The grim legacy of Steve Biko's killer
On July 15 2004, Gideon Nieuwoudt slunk into a coffee shop across the road from the Port Elizabeth High Court in the Eastern Cape to buy a packet of cigarettes.
Nieuwoudt, one of five notorious apartheid security policemen who tortured Steve Biko, was appearing before a reconvened sitting of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), applying for amnesty for his role in the 1989 bombing and murder of three policemen and an askari, known as the Motherwell Four.
The 53-year-old was buying the cigarettes that would contribute to the cancer that would kill him about a year later.
He was a shrivelled shell of a man with visibly rotted teeth, hollow eyes and wrinkles etched deep into grey-tinged skin.
Two months before, Nieuwoudt had broken down under cross-examination and proceedings were adjourned to allow him to receive psychiatric treatment.
He had been diagnosed with acute post-traumatic stress disorder after decades in the apartheid police’s despised security branch.
He had committed too many violent murders, and it was catching up with him.
Asked how he was that Thursday morning, Nieuwoudt smiled.
“Praise the Lord, I’m fine,” he said. “Everything is in God’s hands. All I can do is pray.”
Nieuwoudt became a born-again Christian in 1972, five years before he took part in Biko’s murder, 40 years ago this week.
He was denied amnesty in 1999 after it was found that he did not tell the whole truth.
Nieuwoudt believed he was doing God’s work as he tortured and killed anti-apartheid activists.
“He believes that what he did was the Christian thing to do. In his Bible, it is there,” said his Dutch Reformed Church minister, Riaan Labuschagne.
This belief stemmed from his childhood in the 1950s in the former Transkei, where his father was a detective.
“One of the defining moments of Nieuwoudt’s life was when anti-communist preacher Richard Wurmbrand visited his school and told the children how he was tortured for 14 years in a communist prison in his homeland of Romania. It left a lasting impression,” said Labuschagne.
Nieuwoudt, however, went on to use his Christianity for acts of pure evil.
"A religious mission"
Amandlangawethu Madaka (40) is the son of youth activist Topsy Madaka, whom Nieuwoudt abducted, drugged and shot in cold blood 35 years ago. He learnt Nieuwoudt’s name from his paternal grandmother.
“Nieuwoudt would arrive at our home in Njoli, Kwazakhele, at odd hours of the night; he kicked down the doors, looking for my father,” Madaka said this week.
“My grandmother told me that, each time he did not find my father, he would kidnap me and my grandmother.
"Even though I was a baby, he would lock us up until my father had received word that we were held captive and return from wherever he was, and hand himself over in exchange for our release.
“In the early 1980s, he would come to our home, disguised as a white collar-wearing reverend, and because I didn’t know him, sometimes I would let him in, not knowing that it was the same man my grandmother had told me stories about.”
One day in 1994, when Madaka was in his early 20s, he and his mother bumped into Nieuwoudt at Pick n Pay in the suburb of Rowallan Park in Port Elizabeth, to which they had moved.
“His concentration was on me during this encounter and he asked if I was Ngawethu. My mother exchanged words with him, offended that he still knew me from my infant years, when he used to kidnap me,” he said.
The next time he saw Nieuwoudt was at the TRC hearings in 1996.
“I sat opposite him as he told his version of how he killed my father. To date, this is the only version I know of how my father’s life ended.”
Another activist Nieuwoudt tortured was Port Elizabeth businessman Mkhuseli Jack.
“Nieuwoudt was my first torturer. He was also my last torturer. He tortured me for a decade – consistently and dedicatedly, for an entire decade,” he said this week.
“Nieuwoudt was worse than the Gestapo, the Nazi security police.”
In 1997, Jack testified before the TRC how, one Saturday morning, Nieuwoudt and a colleague, Warrant Officer Coetzee, tortured him while Coetzee’s young son waited for his father in the next room.
They subjected him to the helicopter method of torture, by which his tightly cuffed hands were placed over his legs and a stick was inserted between them, locking him into a crouching position.
He was then suspended between two tables.
Jack told the TRC about many other occasions Nieuwoudt tortured him: electric shocks in 1979, and forcing him into the cellar of an abandoned fort in 1987, where Nieuwoudt left him for five days.
“Nieuwoudt was so dedicated to the cause of the system, he saw it as a religious mission. He believed in the state in a sort of biblical way,” Jack said this week.
“He was everywhere. Whether it was Biko, [Qaqawuli] Godolozi, [Siphiwe] Mthimkhulu, Madaka or [Matthew] Goniwe, he was there. There was no single incident he didn’t attend.”
"I will never forgive Nieuwoudt"
In 1998, at a TRC amnesty hearing in Cape Town, Nieuwoudt spoke about how he, Major Harold Snyman and officers Johan Beneke, Rubin Marx and Daantjie Siebert assaulted Biko after the 31-year-old Black Consciousness leader dared to treat them as equals.
“He was taken to the interrogation room and he immediately sat down on a chair in this office,” Nieuwoudt testified.
“At that stage ... Captain Siebert told him: ‘You will sit down when we tell you to do so.’ Mr Biko was arrogant, aggressive and didn’t answer the questions at all.”
Nieuwoudt spoke about how his colleagues tried to tackle a defiant Biko and only managed to grab hold of him when Nieuwoudt whipped him with a rubber hose.
“We grabbed Mr Biko and we struggled, and, as a result of our momentum, Mr Biko’s head hit the wall. He fell to the floor,” he said.
It was Nieuwoudt who cuffed Biko’s feet together as he sat against the wall, and who chained him, arms outstretched, to the security gate at shoulder height as he lost consciousness “to soften him up”.
Nieuwoudt guarded him for the rest of the afternoon as Biko slurred his words and asked for water. When his shift ended at 16:00, he untied Biko from the bars and got up and left.
Five days later, Nieuwoudt and other officers drove for more than 12 hours to Pretoria with a naked, unconscious and shackled Biko in the back of a Land Rover.
The Biko family did not believe Nieuwoudt’s story. His son, Nkosinathi, said at the time:
“The injuries my father sustained are not consistent with that information. He had bruises all over his body, his rib cage, his left eye and [he had] a number of lesions on the brain.”
Jack said this week that Nieuwoudt made up for his lack of intelligence with his enthusiasm for his job.
“You could see that he was not an academically strong man. When he wrote dockets and statements, he would repeat sentences so many times, and he could even take the whole day just to write a docket statement,” said Jack.
“He would write the same thing over and over, until he was assigned the assistance of a younger official, who would then help him compile the docket.”
Thirteen years later, Nieuwoudt’s lawyer, Jan Wagener, still defends him.
“I only came into the picture when he was already in the last years of his life,” Wagener said this week. “He was tense, rather pathetic, not well, dying, remorseful and always told stories of how he tried to reach the families of his victims.
“He often said life had played him hard balls and that he was under pressure from his superiors to do the things he did.
“The picture is drawn very much askew by the media. That seems to be the popular stance – to portray them all as evil people who killed left, right and centre, which I think was incorrect.”
It was while working as a traffic officer in Port Elizabeth seven years ago that Madaka met Nieuwoudt’s son.
“During a patrol in Cape Road, I stopped an old car driven by a white man. When he produced his licence, I noticed that his surname was Nieuwoudt. I asked him if he knew Gideon and he said that dog was his father.
“I asked him if he knew that his father had killed my father. He said be wouldn’t be surprised because his father had done so many horrible things,” he said.
After Nieuwoudt’s son told him he had nothing to do with his father’s sins, he asked for forgiveness on his father’s behalf and told him that he was a born-again Christian.
“I hate Nieuwoudt. He is the devil. I don’t know how one is supposed to feel about the devil. I will never forgive Nieuwoudt,” said Madaka.
“If these killings had been a once-off encounter [that would be different], but he killed so many people and this proves that this was his way of life.
"He enjoyed killing and inflicting pain.”