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THE SILENCE CRACKS

4 minute read
Kevin Fedarko

The revelations were stunning enough last week when South Africa’s former chief of police admitted to his role in two notorious acts of sabotage. First, General Johan van der Merwe confessed to giving orders in 1988 to blow up the Johannesburg headquarters of the South African Council of Churches, a blast that injured 23 people. He also admitted that he ordered his men to infiltrate a ring of antiapartheid activists and provide them with booby-trapped hand grenades, which exploded as soon as the pins were pulled. But then Van der Merwe offered an even more startling disclosure, turning to the subject of where his own orders came from. The bombing, he said, had been approved by Adriaan Vlok, the Minister of Law and Order at the time. And Vlok’s instructions, according to Van der Merwe, had come directly from P.W. Botha, the President of South Africa.

Van der Merwe’s statements before Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission marked a turning point in the process of seeking redress for the brutality suffered by millions of South Africans during apartheid’s kragdadigheid (“ironfistedness”). Set up by President Nelson Mandela last year, the commission has heard mainly from victims. But while many of their stories were moving, the inquiry was perceived as largely feckless, unable to tie the crimes to perpetrators, black or white, on either side of apartheid. Despite offers of amnesty, alleged culprits refused to confess because they were convinced they could get a better deal by trying their luck in court.

That perception was reinforced 10 days earlier by the verdict in the trial of Magnus Malan, former Defense Minister and one of apartheid’s most feared leaders. Malan was accused, along with 17 other men, of conducting a notorious 1987 hit-squad murder of 13 people, including seven children. Despite widespread belief in their culpability, Malan and his co-defendants were acquitted of all charges by a white Supreme Court judge. The ruling was interpreted as a massive blow to the Truth Commission’s power to persuade former henchmen of the regime to cooperate.

But the commission’s luck changed the very next day when five ex-officers in South Africa’s dreaded Security Branch applied for amnesty and offered to reveal details about the death-squad murders of some 40 political activists. With that, the sarcophagus of silence that had shielded top apartheid-era leaders finally cracked. The five officers, including a police brigadier who had commanded a hit-squad training camp, claimed they took orders from the State Security Council, a secret junta of military, police and government officials whose sweeping powers enabled it to bypass Parliament. The council was headed by Botha. The officers said Botha also knew about a secret security cell known as the Counter Revolutionary Information Center, which drew up lists of people and places to be attacked, both inside and outside South Africa. Brigadier Jack Cronje testified that police kept files on all known antiapartheid activists. This, said Cronje, meant that anyone who took part in even the mildest form of protest, such as a consumer boycott, was under watch, and could be “eliminated.”

The appearance of the five officers, now under the wing of the Truth Commission’s witness-protection program, constitutes what Alex Boraine, the commission’s deputy chairman, calls a “trickle that could become a river.” As Tutu’s staff begins to serve subpoenas on officials implicated in the testimony so far, the pressure will mount for other alleged perpetrators to come forward to confess and receive amnesty. They have only until a Dec. 15 cut-off date. As the applications pour in–there are already some 2,000–commissioners believe they will hear evidence that will point high up the chain of command.

Still, the man who appears to bear paramount responsibility may never be brought to court. P.W. Botha, 80, sits in virtual seclusion in retirement on the south coast of the cape. Botha, who suffered a stroke before his 1989 resignation, appears increasingly enfeebled; that, plus his legendary irascibility, may make it awkward if not impossible to force him to face the commission. Embattled and isolated, he refuses to give interviews or even to pick up the telephone; an aide who answered a call last week described the unrepentant hard-liner as “unapproachable.” Yet if auguries are to be credited, the swelling inquiry may spill over and reach even the “Groot Krokodil” (Great Crocodile), as he is known in Afrikaans. Last week, after rains caused the Touws River to burst its banks, Botha’s living room was knee-deep in water, symbolic perhaps of what Tutu hopes will one day become a flood of justice.

–Reported by Peter Hawthorne/Cape Town

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