Searching for Griffiths Mxenge’s ‘disappeared’ car

Shaun Smillie and James Oatway search for the remains of human rights lawyer Griffiths Mxenge’s Audi, set alight by apartheid police trying to cover up his murder in 1981.

Captain Dirk Coetzee turned the Audi to follow the Datsun Laurel onto the plantation road. The road cut close to the fence separating South Africa from what was then Swaziland, now eSwatini. At the wheel of the Laurel, warrant officer Paul van Dyk had picked out the perfect spot to cover up a murder.

Four security police officers rode in those two cars that night. Three of them had been drinking since they left Bronkhorstspruit. Their journey had already taken them from Pretoria through Bronkhorstspruit and to the Golela border post, where they collected the white Audi 200.

“I poured the drinks. I had the full bar. Koos Vermeulen was an abstainer, Koos Schutte drank brandy, I drank beer and Paul drinks anything that will make him drunk,” Coetzee would write in his unpublished memoir about that early morning of 23 November 1981.

Schutte had originally squeezed into the back of the Laurel alongside Coetzee for the drive to Golela, singing a couple of songs in-between playing his mouth organ and guitar. But by the time they turned onto the plantation road, Schutte had joined Coetzee in the Audi and was clambering around the car in a last-minute effort to strip the vehicle of anything of value.

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5 February 2019: The spot near the eSwatini border where a Vlakplaas death squad dumped murdered activist Griffiths Mxenge’s Audi. (Photograph by James Oatway)

Destroying evidence

About 5km down the plantation road, the Laurel’s headlights lit up an open piece of veld tucked between two forests. The Swaziland border was just 200m away.

There the cars stopped.

“We opened the boot and bonnet and poured petrol into the boot, on the seats, on the dashboard and on the engine. We did not close the bonnet fully. Koos struck a match and that was it,” Coetzee recalls in his memoir.

That match was meant to destroy the last bit of evidence linking an apartheid assassination squad with the murder of human rights lawyer Griffiths Mxenge.

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Photographer James Oatway and I were not far from the Mahamba border post when we slipped onto the trail that Coetzee and his men rode that night in 1981.

They had turned left off the Mahamba road, and so did we. We were heading towards Houtkop; according to the GPS the Audi that Schutte had torched 38 years ago was 7.2km away. We crossed the Blesbokspruit and kept South Africa’s border with eSwatini on our right.

This journey had been years in the making.

Car wrecks

I first heard about Mxenge’s car from Madeleine Fullard, the head of the National Prosecuting Authority’s Missing Persons Task Team. At the time, the Freedom Park Museum in Tshwane was interested in exhibiting the wreck. Coetzee had even agreed to come along and act as guide.

But in 2013 Coetzee died, and so our guide on this trip was a temperamental GPS into which I had programmed coordinates gleaned from aerial photographs dug up from an archive.

Apartheid history is littered with the burnt out, blown up and shot up wrecks of cars that were used to create false narratives. The Mxenge wreck, if found, might be the only such apartheid car still surviving.

“The vehicles are kind of used to stage stories, the Mamelodi 10 kombi was staged as an accident, Griffiths as a murder,” explained Fullard. The Mamelodi kombi was used to transport 10 young men who were tricked into believing they were leaving South Africa to join the ANC. They were murdered and the kombi torched close to the Botswana border.

Most of these cars ended up in police stations as evidence exhibits, and there they rusted away. All that remains of the Mamelodi 10 kombi is an entry in the police evidence registry that reads: One vaked [fucked] kombi.

“These things should be part of the public narrative, it is part of the history of the country. What are we hiding it for?” said Fullard.

We were counting down the kilometres to the wrecked car, driving through the green undulating hills and chequerboard stands of commercial forests so typical of this corner of Mpumalanga. Then the GPS told us to turn right and there ahead of us was the Botha’s Hoop border post.

The GPS wanted us to cross into eSwatini. We had lost Coetzee’s murder trail.

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19 February 2019: A copy of the original case file opened in 1981, when Griffiths Mxenge’s burnt-out Audi was found near the border with then Swaziland. (Photograph by James Oatway)

Thorn in the state’s side

In 1981, Mxenge wasn’t keen on buying that white Audi. He had his eye on a new Mercedes-Benz. The 44-year-old lawyer already had an Audi and felt it was time for an upgrade. But his family wanted another Audi.

He even turned to his friend Bheka Shezi for advice. “He had asked me what I had thought and I told him, go with the Mercedes,” recalled Shezi.

Mxenge’s legal practice was doing well. He had set up in Durban six years earlier and had made a name for himself as a human rights lawyer.

Mxenge studied at the University of Fort Hare, where he became involved in politics and joined the ANC Youth League.

In 1966 he was detained for 190 days and a year later he was imprisoned on Robben Island for two years for furthering the aims of the ANC.

Once released he continued with his studies and, in 1974, was admitted as an attorney of the Supreme Court of South Africa.

He was soon a thorn in the side of the state.

Death threats

In 1975 he represented the family of Joseph Mdluli, who had died in police detention. Astonishingly, through Mxenge’s efforts and international pressure, four police officers were charged with the murder of the activist.

Mxenge was later detained for his involvement in the case and began receiving anonymous death threats. Undeterred, he would go on to successfully represent other political activists.

Torn, Mxenge left the decision about the new car to his family.

“He decided that it would be a democratic process and he would ask his family what they thought. They decided he should get another Audi,” said Shezi.

On 10 November 1981 he bought the new Audi 200 from South Coast Motors in Durban.

Marked man

Mxenge was a marked man as he drove his new car off the showroom floor. An assassination squad had him under surveillance. That same month, Coetzee was summoned to Durban.

The star policeman had a year earlier become the first commander of Vlakplaas, the headquarters of the South African Police counterinsurgency unit C10, which was situated on a smallholding just west of Pretoria. This unit was a secret paramilitary hit squad made up of a mix of white ex-security squad police officers and black askaris prepared to murder for the apartheid state.

Coetzee met with Brigadier Johannes van der Hoven, the regional security commander in Durban.

“Van der Hoven gave me background on a certain Griffiths Mxenge and said we should make a plan with him,” Coetzee wrote in his memoir.

The brigadier told Coetzee that more than R100 000 from the ANC had passed through Mxenge’s account during the past year and that the security police were trying to build a case against him. But Mxenge “played by the book” and was difficult to prosecute.

“Van der Hoven said that we must not shoot or abduct him, but that we should rather make it look like a robbery.”

Coetzee assembled his team.

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5 February 2019: Rusted car remains at the site where Mxenge’s Audi was set alight. (Photograph by James Oatway)

Staging the setup

At the core of the hit squad were Constable Almond Nofomela and Warrant Officer Joe Mamasela.

“Joe and Almond did not smoke or drink and were both intelligent, healthy, fit and in my judgement had the killer instinct,” wrote Coetzee.

They would be joined by Student Constable David “Spyker” Tshikalange and askari Brian Ngulungwa.

That night, the four men set up their ambush. A light drizzle was falling.

They parked a grey bakkie across the road, just down from Mxenge’s house in Umlazi. Nofomela opened the bonnet and there they waited for Mxenge. It wasn’t long before they saw the lights of the Audi.

Nofomela would testify in an amnesty hearing about what happened next.

Mxenge stopped and asked the men if they needed help. “We said yes. We asked him to shift over. He switched his car off.” Nofomela produced his Russian-made Makarov pistol and pointed it at the lawyer. “Joe then entered into the car. I got into the car at the back. David followed us. Then we got next to the Umlazi Stadium.”

There the men dragged Mxenge from the Audi. Tshikalange stabbed him first with an Okapi knife. “And then from there, with the exception of Brian – Brian just stood there with his gun – that’s when we started stabbing him,” said Nofomela.

Unexpected fightback

Mxenge’s strength surprised his attackers. One of them plunged a knife into his chest, but he pulled the knife out and began chasing his attackers with it.

Mxenge lunged at Nofomela, who ducked out the way and made for the bakkie.

“Then I went and fetched the spanner and I hit him on his head, and that is where he fell after he had taken the knife out of his chest, and he nearly stabbed me with it,” Nofomela would explain to the court.

That next day, Mxenge’s body was found in the open field. A pathologist would count 45 stab wounds.

Later on the night of the killing, the four askaris parked Mxenge’s car next to the entrance of the CR Swart police station in Durban’s central business district.

It had been nine days since Mxenge rolled his Audi 200 off that showroom floor.

No luck

The police officer manning the boom gate at the Botha’s Hoop border post said there was no farm road cutting off to the right before eSwatini and, no, we could not cross the border without passports.

We turned the car around and there, just a short distance from the border post, was what could only be Coetzee’s plantation road.

The GPS had reconfigured and was saying we were 4.7km from the car wreck.

The distance got shorter. At 50m, we came to an open field that looked like the one in the photographs.

We walked the area, but there was nothing. The car wasn’t there.

Hasty cover-up

The international outcry over Mxenge’s death caught the security police off guard.

Coetzee’s plan was to exchange the Audi with a police Koevoet unit car in what was then South West Africa. But two days after the murder, Brigadier Jan du Preez instructed Coetzee that he had to burn the car.

Coetzee decided they would get rid of the car on the Swaziland border. By doing so, they hoped it would create the impression that the murder had been committed by ANC cadres after a quarrel between the ANC and Mxenge. The story would be that the cadres had then burnt the car before slipping back into Swaziland.

That Sunday afternoon Coetzee, Van Dyk and Schutte began their journey to Golela to collect the Audi, where it had been hidden the day after the murder.

On the way through Bronkhorstspruit, the Laurel picked up the “abstainer” Koos Vermeulen.

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Circa 1996: Dirk Coetzee demonstrates how Joe Mamasela, one of his askaris, interrogated prisoners at Vlakplaas. (Photograph by David Goldblatt)

Anecdotal and photographic evidence

In the years since Schutte struck that match, people have recalled seeing the wreck.

Police detectives visited the site for the Harms Commission, which was set up in 1990 to investigate unsolved political murders.

Then a police chopper flew over the wreck and took the photographs I had copied and was using to find the car.

Just before the start of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 1996, Coetzee and his lawyer, Julian Knight, went looking for it. Knight recalled that a tree was growing through the wreck.

By then Coetzee had publicly revealed the existence of the Vlakplaas death squads, fled South Africa for a while and joined the ANC.

Converging roads

“You know, we’re close. Just look at the three roads,” said Oatway, staring at his phone.

He had managed to overcome the patchy cellular reception and download a Google Earth image of our location, and was comparing it to a screenshot on my phone that marked the likely location of the car.

On both phones, you could see the three roads converging. We couldn’t be more than 150m away.

We drove to the spot, got out, split up and walked through the long grass. There was no wreck. Or trees.

Then, there at my feet, a piece of twisted steel. Next to it, a burnt fuse and a blob of melted aluminium. There was more, a field of debris hidden in the grass that stretched for metres. There were also signs that the debris had been charred by fire.

Oatway called out. He had found something. He held out a piece of metal, the four interlocking rings that make up the Audi emblem stamped on it.

The wreck was gone but pieces of the torched car remain, which one day might help tell future generations about a time of brutal killings and ultimate sacrifice.

Half buried in the earth were the remains of a seatbelt buckle. We could safely say that belt buckle was once touched by Mxenge.

His car hadn’t been lost to history.

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5 February 2019: A rusted seatbelt buckle at the scene where the Vlakplaas death squad torched Mxenge’s Audi. (Photograph by James Oatway)
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