14 April 2014

Collection of the month: The De Wet Potgieter collection (AL3283)

In 2009 long-time investigative journalist and author, De Wet Potgieter donated a valuable collection of documents and photographs relating to apartheid era military intelligence, South African Police (SAP) security branch activities and extremist right-wing organisations to SAHA. Contained in the series of top secret and confidential documents relating to several covert operations of the SAP and the South African Defence Force (SADF) and front organisations such as the South African Institute of Maritime Research (SAIMR), are also materials relating to the assassination of Chris Hani, as well as images portraying historic events leading up to the 1994 democratic elections by news photographer Doug Lee. 

Complemented by a collection of oral history interviews conducted by Potgieter with former military intelligence operatives, the De Wet Potgieter collection represents an insightful segment of the Afrikaner perpetrator history. An Afrikaner himself, Potgieter collected most of the documents as an investigative journalist during the apartheid era. Explanatory notes and narratives by the donor supplement each of the sub-series. 

As we commemorate the 21th anniversary of the death of Chris Hani on 10 April 1993, the sub-series relating to the assassination of Chris Hani holds particular significance. The South-African Communist Party (SACP) secretary-general was gunned down by Polish immigrant Janusz Walus outside his home in Boksburg. Described as a right-wing extremist, Conservative Party MP, Clive Derby-Lewis was also arrested for complicity in the murder. The materials in the collection relates to the police investigation around the assassination and include the transcript of the telephone call from Mrs Harmse reporting the shooting of Chris Hani to the Boksburg police station; sworn statements, a police diary and interview transcripts on the investigation, and investigation notes on Janusz Walus. The appeal by Janusz Walus and Clive Derby-Lewis against the death sentence (count 1) delivered by the Honourable Mr Justice Eloff in the Supreme Court of South Africa, 15 October 1993, contained in 17 volumes, also forms part of this sub-series.

The two convicted killers’ applications for amnesty during the Truth and Reconciliation Commission were denied. Copies of the amnesty applications for Walus and Derby-Lewis were released to SAHA through a Promotion to Access of Information (PAIA) request and can be found in the Freedom of Information Programme (FOIP) collection (AL2878).

AWB storm troopers carrying the South African flag during a right-wing rally in Klerksdorp in 1993. Photographer: Doug Lee. Archived as SAHA collection AL3283_C01_117_06Doug Lee’s photographs, many of which are a result of his teamwork with De Wet Potgieter in the 1990s (Lee as news photographer and Potgieter as investigative journalist for the Afrikaans Sunday newspaper “Rapport”), augment the collection materials. Many of these images document historic events leading up to the first democratic elections in South Africa in 1994 – most relevant as we celebrate the 20th anniversary of those elections this year. The photographs are also significant for their wide range of coverage of right-wing activities and events, including many images of former Afrikaner Weerstandsbeweging (AWB) leader Eugene Terre’Blanche, as well as images of former South African presidents PW Botha and FW de Klerk, Freedom Front leader Constand Viljoen, former SAP commissioner General Johann van der Merwe and Gaye Derby-Lewis, wife of Clive Derby-Lewis who was also a senior Conservative Party figure and herself acquitted of Chris Hani’s murder.

The document collection from De Wet, spanning the late apartheid and transitional periods into the early 1990s, reflects Potgieter’s journalistic career over three decades. In his narrative to the collection Potgieter explains how he obtained most of the documents:

As a result of my work as court reporter I came into contact with a lot of security policemen and intelligence operatives who made a point of talking to members of the Afrikaans language newspapers and passing bits and pieces of information that the “lefties” did not get. Little did I realise at that stage that this was part of a deliberate well-orchestrated campaign in sowing dissent and disinformation to the media.

He kept “each and every document, top secret information and other material leaked” to him, such as materials relating to the PWFormer police commissioner General Johann van der Merwe. Archived as SAHA collection AL3283_C07_01_08 Botha and Nelson Mandela meeting on 5 July 1989; the transcription of PW Botha’s last cabinet meeting on 14 August 1989, when Botha was ousted as president, a letter from the Inner-Circle (a secret group of former security force members) to the Minister of Law and Order in 1992, as well a document torn out of top secret file from the database of then police commissioner Johann van der Merwe, to name but a few.

Twenty oral history interviews with former high-ranking military intelligence officials in the SADF and SAP officials were conducted, transcribed and translated by De Wet Potgieter on behalf of SAHA from 2009 to 2010 to complement his document collection. Interviewees include Lieutenant Vic McPherson, SAP security branch policeman; Major-General Chris Thirion, deputy chief of staff in SADF Intelligence; General Johann van der Merwe, apartheid South Africa’s last police commissioner; Major-General Herman Stadler, head of the SAP security branch intelligence unit; Colonel Henk Heslinga, head of the Pretoria murder and robbery squad and member of the Goldstone Commission; General Tienie Groenewald, chief director of military intelligence; Colonel Lucas Ras, SAP security branch; Inspector Joppie van Staden, police inspector attached to the bomb disposal unit, and Detective Warrant Officer Drummond Hammond, attached to the organised crime intelligence unit.

The Freedom Front's Constand Viljoen on the night he decided to go to the polls during South Africa's first democratic elections in 1994. Photographer: Doug Lee. Archived as SAHA collection AL3283_C01_67_04

Interesting themes emerging from these interviews are military intelligence operatives’ involvement in several planned bombing incidents; first-hand accounts of SADF attacks and SAP security branch activities, including disclosure of interrogation techniques; the poisoning of Rev. Frank Chikane; the threat of civil war before the 1994 elections, and the gathering of information by the SAP security branch on both the right-wing organisations and the ANC.


SAHA collaborated with the Michigan State University to make the interview materials (audio-recordings and original and translated transcripts) and a selection of Doug Lee’s images available through their open access digital library Oral African Narratives (AON) with the title ‘Military Intelligence in Apartheid-Era South Africa’

See inventory for the De Wet Potgieter collection (AL3283)

See inventory for the Freedom of Information Programme (FOIP) collection (AL2878)