South Africa’s Greatest Unsolved Political Crime



In the immediate aftermath of the killing there was some suspicion that a Czech Canadian scientist businessman called Mark Benza may have been involved in some way. He was briefly detained and questioned by the police before being allowed to leave the country.

On September 29 he met up with Emmerentia Liebenberg, a close friend of Robert Smit, who happened to live in the same apartment block.

Liebenberg later told a newspaper (November 23 1980) that the first she heard of the murder was when she was driving with Benza in her car in Johannesburg on the morning of November 23 1977. They saw newspaper posters along the side of the road and she had cried out: “Mark, Robert was murdered!” Benza had allegedly replied: “It’s a good thing he’s dead. He talked too much.”

After the murders Benza was questioned by the police and his passport was taken. A police spokesman told Beeld (December 5) that “he did not make a great impression with his knowledge of overseas financial matters. Indeed, it was very limited.” The newspaper stated that the passport was returned, and he was allowed to leave the country, after it was established that Benza’s fingerprints did not match any of those found at the murder scene. Beeld said that it was rumoured that Benza was now in Brazil.


"There were all kinds of rumours and suspicions regarding Robert Smit and his wife's murders," former foreign affairs minister Pik Botha said.  "I knew them both very well and I was in Washington when Robert was based at the World Bank there."

“There were all kinds of rumours and suspicions regarding Robert Smit and his wife’s murders,” former foreign affairs minister Pik Botha said. “I knew them both very well and I was in Washington when Robert was based at the World Bank there.”

After the end of apartheid, and the revelations of government sponsored hit squads, there was hope that the Smit Murders would soon be solved. In 1997 a former member of the security police, Roy Allen, was named as the chief suspect in the case.

He denied the charges saying: “I am no murderer. I was at the time in the security police. I was a member of the N-Section. Nothing that we ever did came close to murder.”

He said that he had been dating Robert Smit’s secretary at the time and the two men had spoken a few times about “this and that.” Ida had worked for Dr Smit for about 6 to 8 months in the preceding year, when he was the chief of Santam International. They worked from a two person office in the Johannesburg CBD. I had met him on one or two occasions whilst picking Ida up from his offices. He seemed like a very nice guy.

Before this Ida had worked as a secretary to P.W. Botha when he was Minister of Defence. She had a Top Secret clearance from the Military, which made her suitable for employment in such a confidential post with Dr Smit. She was also later to work as the secretary of Fanie Botha, the then Minister of Labor, before going on to work for Prof Wiehahn when he was conducting the inquiry that became known as the “Wiehahn Commission”. She never discussed the nature of her work at any of these “jobs” with me, and was fanatically loyal towards her government bosses.

Allen stated that “my personal belief is that no one in the security forces at the time would have taken Smit out.

He added that the murder looked as if it had been carried out by a foreign hit squad. The advantage of the method, Allen noted, is that foreigners come in, do the job, then leave, and no tracks are left linking the hit to those in the regime who ordered it


According to high level intelligence sources the Smit murders had been carried out by three members of the security police and taskforce: The late Dries Verwey, Phil Freeman (who had used “Mr McDougall” as a pseudonym in the 1980s) and Allen. Allen had by then moved to Australia and he once again vehemently denied the allegations.

When the allegations against Allen re-surfaced, Allen provided his view of the murder and explained why he believed two deceased former colleagues were involved in the killings – Dries Verwey and Phil Freeman. Dries Verwey was reported to have started drinking heavily after the Smit murders. He died on October 26 1980. Phil Freeman died in a shooting accident in his garden in the early 1990s.


On February 24 1980 the Sunday News Journal of Wilmington Delaware published an article by the journalist Joe Trento on the way in which foreign intelligence services had recruited individuals from within the Cuban nationalist movement in the United States to carry out assassinations.

Dionisio Suarez, Michael Vernon Townley and Virgilio Paz - the members of the alleged Hit Squad.

Dionisio Suarez, Michael Vernon Townley and Virgilio Paz – the members of the alleged Hit Squad.

Trento wrote that in the mid-1970s the CIA had assisted in the recruitment of a hit-team of CIA-trained Cuban-exile terrorists by South Africa (BOSS) and Pinochet’s Chile (DINA). According to Trento’s sources the CIA had provided introductions for operatives of BOSS and DINA “to leaders of the Cuban nationalist movement [CNM] in Miami and Union City, New Jersey.”

According to Trento (1980): “The known victims of the hit team include: Former Chilean Gen. Carlos Prats and his wife, Cora, killed in an October 1974 bombing in Buenos Aires; Chilean Minister of Defence Oscar Bonilio, blown up with five other people in a helicopter in Chile in March 1975; Ronni Kapen Moffit and Orlando Letelier, who died in the September 1976 Washington car bombing… Another couple, Chilean exile leader Bernardo Leighton and his wife Ana, were seriously injured in an unsuccessful assassination attempt in Rome in October 1975.” He died on January 26, 1995.

In addition to these rivals and opponents of Pinochet the hit team had killed a “South African economist and his wife, who were shot to death in their South Africa home in November 1977.” The Sunday News Journal investigation, Trento wrote, had shown that the killing of the Smit had been “carried out by members of the Cuban Nationalist Movement under orders of elements of [BOSS]. These BOSS officials did not want Smit releasing details of whom the South African Information Ministry had paid off abroad.”

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