Brigadier Riaan Booysen’s exciting police career has seen him arrest several notorious criminals, but his success came at a high price: it cost him precious time with his wife and two sons, and he lost officers under his command to suicide.
However, the high-profile policeman, who retired from Wynberg police station after 32 years of service on Monday February 29, says he would do it all over again.
“I started and finished my career at Wynberg,” he said.
In between Mr Booysen worked “all over the show” and even had run-ins with sharks while working for the police divers, though he has never been stationed in Bellville, where he has lived for 25 years.
“I served the whole of the Western Cape,” he said, speaking of his time as the provincial commander for serious and violent crimes, a post he held for six years.
Mr Booysen’s career began in 1983, after he underwent military training in Kimberley.
In 1985, he was united with his first love, detective work, when he was transferred to Claremont police station.
“It was my dream. I always wanted to be a detective.”
His detective career was illustrious and saw him leading teams that solved several infamous cases, like the murder of former president FW de Klerk’s wife, Marike De Klerk.
“That was high profile, but it was not a difficult case. My team solved it in 12 hours.”
He is a big believer in teamwork.
“It is important not to try to be a hero and do it all yourself. I have always believed in working as a team and with strong team leaders.”
His detective teams were responsible for arresting some dangerous hitmen, like Pagad’s “G-force” member Ebrahim Jeneker, who was sentenced for gunning down an alleged drug dealer and her family, including a two-year-old child.
“He got several life sentences,” Brigadier Booysen said. “I personally arrested him in Johnson Road (in Athlone).”
His team’s work also led to the arrest of Bandile Botya, who killed four drivers and two passengers in a series of shootings on Golden Arrow buses. He was allegedly hired by two taxi drivers.
“More than 35 people were shot and some killed. They were innocent commuters on their way to work. They were very emotional crime scenes. It was terrible. Every morning there was a shooting. Our team worked day and night on that case.”
Speaking of Botya’s arrest Brigadier Booysen said: “He was a trained soldier. He had received training abroad, in the Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK) and in the South African National Defence Force (SANDF). He was a soldier. But he worked as a hitman. He was shooting the buses with a stolen R4 rifle. I personally arrested him.”
Botya confessed to the killings and was sentenced to 150 years in prison.
“I visited him in jail, and I found out he was brought up in a Christian home and his father was a policeman, but the post-traumatic stress of being a soldier played a big role in making him into a hitman.”
Brigadier Booysen said his exposure to constant trauma and violence helped him understand its effect on younger police officers.
“Two members committed suicide under my command – from post-traumatic stress disorder and depression,” he said, adding that he had learned to recognise the symptoms and have sympathy for younger officers whom he would advise to seek counselling.
“You need to be there to understand. If you see trauma, trauma, trauma, dead bodies all the time, somewhere it must break. In the old days, we didn’t get counselling because the thinking was ‘cops don’t cry’.”
And the stresses affected his own family too. The long hours, death threats and danger from being in the line of duty, were nerve-racking for his wife, Judith, a senior social worker at Tygerberg Hospital.
“I worked with many serious and violent crimes, and you never knew when you were not going to come back.”
The most difficult time for Brigadier Booysen was when he worked as a police diver.
“My boys were still small, and she had to play both roles, father and mother.”
And then, just to add more stress, there was also the altercation his team had with hungry sharks.
“We were searching on a wreck between Table Bay harbour and Robben Island for bodies, at plus minus 25 metres, with dry suits and air hoses, when the sharks attacked us. It was myself and a diver from Cape Diving. The wreck was a cargo boat from Cape Town transporting meat and other food to the oil tankers waiting in the bay outside the harbour. We were able to protect ourselves with the crowbars, which we used to break into the sunken vessel.”
Brigadier Booysen said the police diving unit had “real camaraderie”, most likely born of the trauma of the harrowing work.
“We had to recover lots of corpses, but it was good to be able to give the families something to bury.”
Giving families closure gave Brigadier Booysen a lot of fulfilment in his work.
“It is really about giving back to the families, to be able to say to them; ‘We can’t take back the pain, but we have arrested them.’”
His prowess for investigation also saw him leading detective branches at numerous police stations, each of which left an indelible mark on his career.
“I was the head of detectives in Mitchell’s Plain from 1997 to 2000,” he said. “And there I really learnt about CPFs (community police forums).”
Brigadier Booysen continued to call on the expertise of the friends he made at Mitchell’s Plain long after he left, and he would invite them to help build up police forums in other areas.
“I used Mitchell’s Plain all the time as an example of how police forums should work.”
In Gugulethu, which he admits to having a soft spot for, he had a crash course in the workings of street committees.
“There, the communities really stand together. I didn’t know about that. That was new for me.”
At the Athlone inquest and murder unit, his team of detectives had the mammoth task of solving 1 600 cold cases from four different townships – and they had just one year in which to do it.
“We solved 75 percent,” he said.
In Manenberg and Grassy Park, Mr Booysen felt his detective skills were really polished and put to the test.
“You can start a detective school at those stations,” he said. “You get everything there: fraud, murder, violent crimes.”
But his career has also been peppered with lighter and even embarrassing moments, like when he mistakenly disciplined an officer but was later left without a leg to stand on. Junior officers are supposed to stand to attention when senior officers come into the room, he explained, but on one occasion a young constable did not stand up when Mr Booysen entered, so he took disciplinary action against him – only to later discover that he didn’t have legs.
“That was very embarrassing and I apologised to him.”
Mr Booysen is compiling all his stories into a book about his career, the title of which is a great secret. His other plans for retirement include opening a polygraphing and private investigations company.
“I made it through with lots of prayer and support from colleagues, friends and family. If it was not for God and His strength and power, I would never have been able to make it, but I would do it all again though.”