Updated: Jan 11, 2021
AFRICA’S GREATEST UNSOLVED MURDERS–I
The US has its greatest unsolved murders, but the continent of Africa has also had its own high-profile cases that have never been settled. In this series, we’ll examine the greatest unsolved murders on the continent of Africa. These are cases in which the perpetrators have never been found, or if they have, multiple questions remain unanswered.
SOUTH AFRICA (UNGlobalcompact.org)
THE MURDER OF ROBERT AND JEANNE SMIT: AN APARTHEID-ERA KILLING
Robert Smit (Photo: flatnote.co.za/foto24)
The evening of 22 November 1977 was a fateful one for prominent political couple Robert Van Schalkwyk Smit and wife Jeanne-Cora. Robert and Jeanne were shot and stabbed to death at their home that night but at different points in time. She was the first victim as she waited for husband to return home from work, and the same brutal end awaited him when he later arrived and opened the front door of the house.
Forty-two years later, the murder has never been solved and questions continue to swirl. Liza, the Smits’ daughter, who was only 13 years old at the time of her parents’ death, has written a kind of memoir/truth-seeking book, I Am Liza Smit, that names a number of suspects–even strong ones–but no one was ever definitively tied to the murder and no arrests were ever made, making it one of Africa’s greatest unsolved murders.
Who were the Smits?
Robert Smit was a member of South Africa’s National Party (NP), an Afrikaner party that existed from 1914 to 1997. Afrikaners are descended from South African’s Dutch settlers of the 17th and 18th century. The NP promoted Afrikaner economic interests and the severance of South Africa’s ties to the United Kingdom. Rising to prominence in 1948, the party was responsible for enforcing the vicious policy of racial segregation, apartheid, which gave rise to one of the greatest resistance movements of all time.
Robert Smit was a privileged Rhodes scholar who attended Pembroke College, Oxford, and Stellenbosch University, where his thesis was “South Africa and International Trade Politics.” Liza Smith states in her book that her father felt it was wrong that people of color did not have the right to vote. Apart from that, Liza doesn’t appear to further characterize how her father felt about apartheid as a system of oppression. From 1971 to 1975, Robert was South Africa’s ambassador to the IMF and the Smit family lived in Washington, D.C.
Jeanne-Cora, who didn’t like the “Cora” part of her name, married Robert in 1958 while he was at Oxford. Liza relates that her mother Jeanne was a rock and an anchor for Robert, often spurring him on and encouraging him when he needed fortitude. By all accounts, she was a devoted wife and mother who played the major role in bringing up her two children Liza and Robert, Jr. She enjoyed painting and pottery.
What happened that night?
Smits’ rented home in Springs, South Africa (Photo from flat note.co.za)
Robert Smit was running for National Party candidate in the Springs constituency. Elections were to be held on November 30, 1977. Robert and Liza had rented a house in Springs, while their children stayed home in Pretoria, South Africa’s capital.
On November 22, a Tuesday, Robert was at his Springs election offices. Jeanne was out during the afternoon, but the Smits’ driver, Daniel, took her back home around 6:10 PM. Daniel testified later that he had left Mrs. Smit at 6:50 PM. At either 7:14 or 7:40 (accounts differed), Robert’s office assistant, Sarie, got a phone call from Jeanne asking if Mr. Smit was still there. He was, and Jeanne told Sarie to convey the message to Mr. Smit that “his guests are waiting for him.” It appears that Robert had made arrangements to speak to some anti-National Party voters at his home.
It seems clear that as Jeanne hung up, she turned to find a gun pointed at her head, and defensively raised her left hand seconds before the first shot. She was found slumped over the phone and autopsy showed she had been shot in the head, hand, and back. Additionally she was stabbed 14 times post mortem with a stiletto knife. The murder demonstrated “overkill,” i.e. more violence than absolutely necessary to effect the victim’s death, indicating perhaps underlying personal feelings of rage on the murderer’s part.
Jeanne appeared to have been killed 30 minutes to three hours before Robert came home. As he entered the lobby, the killer(s) fired one shot, which glanced off Robert’s neck and lodged in the wall, a second one to the chest at close range, and one to the back of the head. Lastly, he was stabbed in the back once, apparently with the same stiletto. Two different types of guns were used, according to the police, suggesting two assailants, at least.
The Smits’ bodies were not discovered until early the following morning when Daniel the driver came in for work. Spray-painted on the kitchen wall and cabinets were the strange words “RAU TEM.”
The bizarre spray-painted words (Photo from Beeld/netwerk24.com)
A political motive has long been thought the most likely in the Smit murders. The scrawled words “RAU TEM” turned out to be Afrikaans for a specialist sub-unit of the notorious intelligence agency Bureau of State Security (BOSS), and many thought it was its murderous commander, Hendrik van den Bergh, (also called “The Tall Assassin”) who ordered the hit. However, that’s questionable, because not only was the spray painting not a typical MO of a BOSS assassination, the can of paint used actually belonged to the Smits–i.e. it was already there in the kitchen when the murder took place and was therefore unlikely to have been part of the plan.
Liza Smit points out that at the time her parents were assassinated, the political atmosphere in South Africa was fraught. The Information Scandal broke around that time, costing the jobs of the prime minister and a couple of his cabinet members. The scheme deflected funds from the defense budget to a number of pro-apartheid propaganda campaigns. Robert Smit might have had detailed detrimental information that he intended to expose after his putative election–a threat that would have been too dangerous for the implicated persons to let stand. Other conspiracy theories, too detailed to go into here, included Israel, nuclear secrets, Cuba, and a member of the security police called Roy Allen.
During this period, South Africa was in political turmoil. The inquest into the death of Steve Biko had begun on November 14, and a black high school student Sipho Malaza had died in police custody, the twenty-first in some 20 months, and embargoes against South Africa were beginning to mount. Against this backdrop, it’s easy to see how all kinds of people in various political camps could have ended up dead. I find the absence of the mention of the bloody apartheid era in Liza Smit’s account striking and odd, but it may reflect of how sheltered, privileged, and possibly oblivious, her life was.
However, Liza Smit recounts a story that is perhaps revelatory of the kinds of sensitivities, or lack thereof, during that era. Two days after the killings, she and her brother were brought to the Springs home–presumably by the police?–and shown the scene of the crime. The bodies had been removed, but the spattered, dried, and clotted blood was still there in all its gruesome glory. The policeman at the scene explained to Liza (remember she was only 13), “Here is where your father was shot, here is where he fell, and here are the marks where he was dragged down the passage.” I can think of a lot of cruel and unusual things, and this one takes its position high on the list.
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