The explosive device that killed Bheki Mlangeni on 15 February 1991 was contained in a parcel that arrived at the firm by registered post. The parcel was addressed to Dirk Coetzee in Lusaka, Zambia, a former commander of the C-10 Vlakplaas unit of the then South African Police who had fled to the African National Congress in exile after the hit squad activities of the unit had been exposed publicly. The parcel wrapping identified Bheki Mlangeni at Cheadle Thompson & Haysom Inc. as the sender. Bheki was on board exam study leave at the time that the parcel was delivered to the Firm but collected it on 15 February 1991 when clearing his pigeon hole. He took the parcel home and opened it. It contained a walkman cassette player attached to headphones filled with explosives. It also contained two cassettes: one entitled “Further evidence – Hit squads” and the other a Neil Diamond cassette. Bheki was killed later that evening when he tried to listen to the cassettes.
By way of background, Bheki was a member of the firm’s legal team representing the Independent Board of Inquiry into Informal Repression and various other clients at the Harms Commission of Inquiry into assassination squads in the then South African Police and South African Defence Force. The Commission was established following hit squad revelations made by Almond Nofomela, a former policeman who was on death row and scheduled to hang following a murder conviction. Nofomela revealed the assassination activities of the C-10 unit of the South African Police based at Vlakplaas outside Pretoria. Soon thereafter, Dirk Coetzee, a former commander of the Vlakplaas unit who had fled to the African National Congress in Lusaka publicly confirmed Nofomela’s allegations and exposed more information about the assassination activities of the unit.
Bheki liaised extensively with Coetzee during the Commission, both in Zambia and in London. It was precisely for this reason that Bheki’s name and the firm’s address was entered on the parcel as the name and address of the sender. Eugene de Kock (who replaced Dirk Coetzee as the commander of the Vlakplaas unit) later told the Amnesty Committee of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that he had received the name and address from a Colonel du Plessis who had informed him that Bheki was the only person from whom Dirk Coetzee would receive anything from South Africa. He also told the Committee that the Neil Diamond cassette had been included in the parcel, precisely because of Coetzee’s fondness for the singer’s music.
The explosive device was prepared by members of the Vlakplaas unit and sent by registered mail to Coetzee in Lusaka. Coetzee refused to accept the parcel. He apparently suspected it was a bomb. As a result, the parcel was returned through the postal system to the address of the sender, ending up in Bheki’s pigeon hole at Cheadle Thompson & Haysom Inc. some months later.
The firm launched a massive investigation into Bheki’s death, frustrated by General van der Westhuizen and Captain Kritzinger who were in charge of the police investigation into his death. The investigation included following all possible leads including the investigations into the parcel bomb killings of Dulcie September in France, Ruth First in Mozambique and Janet Schoon in Botswana. We engaged the services of South African and British handwriting experts to analyse the parcel’s wrapping obtaining handwriting samples from various suspects including General Lothar Neethling. The firm consulted with the forensic team that investigated the Lockerbie aircraft bombing disaster over Scotland. It also investigated a subsequent assassination plot against Dirk Coetzee in London by South African military intelligence agents who had been arrested by the British Anti-Terrorism Unit.
Despite all of this, we were unable at the time to establish a direct link between Bheki’s death and the C-10 Vlakplaas unit. In his inquest findings into Bheki’s death, Judge O’Donovan held that his death was brought about by an unlawful act by an unknown person or persons and criticized the South African Police investigating team saying that had they acted with greater promptness, it may well have led to a different finding.
Despite this setback, investigations into Bheki’s death continued, culminating on 9 September 1996 when Colonel Eugene de Kock was convicted of culpable homicide arising from Bheki’s death. Following the criminal trial, the firm launched a civil claim on behalf of Bheki’s dependants against the State, ironically citing the new Minister of the South African Police Services, Sydney Mufamadi as the defendant. The matter was postponed pending the amnesty hearings of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
It was at the amnesty hearings in 1998 that the full story surrounding Bheki’s death was told. The applicants for amnesty were Eugene de Kock, Isaac Daniel Bosch, Jakobus Kok, Willem Albertus Nortjé, Willem Riaan Bellingan, Jacob Francois Kok, Waal du Toit, Simon Makopo Radebe and Kobus Klopper. They were granted amnesty.
As if dealing with Bheki’s death and finding those responsible was not difficult enough, the Compensation Commissioner repudiated a worker’s compensation claim on behalf of Bheki’s dependants in 1992 on the grounds that the explosion was not an accident “arising out of and in the course of his employment” at the firm. One of the grounds for repudiation was that the Neil Diamond tape was present at the scene of the explosion and that the Commissioner could not exclude the possibility that Bheki was simply listening to music at the time of the accident. Our objection to the finding was rejected and an initial application to the High Court dismissed. Shortly before our appeal was to be heard in the Supreme Court of Appeals, the Director-General of the Department of Labour agreed to review the initial decision of the Commissioner on the grounds of new evidence that had emerged in the course of the Eugene de Kock amnesty hearings. Following a review hearing, the initial decision by the Commissioner was overturned and the claims of Bheki’s dependants accepted. The Commissioner then extended benefits to all of his dependants.
The legal chapter has now been closed.