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Dirk Coetzee, apartheid killer who went free, dies peacefully

Dirk Coetzee
Dirk Coetzee is pictured in 1996. (Photo by Gallo Images/Oryx Media Archive/Getty Images)

It wasn’t enough to be ruthless to distinguish yourself in the apartheid era.

You had to be exceptionally ruthless.

Dirk Coetzee was.

In the heyday of apartheid, Coetzee was co-founder and commander of what was politely called “a covert counter-insurgency unit” at Vlakplaas, a farm just outside of Pretoria.

In fact, it was a torture chamber and death camp.

Here Captain Coetzee and his henchmen electrocuted, tortured and beat their black detainees bloody.

He also trained and prepared his juniors for the brutal slaying of anti-apartheid activists – including Durban-based lawyer and anti-apartheid hero, Griffiths Mxenge, killed in 1981.

Coetzee’s squad stabbed him 45 times.

By contrast, Coetzee died quietly in a hospital bed Thursday of kidney failure.

He was 57.

But as with everything else in South Africa, Coetzee’s is an extraordinary and complex story. Nothing in the ‘beloved country,’ it seems, is ever black and white.

In 1989, Coetzee fled to London, confessed all, revealed widespread state-supported atrocities and defected to the African National Congress.

Not surprisingly, his death in Pretoria triggered an outpouring – not of grief – but of dark memory and rage.

“South Africans must be allowed to vent at the death of this evil man who took pleasure at the sight of black bodies dripping with blood,” Jobe S. Sithole posted on Twitter.

“Dirk Coetzee should have been put to death by a firing squad, not be given amnesty…he got the easy way out,” wrote @nolitazita.

Indeed, in 1997 Coetzee did get amnesty from South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, in that remarkable set of public hearings chaired by Archbishop Desmond Tutu. The mission of the commission – which was Nelson Mandela’s idea – was to help heal South Africa. Those who confessed all got a shot at amnesty and, perhaps, even forgiveness.

But in Coetzee's case, there will be no forgetting.

READ MORE: How South Africa's dream turned into a grim reality

Bill Schiller has held bureau postings for the Toronto Star in Johannesburg, Berlin, London and Beijing. He is a NNA and Amnesty International Award winner, and a Harvard Nieman Fellow from the class of '06. Follow him on Twitter @wschiller



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