South Africa’s Greatest Unsolved Political Crime

35 Years Later…

Robert-Smit-Collage-1WEB

It is an assassination that stands at odds with most apartheid-era killings – because it was a hit carried out against an up-and-coming National Party politician, apparently on the orders of “someone at the top of the Afrikaner establishment”. And unlike most other political crimes from that era there is still no certainty as to who was responsible, or what the actual motive was.

At the time of his death, Smit was campaigning for election as NP candidate in Springs, and was widely tipped for high office in the government of BJ Vorster, possibly as finance minister.

At the time of his death, Smit was campaigning for election as NP candidate in Springs, and was widely tipped for high office in the government of BJ Vorster, possibly as finance minister.

On the evening of November 22, 1977, Jean-Cora Smit was alone in their house when she was shot three times and stabbed 14 times. When Robert Smit, 44, arrived home later, he was also shot and stabbed. Spray painted in red in the kitchen were the mysterious words “RAU TEM.” The killers were never arrested and no conclusive motive was ever established.

Very little primary material about the murder is available – with the police docket still kept hidden from public view. As a result it is hard to be sure of even the most basic facts of the case.

WHO WAS ROBERT SMIT

Robert Van Schalkwyk Smit had enjoyed a rapid rise through the Afrikaner establishment. He had attended Pembroke College, Oxford, on a Rhodes Scholarship, received a doctorate in economics from the University of Stellenbosch, and in 1967 had been appointed deputy secretary of finance. He had gone on to serve as South Africa’s ambassador to the International Monetary Fund in Washington DC between 1971 and 1975. An archivist at the IMF says that according to their records Dr Smit “was appointed as Alternate Executive Director on Jun 5, 1971 and completed his term of service as Alternate Executive Director effective October 31, 1974.”

There is no doubt that the murder of Robert Smit was well planned, and the murderers were professional and well acquainted with the area. Apart from the graffiti on the walls they left no tracks.

There is no doubt that the murder of Robert Smit was well planned, and the murderers were professional and well acquainted with the area. Apart from the graffiti on the walls they left no tracks.

He had returned to South Africa where he had taken up a position with Santam International. He was standing as the National Party candidate in the Springs constituency, just outside of Johannesburg, in the national elections scheduled for November 30 1977. It was expected that he would take up a high position in government after the poll, possibly even as finance minister.

He and his wife had rented a house in Selcourt, Springs, while their two children stayed on in their Pretoria home.

WHAT HAPPENED

Robert Smit had spent the day of November 22 at his election office in Springs. He had had lunch with friends and spoken to the journalist Rita Niemand in the afternoon.

Smit’s receptionist Sarah Lombaard later testified that she took a call from a man at 3.15pm. “He told me that he would like to speak to Dr Smit about politics and whether it would be possible to see Dr Smit tonight. He also said that he was living near Dr Smit. I told him I did not know whether Dr Smit had an appointment but would put him through to make arrangements. At the start of the conversation the caller told me he was MacDougall.” In his diary Smit recorded “McDougal – 8pm”.

At 6.10pm Jeanne-Cora was driven home by the couple’s driver, Daniel Tshabalala. She sat down to watch television while he made himself a meal in the kitchen. He later told the inquest “I left at about 6.50pm and Mrs Smit saw me to the door. She locked it after me.” (Sunday Star, July 21 1985)

At 7.14pm (some accounts say 7.40pm) Jeanne Cora Smit phoned Lombaard, asked if Dr Smit was still in the office, and when told that he was, told her tell Dr Smit that “his guests are waiting for him.” It seems that as she put the phone down she sensed something behind her and instinctively put up her hand. She was shot in the back of the head at close range, then in the chest and in the right thigh.

Lombaard conveyed the message to Dr Smit who left soon afterwards. Smit walked out of the offices with a Springs town councillor, Danie Joubert. In a statement to the inquest he said Dr Smit had been carrying two attaché cases. He said he saw Dr Smit’s car pull away just before 8pm.

When Robert Smit walked through the door of the house, sometime later, he was shot in the neck from a few paces away, and collapsed to the ground. He was then shot, from close range, in the head, back and chest. Robert Smit and Jeanne Cora were shot with two different calibre guns: a 0.32 (7,65mm) and a 0.38 (9mm.)

Based on the initial post mortem results, and a neighbour who claimed to have heard gun shots at 11.15pm, it was initially thought that Smit had arrived back home (and been killed) close to midnight. But later press reports suggested that this may have been a red herring, and Smit was actually killed sometime between 8pm and 9pm.

The bodies were discovered by the Smits driver, Tshabalala, at about 7am the following morning. The investigating officer, Lieutenant Gerhard (Gerrit) Viljoen of the East Rand Murder and Robbery Squad, found Dr Smit’s body in the passage and Mrs. Smit’s in the lounge.

Apart from the gunshot wounds Robert Smit had been stabbed once in the back, and Mrs Smit 14 times with a stiletto. The letters “RAU TEM” had been written – in red spray paint – across the fridge and kitchen walls.

THE INVESTIGATION

Robert Smit’s brother, Iaan, said that an individual, who had been working on the campaign, told him that at midday on November 22 Robert Smit had told him: “Oom, I tell you, vuilgoed are coming to visit me [tonight]” (not Prog voters.)

Robert Smit and his wife had rented a house in Selcourt, Springs, while their two children stayed on in their Pretoria home.

Robert Smit and his wife had rented a house in Selcourt, Springs, while their two children stayed on in their Pretoria home.

Iaan explained to the newspaper that when his brother spoke of “vuilgoed” (rubbish) he meant undesirable foreign elements that had settled in the Republic – from Scandinavia, England, America, Hungary and from the former Portuguese colonies in Africa (post April 1974.) Iaan also said that ever since his Oxford days Smit had used ‘McDougall’ as a kind of fictional name – a reference to a ‘Van der Merwe’ like character.

There were suspicions at the time that foreign assassins had carried out the murders. Yet, as Iaan Smit commented in his 1979 Rapport interviews, even if the killers were foreigners, they would have had to been recruited, and assisted, by people inside the country. “There is no doubt that the murder was well planned, and the murderers were professional and well acquainted with the area. Apart from the graffiti on the walls they left no tracks.”

The mysterious words “RAU TEM”, which were spray-painted in red on the walls and kitchen cupboards at the scene of the Smit murders, are decoded in Alan Elsdon’s book. The book reveals that “RAU TEM” is an Afrikaans acronym for “Randse Afrikaanse Universiteit – Tegnies En Moord”. It was a name given to a specialist sub-unit of the Bureau of State Security (B.O.S.S.), an intelligence agency created in 1969 by Hendrik van den Bergh (aka, The Tall Assassin). Hendrik van den Bergh, the creator of the term “RAU TEM”, was the only person who knew the meaning of the name and also the location of the main base of his clandestine unit. It was situated on an island in the middle of the Vaal Dam on a piece of ground owned by the old Rand Afrikaans University (now known as the University of Johannesburg).

According to reports, a surviving daughter of the Smit couple received death threats during the investigation into the murders. She was also offered a substantial amount of money in exchange for the family’s silence.

THE SEARCH FOR MOTIVE

The bodies were discovered by the Smits driver, Tshabalala, at about 7am the following morning. The investigating officer, Lieutenant Gerhard (Gerrit) Viljoen of the East Rand Murder and Robbery Squad, found Dr Smit's body in the passage and Mrs. Smit's in the lounge.

The bodies were discovered by the Smits driver, Tshabalala, at about 7am the following morning. The investigating officer, Lieutenant Gerhard (Gerrit) Viljoen of the East Rand Murder and Robbery Squad, found Dr Smit’s body in the passage and Mrs. Smit’s in the lounge.

There were reports soon after the murder that Robert Smit had stumbled across wrongdoing and that this could be why he had been murdered. In the sunday newspapers of December 18 1977 Kitt Katzin reported that police were considering the possibility that Robert Smit had been murdered “shortly after he uncovered a foreign currency racket and made it known he meant to expose the swindlers.” An investigating officer told the newspaper: “There is the chance that he stumbled across some vital information and was about to topple someone’s empire.”

The murder of the Smits preceded, and may have precipitated, many of the damning revelations about the misuse of funds by Eschel Rhoodie’s Department of Information (most famously to set up The Citizen newspaper.) It was a scandal that was to bring down the three most powerful men in the country: Prime Minister John Vorster; Dr Connie Mulder, the leader of the National Party in the Transvaal; and chief of the Bureau for State Security (BOSS), General Hendrik van den Bergh.

Robert Smit and his wife were murdered because Dr Smit had discovered that the Department of Information had clandestinely transferred millions of dollars of state funds into secret Swiss bank accounts.

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