Ben Trovato’s the hilarious misguided misogynist whose Sunday Times column thrilled and amused readers for years. Mark Verbaan is the man behind the persona, and his new book, The Memoirs Of Ben Trovato, suggests there was more to the man in the hat’s life than slagging off Brenda and getting stuck in Mozambique.
It was early evening on 12 September 1989. Gwen was at work, and I was lying on the bed reading. Liberty and Shane were asleep, each in their own room. Shane was around eight years old, Liberty just over eight months. The phone rang. It was Gwen. She sounded frantic.
‘They got Anton!’
F***g hell. I tried to get more information.
‘He’s been shot – that’s all I know. We’re trying to find out what happened. Got to go. Watch the house.’
Anton Lubowski was a lawyer – one of the few white members of Swapo who was brazenly open about his political affiliation. The South African authorities detested him.
It was because of Anton that I had been charged under the Police Act a few months earlier. We had flown with him in a light plane to Lüderitz, where police had beaten up and arrested a bunch of striking diamond miners. He was representing them, and Gwen and I went along to cover the story.
At the police station, Anton told the station commander that he wanted to see his clients. The cop begrudgingly beckoned Anton to follow him. Anton turned and motioned for me to come with him. He pointed at my camera and winked. We went down into the cells. Anton asked the commander for a few minutes alone with the workers. When he left, Anton began asking questions, taking down names, inspecting their injuries and directing me as if I were his private photographer. I had fired off maybe 20 pictures of black eyes, bruised bums and lacerated flesh when the officer returned unexpectedly. He was dumbfounded. Taking pictures of a police station was illegal. But taking pictures inside a police station? In the cells? No, man. That was just too much.
My camera was confiscated and I was arrested and charged under the Police Act, a charming piece of security legislation that could land you in prison for years. Anton got me released on bail and, to cut a long story short, Advocate Ian Farlam – now a Constitutional Court judge and one-time chairperson of the Marikana Commission – defended me when the case was finally heard in Keetmanshoop. Farlam didn’t think the charge was worth fighting and none of us wanted to keep coming back to that godforsaken town, so he arranged a plea bargain with the prosecutor. I ended up paying an admission-of-guilt fine.
News that Anton had been shot rocked me to the core. Swapo’s exiled leaders had returned to the country. Elections were around the corner. Independence was on its way. Why shoot him now? I heard a noise outside and peeked through the window. Two white men wearing khaki uniforms were clambering over the wall. They had guns in their hands. I dropped to the floor and leopard-crawled through the house, switching off the lights. Moving quickly into Liberty’s room, I pulled her cot into the corridor, away from the window. Shane’s room was out of the line of fire. I scrambled for the phone. My hands were shaking. This was it. I had been expecting them every night for the last three years, and now they were here. They had killed Anton and they were coming for us.
‘Gwen! Two of them. In the garden. They have guns.’
Gwen interjected. ‘It’s okay. They’re from a private security firm. I called them to watch the house.’
Really? Thanks for letting me know. ‘What about Anton?’
‘Sounds like he’s dead. I’ll see you later. Keep an eye out.’
As they say in the classics, s**t just got real.
Anton had been coming home from work. He was due to meet one of Swapo’s leaders, Hage Geingob, for dinner that night. He parked outside and walked up to the metal gate at the front of his house. As he reached forward to open the gate, a car rolled silently down the hill and the gunman opened fire with an AK-47. Bullets slammed into Anton’s back. He died on the spot. Inside, his girlfriend, a lawyer herself, heard the shots, and thought they were firecrackers.
An inquest hearing and the Supreme Court named the suspects. Irishman
Donald Acheson, codenamed ‘The Cleaner’, was believed to be the triggerman. He had been hired by the South African army’s Civil Cooperation Bureau (CCB), a covert agency set up to deal with ‘enemies of the state’. Other members of the CCB’s Region Six team were named in court and at an inquest hearing as accomplices to the murder. Joe Verster, Staal Burger, Ferdi Barnard, Chappie Maree, Slang van Zyl and Calla Botha were never extradited to Namibia. Acheson was arrested and charged with Anton’s murder. At his trial, the judge slammed the prosecution for failing to produce crucial witnesses. Since the witnesses were also Acheson’s suspected handlers, it was no wonder that they refused to travel to Namibia. Charges were withdrawn and he was released. In 1991, South Africa deported Acheson and he was never heard from again.
It emerged during the inquest that Acheson had initially been hired to kill Gwen. He admitted to having been inside our house on a couple of occasions. The instruction was to poison either the toothpaste or her tampons. Charming. I usually brushed my teeth before Gwen. It would have been me writhing on the bathroom floor clutching my throat and bleeding from the eyeballs. Apparently, someone had disturbed him and he slipped out of the house.
A couple of days later, the doorbell rang. I opened it. There was a very tall, very black man standing to attention. He wore camouflage, an AK-47 cradled in his arms. I smiled and greeted him, as one does. He nodded once, walked onto the veranda and pulled up a chair. I found out later that Swapo had sent him to guard the house. He was a former guerrilla. Most nights we invited him inside to watch television with us. After about a week or so, Gwen thanked him for his services and called someone to pick him up.
Incognito: The Memoirs Of Ben Travato is published by Pan Macmillan.