JOHANNESBURG — THE conviction of five policemen in the killing of 11 civilians in December 1988 as part of an undeclared war against anti-apartheid activism has bolstered calls for a reevaluation and restructuring of the South African security forces.
A white police officer, Capt. Brian Mitchell, and four special black constables - hastily trained policemen used in the fight against anti-apartheid activists - were convicted last Friday of murdering 11 civilians at the small black community of Trust Feed in the strife-torn midlands of Natal province. Two other white officers were acquitted in the trial.
The landmark judgment has produced the most conclusive evidence yet of an organized "third force" within the South African police. It gave a rare and detailed insight into the security forces' strategy of dividing black communities and transforming them into hotbeds of violence and lawlessness in an attempt to weaken the African National Congress (ANC) and promote the notion that blacks are incapable of governing the country.
Judge Andrew Wilson found that the massacre was followed by a police coverup that reached into the forces' top echelons and involved repeated attempts to sabotage the police investigation.
"A distressing feature of the trial," Judge Wilson said, "was that, as it progressed, it became clear that the evidence of senior policemen could not be accepted, and that official records produced from the files were suspicious or wholly unreliable."
ANC President Nelson Mandela told a meeting of the Organization of African Unity's Southern African Committee Tuesday that the judgment had produced conclusive proof of "a massive, nationwide network of elements within the security forces to destabilize South Africa."
The court found that Captain Mitchell gave the four black policemen the signal for the killings by firing two shots into the house where the victims were. Seven women and two children were among those killed in the massacre.
Wilson found that the attack was the culmination of a carefully planned security force operation in which senior officers had worked with members of the Zulu-based Inkatha Freedom Party to plan and carry out the killings and then engineered an elaborate coverup of the massacre. Several of the officers concerned were transferred and promoted after the massacre.
The Pretoria government, facing mounting criticism for its failure to act against security-force collusion, has failed to respond to the trial judge's call for a public inquiry into the conduct of police officers allegedly involved in the coverup.
Instead, Minister of Law and Order Hernus Kriel has ordered an internal investigation of the officers' conduct. He gave the assurance, however, that "the law will take its course and that the investigation will be carried out in close consultation with the office of the attorney general."
Wilson made it clear in his judgment that the coverup might have been successful had it not been for the perseverance of a single policeman, Capt. Frank Dutton, who persisted with his investigation of the killings despite threats to his own life.
The ANC has backed the judge's call for a full investigation into the police officers involved in the coverup.
"It is essential that a full investigation be appointed so that responsibility for the coverup does not lie only with those found guilty but also those who protected them," says ANC spokeswoman Gill Marcus.
The judgment has also led to renewed calls from civil rights groups for a complete revamping of the security forces. "The judgment provides more evidence of security force collusion in political violence," says Safoora Sadek, coordinator of the Human Rights Commission (HRC), a civil rights group.
"It shows that you cannot change the present police force but have to establish a totally new security force in the country."
Human rights lawyers, Western diplomats, and opposition politicians express concern that the type of conspiracy unveiled in the trial is still widespread in the police force.