'UNDER FIRE IN SOUTH AFRICA' – A REVIEW by Eeben Barlow
“I note a very deep sense of anger and frustration by many serving and ex-members of our national law enforcement service. I have also noted the lack of gratitude many folks—myself included at times—have towards members of the ‘thin blue line’.
Due to the actions of a relative few, we have come to regard the large majority of policemen with utter distrust.
At a recent meeting with Schalk Visagie, he very shyly and humbly gave me his recently published book ‘Under Fire in South Africa’. I undertook to read his book as I thought it would also give me a glimpse into my late brother’s life, as he too was a policeman.
First of all, I would like to mention that writing a book is not easy. It takes time, effort and self-discipline. Secondly, some books require opening painful wounds and having to relive many unpleasant memories. I suspect Schalk’s book did exactly that.
‘Under Fire in South Africa’ is the story of a young man who joined the South African Police (SAP), and his rise through the ranks during a turbulent period of South Africa’s history.
Following in his father’s footsteps, he set out to make a difference in terms of maintaining the peace in an ever-unpeaceful South Africa. During this period, he saw the good and bad of South African society, yet he remained committed and duty bound to serve and protect.
He served as part of Pres P W Botha’s protection team, and later as a detective. He was also sent to the-then South West African (now Namibia) border as part of the SAP’s forces there.
During his period of service with the SAP Security Branch he dealt with several traumatic events such as the St James Church massacre, and the Planet Hollywood bombing. As a member of the Gang Investigation Unit he was tasked to counter the bombings of PAGAD, terror campaigns, and hit squads.
When the winds of change swept across South African in 1994, he continued serving in the newly renamed South African Police Service.
During this period, he was critically wounded while driving his car on the motorway. The shooting was carried out by people who wanted his investigations stopped.
This book is not only about a young man’s desire to be a good policeman—it is about South Africa’s turbulent history and is, furthermore, testimony to the very strong religious upbringing Schalk had and how he continues to practise it on a daily basis.
The book is an easy read, and I highly recommend to anyone who has an interest in South African history and the nature of crime that serving officers had to – and still have to – contend with.
Well done Schalk! I am honoured to know you.”
"Colonel Schalk Visagie’s book Under Fire in South Africa provides fascinating and important insights into the life of a policeman who was eyewitness to tumultuous events and dramatic developments, which continued to affect our world today.
Coming from a police family, Schalk’s incredible life story includes the Border War in South West Africa/Angola, guarding President P.W. Botha, working in the Security Branch, including dealing with the traumatic St. James Church Massacre, the bombing of Planet Hollywood, leading the Gang Investigation Unit to counter the hit squads, terror campaigns and bombs of PAGAD and QUIBLA.
The very fact that Schalk Visagie is alive today is a powerful testimony to the grace of Almighty God and His answers to the timely prayers of a devoted mother. As the surgeon and ballistics specialist testifies, no one should have survived the deadly ambush on Black River Parkway on Friday, 19 February 1999.
It has been a special privilege to know Schalk and Rozanne Visagie, for over 3 decades and witness their faith and life in most difficult circumstances. Under Fire in South Africa is a riveting dramatic story written with a policeman’s attention to detail. I look forward to this story being brought to the big screen because it has tremendous relevance and inspiration for our troubled times."
- Dr. Peter Hammond Frontline Fellowship
"I have known and had the privilege of journeying with the author since 2005. Every book has a cover and as the proverbial saying goes a book is judged by its cover. Every person has a story to tell and until we read the account of each person’s own life story we will truly understand without judging. Instead we will have greater appreciation for them.
Under Fire in South Africa gives the reader a clearer understanding that all events, including loss, tragedy, love and triumph is God’s tapestry, purpose, plan and will of one’s life being woven together from the moment of birth until death which is unfortunately often only seen from an earthly perspective, but seen from a Divine perspective, it is His beautiful plan that He has designed to prepare each person, like the author, for His Divine purpose here on earth.
This book is more than the history and transition of South Africa, it is the events, accounts of history and personal journey which have transitioned the author’s life and also will hopefully help you in your own personal journey through life."
- Past. Brad Espin COTR Cape Town
"I read this book from cover to cover. What an amazing God we have, with amazing plans and grace for each life when we obey. This is a journey through life of a family I have been honoured and blessed to know. Painful memories, but true and relevant facts through a difficult history. It is time to learn, forgive and forget, South Africa. This is one of the most beautiful countries of the 140 countries my God let me serve him in. May He who created this country beautify her with love, unity and brotherhood. There is room for every South African... all races, colours and background to live together in peace and harmony, away from hatred and crime which only leads to destruction. This book by my brother and friend is a must read to rediscover the grace and guidance of a loving and forgiving God. Learn from mistakes made, repent, forgive and forget. Go on South Africa... Live and let live. Bury the past or the past will bury you."
- Dr. Bahjat Batarseh Apostolic Arch Bishop D.Min,Th.D, Ph.D, DLett, D.D, D.Ed, D.Coun Ph.D, L.LD,D.Hum,C.R.P.S. Brice, Ohio, USA
"I found Under Fire in South Africa to be a very interesting read. I gained much insight into the recorded events and was left with huge respect for the author and the work of the police and the special forces in our country. The book is written and documented in a very easy to read style and thus made even the finest detail come alive to the reader.
It is good to get first hand recorded history before it is forgotten or distorted.
One is left with absolute admiration for the bravery and noble call of Security and Police officers in South Africa."
- Erin Georgiou, Editor JOY! and JUIG! Magazines
“Under Fire in South Africa by Colonel Schalk Visagie. What an amazing and intriguing story this was. Once I started reading I couldn't put the book down. Very insightful reading and I would highly recommend this book to anyone who wants to see what it was like inside the SAP Specialised Units. I have a whole new respect and much better understanding of what these special men and women had to endure during a very volatile transitional period in South Africa's history. Highly recommended.”
Warren Jones, Western Cape Veterans
A LIFE LIKE FEW OTHERS……..SCHALK VISAGIE REFLECTS by John Elsegood
Few people have had life experiences like Schalk Visagie, a senior police officer on one of the world’s toughest beats, South Africa.
Even during the years when South Africa enjoyed a professional police force, instead of the failed service due to the incompetence of the ANC for the past 25 years, it was a distinctive entity compared to other countries.
Unlike Australia, or the US and UK police forces, the South Africans had para-military experience and were fighting terrorists in mechanised units as well as crime solving duties. Their training came during the long Border War (in SWA/ Angola) and the Rhodesian Bush War and 98 per cent of the terrorists who were killed in South Africa came from police fire.
The recent murders of Muslims at mosques, in New Zealand, would have brought back memories, for Visagie, of dealing with the traumatic St James Massacre, at Kenilworth, in the Cape (1993), when Christian worshippers were mowed down in the pews by racist criminal thugs.
It is one of the things he discusses in his aptly named new book Under Fire in South Africa. Other topics include his work on the bombing at Planet Hollywood, leading the Gang Investigation Unit to counter the terrorist and hit squad campaigns, including one aimed at him where he miraculously survived an ambush in 1999; his counter insurgency work; his years in the presidential protection service to PW Botha; his successful wooing of the president’s youngest daughter, Rozanne, while still a sergeant, his Christian Faith and much more, in a policeman’s typically understated style.
Yet the impact on investigators of such heinous attack as the St James Massacre (11 dead, 58 wounded) is made harrowingly apparent, including descriptions of individual acts of courage. The impact of that atrocity, on the writer, is apparent. After 24 hours on the job Visagie went home briefly for a shower and to get fresh clothes but said he had to pull over because of a surge of anger caused by the carnage he had witnessed and having to work in a charnel house since shortly after the attack. Visagie reveals the stress on home life and attending the funeral service of the victims. In his own case he sent Rozanne to her parent’s home during his investigation work. Team leader, Colonel Leonard Knipe, also led a solitary life at that time and most of the team were awake for 75 hours straight after the attack; while he mentions at the later funeral service for the victims a fellow investigator had to leave the church. This happened when the pastor-father of a victim, Richard O’Kill, was forgiving the murderers for the death of his son. Richard had died trying to protect two girls in the congregation.
The leads, the intuition of another fellow police officer, Sgt Casper Rossouw, that led to arrests are all covered in this chapter.
What clearly disappointed Visagie was the reaction to the crime, of those who should have known the truth. The contrast to Pastor O’Kill was the Methodist Bishop (and later PAC president) Stanley Mogoba who lauded the guilty man, Gcinikahya Makoma, as a ‘hero’ rather than despicable jackal he and his accomplices were.
Released after serving some five years of his 23 years sentence by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission pardoning of Apartheid crimes, Makoma returned to the streets to kill others before being jailed again.
APLA criminals were also responsible for murdering four students in the Heidelberg Tavern, in Observatory, in much the same cowardly fashion.
When three of Makoma’s accomplices were arrested later they had achieved officer status in the new army. This was a telling illustration of how Africa’s most professional army had undergone a rapid deterioration under ANC government. That decline would continue in both defense and police services with the bar and restaurant bomber, Robert McBride being just one of the criminals to achieve high police officer status with the new regime.
During McBride’s service in the armed wing of the ANC, Umkhonto We Sizwe (MK), he was responsible for the bombing of a bar and restaurant that claimed the lives of three women with 69 others injured. Given amnesty by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission his ‘service’ against civilians was apparently deemed
worthy of recognition by the SANDF, being awarded the Merit Medal in Silver and the Conspicuous Leadership Star, presumably for military actions against civilians! Today, 32 senior SAPS officers have criminal records, as do 4,174 in the ranks (Politics Web 8/4/89).
Schalk Visagie does not make such critical references as above but he describes the integration of ANC personnel, with the old regime, from 1994 onwards. During this era Visagie, by then a Lt Colonel, had moved from Security Branch to Covert Intelligence, the Gang Investigation Unit and finally to being in charge of the PAGAD unit (People Against Gangsterism and Drugs), by mid 1997.
This last mentioned unit was formed because of the rise in vigilantism. PAGAD would organise huge marches to the homes of gangsters and drug bosses after gaining information about them. However, the potential to settle private scores with innocent people falling victim in the process, also resulted. Shootings and burnings became the modus operandi and the group also took on a distinctive Islamist hue.
Visagie’s unit was therefore deemed “oppressors,” a familiar catch-cry used by Islamists to any who oppose them. The slide into constant murders, bombings, shootings, etc. became a regular occurrence in the new South Africa. From PAGDAD marching on police stations to actually brazenly stealing arms from them, at gunpoint, to stand-offs with the police in suburban streets is all told by this officer, then at the cutting edge, as an agent of a secular state despised by PAGAD.
While it makes for riveting reading, the slide from the old regime to the new was alarming and the drama of policing was infinitely different than that of the 1960s.
While the murder of nine SAP officers, (five of them black), at Cato Manor (24/1/1960) remains unparalleled. In those days it was death by the panga (machete). In the 1990s the police were confronted by an arsenal of the most sophisticated kind, including having hand grenades thrown at them!
The stand-off at Athlone, while protecting a businessman from the suburban Jihadis of PAGAD had all the potential of turning into another day Cato Manor, but was averted narrowly, by wise policing not to open fire. Even so it required Caspir armed vehicles and riot police in the Cape suburb.
The bomb attack outside his office was another brazen act of contempt and a reminder of how callous and indiscriminate criminals and religious zealots are in their total lack of concern for the lives of ordinary people who happen to be near their target. Nolu, the shoe vendor, was such a person. Minutes earlier Visagie had asked her to get a pair of shoes ready for his daughter, Shanna. He told the vendor he would return soon and get them. He then went into his office. If he had stayed and waited he would have died with Nolu.
It is the scale and constancy of the bombings and shootings that is striking to an international reader. Australians were shocked by the parcel bomb killing of a Perth Detective-Sgt Geoffrey Bowen at the National Crime Authority building, in Adelaide (2 March 1986), and by the callous ‘bushwhacking’ Wash St killings of two Victorian constables, Steven Tynan (22) and Damien Eyre (20), in October 1988. However, much of the shock was because such violence was a rarity, whereas in South Africa it was becoming a regular occurrence.
Indeed, the bombings continued in Cape Town and just after terrorist attacks in Tanzania and Kenya, at US embassies, the Jihadis also targeted Planet Hollywood, in Cape Town. The photo taken of the senior officers Schalk Visagie, Leonard Knipe, Kerrie Heyliger, outside the restaurant, is one of utter despair as they waited for clearance by the bomb squad. But worse would follow with the assassination of Captain Bennie Lategan, from Murder and Robbery Squad. He was the target of a professional hit on 14 January 1999.
The murder of Lategan saw changes in the Serious Violent Crimes Unit with Heyliger taking over the Murder and Robbery Squad plus PAGAD (or Crimes Against the State Unit) while Visagie went back to Gangs, as head. Lategan’s death should have been a flashing red light as police personnel changes meant little to hoodlums and fanatics. Visagie’s turn was coming a month later.
The ‘hit’ on the senior detective is covered in depth and makes for grim reading in his book. In fact, the attack would make most law abiding readers very angry that a young family man in his 39th year should be assailed in such a fashion. Some 26 shells were recovered from the highway scene and by the laws of statistics he should never have survived. Although badly wounded, as the medical report revealed, no vital organs were destroyed. But it was a close run thing and the neck and leg wounds would have killed most people.
Schalk, although stricken and in shock, remembers praying that his small children would continue to have their father with them. Far away in the Karoo town of Calvinia his devoted mother, at 3.15 pm (the time of the attack), was led to pray for her son and did so fervently.
“The effective fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much”, (are the words of James 5:16) and according to the surgeon, Arend Louw, Schalk received God’s abundance in the hospital theatre on 19th February 1999.
If Calvary informs us of the Son telling the Father ‘it is finished’!, in a role reversal it was now his earthly father, a retired policeman, also telling Schalk that policing was over for him. He had ‘lost enough skin’ in the game.
Indeed, Schalk Visagie and other South African police officers with their families had given more than enough in their fight against great evil.
In resisting the temptation to write a political book, despite his knowledge of Presidents Botha and Mandela and to show humility towards God, Schalk Visagie has primarily written a policeman’s tale that deserves to be read by people who respect those who serve in the thin, and increasingly dangerous, blue line.
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