Dirk Coetzee, who led a South African police hit squad that killed antiapartheid activists, and who eventually confessed to his crimes as his country began shifting away from apartheid, died Wednesday at a hospital in Pretoria. He was 67.
The cause was kidney failure, a hospital spokesman told South African news outlets.
Coetzee was a divisive and complicated figure: a convicted murderer and a whistle-blower whose detailed accounts of a violently corrupt police force shed new light on South Africa’s racist government.
His confession prompted accusations that he was an opportunist, out to protect himself when political winds began to change. But he was also viewed as brutally honest in a culture of cover-ups.
‘‘There wasn’t anything he told us that wasn’t true,’’ Jacques Pauw, who wrote the first articles about Coetzee’s role in 1989 for a small South African weekly, said recently. ‘‘And for that I will always respect him.’’
In the late 1970s and early 1980s, Coetzee was a captain for the South African security police at Vlakplaas, a 100-acre farm on the outskirts of Pretoria, where police officers were trained in counterinsurgency to help defend white control in other African countries. Yet under Coetzee and other leaders, officers at Vlakplaas also led a war within South Africa.
Coetzee oversaw multiple killings of antiapartheid activists, including members of the African National Congress, which the government had outlawed.
It was one of those black South Africans, a former police officer named Almond Nofomela, who first revealed the actions of Vlakplaas in 1989 and implicated Coetzee in a number of killings, among them the murder in November 1981 of Griffiths Mxenge, a black lawyer linked to the Congress.
The allegations prompted Coetzee to flee the country and, in an interview with Pauw, the journalist, to confess to having led the death squad.
At the time, President F.W. de Klerk of South Africa was under increasing pressure to end apartheid, and the government was considering releasing the African National Congress’ leader, Nelson Mandela, from prison. In early 1990, de Klerk, who had initially rejected calls for an investigation into Vlakplaas, created a commission to lead one. It quickly issued an arrest warrant for Coetzee.
Coetzee, who by that time was living outside the country under the protection of the very group whose members he had once targeted, said he welcomed the investigation. He said that the killings had been ordered by the government to preserve white rule and that they had continued after he left Vlakplaas in the early ‘80s.
‘‘The responsibility for the death squads goes right to the top,’’ Coetzee said in an interview with The New York Times in Zimbabwe in 1990.
Coetzee said that he had been involved in 13 killings and that government officials, including de Klerk, had been involved in crimes in Africa.
But government prosecutors eventually dismissed the allegations by Coetzee, Nofomela and another black officer, calling them ‘‘groundless.’’
Years later, after the end of white rule, prosecutors would reverse course, affirming many of Coetzee’s claims about Vlakplaas.