This article originally appeared in the Sept. 30, 1996, edition of The Christian Science Monitor right before Eugene De Kock, head of a deadly apartheid state covert unit, was sentenced to two life terms and an additional 212 years in prison. The South African government granted him parole Friday after 20 years.
Trial Tests South Africa's Will to Forgive
JOHANNESBURG – Churchill Mxenge can’t forget the night of Nov. 19, 1981, when assassins from a police hit squad stabbed his brother, Griffiths Mxenge, a prominent civil-rights lawyer, and dumped his body in a sports field.
Mr. Mxenge says one of the men who is guilty of his brother’s murder is Eugene de Kock, one of the apartheid state’s most infamous assassins, who in hearings at South Africa’s Supreme Court has given a blow-by-blow account of his role in the deaths of scores of apartheid foes.
During his 18-month trial, Mr. De Kock, who headed the notorious Vlakplaas police unit that trained death squads like the one that killed Griffiths Mxenge, has insisted he acted on orders of the formerly white-run regime.
On trial is more than just De Kock, nicknamed “Prime Evil” by his colleagues. The case has deepened national debate over whether apartheid-era human rights abusers should be forgiven – or face their final days in jail.
On one side are proponents of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, headed by Nobel-prizewinning anti-apartheid icon Desmond Tutu. Dr. Tutu says amnesty for confessed perpetrators – black and white – of politically motivated atrocities during white rule will help heal the nation’s racial wounds.
On the other side are people like Ntsiki Biko, widow of black leader Steve Biko who died while in police custody, and Mr. Mxenge, who want to see the killers of their relatives avenged. They say the Truth Commission is a toothless body, incapable of providing true justice for victims. “The commission, as far as we’re concerned, is not going to be able to deliver,” Mxenge says. “In the end, the victims will come up with nothing.”
On Friday, De Kock told the Supreme Court during his sentence-mitigation hearings that he will seek a full official pardon for his crimes from the Truth Commission, adding that he would reveal more details of his past to that body.
“The end result of my amnesty application is to go free,” he said. “Had I not been sitting in this court, I would have already applied for amnesty'.”
De Kock’s decision coincides with recent national surveys in which a growing number of South Africans say human rights abusers should be prosecuted and not be granted amnesty.
Yet many observers predict that De Kock’s confessions about apartheid's horrific and carefully concealed security machine will tilt the scales in his favor.
“There’s no question his crimes were politically motivated and that he was following orders,” says Tom Lodge, a political analyst at Witwatersrand University in Johannesburg.
So far, De Kock has fingered higher-ups such as former President Pieter Botha and Frederik De Klerk, the last white president who stepped down after April 1994 elections brought the African National Congress (ANC) to power. He has even linked a South African security agent to the 1986 murder of Olof Palme, Sweden’s apartheid-fighting prime minister.
Last month, the Supreme Court found De Kock guilty on 89 charges, including six counts of murder. He also said he supplied arms to paramilitary units of Mangosuthu Buthelezi’s Inkatha Freedom Party, which killed hundreds of ANC supporters, including Victoria Mxenge, the murdered attorney's wife.
Earlier this year, De Kock's predecessor, former Vlakplaas commander Dirk Coetzee, who confessed in 1989 to masterminding the lawyer's killing, applied for amnesty from the Truth Commission.
Mr. Coetzee’s amnesty plea raised the ire of Churchill Mxenge, who, joined by Mrs. Biko and relatives of other victims, launched civil suits that are still pending against Coetzee. Coetzee was subsequently arrested and charged with the murder.
Mxenge claims De Kock, who after Coetzee headed the counterinsurgency unit, is an accessory to Mxenge’s death and is also implicated in the 1985 killing of Mrs. Mxenge. He plans to take De Kock to court.
“They both don’t deserve amnesty,” he says. “What they’ve done to people is ghastly. We want to prosecute. We don’t want to play games and cry before the Truth Commission.”
De Kock's impending amnesty plea will pose an immense challenge for the commission, analysts say. Until now, the body has mostly heard emotional testimony from victims’ relatives rather than confessions from perpetrators who seek pardons.
Truth Commission officials say the type of justice the body hopes to deliver often cannot offer direct restitution to victims, but that the process is needed for a national catharsis.
Analysts say that amnesty proceedings, for De Kock and other confessed killers, must be completed quickly given South Africa’s high crime and murder rates.
“We cannot send a signal to the people that you can commit a serious crime and get away with it,” South Africa’s Justice Minister Dullah Omar said in an interview last year. "Amnesty is not a good thing for the purposes of maintaining law and order.”