BOOK REVIEW: Daughter of Robert Smit determined to find apartheid-era killers
Forty years after the brutal murder of Robert and Jeanne-Cora Smit, their daughter, Liza, is still asking questions about who ordered the killings and why.
"I think this must be the best kept secret in South Africa," Smit declares. The book, I am Liza Smit, is another attempt by her to flush out those behind the murders, and the title comes from her "not knowing for 40 years who I was".
Liza and her brother, Robert, testified at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). However, the commission’s finding that the Smits were killed by members of the apartheid regime’s security forces in a gross violation of human rights does not answer her question: why?
When the soft-spoken, petite mother of two meets to talk about the book written with the help of a Pretoria friend, Raquel Lewis, the anger and frustration she still feels are palpable.
She was 13 when her parents were butchered on November 22 1977. Twenty years later, in August 1997, she submitted a report to the TRC in which she detailed everything she had been able to find out up until that stage.
Now another 20 years have passed and senior National Party (NP) government members and those in the security forces such as BOSS (Bureau of State Security) have either died or are elderly, and time is running out.
The rumours about the Smit murders abound.
One of the most persistent conspiracy theories still avidly discussed today is that her father, a few days before a by-election in Springs would have made him an MP in order to become finance minister, was about to lift the lid on offshore bank accounts. Millions of rand were allegedly being siphoned off for top NP politicians in case they were forced into exile.
Other rumours, writes Smit, related to sanctions-busting: arms, oil and nuclear weapons.
In the week prior to the murders, she writes, an agitated Robert Smit saw then prime minister BJ Vorster nearly every day.
Liza and her brother (who was 15 at the time) were writing exams, which is why they were living in the Smits’ Pretoria home and not the rented one in Springs. Her mother was in the latter, on the phone, when the killers struck, shooting her three times before viciously, posthumously, stabbing her 14 times. When her father arrived home, he too was shot and then stabbed once.
Smit has deliberately included the horrifying pictures of her dead mother, huddled in a corner on the ground and her father lying face down in his blood in the corridor.
She is still shocked that the police took two minor children to the murder scene the following day, ostensibly "to take our fingerprints".
She almost stepped on her father’s coagulated blood. On the floor near where her dead mother lay, she saw the glove Jeanne-Cora had been wearing. Peering into it she saw the end of her mother’s little finger, which had been shot off.
The police never did take their fingerprints. "It was pure intimidation," she says.
The murders obliterated her childhood. She married young, had two children, got divorced after 18 years and then was married to a man she never names, who abused her emotionally. He was a control freak, wouldn’t let her attend her own daughter’s wedding and when her son, Gerhard, nearly died in a motorbike accident, tried to keep Smit from his hospital bed. Today he is a paraplegic.
Shortly after that, Smit, realising she was on the verge of suicide, booked herself into a rehabilitation centre. Eventually her psychologist was able to empower her to end the unhealthy marriage.
Smit was reunited with her family and began once again to track down people who had known her father to try to piece together who had ordered her parents’ murder.
She, with the help of an investigative journalist, interviewed a prisoner who claimed there was an official document found in Robert’s suitcase that was supposedly addressed to Vorster. It had a list of names of five cabinet ministers who were allegedly involved in currency fraud.
He claimed the names were Pik Botha, Connie Mulder, Nic Diederichs, PW Botha and Chris Heunis.
"I believe that Vorster gave the order but that he didn’t mean for them to kill my father." Liza believes Vorster wanted Smit to "shut up". "But Hendrik van den Bergh, head of BOSS and close to Vorster, knew only one way to keep someone quiet and that was to kill him. That’s how I see it," she says.
I believe that Vorster gave the order but that he didn’t mean for them to kill my father.' Liza believes Vorster wanted Smit to 'shut up'. 'But Hendrik van den Bergh, head of BOSS and close to Vorster, knew only one way to keep someone quiet and that was to kill him. That’s how I see it.
Liza saw Vorster at her parents’ funeral and "his face was an awful grey colour. He looked tired and drained and sad … I wrenched myself from his grip."
The 13-year-old was furious because she had heard grownups talking about the NP being responsible for the murders. Pik Botha, a close friend of her father’s, she says, was also at the funeral and she recalls him telling her there: "My God, child … I wish I could help you but my hands have been chopped off."
He told the media later on that Liza had misunderstood him, "but I didn’t", she insists.
Determined to get him to tell the truth about the murders, she visited him, with the TRC’s knowledge, at his Pretoria home where the 20 minutes he had promised her turned into two hours. Liza alleges Botha tried to kiss her in the house before she ran off.
As she prepared to drive away, "he got into the car, took my head in his hands and kissed me".
When he saw how angry and confused she was, "he laughed and laughed at me".
She says that as she drove away, the TRC "was driving in to look for me as I’d been there for so long". She was extremely disappointed in the commission because "they said a team would investigate Pik Botha but they did nothing".
Liza plans still to confront Botha, "because he’s the only one left who knows, apart from those who pulled the trigger, who gave the orders and why".
She confronted the ageing Van den Bergh in 1992, asking him: "What are those blue eyes of Oom hiding?"
"He looked at me intently and answered: ‘That which I shall take with me to my grave.’"
Undeterred, Liza Smit continued with her own investigations. The brakes in her car were tampered with and she has found heaters she had switched off blazing upon her return home. Framed family photographs "had big red crosses drawn across my face".
When her telephone line was cut, she was forced to go into a witness protection programme with her two children in Port Elizabeth.
Today, Liza is an executive PA in Pretoria and a devoted grandmother. However, she does not want to go to her grave without knowing who put her parents in theirs.
Correction: July 2 2018
An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Liza Smit was married for a second time to a man who emotionally abused her for 18 years. Smith was in fact married to her first husband for 18 years. Her second marriage was emotionally abusive and also ended in divorce. We apologise for this error.