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True Confessions

The extended deadline for amnesty applications expired at midnight on May 10, just before I arrived. That committee now has to work through a pile of more than six thousand applications, deciding in quasi-judicial process whether each individual qualifies. Many of the applicants are convicted criminals. I attended a hearing with a sinister-looking township thug who had killed a completely innocent small girl while he was trying to shoot a local shopkeeper. “I wanted to have a moment with him before I shot him,” he explained at one point. Now he implausibly claimed a political motive. It was all part of ANC-led “self-defense” of the community, you see. “I know about your concern for the community,” said the chairman of the amnesty committee, Judge Hassen Mall, in understandable exasperation.

Anyone who has not applied for amnesty can in theory still be prosecuted—if sufficient evidence becomes available and if the prosecutors have any time to spare from the avalanche of current crimes. Those who have not applied include the top military of the apartheid era, most senior National Party politicians, virtually all members of Chief Buthelezi’s Inkatha Freedom Party (whose Zulu warriors played a very significant part in the particularly brutal political violence in what is now called KwaZulu-Natal), and not a few ordinary ANC members—or retrospective ANC members—involved in “necklacings” or the like. Isaac Tshabile told me that just before the deadline he had got hold of some amnesty application forms. Thinking back to two incidents of very rough justice in Zwelethemba, when a drug dealer and an alleged police informer were stabbed, stoned and burned to death, he had persuaded a police van to drive around the township announcing over a loudspeaker that he would be in the church hall with the amnesty forms on a particular day. He waited there all afternoon. Nobody came.

The committee on human rights violations takes the often harrowing testimony of the victims or their surviving relatives. After months of preliminary research by statement-takers and investigators, a community gathers in a local hall to hear “the truth” about past horrors. Proceedings are complicated by the fact that people can and often do testify in any of South Africa’s eleven official languages. Sympathetic commission staff lend a supporting arm to the blinded youth or a handkerchief to the bereaved mother, whose grief is here publicly re-lived and, it is hoped, thereby relieved. In these sessions the metaphors of “healing”—individual, communal, and national—are uppermost. But at the end of the day, the commission also has to decide whether an individual was or was not a victim.

Only such certified victims and their relatives are eligible for reparation and rehabilitation, the business of the third committee. While this committee can order some immediate support, treatment, or counseling in cases of acute need, its main task is to recommend to the president how reparation should be made. Alex Boraine explains the good intentions behind this procedure: How could they know what kind of reparation victims really wanted until they asked them? Unfortunately, this means that while the amnestied killer immediately walks free, his victim is still waiting. Reparations will be a big and difficult political issue. On the day I arrived, the lead story in the Cape Times was a suggestion made by the ANC, in its submission to the truth commission, that white South Africans should pay a Reparations Tax.

My white liberal interlocutors kept telling me that many victims are only looking for symbolic reparation: a tombstone for a murdered son, perhaps, or some public act of repentance by the policeman responsible. Well, I heard some of that, particularly from better-off ANC activist families. But in the sprawling township of KwaMashu, north of Durban, a local statement-taker told me a different story. He had taken some fifty statements, he said, and in his experience the main motive for people coming forward was simply the hope of material compensation. The poor can’t eat tombstones.


Besides the regular business of the three committees, the commission also holds special hearings. I attended one in Athlone, a coloured township of tidy bungalows that now looks like an ordinary suburb of Cape Town but in 1985 was the scene of violent clashes between stone-throwing youths and the police. On October 15, 1985, an orange transport services truck drove up and down Thornton Road. When stones began to be thrown, armed policemen jumped up from the crates where they had been hiding on the back of the truck and started shooting into the crowd. Two boys, Shaun Magmoed, aged sixteen, and Michael Miranda, aged eleven, were killed, as was a twenty-one-year-old man. What rapidly became known as the “Trojan Horse killings” are now the subject of this special hearing.

In a large, echoing assembly hall rows of schoolgirls in green dresses and white headscarves—there is a strong Muslim presence here—listen to Archbishop Tutu’s warm, ebullient Christian introduction. Later, Shaun Magmoed’s father is led up on stage. He breaks down. Head bowed, he is barely capable of articulate speech, except for one lightning moment. Asked what he thinks of the justice system that acquitted the policemen of unlawful killing, he spits out a single word: “Corrupt!” The mother of Michael Miranda tells how she searched for him through a whole day, until she found him in a mortuary. The interviewing commissioners try to find words of comfort and recognition. The woman in whose house Shaun died tells how the police barged in, looked at the boy on the bloodstained bed, and said, in Afrikaans, “Die vark is dood.” The pig is dead.

Next day it is the turn of the police: fat-faced, mustached, they shift uncomfortably in their suits while the cameras flash and whirl. They have to attend—unlike some other truth commissions, the TRC has the power to subpoena—and you see just how powerful is the public shaming. On the notice board outside, there are some handwritten poems by children at the Islamia College. One reads:

Yes, there are thousands who, like me
Seek justice, truth and closure
These men deserve no amnesty
Just simply: full exposure!

Significantly, the commissioners question the police in English and they reply in Afrikaans, for apartheid was the creature of white Afrikaners.

Thick-set Brigadier Christiaan Loedolf, then a major of the railroad police, explains how he told the men in the crates to exercise caution: those in the crates on the left should not fire to the right, in case they hit their colleagues on the right, and vice versa. Never mind the people on the street. Douw Vermeulen was the police lieutenant in charge of the operation. Head bowed, he plays nervously with a pen and says he thinks he shot Shaun Magmoed but not in the back. “When I shot him he was looking at me.” But Shaun Magmoed was wounded in the back.

Lieutenant-Colonel Salmon Pienaar was the reserve army officer in joint command. In civilian life he is a headmaster. Large, genial, articulate, he repeats the story they all tell: this operation was mounted to arrest stone-throwers, not to kill them. (But a cameraman’s evidence suggests that just 2.5 seconds elapsed between the first stone and the first shot.) It wasn’t an army operation, he insists. It was done by the police, whose methods were quite different. (Actually, the South African Defence Force was responsible for some of the worst atrocities across South Africa’s borders in the front-line states.) At the end of his testimony, Colonel Pienaar’s lawyer asks us to accept, on the basis of today’s evidence, that his client is “an honorable citizen.”

Oh yes, an honorable citizen… Now I am back on familiar ground. This is so like the apologias of Germans after 1945 or Stasi officers today. Talking a version of Dutch, swearing by God and the Dutch Reformed Church, protesting their basic decency and respect for the law, these men always have a line that they did not step across—but someone else did. It was not us, it was the SS, says the old Nazi. It was not me, it was Department 20, says the former Stasi officer. It was not the army, it was the police, says Colonel Pienaar. Yes, I shot him, says police lieutenant Vermeulen, but not in the back.

I recall that the chief architect of apartheid, Hendrik Verwoerd, studied Rassenkunde (race science) at Leipzig in the 1930s. Here was European racist ideology, evil dressed as good, transmuted and imposed on the southern tip of decolonizing Africa. So now, at this other end of the world, I again find myself listening to the desperate contortions of northern European Protestant denial.


From the same Afrikaner mental world, but at a higher level in every sense, comes ex-President F.W. de Klerk. Sitting in the tenth-floor conference room, de Klerk begins his day of testimony for the National Party, following two days of the ANC, with a resounding apology for apartheid. “Apartheid was wrong,” he says, rolling the r with emphasis. He apologizes to “the millions of South Africans” who suffered forced removals, who were arrested under the pass laws, “who over the decades—and indeed, centuries—suffered the indignities and humiliation of racial discrimination.” This “renewed apology,” he says, “is offered in a spirit of true repentance.”

A handsome beginning. But then the questioning, conducted by a lawyer and like a cross-examination, takes him through a whole series of killings, bombings, and examples of torture, mainly from the 1980s, for which the truth commission has found evidence of authorization or knowledge at the highest levels, up to and including cabinet ministers. Much of this evidence is already well known from press reports: about the notorious killing center commanded by the police officer Eugene de Kock at Vlakplaas, for example, or the murder in Maputo of Ruth First, the wife of the communist leader Joe Slovo, at the behest of a man who subsequently joined de Klerk’s Presidential Council. But some comes from the commission’s own investigations and, particularly, from the amnesty applications of senior police officers.

Did de Klerk know about these things? Does he regard them as bona fide or mala fide implementation of guidelines? What, for example, would be a “reasonable interpretation” of a State Security Council instruction in 1986 to organize “a well-trained capacity to effectively wipe out terrorists”? And in the light of all this evidence, how can he possibly maintain, as he has in his written submission, that these were “the criminal actions of a handful of operatives of the security forces of which the [National] Party was not aware and which it could never have condoned”? Or in other words, as Archbishop Tutu more colorfully puts it, “just a few bad eggs.”

De Klerk argues that the country faced “a revolutionary onslaught.” The ANC aimed to make the country ungovernable: “You cannot fight that kind of thing just in the normal way.” The other side did horrible things too. Yes, there were deviations “from what might be described as the Queensberry Rules even for this kind of war.” But “murder and assassination cannot be justified.” And no, no, and again no, he personally neither authorized nor knew about it. If he had, he would not subsequently have established the commission headed by Justice Richard Goldstone to investigate these claims—particularly those about the mysterious “third force,” a still controversial label for secret operations by parts of the military and security apparatus, including, crucially, the direct encouragement of black-on-black violence. “We were not above the law,” he says. He and his colleagues thought of themselves as Christians. Their “whole ethos” was to act “within the framework of the word of the Lord.” They never believed…he gropes for a phrase, says it aloud in Afrikaans… “The end justifies the means?” suggests the Archbishop, in his gravelly voice. Yes, that’s it! They never believed that the end justifies the means.

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