Wednesday, December 11, 2019


The Murder of Robert and Jeanne Smit: An apartheid-era killing

The evening of 22 November 1977 was a fateful one for prominent political South African couple Robert Van Schalkwyk Smit and wife Jeanne-Cora. They were both shot and stabbed to death in their home that night but at different points in time. Jeanne was the first victim as she waited for husband to return home from work, and the same horrific 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 bookI Am Liza Smit, which 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, apartheidwhich gave rise to one of the greatest resistance movements of all time. Smit himself was the managing director of Santam, South Africa's largest short-term insurance company and one that the government used to circumvent sanctions waged against the country's procurement of military and economic resources. 

Figure 1: Robert Smit Robert Smit (Photo:
Dr. 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 Smit 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 fateful night?
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. It appears that Robert had made arrangements to speak to some anti-National Party voters at his home, and at either 7:14 or 7:40 (accounts differed), Jeanne called Robert’s office assistant to ask her to inform Robert that “his 'guests' are waiting for him.”

It seems clear that as Jeanne hung up the phone, 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 weapon consistent 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.

Figure 2: Police investigate the crime scene where the Smit family was murdered
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. Although bloody drag marks and shoe prints in Figure 2 above are apparent, there's little or no further information, e.g., where did the Smits' bodies lie, exactly? Clearly, this picture was taken some time after the bodies were removed. At any rate, if the photo is supposed to demonstrate how the police handled the crime scene, it's obvious from the modern forensic perspective how many egregious errors are being committed, e.g. the wearing of regular street clothes, failure to secure the area, and trampling all over the crime scene. And don't ask me to explain the apparently clueless guy in shorts and what in the world he's doing there. Or is he the murderer returning to the scene of the crime? Just a passing thought.
The Smits’ bodies were not discovered until early the following morning when Daniel, their driver, came in for work. Spray-painted on the kitchen wall and cabinets were the strange words “RAU TEM.” More on that later.

Figure 3: The words "RAU TEM" sprayed in red paint

Figure 4: Investigators at the home of Robert Smit, 2 November 1977

The Suspects

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. Compared to the MO of the murder itself, it seems impulsive and unplanned. A key question is, who were the "guests" at the Smits' home? Were they really who they said they were?

At that time in South Africa's political history, the atmosphere was fraught. During this period, the country was in utter turmoil. The inquest into the death of Steve Biko had begun on November 14, a black high school student Sipho Malaza had allegedly 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. The Information Scandal also 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 and nuclear secrets.

I find the absence of the mention of the bloody apartheid struggles in Liza Smit's book both striking and odd, but it may reflect how sheltered, privileged, and possibly oblivious, her life was. However, she recounts a story that is perhaps revelatory of the kinds of sensitivities, or lack thereof, during that murderous era. Two days after the killings, she and her brother were brought to the Springs home (the children had been staying in Pretoria when the murder took place) and shown the scene of the crime in a matter-of-fact way. 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 nothing more cruel than depicting the Smits' murder to their child in this uncaring fashion.


The savage killing of Robert and Jeanne Smit occurred in an equally brutal socio-political climate in which violence and cruelty were almost the norm. Unsolved till this day, the chances that it will ever be anything but a cold case are slim to none.

By Kwei Quartey

Monday, December 9, 2019

Setting the Record Straight

Annamaria on Monday

Last weekend, I spend a post Thanksgiving weekend in Philadelphia, a city I always enjoy.  I have dear friends there.  Besides which, it has world class just about everything: Sports teams, museums, and especially music!  I thought, while I was there, about the apocryphal epitaph said to be on the gravestone of one of its famous sons: W.C. Fields.   A rumor has been circulating for decades that said monument is inscribed, "All things being equal, I'd rather be here than in Philadelphia. "

False!   Here is the evidence:

W.C. grew up very poor and unhappy Philly.  When he started to earn money as an entertainer in New York, he went back to Philly, took his mother by the hand, left everything behind, and led her to an entirely new life.  He didn't put that wisecrack on his grave, but he did say a whole lot of  funny and sarcastic things:

Here are some of his true wise cracks for your amusement, if not edification:

On Booze

Now don't say you can't swear off drinking; it's easy. I've done it a thousand times..

Back in my rummy days, I would tremble and shake for hours upon arising. It was the only exercise I got.

Water? Never drink it.  Fish f*ck in it.

During one of my treks through Afghanistan, we lost our corkscrew. We were compelled to live on food and water for several days.

It's hard to tell where Hollywood ends and the D.T.'s begin.

More people are driven insane through religious hysteria than by drinking alcohol.

'Twas a woman who drove me to drink. I never had the courtesy to thank her.

Nothing stronger than gin before breakfast.

True Wisdom

[Charles Dickens was] the bravest man who ever lived. He fathered ten children before they became tax deductions.

A rich man is nothing but a poor man with money.

Never cry over spilt milk, because it may have been poisoned.

Don't worry about your heart, it will last you as long as you live.

It's headed for the brambles and we are all in our bare feet.

On Human Behavior

The human race has gone backward, not forward, since the days we were apes swinging through the trees.

What a lovely day. What effulgent sunshine. It was a day of this sort the McGillicuddy brothers murdered their mother with an ax.

Thou shalt not steal--only from other comedians.

My daughter wants to throw a stone at a bad man. I stop her from throwing, shaking my head and giving her a little slap. My disapproval is complete. You think: 'That's right, she shouldn't throw a stone even at a villain.' Then I hand her a brick to throw.

I was almost put out of business by a well-meaning corpse.

Anything worth having is worth cheating for.

On Show Biz

The movie people would have nothing to do with me until they heard me speak in a Broadway play, then they all wanted to sign me for the silent movies. 

Hollywood is the gold cap on a tooth that should have been pulled out years ago.

A comic should suffer as much over a single line as a man with a hernia would in picking up a heavy barbell.

I always made up my own acts; built them out of my knowledge and observation of real life. I'd had wonderful opportunities to study people; and every time I went out on the stage I tried to show the audience some bit of true human nature.

Sunday, December 8, 2019

An Illuminating Trip to Ashikaga Flower Park

-- Susan, every other Sunday

In Japan, we celebrate the changing seasons. Spring means Ume (plum) and cherry blossoms everywhere.

In summer, it's kakigori (shaved ice) and similar cooling treats.

Autumn brings colorful momiji (autumn maple leaves), as well as sweet potato and chestnut-flavored everything (I even found purple sweet potato flavored Greek yoghurt at the grocery store - and yes, I ate it . . . and, surprisingly, it was good).

But if you're looking for sheer, unmitigated, over-the-top spectacle, it's winter you should come and see. At the start of December, Bavarian markets spring up across Japan like bratwurst-scented mushrooms, and "winter illuminations" light the nights with a sparkling glow.

One of the largest and most famous winter illuminations in Japan takes place at Ashikaga Flower Park in Ashikaga City, about three hours north of Tokyo (by a combination of local and bullet trains).

Ashikaga Flower Park is famous for its "Miracle Wisteria" - a quartet of massive, 150 year-old trees that are  the oldest and largest wisteria ever to be successfully transplanted.

The park's eight areas feature thousands of plants and trees that bloom in one or more of the eight different "flower seasons" the park recognizes every year.

In December, that means pansies and violas . . . and the spectacular "bejeweled flower garden" illumination* that transforms the flower park into a spectacle that takes well over an hour to walk through (and much longer if, like me, you're easily distracted).

Last weekend, my husband and I made the trip to Ashikaga City . . . and the "bejeweled flowers" did not disappoint. I could tell you more, but I'd run out of superlatives long before I ran out of photographs, so I think I'll let the pictures speak for themselves:

Arriving just at dusk...the distant view does NOT do it justice.

The Santa lights up and moves across the "sky"

A more down-to-earth version of Santa's sleigh

This display cycled through (and changed for) every season of the year.

The "Miracle Wisteria"

Another of the massive wisteria, with LED flowers that changed colors to music.

The 'tree of wonders'

Traditional Xmas Tree

The light-up lotus ponds - one of my favorites.

"One World For All of Us"

'Tis the season, here in Japan, and whatever you celebrate (or don't) I hope you have as illuminating, bright and happy a holiday season as we're having here in Tokyo (and in Ashikaga City too).

Poinsettias, light-up lotus, and Christmas doves over the wisteria

*You may notice that many of the displays have Christmas themes--Christmas is very popular in Japan, despite the fact that less than 1% of the population is actually Christian. Japan has adopted Christmas as a secular holiday, with a focus on decorations, gifts, and Christmas treats (and let's be serious . . . who doesn't  like mulled wine, sausages, and Christmas cake?)

Saturday, December 7, 2019

A Robert Frost Parody on Our Stormy Week in the Northeast


As some of you may know, I’m a big fan of Robert Frost, and often turn to his work for inspiration on setting mood. This time I turned to one of his less known poems, “The Need of Being Versed in Country Things,” to explain what we’ve been through—and are still experiencing—out in the wilds of Northwest New Jersey.

I love it out here, if only for the adventure each day—and passing storm—offers in the form of new challenges. At times, though, there are unexpected surprises, and they can be costly. So here’s my tale of what it means to be versed in country things.

To Farm we’d gone to be again
Beneath clear skies far away from woe.
But first came ice then snow heavy on the wood
Like sugar candy glass brightly aglow.

The trees stood poised along the way,
To bear the weight or fall in shame
Should a dancing breeze add wind to the heft
To break their stiff backs and end the game.

Alas some lost and fell to their end
Most deep in woods or close by a road
But one did find to land upon our roofs
Another took down our power load.

Lines still lie that once flew through the air
And our propane supply is quite thin.
But the tree’s off the house we can sigh
Thanks to chainsaw and rope in my bin.

All this week there’s been continuing grief
Searching for fuel to keep up the fire  
Hemmed in by power lines crossing the way;
Plus down trees blocking all beyond each wire.

Yet, more was to come to make me sad.
Rejoiced when down to the farm workmen crept,
Then learned our boiler had died, poor thing.
Now heat’s back…along with great debt.

If a tree falls in the forest and you happen to be sitting....

here, you definitely hear it!
Plumbers to the rescue

The costly culprit

Ah yes, the joys of being versed in country things.

By the way, here’s Robert Frost’s original version.

"The Need of Being Versed in Country Things"

The house had gone to bring again
To the midnight sky a sunset glow.
Now the chimney was all of the house that stood,
Like a pistil after the petals go.

The barn opposed across the way,
That would have joined the house in flame
Had it been the will of the wind, was left
To bear forsaken the place’s name.

No more it opened with all one end
For teams that came by the stony road
To drum on the floor with scurrying hoofs
And brush the mow with the summer load.

The birds that came to it through the air
At broken windows flew out and in,
Their murmur more like the sigh we sigh
From too much dwelling on what has been.

Yet for them the lilac renewed its leaf,
And the aged elm, though touched with fire;
And the dry pump flung up an awkward arm;
And the fence post carried a strand of wire.

For them there was really nothing sad.
But though they rejoiced in the nest they kept,
One had to be versed in country things
Not to believe the phoebes wept.


Friday, December 6, 2019

Ross Priory

 There’s a programme here called The Last Of The Summer Wine, where three or four old blokes. Compo, Cleggy and Foggy get up to all kinds of mischief. It’s a very gentle comedy, set high in the Yorkshire Dales, full of very big women, and men who are scared of them. The theme music was played at the end of my Dad’s funeral, for obvious reasons. (Being the last of the summer wine, a good thing drawing to a close, not that my mother was a big woman and my dad was scared of her!)

It’s become a catch phrase for old men getting up to daft escapades.  They are having a Last of the Summer Wine moment. I have a patient (85 years of age) who goes out with his ‘walking club’ every Wednesday morning. He is the youngest of them. They all have had their scrapes with cancer and heart disease. But even in a force ten gales they are still out ‘getting up to no good’ somewhere.
If the weather is bad. I’m sure the coffee and cake stop happens sooner, the walk will be sheltered, and there are a few more jumpers and scarves. But off they go. One of them, who I only know as Jim, takes a video camera of the weather if it is good and then edits it and puts it to music.

He gave us a copy as the patient and I very often chat about the walks, the wildlife they have seen, the adventures they have had…. Coming across a lady and her pal who had fallen in the heather, one has broken her leg, another time one got bitten by a snake, being run over by a mad cyclists on the tow path (their Chris Hoy moment) and then there’s the caravan……a rundown caravan on the side of the loch where a man is building his own house, He has been building it for thirty years and it doesn’t seem to be getting anywhere.
I have told him he should write a small book. The walks are official and guide book walks, in the  gentle section,  but he should write a companion book for them, so people could go and follow in their footsteps.

One of their walks is round Ross Priory.
It sits near the village of Gartocharn on the south-west shores of Loch Lomond. Technically the building is owned by Strathclyde University.]The setting is stunning, and more importantly, its open for lunch and dinner, with beautiful views over the loch, the Luss hills and Ben Lomond.
Even in bad weather, it’s rather impressive. Which is handy.

The building is 18th century and much of the house is by the architect James Gillespie Graham (1775-1855) who was obviously fond of a Gothic touch.
 Like most old Scottish houses, including mine, it has a ghost. It also has a curse ( mine doesn’t).
A Buchannan of Ross Priory gave a Jacobite shelter then clyped on him to the government.

 On a more literary note, Sot Walter Scott wrote much of the "The Lady of the Lake” here and his novel "Rob Roy" was penned while he was sitting in what is now called ‘The Scott room.
On a sporting note, the house stands in 173 acres and has its own 9 whole golf course.

 Caro Ramsay 6th December

Thursday, December 5, 2019

Nadine Gordimer Revisited

Michael - Thursday

Five years ago I wrote this farewell to Nadine Gordimer, one of South Africa's most powerful and insightful writers of the apartheid era. I've been thinking about that time again recently and rereading some of her work. I thought it might be worth revisiting this piece.

Nadine Gordimer, South Africa’s first Nobel laureate for literature, died on the 13th July at the age of 90.  She was a political activist all her life, but her protests were directed where she felt things were wrong, not by any political agenda.  She was a friend of Nelson Mandela and greatly admired him, and she supported his successor, President Thabo Mbeki, but she was strongly outspoken about his AIDS denialist policy.  She organized writers in South Africa to oppose the recent law here which restricts newspaper reporting under the 1984esque titled Protection of Information Bill.  (I wrote about it at the time in No News is Good News.)  She refused to compromise on her principles.  Ever.  She demanded that her name be removed from the short list for the Orange Prize for literature because it is only open to woman writers.

The day after she died, I heard an interview about her with one of the younger literary fiction writers in South Africa who knew her and whom she helped.  One of the questions he was asked was whether her writing would last, given that it was so much set in the political era of Apartheid and the struggle against it.  Of course he said that her writing would transcend its context, but I thought it was a fair question.  Motivated by that question as well as her death, I reread July’s People. I chose that particular book because its backstory is an apocalyptic collapse of Apartheid through a black revolution with support from Zimbabwe, Mozambique, and the communist states.  It was published in 1981 and such a scenario seemed anything but farfetched at the time.  When the book was published in the US, a review in the New York Times said: “Since Nadine Gordimer writes more knowingly about South Africa than anyone else, this may be history in the making we are reading.”  The book was immediately banned in South Africa as subversive.  After the new government it was accorded the status it deserved, but in 2001 one of the provincial education departments removed it from the school reading list describing it as “deeply racist, superior and patronizing.”  If you’re making everyone unhappy, you must be doing something right!

The July of the title is a gardener for a reasonably well-off liberal white family living in Johannesburg.  Of course that’s not his real name, but we don’t learn that until three quarters of the way into the book.  He has worked for them for many years, initially illegally because of the abominable pass system.  He is regarded as 'one of the family'.  That is, from the perspective of his employers, the Smales – husband, wife and three young children.  The adults toy with emigrating, but just don’t get around to it.  When the rioting and fighting approaches their neighborhood, they know they have to leave, but have nowhere to go.  July says they can come to his home where his family lives in the country.  When the story opens, the five Smales find themselves in a round hut with nothing but the few things they managed to grab as they fled and a single bed.

This much I remember from the first time I read the book many years ago.  What I didn’t recall as clearly was the relationships that developed between the participants in the village – July, Maureen and Bam Smale, the children – differently depending on their ages – and their counterparts in the village.  Bam comes with a yellow ‘bakkie’ – a small van – and a shotgun.  These are status.  All the rest is based on the historical relationship between servant and employer and between cultures that think and behave very differently.  How much do the Smales know about the man who works for them – this ‘member of the family’ - about his background, his real family? How much do they really want to know?  How much does anyone from one culture and social group want to know about others beyond polite friendliness and mild curiosity?

Many novels have been written about this ranging from amusing to tragic.  I can’t think of any one where the relationship is exposed in this way through enforced integration into the poor rural culture.  Now I can’t think of any other way you could do it as well.  (Of course it takes a genius to see that in the first place.)  The relationships are laced with the racial background, of course, but that is almost secondary to the cultural one.  I think of the people who work at my townhouse complex and how little I really know about them.  This writing is as true today as it was thirty years ago.  So I have my answer.

Hamba Kahle, Nadine.  You will not be forgotten.

Wednesday, December 4, 2019

Gardening on Deadline

Sujata Massey

For too long, I’ve been lost in the LED-lit, indoor world of writing. Over the last month, I was intent on doing nothing else except finish a book.

It also happened that late November turned out to be the only time to plant a garden. Fall planting is easier on trees and shrubs that will get a good watering all fall and winter. Yes, I had a book due; but the garden also had to be installed, after having been delayed by several months due to Maryland’s unusually dry fall.   

The garden and I have been at loggerheads before. My quest to unsettle a little less than an acre of city land began when I moved in with my family during the fall of 2012. The first thing we did was absolutely violent. We hired a company to drill four wells 500 feet deep inside our long, sloping lawn. The racket it made! The ash that spewed into the neighborhood air! The sky looked so gray over our street that somebody called the fire department.

Ah, the geothermal wells. They make it possible to have a modern air conditioning system where the air passes over the cold water, deep in the ground, and returns to the house. No chemicals, no excessive use of electricity. 

From almost the start, our land has served us. But it has always been scraggly around the edges. Every spring I would be filled with inspiration that would trickle away about the time the mosquitoes settled in for feasting at the end of June. I wanted a garden full of native plants to support wildlife and suppress weeds. But how? The longer I fretted, the more the weeds spread.

Three years ago, I dug a small front garden myself with native plants, but it was such a hodge-podge without coherent flow that I wanted more assistance the next time I tried an improvement. This fall, I felt blessed to be aided by a native gardening education consultant/garden artist/all-around genius. Kay McConnell is well known in Maryland for the beautiful native plant gardens she designed and installed at the Friends School of Baltimore, Stony Run Meeting, and other spots. 

Under Kay’s eagle eye, a weed-filled stretch running along the back of the property was cleared in late August as the site of our future rain garden. The clearing and regrading of the earths was done by strong men driving big machines. The new space they created wasn’t flat smooth dirt, but two raised banks surrounding a long basin. This would catch water that ran down our sloping lawn toward the lane. The saved water would feed the kind of plants like native iris and milkweed that like their feet wet. 

As the dry fall turned into a rainy November, the prepared, empty garden space slowly became wet. Kay rooted through her native plant stock and area nurseries, looking for the best shrubs, trees, grasses and native perennials. A willow, magnolias and dogwoods were found, along with itea, bayberry, buttonbush, various ferns, swamp milkweed, oak leaf hydrangea…

The list went on. Over several days in late November, Kay unloaded shrubs and flowering plants and grasses from her car. The trees came in with European Landscapes and Design, the company that had done the original garden clean-up and preparation. 

I recently heard a few different people use the phrase: “We go big, or we go home." It's a 2019 cliché. However, I could not deny that things were getting very big, right at my home. 

I was thrilled to realize that every single tree, grass and shrub would feed local birds and insects. The garden design has woodland, meadow and swamp sections, with everything flowing together in an artistic manner, with fields of color, and high and low points. I found myself spellbound watching Kay. She is a true artist in the garden, arranging plants and rearranging them as the visual flow becomes apparent to her.

As I worked under Kay’s direction, I learned so much. She taught me how to plant a natural looking drift of small flowers. I absorbed the new thinking on weed control: don’t tug them out, which disrupts the earth and activates weed seeds. Instead, cut them close to the ground to weaken the plant.

I saw, through her eyes, how an aged stretch of asphalt pavers could become a dining terrace or site for a fire-pit gathering spot. And as my neighbors strolled along the lane that runs on the other side of the new garden, they had plenty to say. Michael, after visiting with us a few times, commented that he felt that spirits had entered the garden that were never there before.

And that’s how writing works, too. A bulky stone is chipped away to reveal the story hiding within. It takes time, but it's always waiting for you.

And the thing about gardening deadlines is that the only one that really matters is set by nature. One can't dig after the ground is frozen--unless, perhaps, you have a geothermal drill. 

And putting a plant into earth does not guarantee it will emerge in the spring. That is the mystery I'm entering.