CBS newsmen recall deadly "Trojan horse" used by apartheid regime

The apartheid regime Nelson Mandela fought to overturn often resorted to violent extremes to protect its power.

A CBS News report nearly three decades ago exposed one brutal government tactic, leading to the prompt expulsion of correspondent Allen Pizzey and two other CBS News employees.

The report provoked outrage around the world. Pizzey looks back now on the "Trojan horse."


The white South African regime often accused the foreign media of instigating the violence that was filmed when I was reporting from the country in 1985.

But on Oct. 15 of that year, two CBS News camera crews would capture a police operation that no one except the perpetrators could possibly have known about in advance.

When cameraman Chris Everson and soundman Nick della Casa arrived in Thornton Road in a mixed-race suburb outside Cape Town, there was no more violence than usual. But it would escalate into an event that many said did more damage to the South African regime's international image than all the other coverage combined.

"There was a bunch of kids standing on the street corner, probably about 30 strong. Clearly there had been some incidents already. There were signs that vehicles had been stoned.  There was glass on the streets. And not wanting to be part of the scene, we set ourselves well back from it," Everson said.

Just up the road but out of sight, CBS cameraman Wim de Vos and sound recordist Anton van der Merwe -- no strangers to police harassment -- arrived at the scene.

"It wasn't violent at that point when I arrived but I could see the rocks in their hands,” de Vos said. “I wasn't that far away from them and I thought, 'Uh-oh, there comes trouble.' "

Everson had the same gut feeling.

"It was a flatbed vehicle with boxes on the back. And I filmed the truck as it went down the road away from me, toward the group of kids on the corner," he said.

Then the truck turned around and came back.

"As it approached the kids, three or four stones hit the windscreen," Everson said.

"And as they did so, there were several policemen in the back of the truck hiding in boxes. And they popped up,” de Vos said.

One stunned youngster froze and watched the horror unfold.

 Back in 1985, we had had no idea that the police had labeled their operation "Ghost Vehicle."  When I wrote the story that day, I called it a deadly Trojan horse. 

Three kids were killed -- the youngest was 11 years old -- and 12 were injured, among them two children who were hit in their own homes.

"The strange thing was, you know, at that time we didn't even realize  the importance of what we had just photographed," Everson said. 

And neither did the police.  When they finally forced the camera crews to leave the area, they failed to confiscate the videotapes -- and the damage was done.

"Of course it was one of those very ugly, very ugly events that did us a lot of harm," said Roleof “Pik” Botha, who was South Africa’s foreign minister at the time. 

“It was extremely harmful for us in foreign affairs because that increased the negative reaction overseas  and effected an expanding economic sanctions against South Africa," he said.

Worldwide condemnation of South Africa was almost immediate and so was the white government's reaction.

Within days of the shooting, the state of emergency was expanded and journalists were prohibited from filming any incident of police violence under the threat of 10 years of imprisonment.

"What was new about this event was that there was a camera there,” Everson said. ”These events, these killings, this police brutality -- this happened all the time in South Africa."

Thornton Road today is a far cry from what it was like 28 ago, except for a steel memorial -- a grim reminder of the day three young South Africans were gunned down from that deadly Trojan horse.

  • Allen Pizzey

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