Told by Liza Smit, daughter of Robert and Jean, who was 13 years old at the time of the murders, this is a book of two stories; the story of the life-long and destructive impact the murders had on the lives of those left behind, and particularly and very poignantly, on that of Liza’s own life.
It also tries to unravel the mystery of the murders. We follow Liza as she gathers evidence to present to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) and meets with a wide array of those who might help solve the crime, from ministers to shady con men. Despite Liza’s efforts and the huge public interest in the murders, despite the numerous conjectures on who might have murdered this high-ranking politician and his wife, despite the complicated reasons put forward as to who might have given the orders to have them killed, 40 years later we are no closer to a conviction or a trial.
Told by the daughter of Robert and Jean Smit, I am Liza Smit lends an intimate insider’s view into apartheid intrigues not accounted for at the TRC.
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About the Author
Liza Smit is the daughter of Robert and Jeanne Smit. She was 13 years old when her parents were murdered. She has since attempted to gather evidence that would help solve the crime of her parents’ murder.
Read an Excerpt
If you knew that this moment, now, was your last moment with someone, what would you do to make the most of it together? It is a question that has troubled me since I was thirteen, and my search to answer it has taught me the biggest, costliest and most painful lessons of my life.
I remember that last Sunday evening with my mother as if it were yesterday. She was brushing my hair as she had so many times before – she combed it until it shone. That was her labour of love, and our special time together ahead of a busy week. But that evening she said something strange: 'If you get a feeling of warmth in your neck, you must always know I am with you ' Little did we know this would be the last time she would lavish such care on me. Two days later she and my father were dead.
I am Liza, only daughter of Robert and Jeanne Smit who were murdered on 22 November 1977 in cold blood in their rental home in Springs. My parents were cruelly ripped from my life because someone, somewhere had decided my father's honesty was dangerous and he might go too far and expose them. Today, more than forty years later, I am still paying the price. Our shattered family had believed that the police would speedily solve the case – as I am sure that everybody who has ever heard of or read about the double murders would have thought. But that never happened.
Since that time I have experienced and heard many things, but I am still searching for the truth about the deaths of my parents. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission made a finding that the murders were politically motivated, and the High Court issued an order that the case should never be closed, but that is little consolation. Who really was responsible for their deaths remains one of the most baffling secrets in our country's history. And even though four decades have passed, I am still hoping for some answers.
It has been a difficult road up to here. I am already the grandmother of a beautiful grandchild. I am actively involved in her life and those of my two children, but a piece of my life's puzzle will always be missing. Every big event in our family and the broader clan has happened without my parents. Today they could have been in their eighties with a full life – or so I believe – to look back upon. My children would have been able to know their grandfather and grandmother had fate not intervened. For me this 'fate' has names and motives, and in my mind it has taken the shapes of at least three people. But more were probably involved. It will never be okay because my parents' double murders remain unjust, undeserved and brutal.
The murders have defined my life and have affected my decisions ever since I was thirteen years old. I had no choice but to look the matter in the eye and cope with it. And I am still coping because I cling to my mother's words – I believe that she is with me. And because I have accepted that it will never really be okay.
My parents' faces are etched in my memory. They were much more than just the two people whose photos until ten years ago regularly appeared in the media. In my search for the truth around their deaths, I needed to talk to people who had really known them. Such as relatives of ours. After their murders some relatives became alienated from us – as if they were avoiding us. It probably made things easier; who knows? Unfortunately, many are already deceased, but ever since I have started talking to the remaining family and friends I have got to know my parents through the eyes of people who loved them. For the first time I could just talk about my parents and laugh and learn who and what they were. It has brought healing, but at the same time heartache and disillusionment. After such conversations my emotions would for a long time seesaw between the beautiful memories and the terrible heartbreak.
All of us have a story, and I have never wanted to write a book about mine. Still, the more I pondered the idea, the more I began to feel that my parents' story should not just be forgotten. The injustice done to them is simply too great. They deserve to be remembered for more than the brutal way in which they died. They are more than just the newspaper photos to which they have been reduced in media reports and I want to do justice to their memory. Telling their story might perhaps grant my children greater insight into who and what I am, and the path I have had to tread to the present.
The people responsible for the deaths of my parents have been living in my head for forty years already, without paying a cent's rent. It is time to close this chapter – with answers.
Robert van Schalkwijk Smit
My father was a phenomenal man, brilliant in his field and incorruptible and strong of character. He was very tall and handsome. I have a photo of my father standing with my grandfather and grandmother – his parents – and at twenty he is towering over them. His parents were Boer people and Grandfather At himself was smart. A teacher, my grandfather's first wife, died young, and my uncle Iaan, who after the murders would play an important role in my life, was born from this union. My father and Aunt Estelle were born after Grandfather's second marriage.
I came upon my father's very impressive CV in the Who's Who of South Africa of 1977/78. Robert van Schalkwijk Smit was born on 13 July 1933 and matriculated in 1950 at Grey College, Bloemfontein. In 1954 he acquired his BCom Honours cum laude at the University of the Free State and in 1958 as a Rhodes scholar his BLit degree at Oxford University.
His doctoral thesis at Stellenbosch University was on quite a topical subject: South Africa and international trade politics. His research showed how international trade could be of strategic value for internal prosperity as well as for South Africa's international image; and how, with purposeful international trade policies, the Republic could strengthen its economic and political position. In the commendation Dr MJC de Reville highly recommended my father's doctoral study to the Chancellor of the University of Stellenbosch as extremely relevant to the specific time in which South Africa found itself, in the political as well as financial context.
He was chief negotiator for the Department of Trade and Industry at the meetings of the General Agreement on Trade and Tariffs, and also in Geneva at the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development.
According to Beeld (14 January 1976) my father was an 'ambassador and chief resident representative for South Africa at the International Monetary Fund and the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development in Washington from 1964 to 1967. In 1968 he became deputy secretary of finance in the treasury. From 1971 to 1974 he served at the IMF in Washington as acting managing director for South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, Lesotho, Swaziland and West Samoa. In 1974 and 1975 he was part of the delegation of the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development in Geneva.'
On 1 November of that year he became the managing director of Santam International. Now it appears that Santam International was a front company. At the time of my father's death he apparently had nothing to do with the government anymore.
I rely on my memory and recollections of family and friends and realise that I had not known him all that well. My mother was my primary caregiver and I think because he devoted so much time to his job, my father and I did not have the same close emotional bond I had with her. At weekends, though, he really tried to share time with his family. We began every day together. If they were still in bed, I would have my breakfast in their room. In the evenings too, we always had a chat about the day's ups and downs.
I remember my dad as very talkative and with a sharp sense of humour, and he had a quick and easy laugh. He had a great love of water and in England he played water polo for Oxford. Sometimes I went swimming with him and that was our special time.
He also loved nature a lot and would readily pull off the road to take a picture of a tree. We went to the Kruger National Park a few times. He was an outdoorsman and when we came home to visit family in the Free State from our stays abroad, we liked to go mountain climbing. My dad had a movie camera with which he recorded everything. I remember how he once filmed an anthill, and we all watched the ants scurrying in and out. Right there he gave as an impromptu lesson on ants. He used up rolls and rolls of film recording nature and behind every one there was probably a story. The big sadness is that we don't know those stories.
I also remember my father's calmness. Without wasting words he would restore peace and order. The last time we were in the game reserve, my brother, Robert and I fought over something in the back of the car. My father simply stopped, got out of the car, opened the boot and began to offload suitcases. I nearly died of fright! Neither my brother nor I knew quite what to expect. My father opened Robert's door and just said: 'Get out.' I was so scared. Would Robert remain behind? What if the lions ate him? With my brother out of the car, my father began to stack the cases in the middle of the seat on top of each other up to the roof of the car. I heard him telling Robert: 'Get in,' and then he too got in saying: 'Nou ja, now you can't see each other, so I don't want to hear anything from you two again.' After that Robert said, 'Look there!' every now and then, but I could not see what he was pointing at and it made me mad. I think he did it on purpose. It was a great punishment – and a big lesson – not to be able to see what he was seeing.
My father loved South Africa and its history deeply and was just as interested in the histories of other countries. We regularly visited museums and I still remember the ruins in Rome. As a child I could not understand what the fuss was about. Who wants to look at heaps of crumbled buildings?
My father also loved opera and classical music and we regularly attended symphony concerts. We always sat in a little box, high in the air, just me, my mom and my dad and they even had these funny glasses for the occasion. Nothing was more boring than those concerts.
I have in the meantime discovered that my father was an excellent orator, and loved politics. He did not always agree with the governing party. A former friend of my parents, Dawn Lottering, believes my father was 'ahead of his time'. For example, he felt it was wrong that people of colour did not have the right to vote. I firmly believe that he – had he lived – would have been part of the group of politicians who were in favour of the democratisation of our country.
My mother was born on 12 November 1934 as Jeanne-Cora Kachelhoffer. My grandfather was a magistrate and according to rumour a Freemason. They lived in Pretoria, but I don't remember much about them. Neither could I find out much more, other than that they had been narrow-minded, but highly regarded.
My mother's best friend, Dawn, recounts that she greatly disliked her second name, Cora. After matriculating in 1952 she decided she would henceforth only use her first name, Jeanne. But in newspaper articles about her and my father her full names had always been used, something the two friends had always laughed about. 'It still breaks my heart to write about her when I think of those big fat letters of the newspaper headlines ' My mother was petite and she became an air hostess. (In those times there were no prerequisites for height.) But her career was short-lived. In 1958 my mom and dad got married and after that she never worked in the formal sector again. However, she was the driving force behind my father and his right hand, also during his doctoral degree studies. Georgie, my mom's niece, recalls that there were times when my father did not want to continue and my mother then encouraged him and spurred him on.
When my father worked in the USA, and back in South Africa as well, my mother was his anchor. I remember the speeches that she wrote for him after he had given her the broad outlines of what he had to talk about and what he wanted to say. She would then compile everything neatly, type it up and change whatever he wanted to change after he had read it. I remember some of their conversations around those speeches. She would make herself heard when she did not like what he said or the way in which he said it, and then suggest alternatives. She was the one who arranged and assembled his posters for elections. She wrote the biographical summaries for the flyers and set up the photo session for the pictures of our family to go on the flyers. My mother was involved in my father's work all the time and up to speed on everything. I was aware of this especially during our last year in the USA and in the time up to their deaths. Before that I was still too young to really understand.
She was the paragon of truth and love, strength, empathy and loyalty. She was adventurous and loved to take us to new places and to experience things, such as learning to skate on the frozen ponds. After the death of my grandfather At she patiently answered all my questions about death and funerals. I remember we were sitting together in my parents' bed when my father got the phone call. My mom later said that he was very sad, and when I asked why Dad was not crying, she explained that he cried in places where he was out of our sight because he did not want to be the cause of any heartache.
My mother would always recount everything in detail in order for us children to understand it. She created a safe environment in which I could learn to reason and how to express my side of the story. She did not believe at all that only the parent was right, and always thoroughly explained why rules were made and decisions taken. My mother taught me to build snowmen and make Christmas tree decorations, and from her I learnt you should always try because nothing was impossible. And should you struggle you had to get help, but you should carry on until you could.
Out of necessity Dad was the absent parent due to his work, but my mother was always there for me. I think of her with a smile and a warm feeling in my heart. Before a ballet performance she would tell me the story, and during the show explain we were watching this or that scene. Strangely enough, to this day I have been unable to get myself to like ballet.
One musical I shall always remember was Jesus Christ Superstar. It made a lasting impression on me. Because we went overseas so often, we did not go to church. However, my mother always read to me from Psalms. Her favourite was Psalm 121: 'I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills: from whence cometh my help? My help cometh from the Lord, who hath made heaven and earth.' In later years it too would become my favourite Psalm. How often do I not still read it to console myself.
My mother was very artistic, she could paint and even make pottery. When we were abroad, we would spend hours in art galleries. I can remember the Louvre in France so well. That was the one venue I was very excited about. I dearly wanted to see the Mona Lisa, but it was somewhat of a disappointment. In all the other art galleries you could get right up to the painting, but the Mona Lisa was closed off by a chain, and you could only view it from a distance. I remember in particular the soft light that shone on the painting.
I can also remember that my mother took me to a circus in America. I was terribly excited, but on the way there she told me she did not approve of circuses. She felt sorry for the animals, and that it wasn't right to keep wild animals such as lions and elephants and make them do tricks. They belonged in nature, she said. My excitement was rather dampened, and every time an animal performed a trick – even a dog – I realised it was not right. To this day I have a deep dislike of circuses. I took my two children to a circus once and told them too why I loathed it. Now they feel like I do about it. My father was, like my mother, against circuses in principle, and did not accompany us. But my mother had decided to take me to one in order for me to make up my mind myself. I admire her for that.
In America Halloween is a big affair. My mother always went trick-or-treating with me in our neighbourhood, and my father waited at home for the other children who would knock at our door for sweets. My mother and I were falling about with laughter and marvelled at the outfits. We would compete to see who could work out what they were first. Those were incredibly enjoyable times and are still the source of some of my most treasured memories.
My mother's love for me was intense, and sometimes by just looking at one another we knew exactly what the other was thinking. She knew what was beautiful for me, what I enjoyed, what was funny and also what I didn't like. We could be in a room full of people, see something, give one another one look and then try either not to laugh or frown, depending on the situation.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "I Am Liza Smit"
Copyright © 2018 Liza Smit and Raquel Lewis.
Excerpted by permission of Jacana Media (Pty) Ltd.
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