South Africa

Lost Boys of Bird Island

Dear General van der Merwe: Twice you called me a liar. Twice you failed. Now you are trying again

Left: Chris Steyn and Mark Minnie, the authors of Lost Boys of Bird Island. Right: General Johan van der Merwe in 1989, taken by Doug Lee at a SAP ceremony on December 1, 1989.

On Sunday former police commissioner General Johan van der Merwe penned a letter to an Afrikaans-language Sunday newspaper accusing the late former cop and author Mark Minnie and investigative journalist and co-author of the best-seller The Lost Boys of Bird Island, Chris Steyn, of fabricating the story. He challenged Steyn to take a lie detector test and stated he was prepared to undergo one as well. This is Steyn's response.

The book has reignited interest in the sensational case implicating Port Elizabeth businessman and diver Dave Allen, former National Party Cabinet Minister John Wiley and former Minster of Defence General Magnus Malan in a paedophile network that abused young and vulnerable boys, most of them coloured, during “fishing” trips to Bird Island in the 1980s.

Van der Merwe was the head of the feared and murderous security police in 1985. In his letter, Van der Merwe defends his former leader, PW Botha, saying the then president had never tried to cover up the “misdeeds” of any of his cabinet ministers.

Van Der Merwe claims that he was unaware of any of the allegations and that due to his powerful position at the time these most certainly would have come to his attention.

(What Van der Merwe does not explain, however, is how he could have missed the newspaper reports – as censored as they were – that had been published at the time.)

Here is Chris Steyn’s reply:

Dear General,

I read that you want me to take a lie detector test.

Apparently this is how you want to try to disprove allegations made in The Lost Boys of Bird Island, the book I co-wrote with a former policeman who is said to have shot himself following publication.

This is the third time you have been involved in attempts to brand me or my sources liars so that you can discredit what I write.

So it is in the public interest that I remind you of what happened the previous two times you tried to destroy my credibility.

The first time was in 1985 when a fellow journalist and I wrote a story exposing a dirty tricks operation by the Security Police to expose an affair between Dr Allan Boesak, then President of the World Alliance of Reformed Churches, and a leading official of the South African Council of Churches.

That story was vehemently denied by the Commissioner of Police, General Johann Coetsee and others, including yourself.

So, The Star published a follow-up in which we detailed admissions made to us by two Security Branch colonels prior to the publication of the first story.

The police issued a statement calling those revelations “blatant lies”.

Then the South African Police lodged a complaint with the South African Media Council.

You, General, testified at that hearing.

At the time, you were second-in-command of the security branch.

You said that you had such faith in the discipline of the force and in the system that you had found it unnecessary to check with the Johannesburg branch of the security police before denying the allegations published in The Star.

After six days of evidence, your advocate Sam Maritz argued for five-and-a-half hours to show that I was a “totally incredible witness, whose evidence should be totally rejected”.

The Star’s Advocate, Fanie Cilliers SC, pointed out that it had gone almost beyond the bounds of privilege to label me a liar.

Despite your best efforts, The Star, and I, were exonerated when the Media Council accepted my evidence to be true.

Of course, you knew that all along.

And you even admitted it to me when I visited you at your home in Pretoria in 2006.

I was there to interview you for a possible book on Magnus Malan’s Inkatha hit-squads, but it was inevitable that the Boesak story would come up.

This was the admission you made to me over a cup of tea that day: “Your bona fides were absolutely above reproach in that story. There is no doubt about that. You were a brilliant witness. Your testimony was true in all respects. You did not mislead anybody. Your facts were correct,” you told me about myself.

It was only when you spoke those words that I realised that I had waited for more than 20 years to hear you speak the truth about me.

The second attempt to prove that my work is based on lies was sparked by the “Zero-Zero” hand-grenade-blast story involving the deaths of eight people and the serious injury of seven in three East Rand townships.

Our story, containing eyewitness accounts from people willing to have their names published, contradicted the official police version that the men had killed themselves “accidentally” while trying to launch “a co-ordinated terror attack” on the home of SAP members and an electricity substation.

Once again the police felt they had to take legal action. In 1986 I was subpoenaed in terms of Section 205 of the Criminal Procedure Act to give evidence in front of a Johannesburg magistrate in connection with an alleged contravention of Section 27 (b) of the Police Act by three men, one of whom I had interviewed.

I soon received information that some of our sources had “changed” their stories — after being visited by police. One source’s story was apparently “amended” with the aid of gun in each ear.

That meant that the source could be charged with “lying” about the police. And I was expected to testify against my source by reiterating his original story in court.

If I had done that, he would have been convicted and sent to jail for up to five years. However, my decision not to testify against a source – who had told me the truth – meant that I could be kept behind bars until I cracked and decided to comply.

I had to flee the country to avoid rotting in jail.

Once again, it would take many years for the truth to emerge.

And it was none other than you yourself, General, who in 1996, disclosed to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that you had been the brain behind the hand-grenade blasts.

In your submission, you described how hand grenades were “suitably modified” to ensure that anybody throwing them would be “affected first due to the shortened time-delay”.

Five years later, in 2001, the TRC granted amnesty to 13 security policemen in connection with the blasts, the factual reporting of which had forced me to flee the country. Topping that list was your notorious henchman Lieutenant-Colonel Eugene de Kock, who was eventually put away for a litany of other crimes.

Twice you have tried to prove me a liar.

Twice you have presided over the manufacture of lies to try and accomplish this.

Twice you have failed.

Now you are trying again.

The only way you can succeed this time is if you have 24-hour-video footage of Malan and Co on Bird Island – or everywhere they went in private – showing them doing things other than what many independent sources have accused them of.

Maybe the time has come for a commission of inquiry so that you and other denialists can bring forward the “evidence” you have of the “innocence” of these “upright” men. DM