Monday, 28 November 2016

Forensic Meditation: alleged 1979 Rhodesian death flight

A young Chris Pessarra (below) poses at the door of a Dakota

[Extracts from Drinking With Ghosts]


It is October 1999, within days of Judge Willem Hartzenberg
having shocked trial-watchers by throwing out the murder
charges against Wouter Basson relating to the killing of the
approximately 200 Swapo POWs poisoned and dumped
into the ocean – on the slender basis that former South
West African Administrator-General Louis Pienaar had in
February 1990, on the very eve of independence, issued a
blanket amnesty to all SADF forces for acts committed in his
territory. The Sunday Times’s bouffant-haired karaoke queen 
and long-suffering, all-knowing editorial receptionist,
Sandra Hattingh, flags me down as I walk into the newsroom.
A parcel has arrived for me, postmarked Texas, USA. I take
it to my desk and perform the usual ritual, examining it for
oily fingerprints and sniffing it for the scent of almonds –
both potential signs of plastic explosives – then gently open
the opposite end of the package to that which its sender
sealed; one can’t be too careful. I unwrap what amounts to
a present, stuffed full of sheaves of typed documentation –
journalists dream of the day when such mysterious parcels
will arrive on their desks, containing critical, hitherto secret
information, but in truth such serendipitous days are very
few and far between.
The documentation tells the disjointed and yet
wide-ranging tale of its sender, a former French Foreign
Legionnaire named Charles Timothy ‘Chris’ Pessarra.
Following a stint with the Rhodesian military when the
Bush War was in its brutal final phase, Pessarra had, like
so many other Rhodesian military veterans, abandoned
the emergent democratic Zimbabwe to join the SADF. In
an attempt to verify Pessarra’s identity, I drive down to 1
Parachute Battalion at Tempe in Bloemfontein, and there a
major takes me through the class photographs of the early
1980s and identifies a much younger Chris Pessarra (by 1999
his military leanness had given way to the heavyset look of
a biker), so I know that at least part of the story is true – the
former 1 Para officer commanding having also confirmed
that Pessarra had been on-strength in the early 1980s and
that he’d previously fought in Rhodesia. Pessarra’s rambling
tale veers off into a discussion of his later involvement as a
police spy against organisations of the ultra-right engaged
in their various plots, and on to his return to the USA and
his battle with the Inland Revenue Service. But the part
that holds my fascination – and the reason he felt compelled
to contact me in the first place – relates to his presence in 
southern Rhodesia as the parachute jump instructor (PJI) at
the Buffalo Range Forward Airfield at Chiredzi, in May 1979.

[long cut]

It was against this murky backdrop of racial pro-colonial
struggle that Chris Pessarra, who had been blooded as a
paratrooper with the French Foreign Legion’s renowned
2e Régiment Étranger de Parachutistes (2e REP)... 
found himself working as the PJI at Buffalo
Range, a so-called forward airfield from which small
fire-force ‘sticks’ of light infantry would be dropped to
positions in the bush to engage the terrs. Using the contacts
given in the package I got in touch with Pessarra, and in
several detailed, tape-recorded conversations he told me
that in May 1979 he had been approached at the base by
the Selous Scouts, a rapid-deployment formation based on
the World War II tactics of the famous Orde Wingate. The
Scouts had demanded that he give them five parachutes for
a drop that was to remain ‘off the books’, meaning that no
PJI was to be present and that the Rhodesian Air Force HQ
at New Sarum would not be informed. Pessarra initially
staunchly refused to do so, as parachutes were scarce at this
stage of the war and he would be held accountable if five
chutes disappeared from his stores. The hot day burned on,
with the argument going nowhere. Finally, at about 5.30 pm,
two tarpaulin-covered civilian Land Rovers arrived at the
airfield. Pessarra noted that they contained Selous Scouts,
two operators from the Rhodesian Special Air Service (SAS)
– a revered special forces unit, the only one outside the
United Kingdom directly established by the British SAS –
several South African Recces, and a CIA intelligence officer
surnamed Davis who worked for the Salisbury-based front
organisation Christians in Action.
‘In the back right-hand seat was [Wouter] Basson,’
Pessarra said, adding that he had immediately recognised
the former South African Special Forces ops medic from
newspaper coverage of the trial. ‘He did not have a beard;
hell of a lot more hair. He looked like a German hunter on
safari … I was within about ten feet. They saw me, I saw
them very clearly over the space of approximately … an hour,
an hour-and-a-half,’ as the argument over the five chutes
raged on. The two SAS operatives approached Pessarra and
tried to use their unit’s fearsome repute and the fact that
he knew them personally to get him to release the chutes,
but he still refused. One of the Selous Scouts, as a fellow
former Legionnaire, confided to Pessarra that there were five
terrs in the back of one of the Land Rovers who had been
‘doctored’ but were still alive, using a Legionnaire term for
poisoned wells. A propeller-driven Dakota aircraft had been
designated by the odd grouping of Scouts, Recces, SAS and
CIA for the mysterious planned flight (Pessarra provided me
with a faded photograph of his young mercenary self posing
in the doorway of a Dakota). The pilot, a civilian Air Rhodesia
pilot who as part of his military service flew rotations for
the Rhodesian Air Force, had approached Pessarra and
privately begged him to sneak on board the aircraft through
the navigator’s hatch in the nose, and secretly fly with them
that night because he was scared of the intense paranoia
surrounding the flight; he had not even been told where they
were headed. Pessarra did so, and found that the ‘aircraft
interior windows were all blanked out. They had sealed the
pilot’s cabin off with canvases so they could not see what
was going on in the hold.’
Tucked in his hiding place, Pessarra tugged at the
canvas and opened a peep-hole through which he saw
the ‘terrorists’ loaded. They were ‘dressed in Selous Scout
camouflage … They had the fake papers, the whole mess
… arms, everything. They were still conscious. Basson …
climbed up the steps. He had his case with him. He bent over
them inside the door, on the back part of the aircraft between
the last seats and the doors. I only saw him inject two of
them with some type of solution. They did some scrapings,
everything. The rubber gloves were put on … Basson had
a mask on. He … put the mask on once he was inside the
door; took it off once he was outside. This all took about
… 24 minutes. They had two Recce guys helping them. We
took off … They made the drop [over Mozambique]. They
dropped the terrs out on the parachutes. We returned to the


Basson’s legal team has not once responded to Pessarra’s
claims since my exclusive – backed up online by key portions
of the Pessarra tapes – was published in the Sunday Times two
weeks ago, but today when I arrive at court Basson makes
a beeline for me and breaks Judge Hartzenberg’s order that
he not speak to the media. He obviously recognises my 
clean-shaven head and what I term my ‘lawyer-killer’ black
Nehru suit from my byline picture. It’s quite a turnaround
since the first time I approached him in the court, offering
my business card – something I always do as a courtesy to
the stressed accused, so they know who I am and can get
their legal team to challenge my reports if they take issue
with them – when he’d startled me by howling out ‘Adolf!
Adolf!,’ not, as it turns out, calling for aid from the ghost
of Adolf Hitler, but calling for Advocate Adolf Malan to
get this damned reporter away from him. This time, he’s
recovered his composure.
‘That guy Pessarra’s mad, you know? He’s been treated
in psychiatric hospitals.’
Fair enough. As the French Foreign Legion marching
song goes: ‘Nous avons souvent notre cafard / nous sommes
des Légionnaires’ (‘We have our black moods / for we
are Legionnaires’). But Dr Basson, usually so cunning,
has mistakenly admitted that he knows Pessarra, and in
breaking the judge’s order has revealed that my story is
close to the mark. Another indication that Pessarra is telling
the truth has already arisen during my investigation of the
story. Pessarra had named the two members of the SAS
who he said had been at the Buffalo Range Forward Airfield
that fateful day. When I call the Rhodesian veterans’ SAS
Regimental Association – it’s based in Durban, where many
Rhodesian ex-servicemen settled when black majority rule
came to their homeland – and name the two men, I am
told that the one is currently ‘working’ in Sierra Leone,
and the other is in Afghanistan; clearly they have followed
the mercenary, or as it is termed these days, the ‘private
military contractor’ route. The man on the other end of the
line then issues a polite death threat: ‘If you name these
guys in print, the Association will not be held responsible
for what may happen, because we can’t prevent members
taking action.’ I’m delighted to be threatened by soldiers 
of such fearsome repute; moreover, it adds gravity to
Pessarra’s assertions.


Forensic meditation: aftermath of the Shobashobane Massacre

Makhosazana Gambushe walks barefoot through the ashes of her rondavel searching for the remains of her crippled great-aunt © David Buzzard

[Extract from Drinking With Ghosts]

6 JANUARY 2005

                                 ... There’s normally not a helluva lot
of news over the Christmas period, so most newspapers are
on skeleton staff – but I had an idea for a Christmas story of
another sort: revisiting the Christmas Day Massacre of 1995,
the most grievous bloodletting of the democratic era,that
left 18 people dead and 21 wounded.
I hop on an SAA flight from Johannesburg to the
small airport of Oribi, in Pietermaritzburg, the small city
located an hour’s drive inland from the port of Durban.
There I secure a hired car and drive the district roads of
my old KwaZulu-Natal stamping ground, taking the R56
south-westwards, through the town of Richmond, once
the scene of heavy internecine fighting between ANC- and
IFP-aligned factions, then through the hamlet of Ixopo,
immortalised for the beauty of its rolling hills in Alan
Paton’s seminal novel Cry the Beloved Country which was
first published in 1948, the year the National Party came
to power – a tale of tortured redemption in which a black
Anglican priest from Ixopo travels to Joburg in search of his
prodigal son, finding that the young man is to hang for the
murder of a white liberal activist. I drive on through the
forested enclave of Umzimkulu, an odd chunk of the Eastern
Cape wholly surrounded by KwaZulu-Natal and the last
remnant of the fractured cartography of the Bantustans, with
the remnants of its ‘border posts’ still in evidence. At the
N2 highway I turn south towards the coast, and after some
time, before the road climbs up to the Paddock plateau and
its microclimate tea plantations, I pass through the town of
Izingolweni. Just south of here, a hut-stubbled ridge known
as Shobashobane extends westwards towards the beautiful
Umtamvuna River that marks the border with the Eastern
Cape region of the Transkei. I book into my hotel and, as
giant flares of lightning tear through the skies, bed down
for the night. As I fall asleep, comforted under my duvet
and safe from the raging storm, I know that in the huts of 
the region superstitious elderly Zulus have thrown blankets
over their mirrors and aluminium pots, in the belief that
anything shiny lures the killers in the sky. But the killers
most intimately known by the people of Shobashobane
have been their own neighbours.
The next morning, I drive to the junction where the
hamlet of Shobashobane sits just off the highway at the
terminus of the long ridge. It is a scrappy little affair, with
rocky dirt roads embracing the usual taxi rank, bottle stores,
funeral parlours, wholesalers and retailers, and, next to the
police station, a string of antique houses, dilapidated yet
solid, standing foursquare on their fenced plots under the
creaking gum trees, next to a disused railway siding rusting
in the shaded weeds.
I travel out along the ridge towards the Umtamvuna
River, stopping at the first significant structure, a family
compound of huts. I find matriarch Mazungu Nyawose, 65,
the mother of slain Shobashobane ANC Chairman Kipha
Nyawose, whose compound this once was, at home. Five
members of the Nyawose family were killed on that terrible
day in 1995. She tells me that internecine bloodshed has cost
her four of her seven children: two sons – including Kipha
– and two daughters. She herself was shot in the head and
right leg in a 1994 attack on their household in which seven
people were killed. I try to photograph her – my first attempt
at news photography – but fail miserably because I stupidly
pose her against the hut’s window, so the bleached daylight
from outside sinks her face in gloom; but the image, though
unusable, seems appropriate for the infernal darkness of 
the story.
Here I also meet Dumazile Nyawose, 54, Kipha’s aunt.
Her work-worn hands still shake as she recalls how an
Inkatha impi of about 600 people encircled Shobashobane
in a murderous pincer movement. With only about
50 ANC-aligned families settled on the ridge, the tiny 
community was too small to even maintain its two derelict
churches, so most families were preparing to enjoy
Christmas at home or visiting their neighbours. But what
their neighbours, including their own relatives, visited on
them instead was unspeakable. Nyawose recounts for me
how she was in the kitchen preparing a special breakfast
of boerewors, sandwiches and soft drinks for her husband
Amos and son Thulani, then 13. Their 17-year-old daughter
Phindile was visiting relatives further down the road that
leads to Bizana.
‘Thulani came inside and said, “Go out, there’s IFP
coming”,’ Dumazile recalls. ‘I ran outside and saw Tuli
Mountain,’ a prominent hill to the south, ‘black from too
many people. We heard some firearms and shooting. We
ran away.’
Dumazile and Thulani left a ‘very frightened’ Amos to
defend their home; he survived, but his home and another
84 like it were looted and torched by women and youths
who followed in the wake of the impi. Mother and son
encountered Phindile and a cluster of neighbours moving
about further down the road, terrified and confused about
where to find safety. Finding their access to the police
station a mere three kilometres to the east blocked by armed
IFP killers – and a few uniformed policemen – the group
ran down the valley to the north, fording a narrow stream.
Thulani sprinted ahead, but Dumazile describes her horror
on looking back across the water to see the mob catch up
with her daughter.
‘They started to shoot her and then came and stuck her
with assegais and small knives. I saw it, but I don’t know
how to say it …’
I remain quiet, my heart in my throat. When she
recovers her composure, Dumazile claims she saw clearly
who murdered her daughter: ‘Sipho Ngcobo [the local IFP
strongman] and another man killed her. Sipho shot her in 
the back with this long gun – I don’t know what it is called –
and the other man stabbed her with an assegai … She was so
soft and had a kind heart; she wanted to be a social worker.’
As the only journalist on the scene nine years ago, I
remember the aftermath of the Christmas Day Massacre
as if it were yesterday. I was accompanied then by a
Canadian freelance photographer, David Buzzard, because
Richard Shorey, the sole Sunday Times Durban Bureau
photographer on duty that week, was in Pietermaritzburg
covering floods there that had destroyed several homes.
Dave and I scrambled across the slippery rocks over the
same stream that Phindile had failed to cross to safety;
Dave lost his footing and drowned one of his cameras, but
fortunately the others continued to function. We stumbled
in a sweaty daze through high, wet grasses and dense
thornbushes, our skins prickling in the humid air through
which a light drizzling rain was falling. We came across
the body of a young man, his clothes snagged on the thorn
thicket into which he had fled, maggots already squirming
in his eyes. The sight of it made the young policemen who
had been detailed to record and recover the bodies retch
pitifully; having seen many dead bodies by that stage of
my career, I was irritated with them and almost offered
to help them remove the corpse myself, but then thought
better of it as we had our own job to do. Closer to the
Nyawose homestead we found the body of a woman lying
face down, the back of her scalp already gnawed off by
mangy dogs. 
In one of Kipha Nyawose’s huts, on the floor among
scattered toys and schoolbooks, I found an assegai of
crude yet deadly construction, its blade hammered out of a
rusted steel rod, its grip a tightly woven strip of telephone
cable. Designed to gut enemies at close quarters – as Zulu
warriors had done to the British in their victorious attack
at the historic Battle of Isandlwana – its possible role in the
alleged disembowelling and emasculation of Nyawose was
unclear. I picked it up as a memento mori; it hangs from a nail
on my wall in my study at home today. 
Dave and I then visited Sipho Ngcobo at his home,
one of those century-old houses next to the police station
– because like the police station, his home overlooked the
scene of the massacre. Neither he nor the police could have
failed to at least see what had happened across the valley
just the day before. But despite eyewitness accounts that
Ngcobo participated in the massacre and that the police
blocked the refugees’ escape route to the highway, both
have flatly denied this. We found Ngcobo relaxing in his
armchair, exuding an air of unconcern. No, he’d not killed
his neighbours; what a suggestion!
Further down the road, Dave and I found Makhosazana
Gambushe desperately raking through the ashes of her
homestead, looking for the remains of her crippled and
mentally ill great-aunt, Mamkhonjwa Cele, aged 77. Dave
photographed Gambushe through the gutted window
frame, standing barefoot and desolate in the ashes of the
now roofless hut, with her black headscarf on, her hands
anxiously twisting the folds of her floral pinafore. I could
barely imagine the hope and horror warring in her breast.
The only signs of life were slinking puppies and cheeping
chicks. Cele’s body would be identified at the morgue a few
days later; she was one of four Cele family members killed.
Gambushe still lives in Shobashobane. She tells me today,
a decade later, that the years of bloodshed were ‘very hard
because some of them [the killers] were relatives. It would
be better if they are unknown. It’s peaceful on our side, but
I’m not sure about the other side.’
The image that has stayed with me all these years is the
empty eyes of Malan Mthethwa, 43, staring up at me two
weeks later, during the mass funeral service, from inside the
grave of his 16-month-old son Khiphokwakhe, as he laid a 
blanket and a traditional votive offering on the boy’s tiny
white coffin. Mthethwa suffered more than most, having 
also lost both his wives, Busisiwe, 38, and Jabulile, 37. While
the international press corps sat inside the marquee that
stood at a distance from the grim row of 18 graves, recording
the political platitudes of Deputy President Thabo Mbeki,
who had arrived in a SAAF Puma helicopter and was
protected by a ring of SANDF soldiers armed with R4 rifles,
I kneeled in the mud at Khiphokwakhe’s graveside and
spoke as gently as I could to Mthethwa. I have never seen a
man so utterly destroyed. Today I ask around for Mthethwa,
but am told that after the funeral he left Shobashobane for
good and no-one knows his fate.

                                         * * *

The origins of the Christmas Day Massacre go back to 

around 1992, when Shobashobane became contested
territory between the ANC and the IFP. The ANC claims
the IFP was artificially built up in the early 1990s by a
combination of police patronage and strong-arm tactics,
while the IFP claims the area was always its stronghold
and the ANC settlement there was formed by criminal
gangs. Either way, once the killings began they gained the
force of feud, dividing houses against themselves. Young
ANC activist Sicelo Gambushe, with whom I strike up a
conversation when I come across him at the roadside, is an
example of the damage wrought well before the massacre:
his mother, Nompumelelo, aged about 50, was shot dead
in an attack on her homestead in 1993 and his brother
Nkongeni, 25, an ANC self-defence unit member, was
shot dead with his own AK-47 after being captured by the
IFP in 1995. Gambushe walks me through the veld a few
metres off the road and shows me the ruins of a shop once
run by Sehla Nikwe, who was killed in 1993 for the crime
of taking a wounded man to hospital. Gambushe’s friend 
Milton Khomo, 32, shows me where his body was scarred
that same year when arsonists burned his rondavel to the
ground with him still inside it; he narrowly escaped with
his life.
The burned homesteads of Shobashobane have been
rebuilt – partly with money donated by NGOs, partly
by sheer willpower. Today the taxi ranks, spaza shops
and supermarkets are brimful of people going about their
business. Tellingly, many women are dressed in slacks,
which were formerly banned by Inkatha conservatives.
Community water standpipes have sprung up and spidery
electrical lines now string the huts together. Some residents
of Shobashobane fled after the massacre, but most resigned
themselves to living quietly alongside those they knew to
be murderers. 
But Dumazile Nyawose says Christmas Day 1995 is
still remembered in Shobashobane with fear and heartache
as the day when death descended on them. She says that,
whenever elections loom (the ANC now controls four out
of nine wards), the killers among them start a whispering
campaign – ‘We are coming’ – but these days nothing
happens. Ten years on in these lightning-scorched hills,
reconciliation between killers and victims is far from an
easy process, she admits, but adds, ‘My heart is trying to
be right.’
At the funeral for the massacre victims, Deputy President
Mbeki swore that the killers would be hunted down and
brought to book – and 12 suspects eventually were arrested,
including the IFP’s Sipho Ngcobo. But, after serving only
two years of a life sentence, Ngcobo and the five other men
convicted of the massacre had their convictions overturned
on appeal. Today, Ngcobo is the mayor of Izingolweni.
Mazungu Nyawose is resigned to this fact: ‘I’m fine. I have
no problem with Sipho Ngcobo … I accept that Kipha died
for freedom.’
On the drive back to Maritzburg, I visit Ngcobo in
his brand-new yet strangely bare mayoral chamber at
Izingolweni, to find that he has changed his tune slightly.
He tells me that Shobashobane has put fratricide behind
it, but warns that a reversal is not impossible: ‘It is good
now because they [the people] can go freely and not get
threatened, but – and it’s a big “but” because we must be
realistic about peace – there are still elements who want to
destabilise this area.’
While still denying the testimony of those such as
Dumazile Nyawose – that he personally participated in
the slaughter – he finally admits to me at least his political
responsibility: ‘Regarding the situation of Shobashobane,
myself I was a culprit: I was innocent, but involved in
politics … I bear collective responsibility.’


Revisiting the hanging trial of the Upington 14

"Save the Upington 14: Stop Racist Terror in South Africa. Freedom for All Political Prisoners!" Dutch anti-apartheid poster.

[An extract from Drinking With Ghosts]


On 13 November 1985, Paballelo outside the Kalahari town
of Upington was in an uproar. The usually quiet township,
with its wide dirt and stone streets, and fenced plots on which
sat cinderblock houses, many with lovingly maintained little
gardens, was witnessing its first major disturbances since
the 1976 Soweto Uprising, because three days earlier police
had fired on residents, wounding several and crippling
one. An open-air protest rally early on the 13th had been
teargassed by police and those present had scattered among
the houses, with local activist Justice ‘Bassie’ Bekebeke, who
sported a cropped Afro and a spade-shaped beard, ducking 
down the street on which stood the house of unpopular
municipal policeman Lucas ‘Jetta’ Sethwala, 24. 
Sethwala was at home, armed with his police shotgun;
he fired into the crowd to defend his mother and himself,
but accidentally wounded Dawie Visagie, a neighbour then
aged 11, who happened to be running past. Bekebeke and the
crowd following him chased Sethwala. Bekebeke overtook
him, grabbed the shotgun from his hands and hit the
policeman so hard with the butt that the wood split, killing
him instantly.The murder of Sethwala led to to a sensational
trial which saw the police round up 26 suspects, often
targeting them purely because they were known Paballelo
activists; the state charged them all with murder, under a
perverse apartheid application of the common-purpose rule
that was used to tar and feather innocents with involvement
in capital offence cases.
It is twenty years since Sethwala was murdered and my 
editor Brendan Seery, who remembers the landmark trial
clearly, has dispatched me to Paballelo to reconstruct what
happened on that fateful day – and in the subsequent
lives of those among the initial 26 accused known as the
‘Upington 14’, who wound up on death row. I start at the
home of former domestic cook Ouma Evelina de Bruin,
who sits in the lounge of her home in Paballelo, her grey
hair and large round glasses making her look owl-like and
commanding in her armchair – she turned 84 on Christmas
Day 2004. Condemned alongside her husband Gideon
Madlongolwane, she was the only woman among the
Upington 14 who, on that icy autumn day 20 years ago at
the bitter end of apartheid, were sentenced to hang for the
murder of Sethwala. For two years they sat on death row at
Pretoria Central Prison, listening in fear to the death songs
and cries of the condemned who stumbled in shackles to the
hungry gallows, waiting for their own turn to be led ‘like
animals to the abattoir’, as De Bruin puts it to me.
I track down Sethwala’s mother, Beatrice Sethwala, 64,
who recalls with a fresh shudder the crowd attacking her
home that day: ‘It was frightening. They ran past the house
with that terrible [cry of] “Hê! Hê! Hê!”’She tells me her
son had warned her that their home would be attacked
by activists who saw him as an impimpi, an informer and
a turncoat.
Bekebeke, now a high-ranking Independent Electoral
Commission officer, tells me over the phone from his office
in Kimberley that the Sethwala home had been stoned by
the crowd, not because Jetta Sethwala was a policeman –
and he claims he counted several police officers as friends
– but because he was one of those policemen who ‘went out
of their way’ to enforce apartheid laws with callousness.
I trace Dawie Visagie, the boy shot by the policeman 20
years ago. Now 31, he tells me, ‘There was a big hole in my
stomach and I just ran until I collapsed.’
Bekebeke picks up the tale: ‘A shot rang out and this
boy [Visagie] ran towards me.’ Sethwala, still armed with
his shotgun, made a break for it, running from his house
towards an open field. Bekebeke says he ‘followed – I was
the only one … I didn’t even have a stone in my hand, but
I caught him and took his gun and beat him over the head.’
Visagie says he was devastated to hear later in hospital
that Sethwala had been killed. He says that even now
he remains friends with the family. After their arrest,
Bekebeke quietly confessed to his male co-accused –
but not to Evelina De Bruin – and their lawyer that he
was the killer. In a remarkable display of resistance and
solidarity, all the Upington 14 stood together, prepared
to pay the ultimate price because they refused to give
gold-bespectacled Judge Jan Basson the satisfaction of
fingering Bekebeke alone.
‘Throughout my life, I’ll be indebted to my comrades for
standing by me,’ Bekebeke tells me.
The trial would also prove to be a test case for the much
abused common purpose rule. Advocate Anton Lubowski,
the charismatic, wild-haired lawyer for the accused and
the first white man publicly to join Swapo, and Cape Town
attorney Andrea ‘Andy’ Durbach – who while in exile in
Australia wrote the 1999 book Upington: A Story of Trials
and Reconciliation about the case – were brought in very
late in the trial to argue in mitigation of sentence, after a
spirited 18-month defence by larger-than-life Johannesburg
advocate André Landman at the end of which 25 of the
26 were convicted in 1988 of Sethwala’s murder. When
Landman told Judge Basson that the Swapo activist
Lubowski would be replacing him, ‘the judge turned in
his chair … he went ash-grey, he was so angry,’ De Bruin
recalled. Bekebeke’s close friend and co-defendant Gudlani
Bovu, now 44, described Basson’s attitude towards the
accused as ‘very prejudiced’.
My colleague and old Durban acquaintance Carmel
Rickard, renowned as the best legal journalist in the country,
knows her judges intimately and puts me in contact with
Judge Basson, now five years into retirement at his home in
Kimberley. Over the phone he politely, but with restrained
bitterness, declines to comment on the case, saying he is
not allowed to speak to the press because he still sits on the
bench from time to time. ‘That [trial] was so long ago, it’s
buried now.’
When Judge Basson first passed sentence on De Bruin, she
claims God stopped her ears to save her from the heartache.
‘Our families were there and I saw people crying. I asked
my husband what happened – but he didn’t want to say.’
De Bruin then tells me how the prison warders who
received her and her death sentence order at Pretoria Central
 realised she had no idea what her fate was, and tenderly
tried to break it to her: ‘They said to me, “You were before
a Judge Basson in Upington?” I said, “Yes, I remember that
judge, but I can’t remember when I saw him last.” They then
read out to me the death sentence and asked me if I wanted
some water. I told them I was not thirsty.’
De Bruin recalls as if it were yesterday the only other
woman on death row while she served her time, though
she cannot remember her name: ‘It was this meisiekind
[girl-child] who was going to hang in the morning. She was
from the Cape and had killed another girl. They moved her
to The Pot [a preparation cell] and her family came to see her.
They [the warders] gave her a big last meal, with a whole
chicken, but she told them, “What must I do with this?”
When they hauled her out, she called out to me, “Ouma de
Bruin! I have hope that the cup that is passed to me will
pass Ouma by. I have peace because I did it [committed
the murder].” These fat warders then took her up the steps
[to the gallows chamber] and she was gone. That was my
second year. And that morning I heard of a group of men
that had been hanged.’
Remarkably, at the time she also expressed no thirst for
the truth about who had actually killed Sethwala, spending
her time, after she was allowed a few privileges in her
second year on death row, crocheting a blue-and-white
woollen shawl and making friends with the warders: ‘The
warders were very good to me, but they had to earn their
bread and had to disguise any affection they had for you.’
Meanwhile, Lubowski and his team were busy
preparing an appeal against the death sentences imposed
on the Upington 14 and waging a high-profile international
campaign on their behalf. In 1991 De Bruin, her husband,
Bekebeke and the rest of the Upington 14 walked free, their
sentences having been reduced by the Appellate Division
to suspended terms on the lesser charge of public violence. 
The homecoming of the Upington 14 was the greatest
celebration Paballelo had ever seen. Bekebeke says that
years after his release, he met the investigating officer from
the case and introduced himself. ‘He had throat cancer
and couldn’t speak. I told him who I was and walked off,
leaving him to deal with it.’ Asked what message he would
like to give Judge Basson if he met him today, Bekebeke
says, ‘I’d remind him of what I said to him on the day of
the sentencing, that one day I’d be a free black man in South
Africa. I could see the hatred in that man’s eyes. His best
punishment was to see us free.’
De Bruin’s husband died in 1996, sent to an early grave,
she believes, by his inability to deal with the stress of
spending two years on death row, hearing almost weekly
the gallows doing its grim work as it cut a swathe through
scores of fellow prisoners. By a twist of fate, assisted by a
legal reversal, the only one who eventually did give his life
for the cause of the 14 was Lubowski, gunned down by a
CCB death squad outside his Windhoek home in 1989.
During our interview, De Bruin lovingly fingers a
laminated black-and-white photograph of Lubowski: ‘To
hear Lubowski’s name twists my guts,’ she says. ‘I liked
him the moment I saw him … It’s because of his truth that
they killed him.’


Covering the first democratic elections in 1994

Freedom at last! At a voting station in the rural Transkei, 1994

[Extract from A Taste of Bitter Almonds]

Northern Transkei, 30 April 1994

Griqualand East against the mountains and hilly Pondoland towards the coast are the heartland of the PAC, and boasts an entrenched radicalism built on the ashes of the Pondoland Revolt of 1960, the last significant black revolt before the 1976-1977 uprising, during which the Pondo résistants ‘went to the mountain’ – a physical and symbolic gathering in their mountain fastnesses, where, in order to speak, one put aside any trappings of leadership and spoke as one among equals, a tradition that resonates strongly with me. I overnight each night at the Mount Currie Inn just outside of Kokstad, with its old-world heavily starched sheets and square dinner of roast beef, potatoes and vegetables, then each morning venture forth again, deeper and deeper into Pondoland – either along the N2 highway which runs paved, yet narrow and unfenced, along the ridge of the emerald-green hills from Kokstad, forcing drivers to dodge wandering cattle, through Mount Ayliff, Rhodes, Mount Frere, Tina Bridge, Qumbu, Sidwandweni and down to the old Transkei capital of Umtata; or into the more arid far north-east, along the tarred R56 and then the untarred R396 in the shadow of the Drakensberg – and start exploring the dirt tracks spidering off to the sides, searching for evermore remote voting stations.
Wearing the flak-jacket has become uncomfortably sweaty; on the very first day, I stopped at the roadside and, watched by a lazy cow chewing the cud, removed it and dumped it in the boot. The open, polite and even rather friendly engagements between black and white at the polls make me feel I’ll not need to put it on again. The voting has been extended for three days because many rural voting stations still lack basic materials – ballot papers, ink to mark who has voted, etc – and I suspect deliberate sabotage by the government of the PAC because similar problems are not being reported on the radio from the hastily-erected voting stations in IFP territory. The roads are full of people travelling to the voting stations. I throw my doors open and take on board as many as I can carry. I ask them who they are voting for, and with a fierce pride they tell me, ‘My vote is my secret!’, showing that at least the notion of the anonymity of the ballot has taken root; I laugh and tell them to incredulous looks that I’ve just voted PAC.
Today, on the last day of extended voting, I’m venturing ever further into the foothills of the Drakensberg. The dirt road I have taken is rocky and has obviously long last since been graded, with deep eroded channels cross-cutting it and slowing my progress. The white hired car is muddied up to eye level and coated in a thick layer of dust. The road snakes along the contours of the hills, quadrupling travelling time, then sinks down into a river valley; it’s a long time since I’ve long last seen a road sign and I’ve totally lost my bearings. I cross an old concrete bridge and wave at the women washing in the crystal waters which ripple over the boulder-strewn riverbed; they beam at me and wave back. The road climbs deeper into the hills; then suddenly the terrain changes, flattening out into a desolate and rocky plain, with the Drakensberg, which the Basotho call the Maluti, looming low on the horizon. I drive for what seems like an hour through this Martian landscape, amazed that I can see not a single living thing – and there, ahead of me, like a mirage, stands a lonely voting station. It is a simple school: a single long, brick classroom building, three thatched rondavels, and a school bell, suspended from a rickety and weathered wooden frame several metres tall. The Independent Electoral Commission’s blue-and-white plasticised canvas banner hangs between the bell tower and a stand of euphorbia cactus, the only green anywhere in sight.
Sitting in a row on a large and ancient log from a forest that appears extinct, are three Basotho women, wrapped in their traditional colourful blankets and headdresses, thoughtfully puffing on their slender clay pipes. I draw the car to a halt and climb out. White faces must be a rarity in these parts, but long-haired men are another thing altogether: the women take one look at my sweep of waist-length hair and literally fall off the log guffawing and hullaballooing! I am seized by a fit of reciprocal laughter; doubling up, I hang onto the car door for support, tears of laughter streaming down my face as the three women hoot, roll about on the ground and slap their thighs in delight. 

Underberg District, Natal, 1 May 1994

The elections are over, and the ballots are now being counted, but the mood of jubilation is at an all-time high in expectation of an ANC landslide, which will signal the defeat of apartheid. My task is done and I have the weekend to recouperate, so I decide to head off to the Splashy Fen music festival in the Drakensberg outside Underberg. The car is so dirty it’s hard to tell it was ever white; my flak-jacket lies forgotten in the boot. I’m tired, but invigorated by all I have seen, though I’ve barely read a newspaper this week and have no way of telling how my copy, filed before deadline at 6 pm each day to a dictate typist on the news desk, has been used.  
On the side of the road I’m driving along, at the junction of a farm road, I see a young black woman standing, waiting for a lift. I stop for her and she climbs in hesitantly. She smells subtly yet pungently of wood smoke, the definitive scent of poor rural folk, and is not accustomed to speaking in the white man’s tongues, so we travel in silence. Eventually, she gathers the words – and the courage – to speak: 

‘You’re not going to murder me, are you?’ 

Snow starts to fall, mottling the black mountain peaks with white.