The Grisly Apartheid Assassination That Remains Unsolved
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because Robert Smit was killed for being too honest.
By Nick Dall
Daniel Tshabalala knocked on his boss’ door and, receiving no answer and finding the door unlocked, let himself in. Once inside, he quickly came across Robert Smit’s body and found Jeanne-Cora Smit’s bloodied corpse slumped over the telephone in the lounge. Without taking in too many of the gory details, Tshabalala ran outside to alert a neighbor.
The Smit murders in November 1977 sent shock waves through apartheid-era South Africa because the hit was carried out against an up-and-coming National Party politician, apparently on the orders of someone at the top of the Afrikaner establishment. Even today there is no clarity about who ordered the hit, or the motive. “Up until that point, Afrikaner nationalism had been a united family,” says James Myburgh, the editor of Politicsweb, a South African news site. “But now you had a situation where members of the family were prepared to go so far as to brutally murder one of their own … and his wife.”
… the person who carried out the hit was not necessarily the same person who did the writing and stabbing.
The scene that greeted police on November 23 was straight from a horror film. Robert had suffered three gunshot wounds — two to the head and one to the chest — and a stiletto knife was plunged into his back. Jeanne-Cora had been killed by one of two gunshots, but her body had been further mutilated by 14 stab wounds. The words “RAU TEM” were sprayed in red paint across the kitchen walls, fridge and freezer. Only Robert’s briefcase was gone, and the neighbors didn’t hear or see anything. Although there’s little hard evidence either way, Myburgh says that if he “were to put money on it,” he’d say that “the person who carried out the hit was not necessarily the same person who did the writing and stabbing.” His guess? Someone came in afterward to make a cold-blooded assassination look like the work of a lunatic.
Robert Smit attended Oxford on a Rhodes scholarship, earned a Ph.D. in economics and was South Africa’s ambassador to the International Monetary Fund in Washington between 1971 and 1974. Upon his return to South Africa, he was appointed head of Santam International, a “front” whose role was to circumvent sanctions and thus acquire “international products of a strategic nature for South Africa,” writes Chris Karsten in Unsolved: No Answers to Heinous South African Crimes. When he was murdered, Smit was just days away from what promised to be a glittering political career: His seat as member of Parliament for Springs was virtually assured, and the talk was that he would soon be appointed finance minister.
“There was little doubt that the secrets in Robert Smit’s brown briefcase held the key to the mystery,” writes Karsten. One theory was that the briefcase contained a document destined for Prime Minister John Vorster himself, purportedly to do with the clouds gathering around the Department of Information. What it revealed is anyone’s guess, but the Smit murders were, in Myburgh’s opinion, “the unanswered question that ran through the information scandal” that ultimately resulted in Vorster’s resignation in 1978.
Over the years, a number of names have been associated with the case, and most of the rumors concur that, regardless of who actually carried out the hit, it was likely authorized by Hendrik van den Bergh, the commander of the notorious Bureau of State Security (BOSS), South Africa’s intelligence agency. “I have enough men to commit murder if I tell them to kill. I don’t care who the prey is,” van den Bergh once told a government commission.
In 2006, the National Prosecuting Authority of the post-apartheid government publicly named three suspects (two BOSS operatives and one a member of a police “task squad”). Phil Freeman and Dries Verwey were both long dead by then, but the third suspect, named only as “RA” but widely acknowledged as being Roy Allen, is believed to be alive and well, living in Australia. No charges have ever been brought against Allen, and he has even written a piece for Politicsweb, giving his theory about who the killers might have been.
The fact that the crime took place in the Smits’ home and involved the killing of both husband and wife has led many to believe that foreign assassins may have carried out the hit. It was hard to believe that BOSS hardmen could have been persuaded to kill Jeanne-Cora, and various former BOSS operatives have said that the crime scene did not bear the hallmarks of a BOSS hit.
One theory, which in Myburgh’s opinion has been underexplored, is what Joe Trento described in the February 1980 edition of Delaware’s Wilmington Sunday News Journal, that a “hit team of Cuban terrorists” trained and recruited by the CIA was being used to carry out the murders. Trento’s article was primarily concerned with the Cuban death squad’s links to assassinations carried out by General Pinochet’s notorious Dirección de Inteligencia Nacional in Chile (which often killed husbands and wives), but it did mention, almost in passing, that the squad’s victims included a “South African economist and his wife, who were shot to death in their South Africa home in November 1977.”
Although it’s hardly surprising the crime was not solved while the Nationalist government was in power, the case is one of very few from that era that remains completely unsolved. Even today there are many among the older generation of Afrikaners — not to mention the Smits’ children, who were 15 and 13 when their parents were killed — who would love to get to the bottom of it.
“I’ve always looked for a proof of hypothesis,” says Myburgh, who feels there is probably something in the files in Chile or Washington that could allow one to make a connection. “Maybe your readers in the U.S. will help us find it,” he says hopefully.
* Efforts to reach Allen and the Smits were unsuccessful.
- Nick Dall, OZY Author Contact Nick Dall