The last thing whistleblower Aris Danikas remembers as he shut the door to his family home in South Africa was the curtains.
“You’re in a panic and you think, what can you take with you?” he said. “I was full of adrenalin and fear.”
It’s been hurry up and wait for the former police reservist who fled to Greece in 2008 fearing for his life. He fled after collecting incriminating evidence against Durban’s Cato Manor organised crime unit, an elite unit of the South African Police Service accused of running a “death squad”, according to Danikas, and committing scores of assassinations over suspected cop killings and taxi wars.
Following Danikas’ publication of a series of videos and photos in 2009 that he says depicts extrajudicial killings, tampering with crime scenes, and the torture of suspects — all of which Danikas alleges were committed by members of the Cato Manor unit — South African prosecution authorities approached him six years ago. They wanted him to be a key witness against the unit and his former commander, Major General Johan Booysen.
The major case that eventually exposed Danikas’ identity and made him a target of cyberbullying and death threats, has been postponed for the 18th time since charges were filed in 2011 and is a highly contentious case in South Africa.
The 27 remaining suspects will appear in court again on October 4, 2019, after charges against them were reinstated by the current National Director of Public Prosecutions. The provincial spokesperson at National Prosecuting Authority (NPA), Natasha Kara, said this is a holding date pending the outcome of the civil matter, which relates to the defence team challenging the authorisation of the racketeering charges against them.
The suspects are facing 116 charges, including racketeering and murder. Danikas said that his former boss was either complicit in, or had direct knowledge of, the crimes committed by the unit. Booysen denies the allegations and charges.
‘I stopped hiding’
For Danikas, whose testimony and physical evidence isn’t covered in the indictment but does point to establishing a pattern of behaviour for the unit members and Booysen, the uncertainty of what happens next leaves his life in limbo.
“This deliberate abuse of the legal system via the defence team has a purpose. That is to delay the trial date as long as possible, thus weakening and silencing any witness that comes forward to speak the truth about the atrocities committed by the unit members,” Danikas said.
“As a witness for the prosecution, I cannot move away from this chapter in my life... I have to constantly relive the dreadful and violent memories that I witnessed and lived, over and over again.”
But Danikas said he would continue to speak out. “I stopped hiding and keeping silent,” he said.
Speaking out comes at a heavy price. “Nobody understands what a whistleblower goes through,” said Danikas.
“All my white friends have disappeared because I’m a traitor in their eyes, because I betrayed the white people.”
Looking over his shoulder has become the daily norm. His family, including his wife who is South African, feels unsafe to return to South Africa. Their daily movements and circle of trusted friends are held close to his chest. His family has moved four times in the last few years, fortifying their house with technological wizardry. Danikas says he suffers from the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder after all he's had to endure.
“Then I return refocused, calm and with a sense of tranquillity,” he said. “I always conclude that my values, character and beliefs guided me to do my best... to take a big risk in order to change a part of the world for the better...or so I hope.”
In 1988, Danikas left Greece. He was just 17 years old, a high school graduate who often took to the streets and outside the South African Embassy in Athens in protest of apartheid.
“To me, there’s no colour. I’m colour-blind,” he said.
He moved to Durban, South Africa, where he worked at clothes stores before enrolling at Durban University of Technology (formerly Technikon Natal) to study electrical engineering.
“No black man was allowed to go inside the store to purchase clothes,” recalled Danikas. If he did, “we were instructed to make his life difficult by following him around. It was very difficult for me [at that age] to comprehend that kind of hatred.”
As he struggled to financially support his studies, he was forced to drop out of school yet refused money from his parents.
“He’s a strong kid, whatever he puts in his mind, he does it,” his mother said.
To make ends meet, Danikas began repairing radios for clients, mostly black South Africans at a pawnshop to help pay for his new studies at Omnitec Institute and Electronic, where he graduated with a diploma in electronics.
He went on to open his first electronics store, a 45-square-metered store called “Technotronic” in the ghettos on Cato street selling affordable computers that he built, and grow his business over the next 20 years.
In 1997, Danikas, whose customers also included policemen, met his future commander, Booysen, who helped him apply to the reservists a year later and officially join under his command in 2000 when Booysen was head of the Serious Violent Crime Project unit.
Danikas, who hails from a family of policemen in Greece, imagined the best of both worlds: running a thriving business and fighting crime. The thrill and curiosity excited him, he said. “We’re fighting the bad guys.”
But shock soon settled in for Danikas. Before he was even officially appointed as a police reservist, he was invited by Booysen and another officer to watch a suspect get tortured by police officers, said Danikas. The black suspect, naked and tied to a chair, was beaten, chocked, and bagged over the head. The members asked Danikas to hold the suspect’s legs down.
“This was a joke they were pulling on the new guys,” he said. Out of fear, the suspect urinated on Danikas. Danikas reported the incident to Booysen but was met with indifference.
Another time, his commander told him a story about targeting black pedestrians with pellet guns “for fun,” said Danikas.
Booysen claimed Danikas “has made it up.” But Danikas claimed that he has a recording of the conversation about targeting black pedestrians. Euronews has listened to the audio, but could not independently verify it.
As for the torture incident, Booysen called the story improbable. “Why and how does he report something to me to which I purportedly invited him to in the first place?”
Danikas said Booysen is dodging the facts. “He laughed about [the torture] and proudly responded ‘that’s how we do it and get results’”.
Yet Danikas, an award-winning police reservist who received letters of achievement from Booysen, stayed on. At one point, he said he tried to get transferred but was denied. Danikas said he tried to counter the bad behaviour by “being a good police officer.”
“What kept me on the force was my passion and interest in solving crimes and catching criminals... I was also never a quitter,” said Danikas.
Over the years, Booysen and Danikas grew close, like family often spending time together on holidays.
“I had nobody there,” he said. “I tried to fit in as an outsider... For a period, I did become a racist,” he said. Danikas said he entered the South African culture repeatedly being told that crime and unemployment were the black South Africans’ fault.
“Once you enter with a biased mind engulfed by a community that has been socially structured to be the ‘elite supremacists,’ defending their own and treating the blacks as ‘enemies,’ as dogs, it is easy to lapse into a sleeping and confusing mode where you actually start thinking that this is normal.”
“A government official or a policeman should be colour-blind,” he said.
Blowing the whistle
Danikas said he began secretly documenting the atrocities he witnessed after Booysen asked him to change a sworn affidavit in order to save face about a robbery at his store that left Booysen “panicked” and “frozen” Danikas said. Booysen said Danikas is “lying.”
For a long time, Danikas didn’t want to believe his boss was complicit.
“I felt embarrassed, confused as well as ashamed that I had allowed his principles to mess with my mind and beliefs,” he said. “This was not the culture that my parents in Greece raised me to be part of.”
In February 2004, Danikas pretended to be on his mobile phone while video recording with it and documented a black carjacking suspect being tortured in police custody. The video shows a naked suspect, sitting in agony, being beaten and suffocated. Danikas alleges the suspect was tortured by Cato Manor unit members.
Although Booysen was not the head of the Cato Manor unit, he often tagged along, said Danikas, and took him along on high-profile cases or to crime scenes.
On Easter Sunday in 2007, Danikas and Booysen were celebrating Easter together when a phone call came in about a shooting during an attempted break-in at a house nearby. Danikas joined Booysen and others to the crime scene where two robbery suspects had been shot. Danikas was the crime scene photographer and videographer.
“That was the worst one I’d seen,” Danikas said. “Here you see a man bleeding out and them just sitting there.”
A series of video clips recorded by Danikas show a wounded burglar suspect flailing around on the ground, bleeding to death in a garage. Danikas can be heard repeating twice, “Director, we need to call an ambulance.”
Euronews has seen the footage, but could not independently verify it.
Booysen said the paramedics were summoned after the shooting occurred and the suspect “bled out” before the paramedics arrived. But Danikas alleged that the suspect was purposefully denied medical care and that the suspect was still alive when the paramedics arrived. Danikas believes the time stamps on his photographs can prove the suspect was still alive when they arrived.
“They weren’t allowed in [to the crime scene],” Danikas said. “This was the standard trick to make sure the suspects were dead and can’t tell their version of the story.”
When asked why no life-saving protocols were administered to the dying suspect, Booysen replied in an email, “There was no equipment available to do safe first aid. I was most certainly not going to risk my health contracting AIDS or Hepatitis B from a suspected criminal. Danikas himself did not want to take such a risk.”
“I was never given any medical training, neither did I have with me any medical kits,” Danikas said, adding that he couldn’t overstep the top ranking officers.
Soon after, Danikas began fearing for his life. It began with a subtle threat, an SMS for funeral homes. “I thought, I was going to get killed by my own people,” he said.
In 2008, Danikas made the decision to resign from the police force after nine years of service. He and his family then fled to his homeland of Greece. He said once he felt safe again, he felt guilty about the victims left behind.
“I knew that I had to do something in order to make the public aware,” he said. He reached out to reporters and government officials but met a wall of silence.
“The only thing I could do was become a whistleblower and publish my evidence on the Internet, hoping that somewhere someone was watching and could take it further,” he said.
So in 2009, he posted his videos on YouTube under a pseudonym, which got journalists and human rights groups interested in his story. The South African prosecution authority was particularly interested in his testimony. In 2012, NPA officials sought Danikas’ help for an investigation already underway into the Cato Manor unit’s involvement in the killing of a taxi boss in Durban in 2009. But when authorities couldn’t promise Danikas witness protection, he wouldn’t sign the sworn affidavit or hand over his evidence. Danikas said they used his affidavit anyway. Then his name was leaked.
In 2016, the NPA returned to Greece and Danikas signed the affidavit with the promise of witness protection. Today, he has yet to receive any protection, he said.
“The NPA used me and then pushed me [aside],” he said.
Euronews reached out to a representative of the NPA but they declined to comment “on matters before the court”.
Although the Cato Manor unit was disbanded in 2012, Booysen, who is currently head of investigations for Fidelity Security Services in Johannesburg, maintains the Cato Manor unit was not a death squad. “Cato Manor unit was most definitely not a death squad,” he wrote in an email.
But Danikas thinks otherwise.
“Well, the evidence, his long history of dead suspects in custody, as well as the torture and death trail tell another story on their own,” he said.
Danikas also said Booysen isn’t new to criminal allegations. During South Africa’s Goldstone Commission, a judicial commission looking into political violence between 1991-1994 found an unjustified killing of a black suspect that Booysen, then a captain, shot in the back at close range. The commission also suspected a subsequent cover-up during the investigation of the shooting.
“There’s a pattern of criminal behaviour based on an apartheid culture where a white police officer kills an unarmed African suspect in custody while there was no threat,” Danikas said.
Booysen has his own set of claims. Among his allegations are that Danikas defrauded his business partner and he incurred debt.
“I challenge Booysen to produce hard evidence on his allegations instead of spreading rumours and lies against me,” said Danikas.
'I won't give up'
Danikas struggled to make a new life in Greece, especially since he arrived on the heels of the financial crisis — but has since found success in running his solar farm.
“Greece was a strange and difficult country for me and my wife. Having left as a teenager, having matured in South Africa, and becoming part of the rainbow nation, I had a difficult time adjusting here,” he said. But Greece allowed him to be “rehabilitated” from his experience in South Africa, one he said that is “full of death.”
“Every day when I go to sleep, I wake up kicking doors, kicking the air,” he said. But his wife and kids have “made me a better person. I’m fortunate.”
“When I became a father, everything changed,” he said. Danikas still finds it difficult to speak about fatherhood especially after losing his father to cancer a year ago. “That’s when I felt how those parents felt when all those children were shot to pieces and returned to their parents in coffins. That’s someone’s child.”
In 2015, Danikas won an award from Blueprint for Free Speech for his special contribution to the advancement of whistleblowing.
“I won’t give up speaking about it. The truth doesn’t change and it always comes out. The evidence is there,” he said.
[Correction: A previous version of this article stated that the killing of a taxi boss in Durban happened in 1999. It happened in 2009.]