Dirk Johannes Coetzee was born in 1945. The son of a postmaster, he grew up in the Northern Cape.
Dirk Coetzee and Generals Jan Viktor and Jac Buchner started Vlakplaas, a farm 20km west of Pretoria, Gauteng, as the headquarters of the South African Police counterinsurgency unit working for the Apartheid Government in South Africa. From 1980 to 1981, Coetzee was a commander at Vlakplaas.
Coetzee ordered the deaths of many African National Congress (ANC) activists, including Griffiths Mxenge, a human rights lawyer who was stabbed 40 times at Umlazi Stadium in Durban, and Sizwe Kondile, a law graduate from the Eastern Cape who was interrogated and beaten then handed over to Coetzee who had him shot and his body burned.
Coetzee was found guilty on various charges of misconduct at an internal police inquiry. On compassionate grounds, he was allowed to retire from the police force in 1986 as medically unfit (diabetes), on a reduced pension. He had to depend on the charity and goodwill of friends and family and scraped together a living by doing odd jobs.
In September 1987, a Constable Butana Almond Nofemela was sentenced to death for murdering a white farmer. He had hoped that his security police colleagues would save him but when they abandoned him and his execution was fixed, he summoned a human rights lawyer and launched an urgent court application for a stay of execution.
In 1989, Nofemela made a last-minute appeal for clemency the day before in order to escape being executed. In his affidavit, Nofemela said he had been a member of a police death squad and had served under Captain Dirk Coetzee, who was his commanding officer.
In November 1989, Jacques Pauw a journalist for the progressive Afrikaner newspaper, Vrye Weekblad, broke the story of Coetzee and Vlakplaas. Coetzee admitted the existence of the unit in an interview with Pauw and confirmed Nofomela’s story.
Coetzee told Pauw about the two years that he had been the Vlakplaas commander. It was a tale that spread over three countries and included many murders, attempted murders, arson, sabotage, kidnappings, assault of political activists, house robberies and car thefts.
Coetzee asked Pauw to get him out of the country and find a safe place where his family and he could live safely.
Max du Preez (who founded Vrye Weekblad ) came up with the idea of sending Coetzee to the African National Congress (ANC) in exile.
In November 1989, Coetzee and Pauw flew to Mauritius and then to London where he met with the ANC’S Intelligence, which promised to ensure his safety, give him sanctuary and look after his family.
Following Nofomela and Coetzee’s confessions and public pressure, State President F.W. de Klerk appointed a commission of inquiry to investigate the allegations of the Vlakplaas killings, the operations of the Security Police and the Civil Co-operation Bureau (CCB)-- a South African Defence Force unit responsible for eliminating ANC aligned activists.
In 1990, Coetzee told the Harms Commission in Britain, led by Judge Louis Harms, how he had watched his colleagues murder the student activist Sizwe Kondile and the human rights lawyer Griffiths Mxenge. The Security Police closed ranks and denounced Coetzee's revelations as fantasies. Harms accepted their testimony and Coetzee was declared an unreliable witness.
Eugene de Kock, a former Commander of Vlakplaas tried to assassinate Coetzee in 1990 by sending him a letter bomb to his hideout in Lusaka, Zambia. de Kock used the name of a lawyer, Bheki Mlangeni, as the "sender."
For the next three years, Coetzee lived in exile. He returned to South Africa in 1993 and was given a job in South Africa’s National Intelligence Agency. In May 1997, he was tried and found guilty for his role in the murder of Griffiths Mxenge. Coetzee and his co-defendants, Butana Almond Nofemela and David Tshikilange were never sentenced.
In March 1996, Coetzee applied for amnesty to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) for his role in the Vlakplaas killings. He testified before the TRC in Durban in December 1996. Coetzee refused to take responsibility for his actions, saying he had obeyed orders from senior officers in the South African Police, government ministers, the State Security Council and even then President de Klerk. In August 1997, he was granted amnesty for Mxenge’s murder but did not ever point out the site where Kondile was buried.
Towards the end of his life, Coetzee worked at EduSolutions, a company delivering books to schools on behalf of the government. In July 2012, Coetzee said he had seen mounds of undelivered schoolbooks in a warehouse in Limpopo province. The Limpopo textbook scandal created a national outcry.
Dirk Coetzee died on 6 March 2013, in Pretoria, Gauteng, from natural causes.
• SAPA. (1996). Dirk Coetzee says he wishes to put the past to rest from SAPA, 8 March [online], Available at www.justice.gov.za. [Accessed: 7 March 2013]
• SAPA. (1996). Coetzee to be cross-examined on Mxenge murder from SAPA, 6 November. [online], Available at www.justice.gov.za. [Accessed: 7 March 2013]
• m24i. (2012). Dirk Coetzee lifts the lid on EduSolutions’ dealings from m24i, 8 July [online]. Available at www.m24i.co.za. [Accessed: 7 March 2013]
• Truth & Reconciliation Commission. (1996) Catherine Mlangeni from TRC, 2 May, [online]. Available at www.justice.gov.za. [Accessed: 7 March 2013]
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• Potgieter D. W. (2013). Dirk Coetzee, Vlakplaas commander turned whistleblower, meets his end from Daily Maverick 8 March [online]. Available at www.dailymaverick.co.za. [Accessed: 8 March 2013]
• M&G online. (2013). Apartheid-era commander Dirk Coetzee dies from Mail & Guardian, 7 March [online]. Available at www.mg.co.za. [Accessed: 8 March 2013]
• De Wet P. (2013). Rumour trails Dirk Coetzee to the grave from Mail & Guardian, 8 March [online]. Available at www.mg.co.za. [Accessed: 8 March 2013]