South Africa’s Greatest Unsolved Political Crime

HOW THE PLOT UNRAVELLED

According to the newspaper while working as South Africa’s representative to the IMF Smit had lobbied “the World Bank to loan money to his government. His long time friends and associates asked Smit why a loan was needed since more than $70 million was already deposited in U.S. accounts in the name of South Africa. Smit, who had the reputation of being impeccably honest, had discovered an unprecedented scandal. According to CIA and State Department sources, Smit discovered the names of more than 20 American politicians, including U.S. senators, rightwing-journalists, and publishers who had received payoffs and bribes. Some of these people were known to be supporters of the Pinochet regime in Chile, which is said to have close ties with South Africa. Both governments had a strong interest in keeping their names secret.”

On October 5 1975 the exiled Chilean Christian Democrat leader, Bernardo Leighton, and his wife Ana, were shot on a Rome street. Both miraculously survived, though Ana was not able to walk properly again. According to Trento’s CIA sources Paz was the suspected shooter in the Leighton assassination attempt.

BOSS agents had allegedly helped prepare and send the communications in which “Zero” – the terrorist organisation to which Paz was affiliated – took credit for the assassination attempt on Leighton. Paz “was given a West German passport by BOSS agents and South African Ministry of Information officials provided Paz and Townley transportation out of Rome through the South African airline, investigators have recently learned.

According to the Sunday News Journal’s sources Paz was also the suspected trigger man in the Smit killing. The same Brigadier Berretta handgun was used in both incidents. “The bullets recovered from the surviving couple in the Rome assassination attempt matched bullets recovered from the body of Mrs. Smit, according to a report on the incident filed from the Rome CIA Station.”

Paz and Dionisio Suarez, who were also implicated in the Letelier murder, went on the run. (They were only tracked down and arrested by the FBI in the early 1990s.)

Ricardo Canete – a protected witness in the Letelier case- had told the Sunday News Journal: “Last year I brought Krugerrands to the FBI that the [Paz and Suarez] had been using as currency in Manhattan. I was told at the time that the boys were bragging that the coins had been given to them by BOSS.”

The article further claimed that “FBI investigators” believe that “Paz and Suarez escaped with German and Swedish passports and Townley with a forged Czech passport identifying him as ‘Marc Benza’. He is reported to have been questioned while leaving Jan Smuts Airport and released. ‘The people in Pretoria probably didn’t know what was going on and left the inquiries to the CID, who certainly had no idea how right they were in picking up Benza’, said a source in the Justice Department.”

On his return to Canada Benza told an associate that there had been a “misunderstanding” in South Africa and his passport had been briefly taken from him. (He died in the early 2000s.)

President Dietrich with his family

President Diederichs with his family

In the book “Really Inside BOSS: A Tale of South Africa’s Late Intelligence Service” it is claimed that Dr Smit discovered that S33million was diverted to a secret numbered account in a Swiss bank. The account’s owner was the State President, Dr Nicolaas Diederichs. Nicolaas Johannes Diederichs was South Africa’s fourth state president. Diederichs, a former finance minister whose international reputation was tainted by financial scandals, and who had allegedly held a massive secret bank account in Switzerland.

 The Erasmus Commission of Inquiry revealed that Vorster knew about corrupt activities in the Department of Information but preferred to turn a blind eye. He resigned from his position in disgrace. Ill health and the on-going exposure of the 'Information Scandal' were cited as reasons for his departure.

The Erasmus Commission of Inquiry revealed that Vorster knew about corrupt activities in the Department of Information but preferred to turn a blind eye. He resigned from his position in disgrace. Ill health and the on-going exposure of the ‘Information Scandal’ were cited as reasons for his departure.

Using this knowledge as a weapon, Dr Smit returned to South Africa and “issued an ultimatum to Premier John Vorster”. He demanded a safe seat in parliament, to be followed with an appointment as Minister of Finance. And that, of course, is why he was murdered.

He died just eight days before the election, which would certainly have put him into parliament.

The Swiss bank account, holding R28-million and linked to Diederichs, was uncovered in 1980. A retired judge, Joseph Ludolf, informed a newspaper of the existence of the account.

President Diederichs, the man at the root of the mystery

President Diederichs, the man at the root of the mystery

A public outcry led to an investigation by the auditor-general, who found the “secret account” belonged to a David Mort and now contained only R500. What emerged, although it was swept under the carpet, was that Mort was a friend of Diederichs. The mystery deepened further when a safety-deposit box Diederichs had opened at Volkskas Bank shortly before his death was found empty weeks after his death.

Diederichs died of a heart attack on 21 August 1978 in Cape Town.

Around the same time, it emerged that the Erasmus Commission, which investigated the Information Scandal, had also probed the existence of a secret Swiss bank account said to contain R128-million.

A NATIONAL TRAUMA

The Smit murders may have been meant as a warning too. If it was a warning to plotters around P.W. Botha, and those within the military who had already begun attempts to undermine Vorster, it failed misrably. The deaths of Robert Smit and his wife were the last straw. Things have finally gone too far by butchering “their own” Vorster had to go.

Pieter Willem Botha, commonly known as "P. W." and Die Groot Krokodil, (The Big Crocodile) was the prime minister of South Africa from 1978 to 1984 and the first executive state president from 1984 to 1989.

Pieter Willem Botha, commonly known as “P. W.” and Die Groot Krokodil, (The Big Crocodile) was the prime minister of South Africa from 1978 to 1984 and the first executive state president from 1984 to 1989.

It is difficult to measure the impact of unarticulated suspicion on political events. But, arguably, the Smit murders were one of the blows that cracked the Afrikaner monolith. The scandal had “shattered the image of leadership in the eyes of the traditional patriarchal Afrikaner nationalist volk. The fall of the father figure John Vorster and his heir apparent, Connie Mulder, the discovery that some respected figures lied and others cheated; the shattering of the self-image of a stern, upright, incorruptible people, have all added to a national trauma.”

John Vorster, served as the Prime Minister of South Africa from 1966 to 1978 and as the fourth State President of South Africa from 1978 to 1979.

John Vorster, served as the Prime Minister of South Africa from 1966 to 1978 and as the fourth State President of South Africa from 1978 to 1979.

Members of the South African security services would have had to be involved in recruiting the hit team, facilitating the operation and (perhaps) even the clumsy efforts to obscure the true nature of the crime. But it has always seemed unlikely is that they actually killed Robert Smit and, more particularly, his wife.

The local investigation has essentially run its course. There are strong suspicions about who was involved. But these suspicions have not been hardened into provable fact. It does not seem as if the possibility of DINA/CNM/Condor involvement has been properly explored.

There always was an international dimension to the case. It seems almost common cause that Smit came across some kind slush fund overseas, that he planned to expose it, and this is what got him killed. However, the actual motive behind the killing has not been properly established. What was it about the way that this money was being used that so outraged Smit that he wanted to go public? And why was it regarded as so important that he be stopped from doing so, that there was resort to murder?

If a foreign hit squad was involved then there could have been as many as three groups involved in the assassination. There would be the South Africans who called in the hit (and perhaps tried to ‘clean up’ afterwards). If the usual Operation Condor methodology applied, a first team would have been dispatched by DINA (or whoever) to locate and survey the target. Once the location and surveillance operation was complete, this team’s mission would have been terminated. A second team would have then been dispatched to “carry out the actual sanction against the target”

Roelof Frederik "Pik" Botha is a former politician from South Africa who served as the country's foreign minister in the last years of the apartheid era.  Pik Botha has outlived most of the senior officials he served with in the apartheid regime.

Roelof Frederik “Pik” Botha is a former politician from South Africa who served as the country’s foreign minister in the last years of the apartheid era. Pik Botha has outlived most of the senior officials he served with in the apartheid regime.

The truth about the Smit murders remains elusive. In the above account of the facts of the case, and the theories around it, there are certain interesting ‘coincidences’. For instance, Minnaar had Cuban connections. And Trento’s CIA sources suspected Cuban-exiles of involvement in the killings. These may be significant, or they may mean nothing at all. However, if there is information out there that could show these ‘coincidences’ to be provable linkages – then the crime would be very close to being solved.

The National Prosecuting Authority has confirmed the case remains open, so if new evidence surfaces, it will be investigated.

In a phone interview with the media, former foreign affairs minister Pik Botha, now 80, who was friends with the Smits, said: “No sufficient evidence was ever found to trace the murderers. It remains one of the most haunting criminal mysteries in our country.”Pik-and-Botha

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