Secret police unit linked to Boipatong massacre Paramilitary group discovered in probe

June 27, 1992|By Jerelyn Eddings | Jerelyn Eddings,Johannesburg Bureau

PRETORIA, South Africa -- Startling testimony linked a secret South African police unit yesterday to the brutal massacre that has plunged the country into its latest crisis, further eroding the contention that there is no official involvement in township violence.

A security guard at a coal mine where the police unit was housed secretly until this week said he was told that the unit went to Boipatong on the night of the June 17 massacre that left 40 people dead. He said armed men from the unit often left

the mine facility at night in minivans and returned the following morning.

Mandla Mngomezulu, testifying yesterday before the Goldstone Commission of Inquiry into Violence, said his information came directly from a member of the secret police unit.

The unit, discovered Tuesday after a tip to investigators of the Goldstone Commission, is made up of Namibians, former members of a notorious paramilitary unit known as Koevoet (Crowbar), which police said was disbanded two years ago.

Police have denied any involvement of the unit in the Boipatong massacre.

And the man whom Mr. Mngomezulu cited as his source later took the stand and denied any involvement in the massacre.

"I never spoke to him," said Jeremiah Shikongo, who insisted that the security guard's story was untrue.

"I wish to emphasize that the police investigation has produced no evidence whatsoever which might indicate the involvement of former Koevoet members in the Boipatong massacre," said Police Commissioner Johan van der Merwe.

Koevoet was used to fight rebels in Namibia during the final years of South African colonial rule there. The unit was made up of Namibians and Angolans who operated under the command of white South Africans and who had a reputation for viciousness and brutality.

Investigators from the Goldstone Commission, acting on a tip from the African National Congress, conducted a surprise raid Wednesday at the Gold Fields coal mine and found 40 former Koevoet members living apart from the mine workers.

The investigators had been tipped off that a mysterious group of men who spoke a foreign language were living at the Gold Fields facility near the town of Ogies, 80 miles from Boipatong.

Mr. Mngomezulu -- an acknowledged ANC supporter -- testified that Mr. Shikongo had told him the unit carried out the massacre but that Mr. Shikongo himself had only looked after the minibus that night.

Police said that the 40 policemen were housed on the mine property legally and that their presence was no secret. But officials of Gold Fields headquarters in Johannesburg said that they knew nothing about the arrangement, which was apparently worked out by the local manager in Ogies.

When investigators from the Goldstone Commission raided the hostel housing the men, they found trunks full of R-1 rifles.

Police said that the unit was used mainly to combat cattle theft and other crimes not related to township violence.

In a separate development, a service station attendant who was on duty in Boipatong the night of the massacre said he called police after he saw a war party marching into the township, according to the Star newspaper.

The unidentified attendant said police responded immediately but left after he told them there was trouble in the township and appealed for their help.

A white Methodist minister who works in several townships in the area said he also phoned police after being alerted that there might be trouble in one of the townships that night.

The Rev. Paul Verryn said he was assured that police would act on his information, but no one turned up in Boipatong until hours after the massacre.

"There's no way on God's earth the police didn't know about it," he said in an interview in Johannesburg.

Police Commissioner van der Merwe said the preliminary investigation pointed to the involvement of members of a migrant worker hostel near Boipatong in the massacre. The hostel houses Zulu workers, most of whom are affiliated with the Inkatha Freedom Party.

The Boipatong township is a stronghold of the ANC, the main black political group in South Africa and a bitter foe of Inkatha.

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