South Africa

The Lost Boys of Bird Island

Secrets, lies, cover-ups everywhere – here are some of the facts surrounding the entire sordid saga

Secrets, lies, cover-ups everywhere – here are some of the facts surrounding the entire sordid saga

Mark Minnie, co-author of The Lost Boys of Bird Island, a just-published book exposing an alleged paedophile ring that included apartheid Minister of Defence, Magnus Malan, and at least two other National Party cabinet ministers who routinely abused young boys on an island off the coast of Port Elizabeth in the 1980s, was either coerced to take his own life or did so out of despair.

The explosive nature of Mark Minnie’s investigation – which he fell into accidentally in the late 1980s – into the paedophile ring would most certainly have toppled the Nationalist government, led by the securocrat PW Botha at the time, and just as it was embarking on negotiations with the ANC both internally and in exile.

The allegations, should they ever have been made public, would either have sounded the death knell to the apartheid state or considerably weakened its credibility and hold over the white minority, especially in an election year. The revelations would also no doubt have changed or affected the trajectory of South Africa’s political future and the survival of the National Party itself.

The National Party, on 30 January 1987, had announced a whites-only general election to be held on 6 May. March 1987, when the docket was stolen from Minnie’s office in Port Elizabeth on the instruction of PW Botha (as has been confirmed by a former colonel in the South African police to Rapport’s Herman Jansen) was the same month the National Party was due to announce its list of candidates. The then Minister of Environmental Affairs, John Wiley, had hoped to appear on that list.

Wiley “committed suicide” on 29 March 1987 after an hour-long telephonic conversation with PW Botha the night before. The previous month, Wiley’s close friend, PE businessman and diver, Dave Allen, who had scored a highly lucrative Bird Island guano concession (which would have been approved by Wiley), “committed suicide” after Minnie had arrested him on charges of sexually assaulting minors (as the charge was at the time) and for the possession of pornography.

Afterwards, Allen, wrote Minnie, had “sung like a canary”.

Investigative journalist Chris Steyn, who co-authored the book with Minnie, told Daily Maverick, after the release of Minnie’s suicide note on Tuesday, that she remained convinced he would not have willingly taken his own life.

That is what I believe,” Steyn told Daily Maverick, adding, “and I am not going to change that. This is my view. They got to him.”

Steyn told Daily Maverick that she had been in daily contact with Minnie since his arrival back in South Africa from China and that he had informed her that “military-type people” had been looking for him. Minnie was following new leads and interviewing victims who had come forward as well as the existence of covert “suicide squads”.

Minnie, added Steyn, had been highly agitated a few days prior to his death, pacing up and down a restaurant/bar he frequented in Port Elizabeth.

His friends asked him what was wrong and told him to be careful, he would wear out his shoes,” she said.

Steyn said that Minnie’s behaviour indicated to her that “he had a decision to make”. Until late last week Mark had been upbeat about the release of the book and was looking forward to attending a launch at the Open Book Festival in Cape Town.

All Mark Minnie ever wanted was a proper investigation and he would have loved to have been part of that for the first time.”

In his note to Steyn and his family, Minnie wrote:

Finally I get to rest. The pitiful cries of the lost boys of Bird Island have haunted me for the past thirty one years. At last, their story is out. Chrissy, don’t give up now. You’re almost home. No government officials preventing you from investigating this time round.” Mark Anthony Dawid Minnie

The revelations by Minnie and Steyn have shaken many who served under and alongside Malan. Some have rushed to defend Malan, then the second-most powerful man in PW Botha’s cabinet, in what could be seen as a concerted effort aimed at discrediting Minnie and Steyn and the investigation itself.

Bird Island author Mark Minnie. Photo supplied

General Constand Viljoen, issuing a media statement in his capacity as the former head of the South African Defence Force, decried the “impression” of Malan created in the book, claiming “it is not in line with how we knew him through the years.

We learned to know and respect him as a totally dedicated military commander and also as head of the Defence family, whose exemplary behaviour was always a good example to his subordinates and colleagues,” said Viljoen.

Former Minister of Law and Order, Adriaan Vlok, also rushed to Malan’s defence, saying he did not believe the allegations contained in Minnie and Steyn’s book.

Former Minister Barend du Plessis, who outed himself in Rapport saying he believed people might finger him as the “third minister”, described Malan as “a man’s man” and “a top student at West Point” (where Malan was trained).

He was the epitome of discipline and masculinity,” said Du Plessis, who denied any knowledge of the routine abuse of the boys.

The publication of The Lost Boys Of Bird Island has stirred many apartheid-era ghosts and ghouls and their still-living protectors in the shadow world of Military Intelligence. It has also once again has focused attention on the absolute power and the particularly secretive, lawless and violent environment in which the white minority government as well as the SADF, which enforced its will, functioned at the time.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission heard evidence of state-sponsored death squads which eliminated political rivals, assassinated selected individuals, and pumped millions into disinformation campaigns run the Department of Military Intelligence (DMI), as well as the feared Security Police.

The murderous CCB – Civil Co-Operation Bureau – responsible for the deaths of many anti-apartheid activists also functioned under Malan’s authority at the time.

It is interesting to note that Malan’s former driver, Major Nico Basson, was an openly gay man who was responsible for running a unit, staffed mostly with young gay conscripts, who were tasked with creating propaganda for the SADF as well as arranging entertainment for the troops.

Basson blew the whistle on the apartheid-government’s attempts at manipulating the 1989 Namibian elections. He also later disclosed to the New York Times that the apartheid state had attempted to use the same methods in South Africa and had provided Inkatha with AK-47 assault rifles for distribution in KwaZulu-Natal to foment violence prior to the country’s first democratic elections in 1994.

The fact that Basson was a gay man is neither here nor there and others, including Eusebius McKaiser, have written eloquently on the complex underlying web of violence, racism, homophobia, power and patriarchy that enmeshes the story of the abused and forgotten boys.

What is intriguing, considering the openly hostile, macho and toxically hyper-masculine ethos of the SADF, where Malan was known as a “man’s man”, is that he would choose an openly gay man as his driver.

The very fabric of the SADF was virulently homophobic, so much so that army psychiatrist, Dr Aubrey Levin, later convicted of sexual assault in Canada, had, during his time as a doctor in the SADF, administered shock therapy to gay men and women at Pretoria’s Voortrekkerhoogte Military Hospital.

Journalist, author and former political prisoner, Paul Trewhela, had this to say about Basson:

One of the brightest stars in this military-political firmament, and the first to expose its operations to public gaze, was a former SADF major, Nico Basson. At the age of 34 already a veteran of the murky realm of South Africa’s defence ‘spooks’, Basson is the survivor of four assaults on his person, all probably from his former colleagues in the special services department of the SADF. When he did his ‘national service’ (compulsory for white males only) in 1975 – that year of destiny, in which the SADF invaded Angola – Basson served as driver to General Malan, then embarking on the fateful step to his career as the Napoleon of southern Africa.”

After his national service in 1980, Basson worked at the SABC as an assistant director before rejoining the SADF, rising to the rank of Major. He became the SADF’s public relations officer and “the right hand man of General Jannie Geldenhuys, then chief of the army and later head of the SADF”.

Basson later, in the early 1990s, disclosed the existence of “Operation Agree”, which he claimed had been cooked up at the end of 1988 by Malan and then Minister of Foreign Affairs Pik Botha.

Basson, wrote Trewhela, “provided a wealth of detail about Operation Agree, including ‘names of senior military officers, names of alleged SADF front companies in and out of South Africa, and names of individuals allegedly running those companies’.

The moving spirits behind his own manipulation of information in Namibia were the former head of the SADF, General Jannie Geldenhuys, and the present head, General A J ‘Kat’ Liebenberg. The strategy of the SADF was to ensure that the present political and economic power structure in South Africa remained ‘essentially the same after the apartheid laws have gone, following democratic elections’.”

Daily Maverick has spoken to three men who were recruited to the SADF propaganda unit that Basson commanded.

He was a card-carrying flaming queen,” said Mark Legward, a writer, director, advertising copywriter and strategic brand consultant who was recruited to the unit under Basson’s command and that had been stationed at the SADF Headquarters in Pretoria.

However, Basson, added Legward, was a closed book. He appeared to have a direct line to top brass and could simply make a call to remove any potential obstacles in the unit’s path.

Another recruit, who asked not to be named, told Daily Maverick that he had known Basson and that as a conscript he had been stationed at Army HQ in Pretoria in the late ’80s.

As a major, he reported directly to the chief of the army and above,” said the recruit, adding that almost everyone in Basson’s unit had been gay.

Keep in mind this was the ’80s. The army was run by Afrikaner men who did not suffer English speakers, let alone gay people. Both of which would never have had a security clearance. Basson’s unit operated on the same floor as General Liebenberg, the head of the SA Army, (the guy he, Nico, reported to) and who in turn reported to Magnus.”

The unit member had met Basson while completing an officers’ course and the Major had arrived “one night and started interviewing recruits”.

Basson later entered into a long-term relationship with another young recruit and both later resettled in the Netherlands. Basson’s current whereabouts are unknown.

Those are a few of the facts surrounding the entire sordid saga.

Others are that Steyn had contacted the surgeon who tended to the young boy who had been shot in the anus and had been evacuated to a then “whites only” provincial hospital in PE. The surgeon did not deny that he had treated the boy but responded that any comment on the matter “would violate patient confidentiality”.

Minnie had also contacted the then senior public prosecutor, John Scott, who had instructed Minnie in 1987 that the investigation into Allen “must cease immediately”, for his right to reply to be included in his book. Scott did not respond to Minnie’s email.

Further facts include that veteran investigative journalist Martin Welz, then a reporter with Rapport and now editor of Noseweek, had, at the time and after the death of Dave Allen, interviewed the keeper of the Cafe Recife lighthouse on the opposite shore to Bird Island. The keeper confirmed to Minnie and Welz that military helicopters would take off from Cape Recife and that there were often children and adults on board.

The keeper had confirmed to Welz that a group of young “coloured” boys had arrived at the lighthouse and had asked him to radio the lighthouse on the island (there were no phone land lines) to ask the men who had just arrived there, in a military helicopter for a fishing expedition, to pay them money they were owed for unknown services rendered.

The boys, said Welz, had threatened to lay charges with the police.

Wiley and Allen had had a long-standing relationship/friendship. Wiley had, in fact, brought Allen as his plus one to a parliamentary cocktail party when other cabinet minsters had brought their wives. Allen often presented reports to Parliament although it is not clear in what capacity, as he was not an MP.

Over and above this, former Minister of Health, and Administrator of the then South West Africa, Dr Willie Van Niekerk, both Welz and Steyn found, had prescribed anti-anxiety medication to Wiley. Van Niekerk specialised in gynaecology and did not consult Wiley’s regular physician, Welz confirmed with the dispensing chemist at the time.

Welz said that Wiley was most certainly leading “a double life” but had made it to cabinet anyway.

Suddenly the party turned against him, the stories around him were becoming too dangerous,” said Welz. He added that he believed Wiley might have been “driven to suicide”.

The only way PW Botha would have known about the allegations against Wiley, Allen, Malan and the third still unnamed minister, would have been from notes, interviews and tape recordings in Mark Minnie’s growing pile of evidence in the docket stolen from his office in March 1987.

Over the years, several journalists have attempted to follow the trail of the Lost Boys of Bird Island including Gavin Evans, a former reporter with the then Weekly Mail. In the 1990s The Star journalists, Charles Leonard and Ivor Powell, who were working on the story, investigating Nico Basson in particular, had their materials seized during a police raid.

The information on Magus Malan, who was mentioned in Minnie’s docket, could have been used to control the deeply conservative Malan by PW’s successor FW de Klerk. De Klerk pipped Barend du Plessis (PW’s choice) by only eight votes to lead the party in 1989 after Botha’s second debilitating stroke. Malan was later demoted by FW and moved to the Ministry of Housing and Water Affairs in 1991. Malan retired in 1993.

There is no doubt that apartheid intelligence agents would have been aware of the allegations contained in Minnie’s docket and could have used this as leverage with regard to Malan or any attempt to scupper FW’s willingness to engage the ANC in a “negotiated settlement”.

The good news for the nameless lost boys, their families, Mark and Chris and so many others who have asked questions over the years and found themselves stymied, is that the Foundation for Human Rights has offered to take up the investigation.

Steyn’s reply to Minnie’s exhortation in his suicide note for her to carry on reads:

Mark. I will keep going. You knew that. I just wish you could have been here to go through all the new leads with me. If only you could have seen some of the information that has come in. You would have felt some vindication at last. But I have good news, Mark. There is already enough to start building a new docket. Once we are ready, we will hand it over for further action. That was all you ever wanted. A proper investigation. But you don’t have to worry about it any more. And nobody is going to steal this docket. Chrissy” DM

Anybody with information on The Lost Boys of Bird Island can e-mail [email protected]


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