Kenneth Good looks at the failure of the Truth & Reconciliation Commission in South Africa.
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) was a vital means to save the country from unending civil war. These had raged with increasing intensity since 1960, and in 1994 the forces of oppression were militarily intact. As Archbishop Desmond Tutu, soon to be chair of the Commission observed in 1995, “Nuremberg trials” were not for South Africa. The TRC should include “ordinary people”, who had themselves been victims: “We shouldn’t just be…objective in a cold cerebral kind of way.” Importantly, “we can’t just say ‘let bygones be bygones’…because they will return to haunt us forever”, he said in late 1995. The country’s new Justice Minister allowed that the country’s then interim constitution was really a peace treaty. Amnesty (for full disclosure of political crimes) was ‘the price of securing peace and cooperation in the negotiated collapse of white rule.’ The country’s situation was complex, and the TRC’s aims were ‘not so much for justice as for national unity and reconciliation.’ Some 2,700 persons had then said that they wanted to confess their crimes: but the family of Steve Biko, the Black Consciousness leader slaughtered in 1977, wanted instead to see his killers tried and sentenced in court. Truth and justice were possibly incompatible.
The TRC was a very costly expedient in human and political terms. Not only regarding justice for victims, but also concerning the non-apprehension of perpetrators of torture and killings, and the eventual suppression of prosecutions. Big consequences flowed: no reckoning with the past was achieved; on this absence, an elevation of historic myths was made; that liberation in 1994 came through an externally-based armed struggle led by the African National Congress (ANC), and the closure of the participatory democratic aspiration that had characterised domestic politics through the 1980s. The United Democratic Front (UDF) promoted a broad, open, critical process for public morality and elite accountability, until Nelson Mandela closed it down in March 1991 to preserve the ANC’s predominance. When the ANC’s Thabo Mbeki endeavoured to suppress the TRC’s final report (because it contained criticism of ANC injustices), Tutu objected: “Sycophants are the worst possible thing to have around you when you are in power. Those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it.” Churches and the media had to keep watch on the ruling party. “It is important that we retain the vigour of our civil society organs that were part of the struggle… We’ve got to retain the same capacity to smell out corruption, [and] the abuse of power” (The Economist, 20 April 1996.
It can be seen through the detailed evidence in the TRC’s final report, that the apartheid wars were fostered and crimes endorsed at the highest levels of the state. After 1976, apartheid was recognised as a crime against humanity, but the architects of apartheid and their senior generals negotiated themselves out of murder. The ANC elite, responsible for the harsh treatment of thousands of the ‘Soweto generation’ in its camps in Angola (Good, The Struggle For Democratisation, 2019) promoted this cover up. Jacob Zuma, an ANC espionage chief in the 1980s and future state president, was “chief among them”: according to Lukhanyo and Abigail Calata, his eyes “firmly fixed on self-interest and [power]” (Calata, My Father Died For This, 2018).
David Beresford (Truth is a Strange Fruit, 2010) used the term apartheid war in the singular, though for this writer, it is their multi-faceted complexity that stands out. Under P.W. Botha’s rubric of ‘total war’, apartheid fought internationally and domestically, to win “at all costs”, with the Soweto Generation, and Angola suffering badly. And the war endures. Though a verbal order was made in 1992 to destroy all security branch files, some survived, while other records were stolen by officials as possible bargaining chips. Former law and order minister, Adrian Vlok, received a 10-year suspended sentence, and largely no trials followed. On 5 February 2019, Tutu and 10 other “deeply outraged” former TRC commissioners wrote to President Cyril Ramaphosa demanding an official commission of inquiry to investigate “political interference” in suppressing prosecutions recommended by the TRC. In April, Lukhanyo Calata informed the Zondo commission of inquiry of 300 cases referred for prosecution that “were all deliberately suppressed, and the perpetrators shielded from justice” (quoted in Michael Schmidt, “The Struggle for Justice Continues”, Business Live, 30 May 2019).
The Sharpeville Massacre, beginning on 21 March 1960, launched the apartheid wars. It was a watershed nationally and internationally, with huge ramifications. The Pan Africanist Congress (PAC) had been formed the previous year under Robert Sobukwe. They organised a march of some 300 people protesting against pass laws. Sobukwe stressed their “absolutely non-violent” intents: “We are ready to die for our cause but we are not ready to kill.” A letter was sent to the commissioner of police “explaining fully the peaceful nature of the campaign.” Nonetheless, the police opened fire, killing 69 marchers. Conflict erupted in Langa in Cape Town simultaneously, killing two more and injuring fifty, and more in coming days in other cities (TRC, Final Report, vol 3, p. 533). Sharpeville ‘signalled an end to the era of non-violent struggle, and ushered in a period of armed struggle.’ According to the TRC, apartheid came under scrutiny, and was debated for the first time in the United Nations Security Council. The 21 March became the international day for the struggle against racism (Final Report, 3-534). But Sharpeville Day was later annexed by the ANC, which imposed an anodyne Human Rights Day on the old hard bloody name.
A few weeks later, came the first assassination attempt on Prime Minister H.F Verwoerd, the man proud to be known as the architect of apartheid. He survived gunshot to his head by David Pratt at the 1960 Rand Show. Pratt said from the dock that he held “a personal guilt in my mind for everything that was going wrong in South Africa…for the stinking monster of apartheid”. Pratt was consigned to an institute for the criminally insane, where he died two years later, allegedly by suicide, though independent medical opinion suggested his death might have been ‘assisted’. Susie Cazenove, Pratt’s daughter and author of An Unwitting Assassin, said that “the powers that be had decided from the beginning that… they would find him insane and brush the whole thing under the carpet” (Mark Gevisser, “The Moral Struggles Imparted by Verwoerd”, Business Live, 30 July 2019.)
The second assassination did not fail. Dimitri Tsatfendas, parliamentary messenger, stabbed Verwoerd repeatedly in the chest, heart and neck, in parliament on 6 September 1966. The attack was well planned (Harris Dousemetzis, The Man Who Killed Apartheid, 2018). Tsatfendas ‘believed he committed an act of tyrannicide’. As with Pratt, the state set out to portray him as insane, ‘covering up mountains of evidence about [his] political motivations’ (Dousemetzis, 2018), and he was kept exceptionally in solitary confinement on death row (Gevisser, 30 July 2019). The state subjected him to ‘a living hell’: the weekly proceedings of the gallows, with the thump of the trapdoor as the hangman despatched fellow prisoners in batches of up to seven at a time. He endured this for ‘nearly a quarter of a century’ (Beresford, 2010).
Paula McBride was a daily visitor to death row then, and told the Commission that hanging in South Africa brutalised not only the victims, but also the judges, and ‘our whole country’. She detailed what happened in ‘the Christmas rush’ of 1988, when 28 people were hanged in one week. Testimony indicated that capital punishment was used as ‘an important weapon against opponents of apartheid’ (TRC, 4-103, 213).
Steve Biko and Black Consciousness (BCM)
Born in 1946, to a father who was a clerk and his mother a domestic worker, Biko was educated at Lovedale and St Francis Colleges, before entering the University of Natal Medical School. He was soon elected to the Students’ Representative Council (SRC), and involved with the multiracial National Union of Students (NUSAS). Until the late 1960s, black students saw it as their only agency for change. But Biko’s direct experience showed him that
NUSAS offered only “a one-way course with the Whites doing all the talking and the Blacks listening.” In a country where blacks formed the overwhelming majority, apartheid existed because of its psychological dominance over the minds of blacks. Whites possessed an assurance of their superiority, and blacks had developed a deep dependency. They must identify with themselves completely, and build their solidarity socially and politically. Blacks must acquire in fact a “new way of life” (quoted by Millard Arnold, The Testimony of Steve Biko, 1979).
In 1968, he and his confederates formed the South African Students Organisation (SASO). The new organisation and its ideology ‘struck a hugely responsive chord in young blacks, and the movement spread rapidly’. Like no other ideology, it ‘inspired hope and gave direction and purpose to black lives’ (Arnold, 1979). In 1969, the Black People’s Convention (BPC) was launched as a coordinating body in fields like community health and education. Both SASO and BPC operated under the constant threat of banning, where survival was at stake. But the big issues were paramount.
Along with a belief in the importance of developing a new way of life (an aim they shared with Cradora and later with the UDF), was anti-elitist democracy. “Our belief was essentially…that we must not create a leadership cult”. Biko firmly upheld this principle. He was president of SASO for only one year, and virtually all the first presidents of SASO served only one year. Opposition to the ‘leadership cult’ was critical for democratisation, and ‘focused attention on the message rather than the messenger, on the core of what you are saying not individuals’ (Arnold, 1979).
Biko’s disdain for the “system” was boundless, and he ‘broke his banning orders all the time’. He was ready to deal with the police by “being as unhelpful as possible” (Peter Bruce, Business Live, 17 September 2019).
Early on 7 September 1977, Biko was confronted by a group of security police bent on murder. He died on 12 September 1977, but was effectively dead just minutes after the confrontation began. The police began their assault just after 7am. As Bruce pictures it: ‘One of them would have hit him. He would have hit back.’ The multiple interrogators would ‘then have assaulted him with brute force’. According to Sir David Napley of the UK Law Society, Biko died as a result of brain injury inflicted by members of the security police at a time proximate to 0715 hours on the seventh of September (Bruce, 17 September 2019).
An amnesty hearing in 1999, heard that Harold Snyman led the interrogation, while Jacobus Beneke, Daniel Siebert and Rubin Mark all joined in bashing and shackling Biko: typical of what occurred: Beneke ‘ran in and shouldered Biko roughly below the ribs towards the wall.’ After he sustained the fatal injury, he was ‘shackled to a metal grille and transported [naked in an open vehicle] from Port Elizabeth to Pretoria’ (George Bizos, Star, 18 February 1999).
The Soweto Uprising and Democratisation
The Soweto Uprising began in May 1976, initially as a protest against the use of Afrikaans in secondary schools. A class boycott began at Orlando West Junior Secondary school, and by month’s end the number of boycotting schools had risen to six. Education authorities declared that they would expel pupils and transfer teachers, but more schools joined the boycott.
The state’s resort to force was quick. Captain ‘Rooi Rus’ Swanepoel led the Riot Unit into Soweto and Alexandra around 16 June, with a shoot-to-kill policy. Such action was strongly promoted by Prime Minister John Vorster in parliament on 18 June: “The government will not be intimidated. Orders have been given to maintain order at all costs” (TRC, 3-555).
The government closed schools in at least eighty townships country-wide. In August, as the police conducted a series of raids on schools, searching for Soweto Student Representative Council (SSRC) leaders (TRC, 3-555), the uprising assumed its full character as an organised movement for participatory democracy.
Certain schools and students became prominent. The Morris Isaacson School in Soweto played ‘a leading role in raising awareness and organising among students. It produced some of the organisers of the 16 June protest’,
including Murphy Morobe and Tsietsi Mashinini. The TRC noted ‘the unusually close relationship between students and teachers’, and the ‘overtly anti-establishment stance of the principal, Lekgau Mathabathe’ (TRC, 3-557-558).
The June protest was planned by an Action Committee, an elected body of secondary students in Soweto. They were imbued with a strong sense of mission. A member of the Committee, Dan Motsisi, said that ‘students felt they were taking up a battle their parents and teachers had lost’. Ellen Khuzwayo noted the powerlessness of their elders: ‘75 per cent of the parents of these children had no education’ and were readily intimidated by the police. “These kids took it into their hands”, she said (TRC, 3-558).
To preserve secrecy, ‘the Action Committee gave itself only three days to organise the march.’ Morobe was aware how ‘politically and historically significant’ the march was. Leonard Mosala stressed their generational differences: these were not the people of Sharpville. “Their aspiration level was far higher, their political sensitivity was deeper, and their anger matched [both]” (TRC, 3-558-559).
The Commission held a special Soweto Day hearing, at which several witnesses said that the township was “on fire” that day. By 0900, approximately 10,000 had converged on Orlando West High School. Police formed an arc in front of the marchers, a tear gas canister was thrown into their midst, and they responded with stones. The police opened fire, and two pupils were fatally wounded, one of whom was Hector Peterson, aged 13. Pupils erected barricades, and attacked property, as ‘hundreds of police reinforcements’ rushed in (TRC, 3-559).
Murphy Morobe testified that the students resort to violence was a spontaneous expression of their anger and shock, never part of the plan. ‘It was the first time that many of us had experience of tear gas…we tried to rally the students’ (TRC, 3-560).
The SAP Riot Unit was set up in 1975, and there was already a ‘strong connection between riot control and counter-insurgency’. Swanepoel ‘became known for his brutality’: he was a founder of koevoet on the Namibia-Angola region: “I made my mark. I let it be known to the rioters I would not tolerate what was happening. I used appropriate force…that broke the back of the organisers” (TRC, 3-568).
Clashes continued for nearly two years after 16 June. On the understanding of the Commission, the ‘police pursue[d] a policy of generalised intimidation’. The official toll between June 1976 and the end of February 1977 was 575 killed and 2,389 injured: probably an underestimation. Morobe and a number of other activists were detained in December 1976: ‘They interrogated us at John Vorster Square… to get statements [implicating] others: ‘Students could not have planned this…There was clearly someone else other than you chaps who were involved in this’, they insisted (TRC, 3-569).
The myth of the ANC’s external armed struggle arose in part out of the repression of the Soweto Generation. Around 1978, some 4,000 young men and women were in ANC camps in Angola, for want of a better alternative. Fighting a just war against apartheid did not preclude the ANC from resorting to unjust methods, and Angola saw some of its worst. By early 1984, many of the ANC’s new recruits were in revolt against the idleness, waste, corruption and authoritarianism they experienced in the ranks of Umkhonto (MK): mutinies had been crushed at Viana and Pango camps, with the execution of protesters and the imprisonment of others at Quatro (TRC, 3-21 and Good, 2019). The Commission understood ‘students such as Morobe [as operating] within the paradigm of Black Consciousness’: external armed struggle for them was explicitly diversionary from domestic democratisation. ‘It was not my intention nor that of my colleagues to leave the country. We wanted to continue inside the country and ensuring that the student movement remained intact.’ (TRC, 3-589). Morobe went on to work in the UDF and to demand accountability of the ANC.
Kassinga and the Termination of Apartheid’s Military Dominance
South Africa’s massive assault on Kassinga in 1978 was part of apartheid’s attempt (1975-1989) to assert dominance over Angola.
It began just weeks after the Carnation Revolution in Lisbon on 25 April 1974, and the liberation of Angola under an MPLA government on 11 May 1975. On 14 October, encouraged by the United States, South African forces invaded from the south, and rapidly advanced on an unprepared Luanda. Thanks to strong and prompt military assistance from Cuba, the apartheid forces were forced to withdraw, defeated and humiliated by a small socialist island and an African liberation movement, in late March 1976. It is possible that people like Morobe in Soweto were aware of these sensational advances.
Kassinga is 200 kms north of the Namibian border. It was one of SWAPO’s principal bases, with about 800 personnel in camp. It was also the main medical centre for seriously injured guerrillas. As the SADF’s Gen. Viljoen noted, Kassinga ‘was not heavily defended’, and the nearest Angolan and Cuban forces were 15 kms away. The target ‘lent itself to the maximum use of airpower and the infliction of maximum casualaties’. It was ‘both a military base and a refugee camp…and it housed considerable numbers of civilians’ (TRC, 2-47-48).
The assault began at 0800 on 4 May 1978. Four Canberra bombers attacked. One minute later four Buccaneers dropped seven 400 kg fragmentation bombs, a weapon intended to wound and kill indiscriminately. 370 paratroopers followed. The ground forces were commanded by Col. Jan Breytenbach of 32 Battalion. As the operation proceeded, apartheid not only failed to attend to the wounded, but shot many out of hand: as an anonymous soldier reported: “There was just too many wounded… I was given an AK-47 and instructed to kill…Some were conscious…We found this woman clutching her screaming baby…we saw the terrible wounds inflicted by an Air Force bomb…She looked at me. I can never describe what it did to me” (TRC, 2-54). The dead were hastily buried in two mass graves. Foreign journalists who accompanied the SADF confirmed that ‘large numbers of the dead were women and young people wearing civilian clothes’. By evening the assault was complete. The Commission believed that some 1,200 people died, and over 600 people were wounded. In two testimonies, Lt. Johan Verster said: “Kassinga was probably the most bloody exercise we ever launched…It was a terrible thing…Its damaged my life.” For Gen. J. Geldenhuys ‘it was a jewel of military craftsmanship’ (TRC, 2-52-54).
Military brutality prevailed on the Namibia-Angola border. Koevoet operated on a bounty basis, where members were paid for killings and for seizures of enemy weapons: kopgeld. Sean Callaghan was a young conscript who chose to be a military medic, so he could “help people”: he told the TRC that among Koevoet bounties were a “great motivating factor”. In one instance, an officer became so frustrated when he could not find a weapon in a patient’s possession that he shot the man in the head as Sean was treating his wounds. Torture was rife. Once information was extracted, prisoners were shot and buried. “Bodies were often tied to armoured vehicles “and the men would drive round with them for a week with their skin being ripped off”. Suicides were frequent. Sean Callaghan experienced PTSD for ten years (TRC, 4-122-123).
The Commission found Prime Minister Vorster principally responsible for the Kassinga atrocity as head of state: Minister of Defence P.W. Botha, was responsible as political head of the SADF: and Gen. Magnus Malan responsible as chief of the SADF (TRC, 2-55). This was apparently the extent of their accountability.
The effects of South Africa’s war on Angolan civilians were ‘devastating’. UNICEF estimated that, between 1980 and 1985, ‘at least 100,000 Angolans died’ mainly as a result of war-related famine. Between 1981 and 1988, UNICEF thought that ‘333,000 Angolan children died of unnatural causes’ (TRC, 2-60).
Pretoria’s regional dominance was brought to an appropriate end in the skies over Cuito Cuanavale in 1988. From the previous year, Cuba’s air capacity in the south of Angola was strengthened and extended: building two new airstrips, and installing a radar network linking together 150 SAM-8 missile batteries. The Soviet Union supplied Angola with MiG-23 fighters, assault helicopters and T-64 tanks: Soviet military aid was worth $15 billion by that year. Crucially too Cuba sent its most experienced combat pilots. When Cuba gained air superiority over the battlefield at the end of 1987, it neutralised Pretoria’s prized long-range artillery: every shot fired by a G-5 could be located and destroyed. Col. Breytenbach said that South Africa’s attack on Cuito was “brought to a grinding and definite halt” (quoted in Good, “Cuba’s Defence of Angola”, 2015).
Cuba became a full participant in negotiations for Namibian independence, able to determine outcomes: the complete withdrawal of South African forces would be completed not later than September 1988. Namibia became independent in March 1990. In May 1991 the last Cuban troops flew home.
Nelson Mandela, speaking in Havana, in 1991, recognised the significance of these con-joined military-political advances: without Cuito Cuanavale “our organisations would not have been legalised. The defeat of the racist army…made it possible for me to be with you today. Cuito Cuanavale marks the divide in the struggle for the liberation of southern Africa.” The ANC’s armed struggle had been a bitter, notable irrelevance (Good, 2015).
Lawlessness and Terror
From the mid-1980s, a climate of ‘state lawlessness’ prevailed, as the Botha regime abandoned any pretence of adherence to the rule of law. This was manifested as ‘emergency executive decree became the chosen method of government’ (TRC, Findings, 4:101). It was also expressed through the reliance on torture and terror against popular democratic organisation. It was sanctioned and promoted at the highest level. It was seen when John Vorster adopted a ‘shoot to kill’ policy to ‘maintain order at all costs’ at the start of the Soweto Uprising. But it had already been utilised on 24 July 1964, when Vorster (then Minister of Justice) gave the go ahead for the bombing of Johannesburg railway station by the African Resistance Movement (ARM), a small liberal-radical grouplet. The security forces knew well of the ARM’s plan, the concourse could have been cleared, Brigadier van den Bergh phoned Vorster (his friend) that the bomb was in position, who replied, ‘let it happen’. One blast destroyed the Liberal Party, the ARM, and the life of an elderly woman: it was ‘state depravity’ (Beresford, 2010).
Covert actions, such as ‘Operation Zero Zero’ where eight young East Rand activists were given booby-trapped grenades by a Vlakplaas operative (established in 1979 with askaris or turned ANC or PAC, it evolved into the special forces of the Security Branch under Col. Eugene de Kock): its activities were ‘sanctioned at the highest levels of government’ (TRC, 3-599 and 2-30).
Internal political mobilisation was targeted, and state torture was routinised. In 1986 groups like the Alexandra Consumer Boycott Committee, demanded the withdrawal of the SADF from townships. Late April saw ‘the emergence of “street Committees”, as well as “alternative structures” of community organisation’. On the night of 22 April, police attacked the homes of activists, and ‘five people died’. The Alexandra Action Committee announced on 30 April that “people’s power” had been established there. But the nationwide state of emergency decree, of 12 June, ended that initiative then (TRC. 3-614).
Police torture was ‘endemic’. Youths 13-24 years were likely victims, especially those ‘who held local leadership positions’. In the 1980s, state torture was punitive, sustained and intense. Jacob Khoali was a member of the Katlehong Residents Action Committee, a UDF affiliate. He was detained for 14 days, then arrested again after June 1985. He was taken to a private house and subjected to ‘helicopter torture’ and electric shocks. As a result both Khoali’s legs were amputated above the knee (TRC, 3-617).
Through 1985, resistance to apartheid was often closely inter-linked with organised democratisation. The UDF was formed two years earlier. The PEBCO Three showed this association in May 1985. Sipho Hashe, Champion Galela, and Qaqawuli Godolozi, members of the Port Elizabeth Black Civic Organisation (PEBCO), were abducted on 11 May by the Security Branch, taken to Port Chalmers and killed. Askaris from Vlakplaas assisted in the operation. Galela was tortured to death. With his body in full view, Hashe was brought in and ‘subjected to unremitting torture until he too died’. Godolozi spent the night in a garage with the bodies and the following morning suffered the same fate. Their remains were thrown into the Fish River.
Shortly before the killing, ‘a high-powered political delegation’ including President Botha and Ministers Vlok and Malan visited the rebellious Eastern Cape. Numerous security personnel testified that they were informed that the area ‘had to be stabilised at all costs.’ Harold Snyman of the Port Elizabeth Security Branch reported that they must ‘act in a drastic way to neutralise activists’ (TRC, 2-224-226). The characteristic apartheid instruction: order must be restored at all costs.
Six weeks later, in late June 1985, the Cradock Four, Matthew Goniwe, Fort Calata, Sparro (or Sparrow) Mkhonto, and Sicelo Mhlawuli, were targeted. Cradock was a small farming town 300 kms north of Port Elizabeth, and Matthew Goniwe was the popular principal of the Lingelihle Secondary School: when he was threatened with an enforced transfer, a boycott by around 7,000 students lasted over 15 months. He was ‘instrumental’ in forming the Cradock Residents Association (Cradora) in 1983, and became its first chairperson, assisted by Fort Calata, fellow teacher and community organiser.
At the end of March 1984, Goniwe and Calata were detained, effectively for six months. Amidst various community actions, and state repression, a ‘successful seven-day boycott of white shops took place in Cradock in August. On 10 October, Goniwe and Calata were released ‘to a hero’s welcome.’ The Commission said that Cradora ‘enjoyed widespread support from most of the township’s 20,000 residents’: Cradora it could be said controlled Cradock (TRC, 3-112-114).
The Cradock Four epitomised the association between broad community action and advanced democratisation. On 3 March 1985, Matthew Goniwe was elected to the UDF’s Eastern Cape regional executive as rural organiser. He ‘helped establish civic structures’ in towns all across the region ‘us[ing] the same methods as organisations in Cradock’. Cradock itself was doubly distinguished: it was seen as ‘a model of organisation by the UDF’ (TRC, 2- 227). The ‘effectiveness of Goniwe’s organisational methods’ were also noted by the state: the security forces saw ‘Goniwe in particular’, as ‘the epicentre of revolutionary organisation in the sub-region’: Gen. Joffel van der Westhuizen noted that Cradock was “the very first town [in South Africa] where they successfully implemented alternative structures [of government]” (quoted in Calata, 2018 and TRC, 2-227 and 3-115).
The Four were killed on 27 June 1985. They were ‘tortured by blowtorch’, stabbed many times, and ‘the fingers of Fort Calata’s left hand were severed’ (Jacqueline Rose, “One Long Scream”, LRB, 23 May 2019). Nomonde Calata described how she had identified her husband’s mutilated body: “his hair was plucked out, his tongue pulled, his fingers cut, his calf bitten by a dog and there were wounds all over his body” (The Economist, 20 April 1996): as Boesak noted, it was a flagrant demonstration of apartheid’s awfulness. The bodies were ‘dumped in the veld near Port Elizabeth’ (TRC, 3-117). The PEBCO and Craddock killings were only weeks apart, and both concerned ‘prominent UDF activists’ (TRC, 3-117). Sixty thousand people defied a banning order to attend the Four’s funeral on 21 July. That night a state of emergency was declared over most of the Eastern Cape.
Authorisation at the Top: The Crimes and the Destruction of the Records
Gen. Nic van Rensberg, the commander of the police, instructed Eugene de Kock to carry out the ‘Mothwerwell Bombing’: the silencing of four black policemen attached to the Motherwell station in Port Elizabeth who had ‘threatened to expose their white colleagues’ involvement in [the death of the Cradock Four]. So effective was the Vlakplaas network that security departments throughout the country used it, ‘often with the tacit support or outright connivance of cabinet-level politicians.’
De Kock saw himself as “a crusader” of apartheid: he was the commander of the headquarters of the ‘dirty war’ waged at home and abroad, and he regularly ‘went out with his men’. In this war there were for him ‘no rules except to win’ (Gobodo-Madikizela, A Human Being Died That Night, 2003). After he was arrested in May 1994, he was criminally charged and sentenced to 212 years jail. When he testified before the TRC, Albie Sachs, now a Constitutional Court judge, thought he was telling the truth “like no one else” (quoted by David Greybe, Business Day, 6 April 1998). Gobodo-Madikizela believed he ‘made an extraordinary contribution to the TRC’. Most of the security police ‘and certainly all the police generals who applied for amnesty were forced to do so as a result of de Kock’s disclosures…Yet they still walk free.’
During the height of the wars, de Kock had received the country’s highest national award for bravery, the Silver Star, and ‘his unit had been allocated millions in secret funds’ (Gobodo-Madikizela). F.W. de Klerk’s relation to the TRC and the truth was the opposite of de Kock’s. In a great reversal, the Nobel laureate portrayed himself as the man who dismantled apartheid, and insisted “my hands are clean” (statement in Sunday Times, 25 August 1996).
De Kock was aware of the hypocrisy and the abnegation of the state leaders. Gobodo-Madikizela learnt of his bitterness “at all those who gave me orders…[and] the person who sticks most of all in my throat is former president F.W. de Klerk” (2003).
The Commission found that the destruction of state records was done systematically, affecting a huge body of material. The sabotage began in the 1980s, and was coordinated and sanctioned by the Cabinet. The destruction undermined the TRC’s work ‘more than any other single factor’ (TRC, 1-201-204). In 1993, the Cabinet expanded the process to ‘all state offices’ to eliminate evidence of gross human rights violations. By May 1994, a ‘massive deletion of state documentary memory’ had been achieved (TRC, 1-209).
An accompaniment and consequence was the state’s near loss of control over the military in the run up to the country’s first democratic elections. From the start of formal negotiations in mid-1990 and April 1994, some 14,000 people died in ‘politically related incidents’. In December 1993, a Transitional Executive Council was installed, but the Inkatha Freedom Party had also been established in July 1990, and violence massively escalated. There were, additionally, ‘military-style attacks on trains’ (in which some 572 people died), massacres and assassinations (TRC, 2-584-585).
As evidence emerged of security force involvement in such activities, de Klerk appointed Gen. Pierre Steyn to investigate certain military units. Steyn concluded that available prosecutionary evidence was unreliable largely because of the destruction of state documents. After discussions between de Klerk and three SADF commanders, six top-ranking officials faced compulsory early retirement, and Steyn himself took early retirement in October 1993, aged 51. His report to the Minister of Defence noted there was little progress in reforming the military, and specifically, that ‘many role-players protected each other and would murder if they felt threatened’ (TRC, 2-587-588 and 3-32).
In this precarious situation, it is notable that the military power of apartheid included nuclear weapons. The decision to build six nuclear devices was taken in 1974, against the background of supposed Soviet expansionism and Angola. The new capability came at “great cost” and through “massive spending”, de Klerk admitted. He announced the dismantling of the programme on 24 March 1993 (de Klerk, The Autobiography, 2000), but the acquisitions had huge consequences. The strategy of ‘total war’ entailed ‘total corruption’. Under secret funding the state was looted to an extent where it could barely meet its debts. Frene Ginwala, Speaker in the first democratic parliament, believed that apartheid created a system of “facilitated corruption” to survive (quoted in Good, 2019).
Among apartheid’s collaborators in domestic violence few were more deadly than the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) and its leader Mangosuthu Buthelezi. The TRC found the IFP responsible for some 3,800 killings in KZN and Natal areas during its mandate period, compared with about 1,100 attributed to the ANC and 700 to the Police. Responsibility rested firmly with Buthelezi as the leader of the party, the KZN government and the KZN police: his was a one-party dictatorship. Statistics established the IFP as the foremost perpetrator of gross human rights violations in the region, and led the TRC to describe Buthelezi as an ally of the apartheid state. But the counting in the founding 1994 elections had seen the IFP being awarded 10.5% of the national vote and its blood-stained leader becoming Home minister (de Klerk became Deputy President). The dominant ANC now favoured détente, and looked to possible unity between themselves and Inkatha. Elite impunity was strengthened and justice for Buthelezi’s victims was sacrificed.
Unjust Methods in a Just War
Many injustices could be attributed to the ANC during the apartheid wars, notably the suppression of the youthful pro-democratic dissidents in the MK’s Angolan camps.
But few unjust methods stand out more than the use of the necklace and burnings which began around Port Elizabeth in the mid-1980s. From September 1984 to December 1989, police national statistics recorded 406 deaths by necklacing, and 395 deaths by burning. Victims were mostly alleged informers, councillors, police and chiefs (TRC, 3-667). Cruelty was commonplace. A KwaNobukle town councillor, Ben Kinikini, was stoned, stabbed and necklaced on 23 March 1985. Four of his sons and nephews were killed with him, either burned or hacked to death. His widow testified: “He was made to drink petrol, they put a tyre over him and then they ignited him…my younger son was hiding…they took him and they ignited him alive…I am telling you as it is. They cut his testicles while he was still alive”. This was the first ‘widely publicised necklace killing’ (TRC, 3-22, and 108-109).
Policeman Aubray Fulani and his wife were abducted from their home in Uitenhage by ‘comrades’ on the night of 28 April 1985. They had five litres of petrol and some tyres. Ms Fulani said “they made him drink petrol and burnt him right in front of me” (TRC, 3- 110-111).
The TRC found that “the necklace became a terrible symbol of the brutalisation of political conflict…during the mid-1980s” (TRC, 3-667). Yet Winnie Madikizela Mandela vigorously promoted the practise, and Chris Hani, a top SACP and MK leader, saw it as ‘a weapon of the masses…I refuse to condemn our people when they mete out their own traditional form of justice to those who collaborate.’ Both Boesak and Tutu had direct experience of innocent people being threatened with necklacing.
Impunity for Perpetrators and Posthumous Justice for Victims
Apartheid’s wars were comprehensive and remorseless, the large-scale killings at Kassinga, and the frightful torture of people like Goniwe and Calata: targeted killing in a way that did the most damage. Apartheid crimes of this exceptionality are not easily counter-balanced by de Klerk’s realisation in the late 1980s that apartheid’s struggle for survival was over. Assisting the transition was desirable, but it said nothing of the preceding decades.
A lot revolved around amnesty. It promoted peace, but at the high cost of freedom for perpetrators. Informed opinion believes it was ‘unlikely’ that Pretoria would have conceded power without it. While ‘the architects’ saw that ‘the system’ was finished economically, politically and internationally, amnesty smoothed the way among the generals.
Calata believed there were ‘secret negotiations between the ANC and apartheid leaders way before…December 1991’. This view was backed by Boesak, and supported pragmatically by the Deputy Minister of Justice, John Jeffery, in 2017: We didn’t have the resources to have inquests into all these murders, “there [we]re so many”. Pressures were on him to “deal with present-day crimes” (Calata, 2018).
The issue is not dead. The letter to President Ramaphosa, by Tutu and others, February 1919, emphasised “political interference” in recommended prosecutions.
Persistence may pay off even at high political levels. The National Prosecuting Authority ‘recently decided’ to reopen apartheid-era inquests and ‘pursue prosecutions’. But it is the foot-soldiers who are currently being investigated (Karyn Maughan, “Apartheid’s Skeletons”, Business Live, 4 July 2019).
Many years have passed since the TRC’s founding, and for the families, says Ex-Commissioner Yasmin Sooka, delayed justice represents its denial. The process is also deeply inequitable: two life sentences for de Kock and a Nobel for his commander-in-chief. For top perpetrators, really no trials resulted (Schmidt, “TRC”, Business Live, 30 May 2019).
Time is short: perpetrators are dying, and the culpability of leaders like de Klerk and Buthelezi is recorded.
This article was first published in CounterPunch