then constitution, providing wide powers to the police and the South African Defence Force (SADF), then under the control of the hugely powerful Magnus Malan, minister of defence in President PW Botha’s cabinet.
Magnus André de Merindol Malan was a blue-blooded Afrikaner Nationalist who rose through the military ranks and had always been destined for high office. A military man all his life, who also trained in the US, Malan was appointed chief of staff of the South African Army (SAA) in 1973. Three years later, he was appointed head of the SADF. The minister of defence at this time was future South African president PW Botha, who later appointed the trusted Malan as his defence minister.
It would be safe to say that Malan was the second-most powerful man in apartheid South Africa, which towards the late 1980s was slowly imploding. The country was gripped by a permanent sense of impending crisis. Crime and violence were rampant as a low-grade civil war raged, mostly in the townships where South Africa’s black majority had been forcibly removed and “contained”. It is against this disruptive and turbulent backdrop that the shocking story you are about to read took place.
The writers of the two narratives contained in this work, Mark Anthony Dawid Minnie and Chris Steyn, had never compared notes until Minnie, haunted by his past as an undercover narcotics agent with the South African Police in Port Elizabeth in the 1980s, delivered his account of the story to the publisher.
Both Mark and Chris had spent a considerable amount of time investigating the same case, but somehow, until the publisher brought them together in 2017 to write this book, their paths had crossed only briefly.
In 1987 Chris Steyn began working at the English-language morning newspaper the Cape Times. She was a rara avis in a newsroom then populated by young, mostly white, “leftie” journalists, including myself. Chris stood out immediately. She didn’t dress like the rest of us. She was always impeccably groomed, wearing tailored jackets and high heels and carrying a briefcase. She was also Afrikaans-speaking, or so we thought, which in those claustrophobic times led to immediate stereotyping and a modicum of suspicion. Which is odd, because some of the country’s most vociferous anti-apartheid journalists were Afrikaners – such as Max du Preez, Pearlie Joubert and Jacques Pauw, to name only a few.
Chris came to the Cape Times trailed by a frisson of political intrigue. As she recounted in her 2006 memoir, Publish and Be Damned: Two Decades of Scandals, some news stories are neither forgotten nor forgiven. In Chris’s case, the “Boesak Affair” was one such story. ‘I had no way of knowing it would transform me from an accidental journalist into an enemy of the State,’ she wrote.
The Boesak story requires a short retelling as it encapsulates so many of the currents that flowed through and beneath South African life back then. In January 1985, Chris had been drawn into the story about the hugely popular anti-apartheid activist cleric Allan Boesak, a member of the South African Council of Churches (SACC), when Michael Shafto, who was then Chris’s news editor at the Johannesburg daily The Star, handed her a pamphlet that had mysteriously turned up in the newsroom in-tray.
Shafto tasked Chris with investigating the pamphlet, which featured a photograph of Boesak alongside one Dianne Melanie Scott, an SACC official. The pamphlet alleged that Boesak, a father of four, was having an affair with Scott. It detailed a series of hotel and chalet bookings allegedly proving that Boesak and Scott had had several romantic trysts.
Chris, a meticulous, dogged and hugely professional journalist, set about verifying the information in the pamphlet through telephone calls and visits to each establishment. During her investigation Chris learned that the security police had visited the Johannesburger Hotel the night before Boesak had checked in and had asked staff to let them know when the cleric arrived. The feared security police were known for their “black ops” and dirty tricks aimed at prominent anti-apartheid activists. Later, a mysterious recording of Boesak and Scott talking inside another hotel room, this time at the President Holiday Inn, also found its way to Shafto’s in-tray.
Chris, along with then crime reporter Mike Cohen, confronted the security police with the evidence and soon learned that it was indeed they who had sent the evidence to The Star as well as several other newspapers, including the Sunday Times, which, after Boesak had denied the allegations, took it no further. But the security police denied, on the record, their involvement in the set-up.
Chris herself was faced with a dilemma. Boesak was having an affair with Scott: he admitted as much to Chris when she called him for comment. Boesak, says Chris, told her he had known the security police had been trailing him and that the information might be leaked. In the end the decision to publish the story, exposing the affair as well as the role the security police had played in bringing it to light, was taken by The Star’s then editor-in-chief, Harvey Tyson.
Then came the fallout. First Boesak, contacted by other newspapers and news agencies following up on The Star story, denied the affair. The security police and the police commissioner also denied their official involvement in trying to smear the cleric. The Star, Tyson and Chris found themselves under attack from various quarters, including the opposition Progressive Federal Party and other newspapers.
But Tyson defended his decision to publish the story as well as Chris’s credibility and professionalism, even when the Cape Times editor Tony Heard had lashed out against the story in an editorial. Heard labelled the publication of the story “an extraordinary lapse from established standards of respect for privacy” and had warned that this “breach of established practice” was an “aberration”.
Tyson and Heard communicated privately, Tyson reminding Heard that the Cape Times had not always been silent on the private affairs of politicians. Heard believed that Tyson had played into the hands of state agents, while Tyson insisted that the story was in the public interest, exposing not only Boesak’s hypocrisy but also the state’s dirty tricks. It was complicated and fraught – and Chris Steyn was caught in the middle.
By the end of 1985, Chris had established herself as one of the most prolific, ingenious and fearless journalists in South Africa. Having had enough of Joburg, she packed up her life and headed for Cape Town and a new job at the Cape Times.
But Chris soon found herself on the wrong side of the law, which is not a difficult accomplishment in a virtual police state. In 1986 the police subpoenaed Chris to give evidence against a source she had interviewed. This source had provided information about the deaths of eight people and the injury of seven others in separate hand-grenade and limpet-mine blasts in the East Rand townships of Duduza, Tsakane and KwaThemba in June 1985. Six of those killed had their right hands blown off. Chris’s source, as well as other residents and witnesses, had contradicted the police finding that the men had “accidentally” blown themselves up when the grenades exploded prematurely while the victims were carrying out what the authorities had described as a “co-ordinated terrorist attack”.
So it was that Chris found herself ordered to appear before a Johannesburg magistrate on 6 August 1986. She was expected to give evidence in the trial of three men who had been accused of contravening section 27(b) of the Police Act, a section designed to deal with people the state claimed had “lied” about the police. Among the accused was one of the township residents Chris had interviewed a year earlier with regard to the hand-grenade blasts.
Chris was served with a subpoena in terms of section 205 of the Criminal Procedure Act. This section of the law gave police the power to demand that an individual appear before a magistrate, in secret if needs be, and without legal representation, and to reveal under oath the names of sources or any other information required. Section 205 had been deliberately formulated to destroy the ability and capacity of journalists to protect sources.
Shortly after the subpoena, Chris received information that some sources had “changed their stories” after they had been visited by police. One source’s memory had been jogged by a gun held in each ear. The version of events recounted to Chris by the township resident she interviewed no longer stood. He had “admitted” to lying about the police. The implications were serious, not only for the source, but for Chris. In the ultimate irony, Chris was being subpoenaed to testify against her source by reiterating his original story in court under oath.
There were only two possible outcomes. If Chris testified against him, the source would be convicted of lying about the police and would go to jail for up to five years. If Chris refused to testify, she would go to jail until she cracked and agreed to comply with the subpoena. It was a classic Catch-22.
For Chris, while the case against her source was clearly political, her considerations were not. She saw it as a matter of principle, a simple question of ethics. The unbreakable rule of journalism applied: never reveal the identity of a source to those who would wish them harm for telling the truth.
Despite intense legal efforts, Chris was informed that there was no hope of her escaping a prison sentence if she turned up in court and refused to testify. And if she simply didn’t pitch, she would eventually be arrested and imprisoned. The latter became a real possibility when Chris failed to appear at the 6 August hearing. A warrant for her arrest was issued but held over, pending a second appearance scheduled for 21 August.
Meanwhile, given the sinister fates that had befallen many detainees and inmates, there were rising fears for Chris’s safety and it was decided, in the greatest secrecy, that she should leave the country and continue the fight for truth from abroad. Her “escape” was duly plotted in bouts of intense whispering in a corner of the Café Royal, the watering hole of the Cape Town Press Club, across the road from Newspaper House, the iconic building that was home to the Cape Times and The Argus. Chris continued with her normal work routine until the last minute.
On the morning of her escape, Chris had endured a tense time with members of the Peninsula Murder and Robbery Squad hovering around her house in Tamboerskloof just in case she received a phone call from a murdered man’s lover who had made contact with her a day earlier. If the detectives had any inkling that Chris was about to skip the country, she would have been arrested on the spot.
Chris finally left South Africa on Saturday 16 August without knowing whether she would ever be able to return. When she failed to appear at the second scheduled court hearing on 21 August, the order for her arrest was finalised.
Chris lived in exile in England for a few months, waiting for the charges against the source to be “temporarily” withdrawn. But it would take many years for the truth in that case to finally emerge. She later learned from police sources how some of their technically minded colleagues had doctored the time fuses on hand grenades and limpet mines so that they would explode immediately upon arming. They then swapped these munitions for similar ones in known arms caches that were subsequently used by activists. Several activists were eliminated in the process.
In October 1996, former police commissioner General Johan van der Merwe disclosed in his submission to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) that he had been the brain behind the hand-grenade blasts. Five years later, in 2001, the TRC granted amnesty to 13 Security Branch policemen in connection with the East Rand grenade blasts, the factual reporting of which had led to charges against people for telling the truth – and an arrest warrant and exile for Chris for reporting that truth.
While all this was happening to Chris in Cape Town, about 700km away in Port Elizabeth, known as South Africa’s “friendly city” nestled on the shore of the Eastern Cape, Mark Minnie was embroiled in an investigation of his own, one that would lead him to some of the most powerful men in the country.
Mark grew up in Port Elizabeth and joined the South African Police after matriculating at the end of 1978. His intention was to spend two years in the police force, and then study law at university. But after donning the blue uniform, Mark fell in love with being a cop. It felt to him as if he had found his true calling.
After a six-month stint at the Police College in Pretoria, Mark was assigned to the Special Guard unit, responsible for the welfare and security of National Party government ministers. This is truly ironic given that, years later, the actions of certain cabinet ministers would lead to him resigning from the force. A year later, Mark was transferred to the Uniform Branch in Port Elizabeth, a position he held for five years. He spent his last couple of years as a full-time cop working as an agent attached to the South African Narcotics Bureau in Port Elizabeth. It was during that time that Mark found himself embroiled in the investigation described in this book.
In 1987 Chris Steyn made it back to South Africa and began to follow up on a series of perplexing events, including the apparent suicide of a well-known cabinet minister and his close friend – a conservationist, diver and police reserve lieutenant.
From opposite ends of the country, 30 years later, Chris and Mark would finally connect the dots to rip the veil of secrecy off the tragic and shocking story of abuse, criminality, cover-ups and official complicity in the rape and possible murder of a number of children, most of them vulnerable and black.
These children are the Lost Boys of Bird Island. DM
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