Read of the Week

The Lost Boys of Bird Island: A shocking exposé

Mark Minnie and Chris Steyn

Tafelberg

Review: John Harvey

It seems fair to suggest that we have not even begun to scratch the surface of the crimes and atrocities committed under apartheid.

Each day, new and even more heinous revelations make their way into the public discourse, shedding further light on the evils of the Nationalist state.

Yet for every case where remains are recovered of people who “disappeared” at the hands of apartheid’s death squads, there may be five more which go unsolved, forever shrouded in mystery.

But even by these harrowing standards, this offering by former police investigator Minnie and former Cape Times journalist Steyn – two people who worked the case from completely opposite sides of the divide in the tumultuous 1980s – is shocking.

That black children allegedly suffered unspeakable acts of sexual violence at the hands of the regime’s staunchest and most influential racists brings to the fore a sick and twisted psyche, the depths of which knew no bounds.

The writers, both of whom were essentially gagged by their respective employers as their investigations brought them closer to the most powerful figures in PW Botha’s inner circle, contend that during the 1980s, at least three government ministers – defence minister Magnus Malan, environmental affairs minister John Wiley and another unnamed high-profile cabinet member – together with affluent Port Elizabeth businessman Dave Allen, commissioned military helicopters to ferry young boys to Bird Island off Port Elizabeth, where they were raped in return for money and alcohol.

While crimes of any sort affect us all, it holds true that those committed in one’s own home town will always resonate most strongly.

Having grown up in Port Elizabeth, the names of places and people mentioned by Minnie, in particular, are all too familiar to those of us who grew up in these surrounds.

A key figure to emerge is that of William, a beggar who hails from an affluent Port Elizabeth family and whose pleas for change at Five Ways at the top of Albany Road are known to many residents in the city. My own school was a stone’s throw from the area, and William was a fixture on the daily commute to and from my place of learning.

That William, according to Minnie, all but confirmed the identities of the alleged perpetrators brings home the stark reality of what went on right under people’s noses.

Though Steyn’s superb role should not be underplayed in exposing this horrific period in South African history, it is Minnie, a hard-nosed police officer cut in the finest “honest cop” tradition, who delivers the knock-out blows.

A rape victim himself, he delivers a frank account of the feelings and torments he suffered as his investigation unfolded, candidly paying tribute to those who did their utmost to assist him, and gunning for the apartheid state’s murderous henchmen who tried to stop him.

Yet he also makes it clear that this was never about him, or indeed the alleged rapists who made Bird Island their own private playground to live out their most depraved fantasies.

“I could never fathom the reason why adults would willingly harm young children in such a vicious manner. What those men did to those children has haunted me for over 30 years. The children caught in this net had simply disappeared. Justice never served them.”