Iraq Victim Was Top-Secret Apartheid Killer
Sunday Times (Johannesburg)
April 18, 2004
Posted to the web April 19, 2004
A security contractor killed in Iraq last week was once one of South Africa's most secret covert agents, his identity guarded so closely that even the Truth and Reconciliation Commission did not discover the extent of his involvement in apartheid's silent wars.
Gray Branfield, 55, admitted to being part of a death squad which gunned down Joe Gqabi, the ANC's chief representative and Umkhonto weSizwe operational head in Zimbabwe on July 31 1981. Gqabi was shot 19 times when three assassins ambushed him as he reversed down the driveway of his Harare home.
Author Peter Stiff this week confirmed information that Branfield was an operative identified in his books, The Silent War, Warfare By Other Means and Cry Zimbabwe as "Major Brian". He said Branfield, a former detective inspector in the Rhodesian police force specialising in covert operations against guerrilla organisations, came to South Africa after Zanu-PF came to power in 1980.
In South Africa he joined the SA Defence Force's secret Project Barnacle, a precursor to the notorious Civil Co-operation Bureau (CCB) death squad.
Given the rank of major, Branfield was put in charge of operations in the urban centres of Zimbabwe, Botswana and Zambia.
Said Stiff: "In Rhodesia even his enemies respected him. They called him Mhlatini, 'the one of the bush'. His colleagues nicknamed him 'Hound Dog' because of his innate ability to sniff things out."
Stiff recalled that Branfield led a daring operation in 1981 to rescue a South African Special Forces agent, Patrick Gericke, who had been detained in Harare and was under interrogation by the CID.
Branfield arranged a meeting with the investigating officer in the case, Inspector Fred Varkevisser, a man he knew personally. When attempts to cajole Varkevisser into releasing Gericke failed, Branfield and other agents overpowered the policeman and strapped an explosive belt around his waist.
Branfield then took Varkevisser's family hostage, offering them and him, a safe haven and compensation in South Africa if they co-operated. Varkevisser duly complied and collected Gericke from the police cells.
The family were flown out of the country in a Piper Seneca. Varkevisser died in Cape Town in 1999.
Stiff said Branfield also helped to lay the groundwork in 1982 for Operation Lebanta, an attack on ANC targets in Maseru. One of the targets was Chris Hani.
Branfield later told Stiff that he managed to get so close to Hani that he even went jogging with him.
In 1985 he was involved in planning the now notorious SADF raid on Gaborone in which 14 people, including a five-year-old child, were killed.
According to Stiff, Branfield expressed extreme reservations about the targets selected by reconnaissance officers. He later received infor mation that ANC personnel were no longer staying at three of the target houses, and urged commanders to scrap them as targets. He was ignored.
"He was not someone to keep his mouth shut," Stiff said. "He eventually left Project Barnacle when he discovered that some of its operators, many of them black, were being killed by their own people. He was appalled by it," he said.
Branfield was arrested and tortured while carrying out a reconnaissance operation in Zambia in 1986. For six weeks he and a colleague were subjected to beatings, water torture and electric shocks.
After eventually getting bail, Branfield skipped the country.
Two years later he was involved in an abortive CCB attempt to rescue five South African agents from Zimbabwe's notorious Chikurubi prison.
Three of the South Africans remain in prison.