The Lost Boys of Bird Island: A review

Craig Bartholomew Strydom writes on Chris Steyn and the late Mark Minnie's expose of a high level NP paedophile ring

The Lost Boys of Bird Island, co-authored by Mark Minnie and Chris Steyn, with a foreword by Marianne Thamm, was published by Tafelberg Publishers.

I only twice met National Party patriarchy. The first was when as a conscript Adriaan Vlok, then South Africa’s Deputy Minister of Defence, addressed my battalion in typical ministerial attire: conservative grey suit, black hat, grey shoes. The year was 1985. The place, Port Elizabeth. He and his wife had come to thank us for upholding apartheid from the cover of our armoured vehicles, which involved patrolling the townships by night, handing out candy to children by day.

After the address, and in an absurd display of juvenility, we were each made to act out a handshake gimmick with the minister’s wife, a trick that kids would perform on the playground, which entailed shaking hands and then, with thumbs still locked, twiddling ones fingers as if to wave goodbye. Nothing more, nothing less. An innocent, child-like gesture.

The second incident took place many years later on an airport shuttle bus ferrying passengers from the terminal to the plane. The airport, renamed after the anti-apartheid revolutionary ANC leader Oliver Tambo, must have stuck in the craw of the man who stood before me, arm outstretched, holding on to the overhead safety strap, and whom I immediately recognized (and shuddered at recognizing), even from eight foot away.

It wasn’t the man’s build, which had by now become diminutive and stooped, or his characteristic military uniform, which he no longer wore, or shall I say, no longer dared to wear, or even his bush-hardened leather tan… but the ears, the unmistakable, protruding ears. The man was Magnus Malan, former Minister of Defence and President P.W. Botha’s right hand man during the eighties, the darkest, most brutal period of apartheid.

As the enforcer of what was then labelled the ‘total strategy,’ he oversaw the birth of several covert organizations, including the feared, albeit deceptively named Civil Cooperation Bureau (CCB). He was also the man in charge of all covert operations during a period of cross border raids and military-provoked assassinations, including that of anti-apartheid operatives Dulcie September in Paris, and Swedish Prime Minister Olof Palme in Stockholm, long believed to have been carried out by South African operatives. He was also complicit in a series of atrocities, which in hindsight one might regard as crimes against humanity, all of which he got away with to live his life out in relative peace and quiet until his death in 2011.

But now, according to a new book by ex-policeman Mark Minnie and former journalist Chris Steyn, The Lost Boys of Bird Island, it seems the man who instilled fear in the hearts of a generation, and who ruled South Africa’s defence forces with an iron fist, got away with more than he could ever have imagined. The book, a page-turner which takes the form of alternating chapters by both authors – one written in the pulp fiction style of hardboiled crime, the other with the measured pacing of a circumspect journalist – had its genesis in the late eighties, and is based on the first-hand accounts of two unexpected collaborators from different sides of the ideological coin.

Mark Minnie, an undercover narcotics policeman in Port Elizabeth was called upon by his superior to investigate an incident involving a young boy who had been admitted to hospital for what appeared to be a sexual assault-related injury. Minnie immediately set to work investigating the story which lead him via a sequence of small-time drug dealers to a Port Elizabeth-based owner of a guano concession, Dave Allen, referred to in the book as uncle Dave, and then on to a government cabinet minister, John Wiley, the minister of Environmental Affairs and Tourism, and ultimately to the Minister of Defence himself, General Magnus Malan, the second most powerful man in South Africa at the time, whom Minnie refers to in the book as ‘wingnut’ because of the uncanny resemblance to the hardware of the same name (not that anyone would have dared call the general that or any other nickname during the dark period I speak of). Only one man was more powerful at the time, Die Groot Krokodil, President P.W. Botha.

Miles away, and on the other side of the ideological coin, and co-author of the book, is Chris Steyn, at the time a journalist with the left-leaning Cape Times. The rumour of high-level involvement in what appeared to be a paedophile sex ring on Bird Island, an island off the coast of Port Elizabeth where ‘uncle Dave’ operated his fertilizer business, arrived at her shores via a wave of undisclosed informants. She too set to work investigating the story in an atmosphere of draconian suppression against the press, in part directed by none other than General Magnus Malan himself, and a host of ever-tightening laws against the media that was fast becoming virulently anti-apartheid.

As is wont to happen when paedophiles are unmasked, the book frustrates the resolution-seeking reader when uncle Dave commits suicide on the morning that he was supposed to make his first court appearance, for his role in what was increasingly beginning to look like a paedophile sex ring. Days later, as the noose of the story began slowly to tighten around the neck of John Wiley, uncle Dave’s friend, and the cabinet minister who had granted uncle Dave the guano concession in the first place, he too commits suicide in similar fashion: a single shot to the head.

And so the story would have ended had it not been for a few pesky details, a determined cop, and a journalist once described as being an ‘unguided missile.’ According to the book, upon further investigation, the discrepancies surrounding the deaths of both the guano concession owner and the politician were enough to launch a thousand question marks.

Uncle Dave was found on the beach with a 9mm Walther Parabellum in his hand and with what seemed to be a self-inflicted wound to the head. Experts, however, maintain that with the recoil of this specific type of semi-automatic pistol, it would have been near-impossible for it to still be in the suicide victim’s hand after discharge. In the case of the environment minister, the bedroom in which he was found appeared to have been locked from the inside, but bizarrely, no key was found.

Curiously, no gunpowder residue was found on the forehead of Allen, either, nor on the hands of Wiley. And to round off matters, uncle Dave left a surfeit of suicide notes next to his body, more than were necessary, including a peculiar note – a directive – instructing the coroner to treat his body with care, whereas Wiley, a known, commensurate note-writer, did not.

But, to harken the words of John Adams: ‘facts are stubborn things.’ Neither the intrepid reporter (and it is this that keeps the pages turning), nor the undercover policeman would let go of the story. Only when Minnie was transferred away from his precinct, his case files mysteriously disappearing from his office overnight, and only when pressure was applied to the editor of the Cape Times for the paper to curtail Steyn’s dogged investigation into the case, did the story finally recede from public consciousness. These were heady times in South Africa, with enough daily political developments (boycotts, bombings, assassinations) to topple yesterday’s news from the headlines, presaging the ‘24-hour news cycle’ before it had been so aptly named.

It would take thirty years for the ex-journalist and ex-cop to finally reconnect, and to put pen to paper detailing the sordid events from the past. The sensationalist occurrences described in the book – with enough circumstantial evidence to make them stick, and even after so many years including several post-apartheid governments, plus with one of the accused allegedly still walking among us, an unnamed former cabinet minister – was bound to stir up a hornets’ nest. And stir up it did.

The publication was embargoed until the very last minute, potential book launches were cancelled for security reasons, and PDFs were surprisingly not leaked. But, and this is where non-fiction takes on the mien of fiction, shortly after the book first appeared on the book shelves, ex-cop and co-author Mark Minnie’s body was found in Port Elizabeth where he was visiting a friend. He, too, died from a single bullet to the head.

Tafelberg, the book’s publisher, put out a statement announcing the sudden death of Minnie. According to the statement, his body was found on a smallholding near Port Elizabeth in the Eastern Cape on Tuesday August 14. He had said nothing to Tafelberg in the period prior to his death to indicate that he might harm himself. He was by all accounts excited about the publication of the book and the revelations contained within.

The book “was only the beginning,” he told Steyn and others, and at the time of his purported suicide was allegedly following up several leads in Port Elizabeth, determined to reveal further evidence, and excited about an upcoming book fair. Hardly the utterances of a man who wanted to end it all. In a final email to Steyn, Minnie wrote,

“Finally I get to rest. The pitiful cries of the lost boys of Bird Island have haunted me for the past thirty one years. At last their story is out. Chrissy, don’t give up now. You’re almost home.”

Craig Bartholomew Strydom is the co-author of Sugar Man, the Life Death and Resurrection of Sixto Rodriguez.