CRUSADE OF TERROR
Right-wing ‘terrorist pastor’s’ dark plans for a bloody coup unravel in high court
‘General’ of the Crusaders Harry Johannes Knoesen is accused of planning an insurrection and the genocide of black people. More than two years after his arrest, his trial has started.
A little-known treason case of a former right-wing extremist pastor, who is accused of trying to overthrow the government as a member of the Crusaders a few years ago, is unravelling in the Mpumalanga High Court.
The case against retired pastor and former South African National Defence Force member Harry Johannes Knoesen (63) began on 28 April.
The court heard that the “insurrection” (or coup d’état) was plotted between December 2018 and 28 November 2019. It is alleged that Knoesen had cells across SA ready to carry out attacks on national key points and kill as many black people as possible.
Evidence so far heard for the first time in a trial court, after two years, suggests that extreme perceptions of farm killings, threats from Black First Land First (BLF) to take “their” land, and that the white race is under serious threat because of EFF leader Julius Malema’s song Kill the Boer, Kill the Farmer, were driving forces behind the plot to overthrow the government.
According to the court papers, the coup was supposed to be executed at midnight on 28 November 2019. Explosions and the rattling sound of AK-47 assault rifles would send the country into an unimaginable state of panic. The aim of the planned terrorist activity was to cause destruction to state-owned properties, police stations and military bases, thereby endangering lives or causing serious injuries or death to black people.
But the extremist group was not aware that members of the Hawks’ Serious Organised Crime Investigation’s Crime Against the State (CATS) team and national Crime Intelligence followed Knoesen’s every move.
Hours before he could push the button for the plan to kick into action, members of the Hawks and Crime Intelligence arrested him at his residence in Middelburg and foiled the planned insurrection.
Knoesen has pleaded not guilty to charges of high treason, incitement to carry out terrorist attacks in SA, soliciting support and/or recruiting to carry out terrorist attacks in SA, unlawful possession of a firearm and unlawful possession of ammunition.
Two brothers, Eric and Errol Abrahams, who are serving eight years, and Riana Heymans, were also arrested in November 2019 for their parts in the plot.
Who is Knoesen
Knoesen is a self-professed leader of the National Christian Resistance Movement (NCRM), also known as the Crusaders. He has given himself the title of general.
In 2018, he was initially part of the Ex Unitate Veriz (EUV) Eendrag Maak Mag right-wing group. Around March 2019, his NCRM is said to have formed an alliance with the EUV.
The alliance didn’t last long. In July 2019, the EUV broke ties with Knoesen. Knoesen then allegedly formed cells in different parts of the country, including Brakpan, Pretoria, Mbombela, Bethlehem, Vereeniging, Brits, Port Elizabeth, Cape Town and Middelburg. Some former members of the SADF’s Cape Corps also belonged to cells.
Court papers have revealed that the coup d’état was planned in 2018 and 2019 near Middelburg and at numerous other places, including at Sterkfontein Dam, in Harrismith, Free State.
One of Knoesen’s fanatical views contained in the indictment and summary of facts is that he explored the possibility of using a biological weapon to infect and kill members of the black population.
This is portrayed in count two of the indictment, which reads that Knoesen posted a voice clip on social media on 16 November 2019 to the following effect: “The Crusaders, NCRM are really close, really close to hitting and governing this country. These murderers, rapists, todures, [sic] and dark rubbish of the earth…therefore are going to die in their many thousands…Stand by me…Influence other [sic]…Use your firearm, walk out of your gate and bring the numbers down. I take responsibility for anything you do under my banner.”
Mpumalanga National Prosecuting Authority regional spokesperson Monica Nyuswa explained that the threat from the alleged white supremacist reached its pinnacle at a meeting with select groups on the weekend of 16-17 November 2019 and at another meeting at the Sterkfontein Dam. The final plan was then discussed.
Investigators also found that, before the weekend of 23-24 November that year, the accused is said to have contacted a former member of the security forces to supply him with weapons and ammunition, including AK-47s, hand grenades and RPG7 rocket launchers. The accused also required assistance with the manufacturing of explosives.
Reason for plot
The indictment and summary of facts that is the nub of the State’s case further describes Knoesen as a man who “sought to justify his beliefs on religion, claiming that God had ordained that he should reclaim South Africa for white people”.
“These high racial views were his motivation to decide to overthrow the government and indiscriminately kill African people. To further this end, he planned to attack government institutions and more specifically police and military institutions.
“He also identified townships and informal settlements occupied by African people as targets for attack. He explored the possibility of using a biological weapon to infect and kill members of the African population,” the State contends.
All hell was meant to break loose at midnight on 28 November 2019 when cells and members of the Crusaders would have unleashed a violent onslaught on the government and black people.
But CATS and Crime Intelligence kept him under their radar for more than a year.
Knoesen was arrested on 28 November 2019. Days later, the Abrahams brothers and Heymans, who ran the Crusaders’ social media, were also arrested.
The weapons confiscated included:
- 106 x 6.35mm rounds of ammunition
- 3 x 9mm rounds of ammunition
- 35 x 7mm rounds of ammunition
- 37 x 3.5 YI/Magnum rounds of ammunition
- 1 x 45mm round of ammunition
In a search at a residence in the Eastern Cape, the investigating team uncovered a possible explosives factory, electronic devices, documents, an unlicensed firearm and ammunition. All were seized for analysis.
The charges against Heymans were withdrawn in August 2020. The Abrahams brothers were sentenced to eight years in jail in the Middelburg Regional Court in December 2020 for their roles in the plot.
Now the trio are key witnesses for the State to testify against Knoesen and share with the court details of the plan.
Heymans in a 20-page affidavit set out her own fears and that of the rest of the white community as the reason why she joined the right-wing group.
“I believe that being a ‘General’ and being a pastor he would save our people from total poverty and possible death. It is dreadful to live in constant fear, hearing of murders, farm killings, rapes, car hijackings and it was for this reason I bought a revolver from a retired police [sic] around March/April 2019,” Heyman explain in her affidavit.
Knoesen has since fired his legal team and has told the court that he will conduct his own defence.
The State’s case is led by senior advocate Ansie Venter and Derrick Rowles. Evidence the State has so far presented to court includes audio clips, videos the accused posted on social media as well as the testimony of a digital forensic investigator.
Heymans has also corroborated meetings that Knoesen had with cells and has detailed the plot to overthrow the government in November 2019.
Legacy of apartheid and hatred
South Africa’s foremost human rights advocates say that the persistent racial tensions in the country are fuelled by inequality and that the country is far from the SA united in its diversity envisioned by the Constitution. On how such plots by terrorist groups are planned and the motives behind them, Willem Els, a senior training coordinator at the Institute for Security Studies, said they do not pop up overnight and are designed over a period of time. “Not just in this case but also in other parts of the world there is marginalisation of certain groups and this is one of the drivers for radicalisation.”
To support this view, Els made reference to the attacks by insurgent groups in northern Mozambique. Scholars have found that the Mweni, one of the main ethnic groups on the northern Mozambican coast, felt marginalised for decades by migration into their area, a lack of economic development and their neighbours’ political clout.
“People in northern Mozambique felt marginalised and got angry. It took time for the situation to explode. The same is happening in SA. People go to the voting stations and they are not listened to.
“People begin to self-mobilise and especially in boere [farm] communities with farm attacks. People get angry because the police are doing nothing. This is when people [begin] forming cells like in the Knoesen case.
“Cells are a technique that seems to be working for terrorist or radical groups,” Els said.
It also appears that the Covid-19 lockdown measures provided the ideal opportunity to reignite the radical views of white supremacists in the country.
Conspiracies ranged from the sublime to the ridiculous, with outrageous videos accusing the South African government of complicity in deliberately contaminating Covid-19 testing kits to the idea that lockdown restrictions were merely a ploy to further marginalise the position of whites and hence quicken the onset of an impending white genocide.
A report released in February by the Counter-Terrorism, Monitoring, Reporting and Support Mechanism maps three local studies where violent right-wing extremism (VRWE) has proliferated significantly –Western Balkans, Turkey and SA.
In the South Africa context, the report states: “In South Africa, especially compared to the previous two case studies, VRWE is not part of the political mainstream, but it is strongly linked into the international VRWE environment and is driven domestically through fear of government land reform programmes and targeted farm murders.
“It is ideologically based in white supremacy and the separation of races, deeply rooted in apartheid policies and Afrikaner nationalism, which seeks to protect the Afrikaner identity and status against other ethnic groups.”
More alarming is that OpenDemocracy last year reported that some radical right-wing South African groups had travelled to the US in efforts to expand their organisational networks.
AfriForum spokesperson Jacques Broodryk told DM168 it was aware of the events relating to the Crusaders. However, with no expert on terror in its organisation, AfriForum could not elaborate on the prevalence of right-wing supremacists in the country. The case resumes in the Mpumalanga High Court on Tuesday, 10 May. DM168
Other right-wing supremacist cases of insurrection in SA
On 30 October 2002, eight bombs rocked Soweto. Seven of the blasts occurred on main railway lines running through the township. The damage to the railway lines was estimated at about R2-million.
On 11 November 2002, a right-wing group, the Boeremag, claimed responsibility for the series of bombings. The supremacist group wanted to chase black people out of the country and replace the government with a military Boer leadership. The Boeremag treason trial began on 19 May 2003.
In October 2013, Mike du Toit, ringleader of a right-wing plot to assassinate Nelson Mandela and expel black people from SA, was sentenced to 35 years in prison. Boeremag miltary leader Tom Vorster and “bomb squad” members Herman van Rooyen, Rudi Gouws, Johan Pretorius and his brother Wilhelm were sentenced to 25 years. Kobus Pretorius, the Boeremag master bomb maker, was sentenced to 20 years.
The late Eugène Terre’Blanche, leader of the far-right Afrikaner Weerstandsbeweging (AWB), and three associates faced terrorism charges in 1983. They were charged under the Terrorism Act after they were accused of possession of arms, ammunition and explosives. In October 1983, Terre’Blanche was convicted and sentenced to two years imprisonment, suspended for five years. Like the Boeremag, the AWB was also hell-bent on overthrowing the South African government by violent means. Terre’Blanche and co-accused Petrus Johannes Rudolph applied for and were granted amnesty by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 1999. DM168
This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R25.