Not too many people are fully aware of the story behind the bombing of the Koeberg nuclear plant in 1982, it made the news alright, big news, but who really knows the real story behind it? Now, if you’re not familiar, you are going to need a stiff drink and sit down, this story is guaranteed to make you laugh and cry all at the same time.
It’s actually a very comical and random sequence of events which led to the Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK) getting this one right, and it’s one that will leave you simply astounded. It’s also an inconvenient story to the general narrative, as the bomber is in the same category as Hein Grosskopf, who bombed Witwatersrand Command – he was also ‘white’.
It gets better, not only was he ‘white’ he was also a serving Citizen Force Non-Commissioned Officer (NCO) in the South African Defence Force (now that’s very inconvenient news to many SADF veterans). However, it gets even better than that, unlike Grosskopf he was a ‘English South African’ in origin, a South African national sporting champion and a free-thinking liberal soul, a little like the archetypal ‘hippy’.
He’s was not your typical MK cadre at all, in fact nowhere close. MK didn’t even need to train him (the SADF did) and he randomly arrived on their doorstep in Zimbabwe with Koeberg blue-prints under his arm, his proposition was so ‘out there’ MK thought he was a spy and initially laughed him off.
Koeberg Nuclear Plant
The bombing of Koeberg is now posted by MK as one of their ‘Top Achievements’ on their website, but the inconvenient truth is that it was not really theirs to start off with, it was more about the bombers own politics in resistance to Apartheid than the African National Congress’ (ANC) politics and the ‘operator’ was pretty much in his own ‘cell’ with his equally free-spirited girlfriend who in reality was a speech therapist. MK just provided some very ‘unstable’ limpet mines and helped pin-point the placement targets.
So audacious was the attack that the South African security forces at the time suspected the operation was the work of a ‘group’ of highly trained saboteurs. But in fact, and here’s a military truism, never under-estimate the ability of a ‘single’ corporal in the South African Defence Force (SADF) to wreak havoc.
The bombing of Koeberg Nuclear Plant reads like the ‘Incidental Tourist’, stuff just randomly falls in place with loads of luck and even though it is a very serious matter it even comes across as comical at times, you just could not make it up – so let’s have a look at a pair of ‘hippies’ Rodney Wilkinson, South Africa’s fencing sword fighting national champion and his side-kick, his girlfriend, Heather Gray, the speech therapist.
‘Planning’ the Koeberg bombing
Rodney Wilkinson taken in 1995
The Koeberg operation was born of sheer chance in 1978. Rodney Wilkinson was living in a ‘hippy’ commune near Koeberg. The commune ran out of money and Rodney, a student of building science and UCT drop-out, rather reluctantly mind, had to take a job at the nearby nuclear plant which was under construction.
Whist working at the plant for nearly two years he was privy to the building plans and blue-prints. With a strong anti-Apartheid sentiment and liberal conviction he was encouraged by his girlfriend Heather to steal a set of them. But what to do with them?
They came up with an idea, give them to the African National Congress (ANC) so they might find them handy and conduct an attack on the nuclear station. Buoyed up with this idea they both trekked off to the newly independent Zimbabwe to hand over the plans to the ANC in exile there, job done.
Not really. Rodney pitched up randomly on the doorstep of the ANC office and told them he was in possession of plans to one of the most secure and secret facilities in South Africa. The ANC took one look at the hapless hippy in front of them and dismissed him out of hand as a government spy.
The ANC were very circumspect of him, but Rodney was persistent so they agreed to take the plans from him and have them authenticated first. After many delays with Rodney hanging about, during which time the stolen plans were shown to Soviet nuclear scientists and an investigation into Rodney Wilkinson himself was done. Eventually the ANC reverted. Great news – all vetted, job done, they’ll take the plans, Rodney and Heather figured they now could head off home.
Not so fast snowflakes! The ANC then threw a curveball at Rodney and told him that the only way the job could really be done is if he carried out the attack himself. By his own admission he was initially taken aback by all this, as becoming a MK operative really wasn’t in his plans, however he pondered their proposal and eventually agreed. The operation was code-named Operation Mac (named after Mac Maharaj).
SADF Koeberg Commando flash
No military training required, luckily the South African Defence Force (SADF) had already provided all that when he was called up as National Servicemen conscript, completed his two years of training and deployment and he was now serving out his Citizen Force commitments with the rank of Corporal.
In fact he had even served duty on the Angolan border and at one stage wrecked a truck going AWOL and landed up in hospital, he was not prosecuted by the SADF and not demoted.
Therein lies the hazard of conscription, not everyone agreed with the government of the day and moreover many didn’t buy into the ‘whites only’ Afrikaner Nationalist government’s program of conscription at all, especially many of the ‘English’ conscripts and certainly not Rodney, but it did produce very proficient soldiers in any event.
‘Dirty weekends’ in Swaziland
To Rodney’s own surprise, more luck, Koeberg Nuclear station wanted him back at work on mapping emergency pipes and valves at the plant.
The ANC appointed a ‘Dolphin’ MK commander in Swaziland as Wilkinson’s ‘handler’, he was Aboobaker Ismail. So once a month Rodney and his girlfriend trekked off to Swaziland, the small independent kingdom which allowed gambling (banned under Apartheid South Africa), before Sun City was built, this was the premier destination for thousands of white South Africans to go gambling on weekend getaways and not unusual ‘movement’ of white people over a border at all.
Whilst in Swaziland, Rodney and his handler thrashed out the strategy, it was designed to maximise embarrassment to the South African government while minimising the risk to human life – this after all was a nuclear facility and required ‘careful’ thinking.
Aboobaker and Rodney then drilled down the targets onto which limpid mines would be placed. It was suspected at the time that Koeberg Nuclear plant would be used to produce plutonium for the construction of atomic bombs, so to avoid a radioactive fall-out, the attack had to happen before the plant went on-line.
Soviet era SPM Limpet mine commonly used by MK
Limpet mines were to be placed on the two reactor heads, yup – read that again, the reactor heads – they figured as these were made of 110 tones of steel the limpet mines were not really going to really harm them, also they figured there would be fantastic PR and media value in it for the ANC. Other mines were planned for the control room and a containment building, designed to do as much damage as possible.
The date for the attack was deliberate and designed to humiliate the government – it was set for 16th December, the National Party’s ‘Day of the Covenant’ – ‘Dingaan Day’ to others and ‘MK Day’ to members of the ANC. That the attack happened on the 17th December is another event of haplessness and chance.
The arms ‘cache’
To anyone with a military background, the arms ‘cache’ is where the story gets comically scary, as if blowing up a plutonium nuclear plant is not scary enough. Rodney and Heather were directed to the arms cache, and it was not where you would expect, nope this cache consisted of four very old and unstable limpet mines left next to a road side in the middle of the remote Karoo. Makes you think what else is still ‘out there’ in this quirky part of South Africa.
SADF Corporal holding a Soviet era SPM limpet mine
So, how to smuggle them unnoticed?, No problem to Rodney and Heather, they dug them up and simply hid them in decanted wine boxes – the good old box wine ‘doos’ now makes another unusual entry into South African history folklore. They jump into their little Renault 5 and head to their home in the tranquil up-market, very ‘white’ suburb of Claremont in Cape Town. If you have not yet reached for your stiff drink now is a good time.
Now enter the worst co-conspirator ever! Their puppy dog, Gaby. Gaby had been pretty efficient digging holes all over their garden, so thanks to her labours they buried these old and unstable limpet mines in the holes.
From there Rodney smuggled the mines one by one in a hidden compartment of the Renault through the perimeter security fence at the nuclear installation. But were to hide them in order that nobody would dare to look? No problem Rodney simply put them in his desk drawer in his prefabricated office. Now, to get them into the main building and past all the heavy security, no problem again he simply walked in carrying one at a time hidden in his overalls – so much for the ‘heavy’ impenetrable security on South Africa’s most vital, most prized and most secretive Nuclear Plant.
A series of mishaps
So on to the attack itself and it’s marred by a series of mishaps. It started with an unrelated accidental short-circuit which started a cable fire. The incident was reported in the local press. Now enter the ANC’s President-in-exile, Oliver Tambo, who had been made aware of the operation but not really the details of it, like timing. So he released a statement immediately claiming the fire as an ANC victory. All this did was prompt a security scare and clamp down at the plant and gave the National Party some ammo to ridicule the ANC for unsubstantiated claims.
Then, in November the firm hiring Rodney informed him that they were laying him off at the end of the month, so much for timing. Luckily for Rodney they changed their minds and asked him to stay on for another month. As fortune would also have it, he turned the security scare to his advantage and told them he would stay on, but only till the 17th December, thereby obtaining an official alibi and cover for his planned disappearance.
Here is where he missed the deadline of the 16th December, as previously stated the limpet mines were old and unstable. Rodney placed the mines in the pre-determined targets setting 24 hour fuses on the 15th December (a Friday) so they would blow on the public holiday (a Saturday), thereby assuring minimal casualties to his fellow contractors as nobody would be there.
Here’s the kicker, as his contract was ending, his fellow contractors and engineers liked this young man and decided to throw Rodney a farewell party at the plant on the Friday evening just after he had been busy planting the bombs. Rodney had to sit through his impromptu ‘going-away’ party stressing endlessly that the bombs would not go off prematurely.
He had no real need to worry, as said these limpet mines were old and they would not go off on the Saturday either in fact they eventually went off a day after the target date on the Sunday. The springs on the firing mechanism proved to have been brittle and the devices also exploded over a period of several hours instead of simultaneously.
Rodney’s ‘Great Escape’
Reach for that stiff drink again, you’ll need it for this next part of the story. Instead of bolting it out the country with a keen sense of urgency, as the other ‘white’ lone wolf MK cadre did – Hein Grosskopf who high-tailed it directly into Botswana after bombing of Wit Command on his motorbike, not even looking back for a nano-second. No, not our ‘hippy’ would casually, get this, ‘cycle’ out of South Africa on a bicycle, yup you heard right … a bicycle.
He took a domestic flight to Johannesburg and was driven with a borrowed bicycle to a point near the Swaziland border where he jumped on the bicycle and then casually cycled through the border post into exile.
Oliver Tambo at a news conference in exile (left) Gallo Image
A few days beforehand South African special forces had attacked ANC targets in the kingdom of Lesotho, Oliver Tambo claimed the Koeberg attack was an act of retaliation carried out by a MK ‘unit’ (one chap in reality and as propaganda goes his efforts had nothing to do with the Lesotho raid at all).
How close to nuclear fall-out did we come? Take a big sip that stiff drink again. Not part of Rodney’s plan but unbeknown to him enriched uranium fuel had been moved into to the plant when the attack took place and was due to come on-line in the reactors. Luckily for all of us (and here we include the entire planet) it was in dormant storage.
The attack delayed the commissioning of the plant by about 18 months and cost the Apartheid government millions of rand. This is why this attack sits as No. 2 on their all time greatest achievements (No. 1 is the Sasol bombing and No.3 is the rather controversial and bloody Church Street Bombing). Although there were no deaths attributed to the bombing, that it nearly cost thousands of lives in the entire city of Cape Town is lost on this particular MK ‘highlight’.
Rodney flew on to Maputo where he met Oliver Tambo, the two exchanged a warm and tearful embrace. Rodney’s girlfriend Heather was already in Maputo having flown out a week beforehand. The two jumped on a flight to the United Kingdom and further into exile.
They married one another in Woodbridge, Suffolk, before returning home to South Africa following the general amnesty and unbanning of all ‘liberation’ movements. The TRC rewarded the Wilkinsons and Aboobaker Ismail full amnesty in April 1999. Given the nature of this MK ‘cell’ it seemed a little unlikely that the ANC and its brand of politics is quite Rodney and Heathers bag, anti-apartheid, yes but unlike Carl Niehaus we don’t find him regularly wheeled out in a PEP store set of camos with the other ‘struggle heroes’ and he lives a life in relative obscurity.
A happy ending to our ‘Incidental terrorist’ and an equally and far more happy ending to just about every Cape Town and Western Cape resident, South Africa as a whole, the entire South African tourist trade, the local bio-sphere and the green planet in general. We can now all universally breathe a sigh of relief that the entire Cape Peninsula is not a radioactive ‘Chernobyl’ no-go zone thanks to the African National Congress.
If you chose not to have a stiff drink reading this article, nows a good time to really start.
Related Work and Links
Wit Command Bombing; The truth behind the bombing of Witwatersrand Command
Struggle ‘Heroes’; Tainted “Military Heroes” vs. Real Military Heroes
Rocketing of Voortrekkerhoogte; The not so ‘spectacular’ MK attack on Voortrekkerhoogte
Written and Researched by Peter Dickens. Primary source, an interview with Rodney Wilkinson by a daily mail staff reporter in December 1995 and photograph. Published news snippets, MK official web-page. TRC references. Image references – general net search. Nuclear terrorism in Africa: The ANC’s Operation Mac and the attack on the Koeberg Nuclear Power Station in South Africa. Jo-Ansie van Wyk