One of the great survivors of apartheid’s military

Posted on November 20, 2010


(Published in Unfinished Business — South Africa, apartheid & truth,  2001 and 2003)

Horace William Doncaster, Major-General, Military Intelligence (rtd)

Date of birth: 09.02.1950; military number: 66339243E

Career soldier, 33 years service; promoted brigadier, 1993; major-general, 2000; given ‘employer-induced retrenchment package, November, 2001; retired, April, 2002.

Senior positions in and eventual director of MI ‘dirty tricks’ unit, Directorate of Covert Collection Directorate of Covert CollectionSee DCC; handler of agents and operatives, commended for ‘intelligence’ work ‘in the bush’ in Namibia and Zimbabwe, for liaison work with police Special Branch and for the ‘development of a target policy on the ANC’.

Involved in planning and ordering cross-border raids. Never appeared before TRC. Never made amnesty application. Never gave any information. Retained Military Intelligence position under ANC government. Awarded good service medal 28 January 1998.

Horace William Doncaster is one of the great survivors from the ‘sharp end’ of the repressive machinery of apartheid. His name is not widely known even within the military. For much of Horace William Doncaster’s career has been spent in the twilight world of military intelligence. In the year 2000 he was promoted from brigadier to the rank of general. Two years earlier, he was presented with a long-service medal by the then deputy defence minister, Ronnie Kasrils, a central committee member of the Communist Party. Kasrils remarked privately about Doncaster: ‘He is a professional. Before, he worked for them. Now, he works for us.’

Perhaps Horace William Doncaster is the epitome of the soldier-patriot motivated only by blind and dedicated service to whichever government is in power. Or he may be the true mercenary, interested only in ensuring his job and his pay. But he was also centrally involved in the bloodletting and terror of the apartheid years, including ‘service on the border’. As such, he was given the opportunity to make a submission to the TRC, to clear away some of the murk of the past and to apologise for the slaughter and brutality carried out in the name of apartheid. Like so many others in the upper echelons, he chose to maintain his silence. He also chose to destroy and order the destruction of documentary evidence of that past. Many of his new, ANC, senior colleagues in Military Intelligence knew much, if anything about his earlier ‘work’.

The disappearance of the files, computer disks and equipment from the Directorate of Covert Collection (DCC), for example, was largely his responsibility. The evidence of most of the military’s ‘dirty tricks’ over the years vanished after Judge Richard Goldstone’s investigators blundered into the DCC headquarters near Pretoria in November 1992. In March of the following year, F. W. de Klerk hastily ordered the early retirement of 23 senior officers who had been too obviously compromised by so-called ‘third force’ actions. Goldstone’s inquiry had scored a significant blow. But the forced retirements amounted again to an attempt to slam the door on the past. Significantly, the Military Intelligence chief, General Stoffel van der Merwe, retained his post. Brigadier Doncaster took another career move upward: he became the director of DCC.

Doncaster was one of the relatively few ‘English’ conscripts who chose a career in the army. Less than three weeks after his nineteenth birthday, he was appointed a second lieutenant in the infantry corps. After further training he was sent in December 1969 for the first of several stints ‘on the border’. Between then and March 1973, he spent a total of nearly a year either based in Rundu on the Namibia/Angola border, at Katima Mulilo, across the Zambezi river from Zambia and at Chirundu near the eastern Zimbabwe/Zambia border. This was at a time when the South African military and police, often acting at cross purposes, were trying to destabilise Zambia, launching cross-border attacks and planting the land mines which, 30 years later, were still causing havoc.

What Doncaster did during those ‘border’ operations is not known, but whatever it was commended him to his superiors. He was later to be awarded the Pro Patria medal for this period and, in March of 1971, was promoted to full lieutenant. In June of that year he and another young infantry officer, W. E. Basson, were sent for ‘special duty’ at army headquarters. Both Doncaster and Basson emerged as part of the Department of Military Intelligence (DMI). Nearly two weeks after this apparent graduation, Doncaster was posted to Chirundu in Zimbabwe where he spent 85 days and again attracted the praise of his superiors.

In March 1973, after returning from operations apparently in the Caprivi Strip of Namibia, Doncaster was reclassified as an intelligence officer and joined the Intelligence Corps. What he was then involved in for more than a year is a blank; but, once again, it was apparently extremely satisfactory as he was promoted to the rank of captain in May 1974. Shortly after, he took up a post as an instructor at the Military Intelligence college. Sometime in 1975, he was given at least one foreign posting. This may have been to an embassy, for additional training or to conduct a clandestine operation. Whatever he did must again have been highly satisfactory: by January 1978 he was a major and had been awarded the military bronze medal for good service, together with a military commendation certificate and the Pro Patria medal.

What Major Doncaster did between 1978 and 1980 also did his career prospects no harm. In 1979 he was awarded the military commendation medal and, on new year’s day, 1981, attained the rank of Commandant. His ‘hands on’ experience in Namibia also appears to have stood him in good stead: he was appointed at the same time as the second in command of the DMI ‘West Front’ at the highly secretive DCC. This meant helping to organise information gathering, agents and operatives in Namibia and Angola, deciding on targets in the region and planning the operations to eliminate, neutralise or otherwise deal with the targets. This appears to have been his real forte. His citation for the Southern Cross medal, awarded to him in 1983, makes it clear that he was a key figure in the total strategy being employed at the time. This strategy included the mass murder of suspected members of the Namibian independence movement, Swapo, and the disposal of their bodies at sea. By this time, Doncaster had become the senior staff officer in charge of the DMI ‘Home Front’ at the DCC.

Two of the operations with which he was directly involved and for which he received internal praise, were Skerwe and Vine. These were both attacks mounted on Maputo in Mozambique. Skerwe (Splinter) was the series of air strikes launched against what were assumed to be ANC houses in the Matola and Liberdade districts of the Mozambican capital. Doncaster and his unit apparently collected and collated the information sent in from agents in Maputo, selected the targets and decided how the operation was to proceed. According to their information, the only real threat to low-flying Impala aircraft was an anti-aircraft missile battery on the outskirts of the city. It, therefore, became a primary target.

Full details of the raid and its consequences were never released. It seems that between ten and 14 aircraft, armed with rockets, hit their targets shortly after dawn on 23 May 1983. Estimates of those killed ranged from three to 64, but were probably closer to the higher figure. Several houses used by ANC members were certainly demolished with a still unknown number of casualties, while a local creche and a jam factory were also destroyed.

Operation Vine involved a ‘recce’ seaborne landing in October 1983 on a beach outside Maputo. The target of the recce unit, defined by Doncaster and his DCC ‘desks’, was an office converted from former servants’ quarters on the roof of a four-storey apartment block near Maputo’s diplomatic sector. The office was an administration centre, which processed ANC members travelling in and out of South Africa. Military and security police spies reported that scrupulous records were kept in locked filing cabinets in the rooftop eyrie. In the apartment immediately beneath the office, lived six ANC members who worked in the building or elsewhere in Maputo. Mozambican officials occupied the other apartments.

The security establishment agreed that the files in the cabinets should be obtained. Doncaster and his ‘desks’ took on the task and developed an operational outline. It included a proposal to burgle the penthouse, escape with as many files as possible and leave behind incendiary charges, which would destroy the remaining documentation. In addition, Doncaster proposed developing special charges which could blast downwards through the reinforced concrete floor of the apartment block to kill the ANC members asleep below.

The operation was approved and a team of 11 recces, led by a captain, was selected. They trained for six weeks using mock-ups of the rooftop office and experimented with explosives on concrete pipes that were estimated to be the same thickness and consistency as the apartment building floor in Maputo. In the event, the recce squad could not get into the office. As ‘compensation’ they placed their explosive charges on the roof and detonated them by remote control as they headed back to the beach and their rendezvous with a ship lying offshore. The explosives tore three holes in the concrete roof and ripped apart the rooms below, killing and injuring the several occupants.

This was another success claimed by a security establishment, which praised Doncaster for his ‘competent leadership’. It had resulted in ‘the expertise, capacity and product of the Home Front desks’ rendering ‘one of the most important contributions to the combating of the enemies of the RSA’. But Doncaster was singled out in particular for his ability to work with the security police. This was seen as vital in the post-Simonstown council period. For the total strategy to be as effective as possible meant maximum co-operation and co-ordination between police and military units. Doncaster was a liaison officer with the police and this work, noted in his Southern Cross medal citation, ‘contributed to a better understanding between the two forces which, in turn, leads to greater effectiveness’.

Such good work earned a promotion to colonel in 1985 and the post of ‘Senior Staff Officer, Covert Collection, Division 1’. There was talk of perhaps a posting as a military attache. He certainly travelled to and spent time in countries such as Namibia, but seems to have retained his DCC post as the bloodletting and terror reached its gory peak. An internal appraisal in 1989 noted that he was responsible for building up the terrorism section of Military Intelligence. He was also apparently central to planning and developing an effective disinformation division. To what extent he was involved in the massive, combined military and police operation in Namibia in the run-up to the October 1989 election is still not known.

That month also saw the first cracks emerge in the wall of secrecy surrounding the police death squads as Butana Nofemela spoke out from his death row cell. This made the military ‘dirty tricks’ units all the more important; they might have to carry the day. Doncaster’s career continued to prosper. In 1991 he became chief of staff at ‘Central Collections’. At the same time, the former head of DCC, J. J. ‘Tolletjie’ Botha became chief of the ‘Central Collections Bureau’. In April 1993, Horace William Doncaster became a brigadier and the ‘Director of Covert Collection’. It was at this time that the greatest destruction of records, files and other documentation took place.

At this time too, Doncaster took over the handling of one of the DCC’s top spies and operatives, the military’s man in Maputo, the supposed shipping company agent Nigel Barnett.