The Hammer unit and the Goniwe murders*

Sam Sole

The Hidden Hand: Covert Operations in South Africa

Editors: Anthony Minnaar, Ian Liebenberg, Charl Schutte

(1994) Human Sciences Research Council, Pretoria.

ISBN 0 7969 1563 6

Introduction

 

There is some difficulty in dealing properly with either of these subjects. Much of my information on Hammer is based on interviews with a handful of members before the Sunday Tribune's expose of Hammer. Thereafter, members were told to shut up and at least one who had spoken out, was placed under intense pressure.

I myself was warned not to continue with the probe if I valued my future and that of my family, a warning I took seriously. There is still some degree of danger attached to the disclosure of information about either subject, as the assassination of Andre de Villiers showed. In addition, the Goniwe Inquest is technically still sub judice.

 

The Hammers: Origins

For a unit the South African Defence Force (SADF) claimed was never a secret, the Hammers had a remarkably low public profile before being linked to the Goniwe murders. The only public references I have come across were in three commissions of enquiry: the Hiemstra Commission into the Activities of the Johannesburg City Council Security Department, the Skweyiya Commission at the University of Transkei and the Harms Commission into the Civil Co-operation Bureau (CCB).

At the Hiemstra Inquiry, Security Department Chief and a major in Military Intelligence, Maj. Frik Barnard said members of his staff had undergone a Hammer Course, which he described as a 'low level intelligence course'. Later his counsel said he had made a mistake [277] and that he had no idea what a Hammer Course was. During cross-examination at the Harms Inquiry, CCB chief Gen. Eddie Webb was asked about the Hammers. He too denied knowledge of them. At the Skweyiya Commission, evidence referred to the 'snatching' of a UNITRA academic by the Hammer Group.

In September 1989 an anonymous caller to the Black Sash in Cape Town claimed to be a member of a 'Reaction Unit' which had carried out the assassination of Anton Lubowski and David Webster. I mention this not because there is necessarily any connection with Hammer, but to suggest that the term 'Reaction Unit', which the SADF ascribes to Hammer, was also a military euphemism for hit squad.

Following the publication of the Goniwe 'death signal' an anonymous caller to the Daily Dispatch said Hammer was involved. That launched my own investigation.

 

The nature of the beast

It is common cause that Hammer was founded towards the end of 1983 by Gen. Joffel van der Westhuizen, then O.C. of Eastern Province Command (Affidavit submitted by J. van der Westhuizen to the Goniwe Inquest). Van der Westhuizen himself, I was reliably told, referred to it as a kind of 'recce unit' for the Eastern Cape, which had no special forces of its own.

Col Lourens du Plessis told the Goniwe Inquest that Van der Westhuizen had characterised the unit in these terms: 'If you want to rap (tik) someone, you need a hammer'. Volunteers were called for from the Citizen Force and the Commandos, and an initial selection phase (in the first intake - there were a number of subsequent intakes) whittled down more than 50 volunteers to about 12 who went on to receive specialist training. Of the first graduates, one was a former Rhodesian SAS soldier, but most were young Eastern Cape farmers with previous military experience. It is [278] significant that this first selection phase was handled by at least four former Rhodesian Selous Scouts, including Col Colin Willis, Maj. P.J. Cole and Sgt/Maj. W. E. van der Riet, who were based in Transkei at the time. Both the training and philosophy of Hammer appear to have borrowed from the Selous Scouts: selection was very tough marked by physical and verbal abuse, sleep deprivation, exhaustion, etc. One of the officers involved in this phase said it was 'pretty close to brainwashing techniques' (Personal interview by Sole, 1992).

Scouts were also involved in later training, such as the tracking course in Transkei. The involvement of ex-Rhodesians and Selous Scouts in particular in the South African covert story is a thread which still needs to be followed. Another ex-Rhodesian on Van der Westhuizeri s staff, Col Vic Walker, followed him to Wits Command and, according to a Weekly Mail report, was responsible for setting up Hammer on the Reef. According to the evidence of the Katzen documents,' Selous Scout Commander Gen. Ron Reid-Daly played a key role in Operation Katzen and he apparently maintained his contact with Gen. Van der Westhuizen after both moved to Johannesburg.

 

Training

Selection and training were done at a number of remote farms and training bases in the Eastern Cape, including Nooitgedacht outside Kareedouw and Slagboom outside Addo. Initial SADF response to press reports played down the nature of the unit, implying it was merely a short-notice, quick response infantry unit. The description eventually provided in an affidavit to the Goniwe Inquest by Gen. van der Westhuizen gives a more accurate picture. He said the unit was intended to carry out urban and rural counterinsurgency operations including:

immediate follow-up operations after enemy infiltration, [279]

action against kidnapping or occupation incidents where SADF property or personnel were involved,

special protection duties, such as VIP protection,

countermine measures, the detection and destruction of explosive devices,

intelligence operations and observation, and

co-operation with the SAP and SA Railway Police.

 

Operations

It is clear this was no ordinary infantry group; what it was is less clear. Details of the unit's operational activity are scarce; no documents relating to operations on the night of 27 June 1985 were found by the Goniwe investigation team and all Hammer pay records of the period, which would have revealed the same thing, were (conveniently) destroyed according to Army regulations.

One member said the unit worked with the police on only about half its operations - and then mainly with the Port Elizabeth Riot Unit. Another said the unit also worked with the CCB and the Recces. Several sources confirmed a modus operandi during township operations of using mini-bus taxis with false number plates, and the wearing of overalls, balaclavas and black camouflage cream. Men were usually deployed in a stick system of three or six. Hammer can be fairly certainly linked to the following:

Hammer members indicated that the unit eventually existed country-wide, but my information is restricted to the unit attached to EP Command.

 

Command and control

Cmdt Dries Struwig was the Hammer O.C., but as an operational unit it would have fallen under the Senior Staff Officer Operations, Col Piet Hall. Hall also helped draft Operation Katzen and played a key role in its execution. Other senior officers already named in the press (Sunday Tribune, 30 May 1992) were Maj. Graham Lombard and CPO John Scott, a bomb disposal expert. Members were called up at short notice, even in the middle of the night, usually via the telephone.

According to one member the unit was rather a 'law unto itself': members could, for example, enter EP Command HQ with loaded weapons and flagrantly disregarded other conventional standing orders. He said that while there were some 'worthwhile operations', to an extent they were 'a bunch of cowboys'. Another quit because of racism and a lack of discipline which he felt were militarily counterproductive. [281]

 

The Hammers: Some concluding remarks

As civilians, Hammer members brought important skills, knowledge and contacts to the military arena, but it left those who moved on from the conflict of the mid-1980s extremely vulnerable to public probing. These are men with families, public positions, jobs - one is a well-known rugby personality - who do not enjoy the anonymity and shelter of the permanent force community.

There is a deep mistrust of any amnesty which would include exposure of individuals at a low level. Notwithstanding any official pardon, members fear private retribution from those who have personally felt Hammer's blows and feel they cannot countenance public exposure.

Those who have gone through the Hammer experience constitute a brotherhood with very, very strong codes and loyalties which operate beyond the reach of military discipline. A core group maintain contact with each other and regard a threat to one as an attack on all.

The use of civilians in Special Forces roles has also carried with it the same invitations to criminal abuse encountered with the CCB. There are indications that some ex-members have entered the same world of 'private operations', weapons and drug smuggling etc., perhaps insulated by the politically explosive secrets they bear.

 

The Goniwe murders

One of these secrets is undoubtedly the truth of what happened to Matthew Goniwe, Sparrow Mkhonto, Fort Calata and Sicelo Mhlauli. While I believe the SA Police - and perhaps other agencies - were involved, one of the big question marks dogging the Goniwe Inquest is why not a single Hammer witness has been called. [282]

The Sunday Tribune (30 May 1992) reported that a Hammer member had confirmed the unit took part in the combined SAP/SADF roadblock at which Goniwe and his companions were stopped. Nothing which has since emerged has suggested to me he

was lying or mistaken. He reported he had taken part in an operation in Ladyslipper on the same day/night. He also said he had the impression that 'AZAPO' (Azanian Peoples' Organisation) was at the roadblock.

The mention of AZAPO is significant. A statement placed before the first inquest spoke of the involvement of 'AZAPO' members, under the wing of the Rev. Ebenezer Maqina's organisation Ama Afrika, playing a part in the murders. That statement was later recanted. We now know that Maqina was first a police agent before being taken over by the SADF in about 1985 as part of Project Henry (Evidence led in the Goniwe Inquest). Cmdt Botha Marais, the former O.C. of Cradock Commando, was intimately involved with Project Henry. Marais apparently boasted of his role in the Goniwe affair to Dr Ben Conradie, who inherited Project Henry. Dr Conradie's affidavit to this effect was not placed before the Inquest.

The participation of Hammer in the Goniwe incident appears to be an open secret in intelligence circles. One MI source told me a total of eighteen members were involved in the operation. He said it was originally to have been carried out by members of the Recce Battalion based in Durban, but there was insufficient time and the job fell to Hammer.

Purely logically, there is a lopsidedness in the evidence before the inquest: we know much about the intelligence gathering concerning Goniwe and the SAP and SADF agencies involved, but almost no questions have been directed at the operations arms - such as Hammer - which would have carried out such a hit if it was indeed a state-sanctioned killing. [283]

There are also several interesting contradictions in the Hammer affidavits before the court, not the least of which being that all the officers maintained the unit was never used for roadblocks, while at least one member has told me it was.

At the very least there is more meat for cross-examination in these affidavits than there was in the initial police statements regarding the Motherwell bomb explosion in which four black security policemen were killed. And a veritable meal was made of that once the witnesses were brought to court. Why has this not been done? To find what I believe to be the answer to that question one must look at the Goniwe case in a broader context.

The Inquest is significant in that it touches on extremely potent forces. Gen. Joffel van der Westhuizen is now one of the most powerful men in the SADF. The signal recommending 'permanent removal' required authorisation from someone in the State Security Council and it is unlikely that no cabinet minister was informed or aware of this or similar processes. Once a cover-up starts unravelling from the bottom, the potential for fingers pointing up the line to the very top is great. (The tapping of Adriaan Vlok's conversation with Deputy Attorney-General Malherbe Marais and its subsequent leak to the media (first revealed by Jacques Pauw in an article in The Star) was an interesting pointer. I was reliably informed that it was Vlok's side of the conversation which was tapped - obviously by State operatives. The message to Vlok was clear: you better look after us because you are not immune.) For the National Party, already facing an uphill election, a full disclosure could be disastrous.

The African National Congress (ANC), while obviously keen to exploit the propaganda potential of the Inquest, can strategically not afford such an assault on an already dangerously weakened negotiating partner. In addition, there is, I suggest, a reluctance to put too much pressure on key elements of the SADF before the [284] ANC is safely in power. In short, besides the families (and the judge) no-one wants the whole unpalatable truth right now.

The inquest has also exposed some of the problems with regard to the investigation of covert operations: firstly, the capacity of the security forces to destroy or conceal evidence and manipulate the investigation. Perhaps the most striking example of this was the police investigation of the four black Port Elizabeth Security Branch members in 1989. The bomb which blew up their car was blamed on the ANC. Evidence now suggests several of them were threatening to reveal information about the Goniwe murders and were therefore executed by their white colleagues. Among other things the police simply concealed the fact that there were two independent witnesses - eventually traced by the Sunday Tribune - to the explosion.

With respect to documentary evidence, a source at Eastern Province Command claimed the SADF team sent to investigate the leak of the signal document simply cleaned up the evidence before the Attorney General arrived.

The second problem I would call overcoming the boundaries of the 'credible'. Both the people and the events one is dealing with in the covert world tend to be abnormal. The odd facts and odder denizens of this world tend to be dismissed as far-fetched and unreliable, particularly from an overly legalistic point of view.

Yet who would have believed in the reality of a plan as grandiose, duplicitous, ruthless and (in its choice of Charles Sebe as a linchpin) wrongheaded as Operation Katzen - the plan to turn the Eastern Cape into a kind of Xhosa KwaZulu. The Katzen documents give perhaps the fullest picture of any large-scale SADF covert operation that we are ever likely to get. The depth of interference in the body politic which they expose, testifies to the tremendous capability of the modern state to manipulate public reality. We should remain suspicious of that power. [285]

The third problem I would like to mention is the intimidation of witnesses and potential witnesses. Col Lourens du Plessis testified to the 'soft pressure' exerted on witnesses to tailor their evidence. During hours of consultation with an SADF legal officer he was told repeatedly how improbable it was that Gen. van der Westhuizen would have put a suggestion to kill someone in writing. His origin affidavit denying the signal was a death warrant was made under that pressure, he testified, and out of the desire not to 'step outside of the fold'.

To betray the code of secrecy which is part of covert operations takes considerable courage. And when such soft pressure was not enough, there were coarser methods, culminating in the murder of Andre de Villiers. This, for me, is the final lesson of Goniwe: the killers go free and the killing goes on.

 

Endnote

1. Documents concerning the Katzen Plan were first made public by Gen. Bantu Holomisa of Transkei and were subsequently submitted as evidence by Col Lourens du Plessis to the Goniwe Inquest. [286]


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