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Revealed — the Zimbabwean parliamentarian who played a key role in the destruction of Thornhill Air Base

Opinion & Analysis
Donald Goddard, the Zimbabwean parliamentarian who played a major part in the destruction of his country's fixed wing air power in 1982.

IN 1982, most of Zimbabwe’s fixed-wing air power was destroyed during a nighttime raid on the Thornhill Air Base. The involvement of SA’s apartheid regime — and its collaborators — was always suspected, yet conclusive evidence has not emerged until now. The discovery of previously hidden documents changed the equation — and in March, we revealed the existence of a spy at Thornhill who provided vital intelligence and participated in the attack. But the saga doesn’t end there. The agent’s handler was also a Zimbabwean — a prominent one — and has likewise remained, undiscovered, in the shadows. 

If Winston Churchill regarded Russia as “a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma”, then the unravelling of the spy ring that sabotaged Zimbabwe’s air force in 1982 is a matryoshka doll full of surprises. As each layer is peeled away, another extraordinary secret is laid bare.

  • In July 1982, saboteurs blew up most of Zimbabwe’s fighter aircraft at Thornhill, an air force base near the Midlands city of Gweru.
  • The newly independent black government, led by Robert Mugabe, arrested many white air force officers, some of them British citizens, and held them incommunicado.
  • It later emerged that several had been tortured to extract false confessions.
  • The affair sparked a diplomatic row between Zimbabwe and Britain, occupied global headlines for months (the airmen were incarcerated for more than a year), and raised early questions about the prospects for a peaceful, multi-ethnic nation.
  • The six airmen brought to court were acquitted, but they were redetained using emergency powers and eventually deported to Britain in 1983.
  • The culprits were never positively identified — but that’s now become possible with the discovery of apartheid-era documents related to the case.

There was the mole — the critical insider whose identity was hidden for 42 years, and whose existence should have been impossible had ex-Rhodesian conventional wisdom held true. It was inconceivable for airmen to connive in the destruction of their own planes, all were told — but documents show that the agent was an air force fighter pilot, Neville Weir.

But who were the others? From footprints left at the scene, it was known from the outset that a group of men had breached the perimeter at Thornhill Air Base — and that they had arrived and left the scene in a vehicle.

It’s here that the truth becomes stranger than fiction, and the irony thicker than the dark and drizzly winter night on which the explosives were planted.

Towards the end of 1982, Rhodesia’s former prime minister Ian Smith visited Britain and requested a meeting with Margaret Thatcher. Smith had remained a prominent political figure, notwithstanding the advent of black rule two years before. He was the leader of the Republican Front (RF), which controlled a bloc of “reserved” white seats in Zimbabwe’s parliament and was widely regarded as the mouthpiece of white opinion.

Crackling with tension

When he sat down with Thatcher, the atmosphere between the Tory government and the Mugabe regime was crackling with tension, and the incarceration and mistreatment of the airmen was at the centre of it. So, too, was the apprehension among Zimbabwe’s white community and the sympathies that had engendered in Britain.

Smith looked Thatcher in the eye and told her he “was convinced” the airmen were not traitors and that it “was incomprehensible that they would have blown up their own aircraft”. There is no evidence that he knew anything about Weir. But he was, apparently, also unaware that one of Weir’s co-conspirators was closer — much closer — to him than he could have imagined.

Donald “Strippy” Goddard was Smith’s blue-eyed boy, an heir apparent and a well-known parliamentarian. He was also a South African agent and a saboteur.

Goddard’s moniker was earned on the day of his birth in the early 1950s. His mother — or her transport — was tardy; she was far from a hospital at the critical moment, and Goddard was delivered by his father on one of Rhodesia’s rural “strip” roads.

He grew up in the Shangani area of the Midlands and later attended Smith’s (and what would be Weir’s) alma mater, Gwelo’s Chaplin High School. In the 1970s, he fought in the civil war, reportedly becoming a captain in the Selous Scouts, the Rhodesian special forces unit most feared and reviled by Mugabe’s nationalist fighters. (Goddard appears to be little-remembered among surviving Scouts; perhaps he served as a part-time “territorial” soldier.)

If the Zimbabwean government needed a symbolic bête noire in parliament during the early 1980s, then Goddard personified and provided it, by virtue of his background and behaviour. RF parliamentarians cared little for the sensitivities of their black compatriots in the House of Assembly, but Strippy took the insults the extra mile. He was, frequently, the RF’s chief heckler, relishing the opportunity to go head-to-head with Zanu hotheads such as the minister of health, Herbert Ushewokunze.

In one of his first speeches, Goddard said: “I would like to pay a tribute here to the members of the Rhodesian Security Forces … for their part in the last war … not for any other reason than the fact that they never lost a battle, they never, ever retreated and they never, ever ran away.”

Members on the government benches shouted back: “This should not be allowed to go on in this House. They are traitors.”

Goddard continued, undeterred: “It is my duty to deal in truths. In the light of some ministerial statements … the reaction … amongst the sort of people who I represent in many instances is, well, if they want to destroy the vestiges of colonialism … instead of pulling down statues and pulling pictures off the walls, why do they not blow up Kariba [dam], pull up all the roads, blow down this House, take all their clothes off, kick us out of the country and then we will see how they do because those are the real monuments to the white man’s era in Rhodesia.”

The volume of interjections eventually drowned out Goddard’s voice, prompting the intervention of the Speaker — yet he took up the cudgels immediately. “Thank you for your protection, Mr Speaker. I understand many of the honourable members, especially on the ministerial bench, are proud of the fact that they come from the bush. I would respectfully submit that is where they belong.”

‘Crude and uncouth’

Mugabe described Goddard as “crude and uncouth”. Smith considered him to be “one of the best debaters in the country” — but even he admitted that his colleague was “a controversial figure”. And that conclusion was drawn without an awareness of Goddard’s double life.

The shameless audacity of some of Goddard’s parliamentary statements reaches yet another level when they are reread in the knowledge that he was, all the while, an operative of apartheid South Africa.

In June 1980, for instance, he mocked Mugabe’s claim that “South Africa was arming against Zimbabwe” as “utter twaddle” — and a few months later he flagellated the government for being “unable to control unlawful and dissident elements within the country”. Yet he also ridiculed the notion that there were “roving gangs posing a threat to the security of the state”. Meanwhile, he was an active member of Team Romeo, the Zimbabwean black ops unit run by Project Barnacle, a top-secret dirty tricks division of the South African Defence Force (SADF).

In a hitherto confidential interview, Barnacle’s head of urban operations, Gray Branfield, explained that Goddard was part of Romeo from the get-go — and that he was, moreover, the man who recruited Weir and ran him as a sleeper in the air force.

“Strippy approached me in early 1980 because he had a mate called Weir who was ex-SAS … Neville had approached Strippy — they were big mates — he was part of my original Romeo. [Weir] wanted to get into the SAAF [South African Air Force]. He asked Strippy if he knew any way. Strippy said he would speak to the guys down South: ‘I will speak to Grey [sic] and see if they can organise something.’ It was at that stage that it was first mooted that perhaps we could do some serious damage to these guys. Again, as in all of those things, we said let’s look at it and what have you.”

Branfield noted that it was Weir’s impending departure from the air force that triggered the decision to move from planning to execution — and that the guarantee of a job with the SAAF was, in effect, Weir’s down payment as the pointy end of the operation approached.

“He was leaving. That was June [1982] and it was done in July. It was done before he left,” Branfield said. The Hawk jets “had now arrived [from Britain]. He had resigned from the air force with a promise from us that if he got involved in anything he could ease his way straight in here.”

Given that Team Romeo was an operations unit (its counterpart, Juliet, provided intelligence), Goddard’s role was not simply that of an intermediary. He played a crucial physical part in the Thornhill raid — and in the construction of Weir’s alibi — as Branfield noted.

‘Security is slack’

“I spoke to [the head of the SADF’s Special Forces, General Andreas ‘Kat’ Liebenberg] and said that these guys have been looking at it for a couple of years,” Branfield said.

“The situation, the guy that is in place, claims he can get a team in there and sort out the whole air force that is there without any problem. Security is slack. We’ve done a couple of dry runs. Been into the grounds. Wandered around. The idea was that Neville would leave a key to the hangers [sic] in a certain place.”

Then Weir would go to a wedding, pretend to become drunk “and be dropped off at home … Strippy would pick him up from there. Pick him up and me[e]t the team. They cut a hole in the fence. They went in with Neville. Strippy stayed in the vehicle.”

Afterwards, “the guys went to a koppie and watched the fireworks when they started to go off” — and then Goddard ducked for cover, waiting to see how the authorities reacted. His caution appears to have turned to alarm after Weir’s incarceration, given the prospect that the airman might crack under pressure and implicate his accomplices.

The deeply ironic parliamentary chutzpah had been louder than ever shortly before the attack: “I would assure our president and his government that we have accepted the new order in the country and are doing all we can … to maintain … good race relations … despite the attempts that are frequently made to sabotage those very race relations.” And then there was silence.

When the House reconvened a few days after the raid, Goddard seemed to have been absent. Nor was he visible in late August when the defence minister, Sydney Sekeramayi, told parliament that the “nation would be informed of the details” about the sabotage and its perpetrators “once all the facts had been gathered and the investigation completed”.

(Weir’s assault by officers of the Central Intelligence Organisation — CIO — began the next day, as the public was reading Sekeramayi’s comments in the morning paper.)

Indeed, Goddard had scurried across the border to South Africa some time in the interim, from where he waited for word about whether he was wanted by the CIO. He later used the detention of the York brothers — a well-known pair of Matabelelanders who had been arrested for possessing “arms of war”, and with whom he was associated — as cover for an inquiry with a contact in the system about his status. The answer came back: there was no warrant out for him and he need not fear returning.

Locking horns again

What followed was remarkable — if only anyone had known what they were witnessing. Donald “Strippy” Goddard, South African spy and Thornhill saboteur, locked horns in parliament with his regular foe Herbert Ushewokunze, who now held the home affairs portfolio and had primary responsibility for the incarceration of the airmen and investigation of the attack.

In early September, Goddard asked Ushewokunze to reveal the numbers, identity, conditions and legality of detentions under emergency powers regulations. The official Herald newspaper reported that Ushewokunze “spent some moments moving the files from one side of the table to the other, flipping through them, shifting one on top of another, in a mock show of being about to make a lengthy statement, only to give his one-sentence reply from a sheet of paper drawn from his breast pocket”.

“On the grounds of national security, I am not prepared to make public the information sought,” he declared.

Goddard rose again and asked if “the minister would be prepared, in view of mounting international concern over human rights in this country, to permit … the monitoring of the present conditions and treatment of those people in prisons?”

“No such monitoring has existed in this country since 1890,” Ushewokunze retorted, “and presently there are no reasons for trying to usher into existence such monitoring.”

One of Goddard’s colleagues then asked if the two most senior airmen had had access to lawyers, to which Ushewokunze replied that he would not “discuss matters which are still sub judice”.

Driven, perhaps, by survivor guilt, as well as the knowledge that further abuse of Weir might endanger him, Goddard reverted to the theme a fortnight later, shortly after allegations of the airmen’s torture surfaced publicly.

“I return to that hardy annual of detainees,” he told parliament. “It is well known how many people are in detention in South Africa and it is well known who they are. But in this country, you do not even know how many people there are in detention. People can just disappear from their homes or off the streets. Take the case of the three senior air force men. I sincerely hope that they are going to be charged and brought to court.

“The minister, as we all know, is a charming and pleasant person, when he wants to be, but when it comes to the matter of detainees, he seems to become almost pathological. I am sure Dr U would like to chuck everyone inside. I would like to ask the minister, who does the torturing for him? Is it the CIO … or the CID [Criminal Investigation Department] or who has he delegated the task to?”

Ushewokunze’s facetious reaction came closer to the truth than he realised: “Mr Goddard … raised issues which my deputy answered fully [in an earlier session]. Unfortunately, the honourable member, Mr Goddard was on an extended holiday then, so he did not have the benefit of the debate. He would rather listen to stories emanating from his masters in foreign climes, instead of listening to what we tell him here at home.”

And so it went on during the months over which the airmen remained in detention.

A ‘distasteful day’

In January 1983, a debate over Ushewokunze’s motion to renew the State of Emergency brought with it what an independent parliamentarian called “one of the most distasteful days that I have ever spent in this honourable House”.

The minister repeatedly attacked the RF and Smith for “hypocrisy and double standards” over their criticisms of detention without trial given their frequent resort to the same legislation when in power before 1980.

Smith, with Goddard chirping noisily from the sidelines, called Ushewokunze an “out and out racialist” and, aggravated by the mirth emanating from the government benches, said that he was “making fun about other people’s suffering. He loves it. He grins from ear to ear about the people he has arrested, and detained and tortured.”

The next day, Ushewokunze, warming to the thought of another distasteful session, pronounced that Goddard had been “a murderer” during the war. Goddard demanded a retraction and alleged that the minister — who was “holding twice the number of people” detained by the former regime —  had threatened him.

But rhetorical abuse was as close as Goddard came to receiving his comeuppance from Zanu. He was never caught. Nor was he ever fingered for Thornhill or any of his other work for the South Africans.

A bizarre accident brought a premature end to what had been an equally extraordinary double life. On New Year’s Day 1984, at a picnic near Smith’s farm, Goddard lost his grip on a zipline that traversed a river canyon and fell 23m to his death.

In what will be grist to the mill for southern Africa’s well-established caste of conspiracy theorists, the incident occurred only a week after Weir’s release and deportation to the United Kingdom. Yet the cause was probably as prosaic as it appeared. Goddard, like many of his generation, was known to drink prodigiously and is likely to have arrived at the picnic after a heavy New Year’s Eve.

In terms of the government’s counterespionage efforts, the disappearance, in short order, of both Goddard and Weir had little to do with proficiency and much to do with luck. The authorities were none the wiser about the first and had wrongly believed the second had played a minor role in the sabotage.

Project Barnacle’s strategists would have been pleased, despite the losses sustained, to hear the self-satisfied cluckings of Zimbabwe’s security mandarins about a successful mopping-up of Thornhill’s culprits and other subversive elements that had been wandering the countryside. The rest of the saboteurs —  the remnants of Team Romeo —  remained in place and would soon make their presence felt. 


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