South Africa tests its forgiveness of apartheid-era killers

South Africans are grappling with justice for notorious figures like Dr. Wouter Basson and Eugene de Kock, raising renewed questions about the limitations of forgiveness. 

Denis Farrell/ AP
Eugene de Kock, a death squad leader for the apartheid state, has been granted parole after two decades in jail, the South African government announced Friday, Jan. 30, 2015.

Joyce Ledwaba's son Samuel was 17 years old when he disappeared from their Pretoria home in 1986. Although his body would never be recovered, he is believed to have been tranquilized by South African security agents, and then burned to death. 

Nearly three decades on, Ms. Ledwaba is still waiting for the man she believes is responsible to be punished. He is Dr. Wouter Basson, who ran a top-secret biological warfare program known as Project Coast, tasked with developing chemical and biological weapons for the then-apartheid government to covertly eliminate its enemies in the 1980s. 

Nicknamed Dr. Death, Mr. Basson was never convicted of a single criminal offense. But over the last seven years he has been on trial before the Health Professions Council of South Africa (HPCSA) to determine whether he should be disbarred from practicing medicine for his dark past. Found guilty last year, he has yet to be sentenced.

In April 1994, South Africa crossed over a vast rift, transforming itself from Africa’s last white-ruled state to one of its most radically inclusive democracies. In the years that followed, the country of Nelson Mandela became a global exemplar for how a deeply divided society could manage to forgive, reconcile, and survive.

But that transformation left many loose ends: Many of the apartheid era’s most notorious killers never faced justice for their crimes; some were convicted, served their time, and are now becoming eligible for parole. A generation on, the plight of men like Basson has raised renewed questions about the strengths and limitations of forgiveness in the new South Africa.

Under his watch, Project Coast carried out chemical assassinations of anti-apartheid leaders, amassed fearsome stores of deadly diseases like Ebola, and prepared large-scale biological weapons — including a sterilization vaccine — to deploy against the black population.

Project Coast officially disbanded during the transition to democracy in the early 1990s, but Basson was unflinchingly unrepentant.

When called before South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) in 1998, he appeared in a colorful African print frock of a type popularized by Mandela, brazenly telling reporters “it helps back a winner.” Unlike others who testified at the TRC, he asked for neither forgiveness nor amnesty for prosecution, arguing that he was simply following orders from his military superiors.

When Basson’s case went to a criminal trial, he fought for close to three years, and was eventually acquitted of all charges.

“I am a dedicated and committed medical practitioner and very proud to have served my country during what was a war,” Basson told the judge who eventually declared him not guilty of murder in 2002. He remains publicly unrepentant for his actions. 

Seeking justice

In the years that followed, Basson returned quietly to practicing medicine, leading a successful private cardiology practice in the suburbs of Cape Town. But in 2006, the HPCSA began its own probe into his past to determine if the doctor had violated medical ethics.

For more than six years, the case proceeded haltingly, as Basson’s legal team — who were paid by the state because he was a government employee— repeatedly petitioned to have the proceedings postponed or dismissed for bias and lack of evidence.

In 2013, the commission declared Basson guilty of “unprofessional conduct”. More than a year later, however, no sentence has been determined. His counsel continues to dispute elements of the case, and the proceedings drag on in an airless basement conference room of the HPCSA offices in Pretoria. 

In the room are family members, like Ledwaba, and activists clutching old news articles and yellowing photos of family members and friends they say died at Basson’s hands. Some are frustrated with the government, others at Basson's lack of remorse.

“We want their bodies exhumed so we can see what really happened to them, but the government tells us it’s too expensive,” says Marjorie Jobson, an activist and medical doctor who works closely with the families of murdered activists. “But Basson’s trials have cost millions that they pay without question.”

"The most important thing for us is that he shows remorse, that he admits what he did was wrong,” says activist Mananoko Mokgonyana. “We are tired of waiting.”

Parole for 'Prime Evil'

On Jan. 30, Justice Minister Michael Masutha announced that parole would be granted to another of apartheid’s most notorious killers, Eugene “prime evil” de Kock, after 20 years in prison.

Unlike Basson, Mr. de Kock – who commanded a counterinsurgency unit implicated in the torture, imprisonment, and deaths of hundreds of activists – has apologized repeatedly for his crimes, and helped lead dozens of families to the bodies of his victims. 

De Kock’s release, like Basson's trial, has forced South Africans to challenge their thinking of forgiveness, South African author Antjie Krog wrote in a recent op-ed in The New York Times.

"His parole also reminds us of something more universal: the different life he might have led, had he grown up in a different and more just society. What would he and many others have become if they were not schooled in racism, indoctrinated through religion and educated into violence to protect an unequal social order?" 

“Mr. de Kock is a problem for South African society precisely because he presents the capacity of an evil man to change,” she wrote.

Basson’s case, however, presents no such neat ending. The trial, thought not a criminal one, is a chance for grieving parents like Ledwaba to see justice done. She has been a constant presence at the HPCSA hearings, and they have allowed her to do what she thought impossible: to let go. 

"I did forgive him, not for him, but because I don’t want to die angry," she says. "I want to forgive and then I want to forget.”

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