A tale of four killers

Andrew Kenny explores SA's hypocrisy over the continued incarceration of Clive Derby-Lewis


Why is Clive Derby-Lewis still in prison for the murder of Chris Hani in 1993 when worse political killers of that era are walking free? I am not referring to legal niceties or political deals or conditions of the TRC (Truth and Reconciliation Commission). I am referring to fundamental justice and morality.

Let me list the four killers.

1. In June 1986, Robert McBride planted a bomb at Magoo's restaurant in Durban. It killed 3 innocent women and injured 69 people. He was a member of MK (Umkhonto we Sizwe), the armed wing of the ANC. He planted the bomb a month after - let me emphasise after - the National Party Government had published a white paper to abolish the Pass Laws, the most hated of all the apartheid laws, the cause of the Women's March on the Union Buildings in 1956 and the Sharpeville massacre in 1960 (see amnesty ruling here.)

2. In November 1988. Barend Strydom, the leader of the "Wit Wolwe", shot dead 7 innocent, unknown, unarmed people and injured 15 more in Strijdom Square in Pretoria. He chose his victims entirely on race. He shot black people because they were black.

3. In April 1993. Derby-Lewis conspired with Janusz Walus, who did the killing using Derby-Lewis's gun, to murder Chris Hani, head of the South African Communist Party.

4. By his own account Letlapa Mphahlele, Director of Operations of the PAC's armed wing, APLA, ordered four men armed with guns and grenades to attack the St James Church in Cape Town in July 1993 where innocent men and women of various races were at prayer. 11 were killed and another 57 were wounded, including a Russian visitor who lost both legs and an arm. He also ordered the armed raid on another multi-racial crowd at the Heidelberg Tavern, in which 4 innocent people were killed on 31 December, 1993.

Today, Strydom, McBride and Mphahlele are free but Derby-Lewis is in prison. Strydom and McBride were imprisoned but released in 1992. Both received amnesty from the TRC. Derby-Lewis was refused amnesty. Mphahlele initially applied for amnesty, but then withdrew his application.

Derby-Lewis, who has been in prison for over 20 years, is now 78 and suffering with terminal cancer. He has been refused parole on several occasions. His lawyer is now applying for parole again, on medical grounds.

Why is it that so many politicians and commentators are so angrily opposed to parole for Derby-Lewis when they speak not a word of protest against the freedom of the other three killers, all of whom are worse than Derby-Lewis on almost every count?

One of the reasons sometimes given for this is that the murder of Hani threatened a "racial civil war". But what of the other murders? In fact, of the four, the murder of Hani seems the least racially motivated. Walus said he killed Hani because he was a Communist not because he was black. This sounds completely believable. Walus, who had grown up in Communist Poland, hated communism. He could have argued that communism, on every single occasion it has been practised has proved worse than apartheid - ordinary people in every single communist country have fled it and tried to flee it; ordinary black people did not flee apartheid South Africa or try to do so. Walus's "hit-list" included Joe Slovo, white and communist. (Gaye Derby-Lewis, who drew up the list, denied it was a murder list.)

The motive of Barend Strydom, on the other hand, was 100% racist. He chose his victims purely and entirely because they were black and not for any political consideration. More than any of the others, he was blatantly trying to stir up racial hatred and foment racial war.

Another odd reason given is that we must consider the feelings of Limpho Hani, the widow of the murdered man. While we must obviously sympathise with her, I don't think the feelings of the murder victim's loved ones should ever play a part in judicial decisions about the murderer. (If so, a murderer lucky enough to have a victim with forgiving relatives would get off, while another with vengeful relatives would not.) But what about the feelings of the relatives of 25 people killed by the other three? Were the loved ones of the 7 people slaughtered by Strydom consulted before he was released?

Among the requirements for amnesty under the TRC was that you had to show you had acted as part of a political organisation and that you had made full disclosure of your actions. A feeble reason for refusing amnesty for Derby-Lewis and Walus was that they had not acted on the instructions of the Conservative Party to which Derby-Lewis belonged. They certainly hadn't. But they themselves formed a political faction, and the murder of Hani, a leading political figure, was the most clearly political killing of the four. The other three killed innocent people with no known political affiliations.

The most usual reason given for refusing amnesty or parole for Derby-Lewis and Walus is that they hadn't made full disclosure. They hadn't revealed the full extent of the conspiracy and named all the conspirators behind the murder. How do we know that they hadn't? And how do we know that the other killers had? Such doubts lead to a black hole of conspiracies, some interesting, most silly, about the murders. Let me discuss some of them.

Let me first say that all my instincts are against conspiracy theories. If I have to guess between conspiracy and cock-up, I'll always choose the latter. One hundred years ago, the world was plunged into catastrophe by the killing of Archduke Franz Ferdinand. We now know that it was an impromptu act by a few young desperadoes acting alone. But suspicion that they were part of a wider conspiracy led to a war that cost 35 million lives. I believe that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone when he killed President Kennedy. From 80 metres, with a rifle with telescope sights, I could easily have shot him myself and, unlike Oswald, I am not a trained marksman. So I believe that Walus and Derby-Lewis acted alone and the others within very small groups. But here goes with the conspiracies.

The conspiracist's first question is always: "Who benefits?" In the case of McBride, the beneficiaries were the white reactionaries opposed to the reform and ending of apartheid. The Magoo's bombing was a godsend for every racist wanting to maintain white minority rule.

Similarly the only possible potential beneficiaries of Mphahlele's massacres would have been white reactionaries trying the derail the negotiations for majority rule. They were behind the bomb in Johannesburg on 25 April 1994, killing 9 people.

In the case of Hani's murder, the conspiracists have a wider field. Some vaguely suggest that Derby-Lewis and Walus were part of a "right-wing" plot. (In this instance "right-wing" means white racist and nationalist.) But far more suggest exactly the opposite, that Hani was murdered by a plot from within the ANC alliance. Here the conspiracies follow the puzzle of the open door on the lion cage.

An important politician walks past a lion cage. A lion leaps through the open door of the cage and kills the politician. Nobody disputes that the lion killed him. The question is why the cage door happened to be open at the precise moment he walked past. Accident? Or planned? If so, by whom?

Nobody disputes that Walus killed Hani with Derby-Lewis's gun. The question is why Hani was so unprotected at the time. Where were the bodyguards who usually attended him? The murder was extraordinarily amateurish and clumsy, leading to Walus's quick and easy arrest. So was Walus like the lion, an innocent killer given the opportunity to satisfy his natural murderous instincts by plotters he didn't know?

On "Who benefits?" two obvious names are Joe Modise and Thabo Mbeki. Hani was a competitor to Mbeki in 1993 for the eventual leadership of the coming democratic South Africa. But a far more likely suspect is Modise. He was MK Commander at the time, and in 1994 became Minister of Defence in 1994. By all accounts he was thoroughly corrupt and brutal. He had a gangster background that included drug running, was responsible for much of the torture in the MK camps such as Quatro, and was widely suspected of being an apartheid spy.

Chris Hani, by contrast, seems to have been clean and honourable, and was well aware of Modise's cruelty and corruption. He had already written a memorandum to the ANC detailing Modise's crimes. He was a huge threat to Modise and might have been about to make further damaging revelations about him. And so, the conspiracy goes, Modise, through various shadowy networks on both the ANC side and the apartheid side, arranged for the door on the lion cage to be open when Hani walked past.

In his history of South Africa's transition, "South Africa's Brave New World", R W Johnson goes into some length to support the case that:

"Clearly, Modise was a prime suspect for having facilitated the assassination. He had every motive to want Hani dead - and had, indeed, tried to kill him before."

Further support for this comes from the fact that the "right-wingers" would not have known about Hani's security arrangements whereas the ANC/SACP would.

I am not convinced. To advance "Who benefits?' to the logical absurdity, the biggest beneficiary of the Hani murder was Nelson Mandela. After the shock of the assassination, he rose to take command of the anxious, excited nation by appealing for calm. At that moment the mantle of power seemed to pass from the shoulders of F W de Klerk to his. Was Mandela behind the assassination of Hani? Oh, please!

Even if the lion cage theory is true, it is clear that Walus and Derby-Lewis were nothing but unknowing carnivores. They have told as much about the killing as the lion could have told.

So all the reasons for refusal to give Derby-Lewis parole fall away. Compared with the other three killers who are free, his crime was no more likely to provoke a racial civil war than theirs. Nor was he less part of a political organisation or faction, and his killing was the only specifically political killing, the only one to identify a purely political target. Nor is there good evidence to suggest he failed to give he failed to give full disclosure.

A final thought before my conclusion: the timing of these murders. McBride planted his bomb in 1986 when it was perfectly obvious that apartheid was in full retreat and when indeed the worst of all the apartheid laws had been repealed. This gives support to the theory that the ANC's "People's War" was not to end apartheid but to stop anybody else ending it.

My guess is that McBride, very much like the others, formed a sort of small, personal, maverick gang vaguely associated with a political intention, in his case to promote the People's War, which meant murder and mayhem against ill-defined targets. McBride not only won freedom but high office in the new government. He was by no means the only such one guilty of atrocities in the People's War to do so.

Strydom killed his innocent black victims in 1988, perhaps sensing the fear and uncertainty that many whites felt over the ending of apartheid, hoping somehow to convert alarm into war. But I think this is crediting him with too much intelligence. I cannot help thinking he was simply a mentally retarded white racist. The fact that he thought he could kill innocent black people with impunity (which happened to be true) reveals a primitive, bloody, childlike racism, which unfortunately characterises clashes between races down the ages.

The other two murders happened after F W de Klerk's famous speech in Feb 1990, which effectively ended apartheid and white minority rule. Thereafter, the cause had been won. Black majority rule was assured, and it was just a matter of negotiating its terms. The murder of Chris Hani in 1993 was a sort of rear guard action by two white reactionary nutters.

The worst of all were the slaughters in St James Church and the Heidelberg Tavern in 1993. They are probably the most cowardly atrocities in South African history. They happened after the apartheid leaders had ceded power. The Heidelberg Tavern massacre occurred after the date for South Africa's first fully democratic election had been announced as 27 April 1994. Letlapa Mphahlele, snubbed the TRC and refused to apply for amnesty. He was charged in 2002 but the case was eventually struck off the roll after the National Prosecuting Authority failed to pursue the matter.

He is on public record as stating that as Apla's Director of Operations "I ordered the killings of white civilians." He told one television programme that he "gave the orders for attacks on different civilian targets among them Heidelberg Tavern, St. James Church, Queenstown Steak Restaurant and King William's Town Golf Club." His proudest moment "was when I saw whites being killed on the battlefield" (The battlefield, one assumes, was a church of people at prayer.) The TRC, well conceived but badly executed, proved to be a work of hypocrisy. I suppose we might credit Mphahlele for exposing the hypocrisy to the full.

In conclusion, why are Strydom, McBride and Mphahlele free while Derby-Lewis is in prison? We all know why. The victims of the first three were ordinary people, humble unknown South Africans, black and white. Hani was very important, a political leader, very influential, part of a new ruling class. He mattered. The other poor sods didn't matter. The people who are deciding on the parole for Derby-Lewis are all part of the ruling elite to which Hani belonged.

Let me sum it up: if in a political cause you murder an ordinary person it doesn't matter very much; if you murder an important person it matters a lot.

This is the entire case in terms of morality and justice for refusing parole to Derby-Lewis.

It stinks.


Andrew Kenny


1. While I was doing CF training in the navy we had two sessions on the rifle range. Even with a Lee-Enfield 303, with old fashioned, unassisted V sights, I could easily hit the target at 100 metres.

2. "Right-wing" and "left-wing" are essentially meaningless terms. Castro's young revolution was lead by white, privileged, bourgeois males such as himself and Guevara. It persecuted homosexuals, crushed the working classes, established white minority rule, outlawed democratic institutions, wrecked the Cuban economy, made everybody very poor except for the ruling elite and set up a family dynasty similar to monarchy in the Middle Ages. Was Castro left-wing or right wing?

3. Details of the reasons implicating Joe Modise in the assassination of Chris Hani from R W Johnson's book. But similar accounts have appeared elsewhere

4. One of the politically innocent reasons given for the absence of bodyguards when Hani was murdered was that he had spent the previous night in a hotel with an air hostess and didn't want bodyguards embarrassing him. (SAPA. 5 Oct 1997). Sex has been the downfall of a second tier of powerful men. The most dangerous men of all, in the first tier, such as Richelieu and Hitler, were sexless.

5. The "hit list" was drawn up by Gaye Derby-Lewis. She denied it was a murder list. She said it was just a list of senior ANC/SACP figures who were getting rich on the proceeds of the struggle, and she wanted to expose and embarrass them. From the TRC Amnesty Hearing, 1 Dec 1997, subject: Clive Derby-Lewis:

MRS DERBY-LEWIS: Yes, I sent the list to Mr Kemp because he had access to a top newspaper library which I didn't have, although I had my own files and I had been writing a series of articles in The Patriot - which are on record, about the liberation gravy train and the people who were collecting money and who were getting funding and who were living in rather luxurious houses while they were working for the so-called: "oppressed".

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