Thursday, March 12, 2009

Memoir of an Apartheid Cop

I’ve updated the contents of this old post, because I’ve published an e-book with the same title, on 20 August 2010.

The e-book (approx. 26024 words) is currently available for FREE at

The only letdown is that the e-book, as published on, is not illustrated with any pictures due to the fact that it has been converted to various readable formats, which do not all accommodate graphics. Several formats are available such as PDF, HTML, Kindle, Epub, Palm Doc (PDB), and more.

The memoir tells some interesting stories while I served the country as a policeman during the apartheid era, and also 7 years into democracy. The last few years of my 24-year long career were spent in the crime-ridden province of KwaZulu/Natal, where I worked as a Forensic Ballistic Specialist.

I’ve replaced the contents of this post with a few extracts from each chapter of the e-book, and have also added some photographs.


Glenn Elsden


Foreword by the Author

Some of the words and facts you are about to read here have been lying idle for years in various folders scattered on my computer’s hard drive, while others have remained locked in my brain, dormant but not forgotten. With the exception of the first few opening paragraphs, which deal with a few personal background facts and a brief history of South Africa, the personal account of events depicted here covers a time span of roughly 24 years, starting from 1978 and ending in 2001. This is my first attempt to go public with my story.

Although many South Africans, and particularly those who served in the various armed forces of the country, will easily relate to events mentioned in this memoir, there will also be many who did not fully comprehend what exactly was going on in the South African Police Force before, during, and immediately after the country became a Democracy in the year 1994.

Readers should also be aware that this publication is by no means an attempt to dispute the current worldview that the old South African Police Force was a brutal apartheid machine, whose sole purpose was to subdue, control, and oppress people. This is by no means my intention, as I will only be making a complete idiot of myself if I tried!

It does concern me though, that there are many warped perceptions in the world today concerning South Africa’s past. One of the mistaken beliefs is that the conflict in the country was dominated by rivalry between Black and White races only. Another misconception is that the indigenous Africans were the only people who suffered hardship, pain, and sorrow. This chronicle will reveal that, although there is some degree of truth in these perceptions, the current worldview is excessively unbalanced and unjust regarding this issue.

The character and reputation of the old South African Police Force was ripped to shreds in countless publications and media reports, long before Nelson Mandela was released from prison. The words “Police Brutality” and “Police State” often featured prominently in news headlines at a time when there were hardly sufficient resources, and way too few policemen on the streets to combat terrorism, - never mind to serve and protect all the diverse communities. Some of the narratives in this chronicle will hopefully portray the true state of affairs in this regard.

I’ve also noticed lately that journalists and many authors are fond of using the repulsive term, “White Supremacist Apartheid Regime” in their writings when referring to South Africa’s recent past. Vocal reports on the radio and television often place undue emphasize on the last four syllables of the word ‘apartheid’, and pronounce it as “HATE”. This subtle but deliberate misrepresentation is particularly loved by foreign press reporters, and is fast becoming popular among a few local Black South Africans, who seem to have fallen into the habit of imitating everything the Americans do.

Although one can hardly classify this maner of speech as a form of hate speech or propaganda, it has planted a mistaken perception in the minds of millions of people. Today people will automatically and subconsciously associate the old Police Force, for example, and anything that vaguely resembles that era (such as flags, logos, emblems, etc.) with ‘hatred’. I strongly believe that people have gone way overboard with this perception, as there were numerous police divisions in the old South African Police that followed the exact same ethical protocols and procedures, which were also adopted by other respectable police agencies worldwide.

Take note, that although I am not entirely comfortable with the title of this publication, I have chosen to use it because it immediately signifies what the contents of this publication are all about. I do not consider myself an “Apartheid Cop”, and definitely not in the context as portrayed by the current worldview. Once you’ve read this memoir, you will understand why I feel this way.

Chapter 1

(Early Days)

Our passing-out parade after 6 months basic training was quite a grand affair. It took place on the parade grounds of the Police College in the winter month of early July 1978. Some General, I cannot remember whom (it may have been General Geldenhuys), gave an excellent speech that day. He hammered on and on about the big terrorist threat that was looming on our borders and in our cities. He spoke about the communist rifles, limpet mines, and hand grenades that were illegally being smuggled into our country. He mentioned that the banned African National Congress (ANC) had changed their tactics, and were intent on making our lives as miserable as possible. He went into considerable detail how WE, the men in blue, were going to clean up the entire country, and restore law and order to our beloved land. WE were the thin blue line - the protectors of all citizens in South Africa. God was on our side, so there was no need to fear the enemy, bla, bla, bla, - and so forth! So much for my father’s wishes that his “dearly-beloved-only-son” was not going to fight any wars for the government!

I can recall how oddly content I felt on that sunny winter's day as I stood on parade smartly dressed in my dark blue winter uniform, clutching my new companion with tender pride. I was sure that my squeaky-clean 7,62mm R1 rifle must have looked rather menacing that day, as its shiny-black barrel sparkled in the winter sun.

I did not care much about politics back in those days, and probably missed a large portion of the General’s speech. I can still recall how I started humming casually and very softly that favourite Uriah Heep tune “July Morning”, keeping to most of the original lyrics, but adding a few of my own words as I went along:

“There I was on a July Morning, listening to some General talking, with the strength of a new day dawning, at the sound of the first bird singing, I was leaving for home, with the storm and the night behind me, and a road of my own.”

Chapter 2

(SA Police Randburg, 1978)

When I was finally allowed the privilege of joining a crew on a patrol van, my new mentor, crew-member and driver, was a middle-aged Coloured man by the name of Sergeant Schoeman. He was a sturdy robust man with a joyful pleasant attitude. His huge build and his broad moustache, which he loved twisting upwards at both ends, gave him that typical authoritative military appearance. I have many pleasant memories about this man and can recall how thankful I was, on several occasions, that I had him as crew-member on patrol.

Sergeant Schoeman possessed all the qualities of a General, and I would often tell him that. Yet, he had no ambition to study further or to join the ranks of senior officers. In this respect he shared the sentiments of many other ‘colleagues of colour’ who firmly believed that it was the Whiteman’s task to supervise and manage.

The enforcement of the much hated pass-laws were never a priority in my time. The police holding-cells were already full with drunkards, housebreakers, thieves, murderers and rapists. A passbook was one of the things we looked at while investigating a suspected terrorist. I can recall how Sergeant Schoeman and I arrested our first terry. We found him walking along Hendrik Verwoerd Drive, Randburg's main street, in the early hours of dawn. He carried an unloaded Russian Tokarev pistol hidden in a plastic bag crammed with newspapers. He did not resist arrest.

Once disarmed and thoroughly searched, the next step was to check the validity of the suspect’s passbook. I can recall how we used to open the passbook at the centre pages, and fold it over until the front and back covers met. If the seams broke, the passbook was in all probability a forgery. The photograph and the stamp over the photograph also had to be inspected with caution. Other telltale signs of a suspected terrorist were the rucksack marks over the shoulders of the suspect.

The cold hard fact that any innocent looking Blackman walking in the street could be a trained terrorist, created somewhat of a dilemma for a South African policeman on patrol. Media headlines at the time announcing that police brutality was an evil that needed to be weeded out, confused my simple mind somewhat.....


(SA Police Head Office and Unit 19, Pretoria)

Every Friday morning I noticed a change in mood and dress at Head Office. Certain men arrived at the office wearing camouflage uniforms and armed with handguns. The men always seemed to be in jolly high spirits. By 12 o’clock those men had all left for some unknown venue, leaving vacant desks behind. Sometimes on the following Monday, I noticed that the desks of these men were still vacant, and that on occasion their desks remained vacant for the entire week.

“Those are the Elite boys of SA Police Head Office, known as Unit 19,” my supervisor explained. There was a noticeable hint of sarcasm in his voice.


One Friday afternoon, on 20 May 1983 at exactly 16:00, I grabbed my briefcase and headed for the stairway to the exit of the building. I was eager to get home as soon as possible to catch up on my UNISA study assignments. The deadline dates for completion were looming again! By 16:30 I presumed that my bus was behind schedule due to the heavier traffic, which had become the norm on a Friday afternoon in Pretoria Central.

Suddenly a thunderous explosion rocked the foundations I was standing on. For a moment I thought that the biblical doomsday had finally arrived, as clouds of black smoke became visible from the vicinity of Church Street. There was a brief moment of deadly silence followed by the sounds of speeding police vehicles, ambulances, and fire brigades rushing to the scene. Rush hour traffic turned to chaos that fateful day, and I cannot remember at what hour of the night I finally arrived home.

Through the media we soon leaned that Pretoria had been hit by a massive car bomb, detonated in front of the Nedbank Plaza Building in Church Street, the location of the South African Air Force Head Quarters. At the time, I thought it was a rather foolishly planned attack. If I were a terrorist I would have planted a second bomb, blowing SA Police Headquarters to kingdom come as well. Maybe they did, and maybe the bomb was defused. I would never know. All I knew for sure, was that months after that massive explosion in Church Street I was still convinced that Police Head Office was next to be targeted by terrorists, and every day that uneasy and precarious feeling of fear and uncertainty dominated my life.

(Besides the two terrorists who carried out the attack, and were blown up in the blast, 19 other people were also killed. In submissions to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) in 1997 and 1998, it was revealed that the attack was orchestrated by a special operations unit of the ANC's Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK). The attack had apparently been authorised by Oliver Tambo, the ANC President. Many streets and buildings in several cities in South Africa were later re-named in honour of this man. The Johannesburg International Airport, known as Jan Smuts, was also re-named in his honour.)


(Ballistic Unit – Forensic Science Laboratory, 1984)

It was while working in the environment of blood-stained bullets, cartridge cases and firearms, that I realized for the first time in my life how intense the communist threat in South Africa really was. We simply couldn’t keep up with the workload, as spent Soviet AK-47 cartridge cases, bullets, and an assortment of firearms from Soviet and East-Block countries poured in at an ever-increasing rate. Due to the green lacquered steel composition of the AK-47 cartridge case, they were difficult to analyze microscopically, but with the help of two older men who had considerable experience in the examination of thousands of those exhibits during the bush war in Rhodesia, we soon became experts in the field of firearm identification and microscopic analysis. (The correct term is MACROscopic, but for purposes of this memoir, I suppose it doesn’t really matter.)

Senior members of the unit made it quite clear to us that it was only after the completion of a three-year internal training program that we were allowed to call ourselves “Ballistic Experts”. It was just another way of saying that for three years we were going to be responsible for completing all the low-profile cases, and also all the donkey-work!


During March 1987, the Ballistic Unit started moving equipment to a new laboratory, situated in Silverton. The new ultra-modern Forensic Laboratory was named after General Lothar Neethling. In 1987 it was the most well-equipped, most modern, and biggest Forensic Science Laboratory in the southern hemisphere.

Neethling had his own individual style of managing the place. There was one way, and that was Neethling’s way. It was, after all, his building. Even the pigeons were not allowed to shit on his building! I remember that little incident very well, because two Generals, Lothar Neethling and Piet Kruger, paid me an unexpected visit in my office one day, at the exact same moment I was busy feeding the pigeons who regularly sat on my window-sill.


One of my most memorial experiences during that time was when General Neethling summonsed me to his office, to inform me that I had been selected to provide training to the Malawian Police. It was going to be a joint operation organized by ARMSCOR (Armaments Corporation of South Africa). I was well aware that the relations between the South African government and Malawi were excellent, and that Malawi, just like my country, was also experiencing sporadic insertions from Marxist terrorists, who were crossing the borders from Mozambique and Zambia.

It was going to be my first journey up north into the African continent, and I was extremely excited. Being a keen fisherman, I was also delighted by the prospects of possibly visiting Lake Malawi (also known as Lake Nyasa), one of Africa's largest lakes, which boasted more than 400 different species of fish. I couldn’t wait to get my bags and my fishing rod packed!

My time was very limited. I had one week to train five men in the art of bullet and cartridge case identification, and to assist with the setting up of ballistic equipment, a near impossible mission to accomplish in such a short time! But I saw it as a challenge and I was eager to do my very best. The people of Malawi were extremely friendly, and I was soon speaking a few words in their own language. The first day was a bit confusing. I stayed in a hotel in the capital city of Lilongwe. Everybody greeted me with a word that sounded exactly like “morning”. By late afternoon I was still being greeted by friendly faces using the same phrase. The friendliness continued until evening, but everybody was still greeting me with the word, “morning”.

It was only on the following day that I learned that it was the common word used for greeting someone, irrespective of the time of day. It was pronounced as moh-nee. I quickly picked up other words such as modibanzu (how are you); seekoma (thanks) and audi (excuse me). I instinctively knew that the expedition to Malawi was going to be a huge success, because the folk were quite different to the dark-skinned Africans back home. Their intellectual knowledge on the subject of firearms, courteous manners, and witty humour, was enough to convince me that it was indeed possible to accomplish quite a lot in a matter of one week.

It took me only five minutes to realize why the chaps were finding it hard to work on the comparison microscope supplied by the Germans. The contraption was fitted with the wrong lenses for examining fired bullets and cartridge cases, and the magnification was way too high. Luckily, most of the casework involved Soviet ammunition in the AK-47 calibre, which usually required a higher magnification during examination. I proceeded to instruct the men on how to locate the fine neck-marks on the spent cartridge cases. The high magnification was still inappropriate, but despite this drawback we did manage to take some excellent photographic evidence of cartridge case and bullet identification. Mr Chimphepo, the Ballistic Unit commander, and Mr Sibanda, a crime photographer and document examiner, became close friends and pen-pals for many years.

I also managed to enjoy a few greens and browns (Malawi beer produced by a German company) with my new companions on the shores of Lake Nyasa. Unfortunately my time was too limited to embark on any fishing expeditions. On my departure at the international airport in Lilongwe Mr Sibanda expressed the wish that I would be returning shortly to do some fishing. Unfortunately that never happened, but for several years we stayed in touch via the postal system, swapping photographs and music cd’s.


(The war-torn province of KwaZulu/Natal, 1993)

Between all the commotion of trying to set up a temporary base, and running around looking for quotations for equipment that we desperately needed, I also attended so many crime scenes that I didn’t even bother diarizing the details in my private journals. Despite the fact that most of the killings were taking place in typical warlike fashion, every single shooting incident in the province still had to be professionally managed as if it were a crime scene, and not a war zone. Many crimes scenes were attended while wearing bulletproof vests!

It wasn’t uncommon to find 300 or more spent cartridge cases scattered all over the place on one single shooting incident. I had serious doubts whether South Africa’s first democratic elections scheduled for 26 to 29 April 1994 were going to be a peaceful event. The ANC and Zulu Inkatha supporters were doing their very best to wipe each other off the map using AK-47 rifles as the chief weapon of mass destruction. According to my observations, it seemed as if the Zulu Inkatha supporters were losing the bloody conflict!


We arrived on the scene within minutes, roughly at the same time emergency services also made their appearance. We found the two traumatized kids sitting on the side of the road next to their unconscious and bleeding parents. The mother was naked and her bloodstained clothes lay scattered in the road. Emergency personnel immediately rushed the entire family to the nearest hospital. It appeared to us that the savages first tried to break into the trailer to steal personal belongings, but were unable to smash the locks. They then attempted to steal the car, but only managed to travel about 200 meters before the car’s immobilizer cut the engine. As a consequence of this, the crime scene had to be cordoned off and protected along the entire perimeter of 200 meters, - a rather difficult task, considering that it was already dark, and that a stream of holidaymakers from the interior provinces were congesting the traffic.

It was while we were examining that specific scene, that we noticed a vehicle standing on the opposite side of the highway. On closer inspection we discovered that the sole occupant, sitting behind the steering wheel, had been shot dead in the head. The entrance wound resembled the typical .38 or 9mm calibre.


I can remember watching the crowds with a pair of binoculars from the top balcony window of our small apartment in Durban. We had been following the April 1994 election results on television, and it was just moments after the final election results were announced. The racket in the streets that day was a sight and sound I will never forget! A mass of thousands-upon-thousands of Blacks stormed up the streets, chanting jubilantly and using everything from dustbin-covers to car wheel-caps as drums and symbols to make an ear-deafening racket. I was thankful that our one-and-only State vehicle was safely locked up in the basement that night, while I watched in amazement as looters smashed windows and randomly plundered unoccupied vehicles parked on the side of the road. I can recall thinking how outnumbered we were. The words, “God help us!” also flashed through my mind.

The killings did not stop after the elections. In fact, crime and violence soared in all provinces of the country at such an alarming rate that temporary ballistic labs were established as a matter of urgency in all provinces, except the Free State. I suppose Nelson Mandela’s decision to release thousands of criminals from jail was a most likely reason why crime soared to new groundbreaking, or should I say revolutionary heights!

The manual searching and comparison of fired bullets and cartridge cases became an impossible task to manage. There simply wasn’t enough manpower or time to analyze those exhibits according to the established protocols. A Canadian firm, Walsh Automation, offered a solution and soon every ballistic lab in the country had an automated system installed, known as IBIS (short for ‘Integrated Ballistic Identification System’).

The system was networked to other laboratories worldwide, where similar systems were operating. Our small ballistic lab in KwaZulu/Natal soon found itself competing with huge laboratories in the USA and other countries. In record time we were recording the highest “Hit Rate” in the world. A “Hit” occurred the moment we managed to identify that a specific bullet or cartridge case found on one shooting scene was linked to exhibits found on another scene.

The news spread like wildfire among police agencies worldwide, even those who did not have the IBIS-System installed. Police friends whom I had met during overseas visits in the USA, Canada, and also in the United Kingdom, wanted to know from me if the ‘new’ South Africa was under siege, or not.


(Black Empowerment, Equity, and Transformation)

In January 2000, South Africa’s first Black National Police Commissioner, Jackie Selebi, took over the reigns from George Fivaz, who held the esteemed position of National Commissioner since 1995.

(Jackie Selebi managed to hold onto his post for nearly eight years, until it came to light that the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) were investigating the man for alleged corruption, fraud, racketeering, and defeating the ends of justice. In January 2008, Selebi was put on extended leave. He was finally found guilty of corruption on 2 July 2010. Although he was sentenced to 15 years imprisonment on 3 August 2010, he was released on bail, while his lawyers prepared an appeal. It is unknown how long the appeal process will take, and at the time of writing this memoir the man has still not seen the inside of a prison cell.)


The majority of my Black recruits quickly realized that becoming a fully-fledged Ballistic Specialists was no walk in the park. There was also a tremendous language barrier, as most of the technical terms we used did not exist in any of the Black languages. In Zulu a bullet was called inhlamvu; a firearm was a isibhamu, but there were no names to describe a fired cartridge case; it was simply called ‘e-doppie’. Some of the words had a phonetic resemblance to the English term, such as itekisi which meant taxi, but there were no words for a microscope, and all the attachments that went with it. I shuddered to think how my new recruits were going to present a case in the courts, and how defence counsel were going to rip their expert testimony to shreds!

It was a nightmare trying to teach these new recruits from forensic textbooks that used sophisticated English descriptions! I suggested to my seniors at Head Office that maybe it was time that we compiled a comprehensive English-Zulu dictionary of technical terms. I thought it was a brilliant suggestion, but not one single human being, not even the Zulu folk who were employed in our laboratory, shared my enthusiasm.


The two dead victims, two Black men, lay on top of one another on the front seat of the vehicle. They had been ambushed from various angles by attackers armed with AK-47 rifles. The attackers made 100 percent sure that their victims were stone dead. Close to ninety spent 7,62x39mm cartridge cases lay scattered in the vicinity of the bullet-riddled car, covering an area of approximately 30 square meters.

I made sure to photograph the scene from every possible angle and direction. That fact that the two dead men had multiple gunshot wounds, is an under statement, -- they were absolute mincemeat! The victims were also armed with 9mm Norinco pistols, and had managed to fire a few shots back at their attackers. Their evidence also had to be collected for ballistic examination. I had scratched around on many occasions in pools of thick fresh blood looking for spent cartridge cases and bullets, but on that specific night I didn’t feel like doing it! I really had to force myself to stay focused. It was dark but the scene was well lit with huge spotlights placed in strategic positions. The scene was also well cordoned off. I noticed a large group of high-ranking Black police officials standing behind the yellow police barrier tape. It was quite obvious that they were eagerly waiting for me to finish my examination and to deliver a preliminary report.

At that point in time I was well aware of the precautions one had to take in order not become infected with the HIV virus. I must have gone through at least two boxes of disposable gloves that day, while I searched the blood soaked carpets and seats of the vehicle for every bit of ballistic evidence I could find. I can recall how it started raining quite heavily that evening, and how the rain washed the blood off my last pair of gloves, before I could remove them. I can also recall thinking that if one single officer on that scene told me to hurry up, that I was going to explode!

--- end extracts

Memoir of an Apartheid Cop
By Glenn Elsden
Published: Aug. 20, 2010
Words: 26024 (approximate)
Language: English
ISBN: 978-1-4523-3181-2


Anonymous said... .....Click here to refresh this blog

EK het gister die belewenis van die huidige SAPD gehad nadat my seun net buite n bank aan die Oos Rand van R50 000 berowe is. Ek glo dat die wit liberale elemente in ons samelewing teer op die bloed wat tans hierdie God-verlate land bevlek

Anonymous said... .....Click here to refresh this blog

Very interesting story. Good that you 'put pen to paper', I'm sure you still have lots of details to tell. I was out of SA for more than 3 decades so I missed all this drama. I feel history will judge SA whites kindly, hopefully the few that remain and survive will benefit..

Latest 5 Featured Posts:

Operation Vula, its Secret Safari, and Zuma’s band of comrades - Dec. 2013
During 1986 the ANC launched an underground operation called Operation Vula. A lesser-known fact is that it continued to operate after Nelson Mandela's release in February 1990, and for three years after his speech in August 1990 when he reiterated the total commitment of the ANC, Umkhonto we Sizwe and the SACP to the Groote Schuur Minute.

Heritage Day Photographs (Voortrekker Monument) - Sept. 2013
This posting includes a few photographs taken on Heritage Day 2013. The posting introduces an unusual but beautiful new structure called QUO VADIS? (with the question mark) which I’m sure many readers have never heard of.

The Yellow-Bucket Marula Tree: A Mystery Solved! - Oct. 2013
I came across a rather strange phenomenon one day while travelling along the R561 route between Tolwe and Baltimore in the Limpopo province of South Africa. A small yellow bucket was attached high-up in a branch of a Marula tree, hence the name of this posting. It’s a real funny story which I’m sure most readers will enjoy - as much as I enjoyed compiling the article  - (with illustrations).

Pretoria’s Monument for Victims of Terrorism - July 2013
Many people (including myself) had almost forgotten about a noteworthy monument in Pretoria that stood at the entrance of the old Munitoria building on the corner of Van der Walt and Vermeulen Streets (now renamed Lilian Ngoyi and Madiba Streets). When the Munitoria building was demolished on 7 July 2013 nobody could tell me whether the monument was still standing or not, so I decided to go look for myself.

Remembering The Battle of Delville Wood - July 2013
14 July marks a day when the South African 1st Infantry Brigade got engaged in the 1916 (WW1) Battle of the Somme, in France. The battle was one of the largest of World War I, in which more than a million men were wounded or killed, making it one of humanity's bloodiest battles. One specific encounter during this battle, known as The Battle of Delville Wood, is of particular importance to South Africa. The posting includes a comprehensive article (with pictures) compiled and written by Petros Kondos.

African Countries (Alphabetical list):
(The links will redirect to the page dealing with the specific country.)