Obituary: Dirk Coetzee / Led apartheid killings

April 1945 - March 6, 2013

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Dirk Coetzee, who led a South African police hit squad that killed antiapartheid activists, and who eventually confessed to his crimes as his country began shifting away from apartheid, died Wednesday at a hospital in Pretoria. He was 67.

The cause was kidney failure, a hospital spokesman told South African news outlets.

Mr. Coetzee was a divisive and complicated figure: a convicted murderer and a whistle-blower whose detailed accounts of a violently corrupt police force shed new light on South Africa's racist government.

His confession prompted accusations that he was an opportunist, out to protect himself when political winds began to change. But he was also viewed as brutally honest in a culture of cover-ups.

"There wasn't anything he told us that wasn't true," Jacques Pauw, who wrote the first articles about Mr. Coetzee's role in 1989 for a small South African weekly, said recently. "And for that I will always respect him."

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, Mr. Coetzee was a captain for the South African security police at Vlakplaas, a 100-acre farm on the outskirts of Pretoria, where police officers were trained in counterinsurgency to help defend white control in other African countries. Yet under Mr. Coetzee and other leaders, officers at Vlakplaas also led a war within South Africa.

Mr. Coetzee oversaw multiple killings of anti-apartheid activists, including members of the African National Congress, which the government had outlawed. He sometimes recruited black South Africans to join the force and carry out killings.

It was one of those black South Africans, a former police officer named Almond Nofomela, who first revealed the actions of Vlakplaas in 1989 and implicated Mr. Coetzee in a number of killings, among them the murder in November 1981 of Griffiths Mxenge, a black lawyer linked to the Congress. He had been stabbed more than 40 times and his throat had been slit.

The allegations prompted Mr. Coetzee to flee the country and, in an interview with Mr. Pauw, the journalist, to confess to having led the death squad.

In early 1990, South African President F.W. de Klerk, who had initially rejected calls for an investigation into Vlakplaas, created a commission to lead one. It quickly issued an arrest warrant for Mr. Coetzee.

Mr. Coetzee, who by that time was living outside the country under the protection of the very group whose members he had once targeted, said he welcomed the investigation. He said that the killings had been ordered by the government to preserve white rule and that they had continued after he left Vlakplaas in the early '80s.

But government prosecutors eventually dismissed the allegations, calling them "untruthful" and "groundless."

Years later, prosecutors would reverse course, affirming many of Mr. Coetzee's claims about Vlakplaas and even saying that he had become a target of the unit he had exposed.

After apartheid ended and South Africa created its Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Mr. Coetzee was among the first to apply for amnesty. In 1996, before the commission ruled on his case, he was arrested by the government over the killing of Mxenge. He and two officers were convicted in 1997, but that August, the commission granted them amnesty.

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