A deal to protect the mighty

The existence of an early deal between the ANC and NP would explain the remarkable immunity of apartheid cabinet ministers.

SOME OF THE most bitter and revealing exchanges at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission have occurred since the main body has been wound up and proceedings have continued before the amnesty committee. The former security police chief and police commissioner, General Johann Coetzee, has sat haplessly as a succession of his former operatives — men such as Craig Williamson, Vic McPherson and Eugene de Kock — have told the committee that he ordered them to commit this, that or the other atrocity.

“I had a long and close association with Coetzee throughout my security force careeer,” testified Williamson. “If I had a mentor, it would have been Coetzee.” Williamson, who (like Coetzee) is applying for amnesty for the bombing of the ANC’s London office in 1982, said Coetzee had ordered him to do the job and had told him that the orders came from “the very top”. Presumably he meant the late police minister, Louis Le Grange, and former state president P.W. Botha.

These hearings suggest that behind the TRC’s proceedings lies an implicit deal between the NP and ANC, a deal which has only frayed as they have reached the sharp end — who exactly will carry the can for these atrocities? That all this is happening with Archbishop Tutu and Dr Alex Boraine off stage, only confirms the impression that the main hearings of the TRC have been, at least in part, a bogus exercise. There seems to be a charmed circle of former elite actors who are not to be held responsible for anything that happened under them, while the real question is who below them will be thrown to the wolves.

The first sign of something strange afoot was the pattern of silence and belated denial that followed the shock confession before the TRC in mid-July by the former minister of law and order, Adriaan Vlok. He admitted culpability for bombing the trade union headquarters, Cosatu House, in 1987, and the South African Council of Churches building, Khotso House, in 1988, and for placing bombs at cinemas screening the anti-apartheid film, Cry Freedom. Vlok confessed as part of his bid for amnesty, and not only became the first ex-minister to admit to serious crimes but also implicated ex-President P.W. Botha who, he said, had ordered the bombings.

Moreover, Vlok and former police commissioner General Johan van der Merwe effectively accused former President F.W. de Klerk of lying to the TRC in 1996, when he denied knowledge of illegal police activities. Vlok said that he had briefed de Klerk about the bombings in 1991. Mandela too had been briefed on the subject in 1993 in order to get him to intervene to put a stop to Judge Richard Goldstone’s investigation of the Khotso House atrocity. The testimony was dynamite, implying that both Mandela and de Klerk had knowledge of the bombings that they had failed to reveal and that there had been political interference with the course of justice — in which Judge Goldstone had acquiesced.

De Klerk first issued a formal statement saying he had told the truth; then, as further revelations emerged, maintained a stony silence before issuing a statement accepting that he had, after all, had knowledge of the state’s culpability in the bombings. Mandela’s spokesman, Parks Mankahlana, issued a furious statement denying that Mandela had been informed of such matters or had stopped the Goldstone inquiry. However, Mankahlana’s credibility was just about zero at that point, following his equally furious denials that his boss was about to be married. It is clear, moreover, that Mankahlana has often issued statements before the president has been consulted. Mandela himself, then on tour in Latin America, was silent for several days and then merely said that van der Merwe’s recollection of their conversation was mistaken. But, he did not deny having contacted Goldstone or of having knowledge of the bombings. Goldstone himself has remained stum. This is remarkable when one considers that his judicial reputation was on the line: to have terminated a judicial inquiry at the behest of a politician would take some serious explaining. What is not in doubt is that Goldstone did abruptly and inexplicably terminate his investigation of the Khotso House bombing, turning it over to the Transvaal attorney-general, Jan d’Oliveira, from whom nothing more about the matter was heard.

Finally, van der Merwe, many days after press accounts of his original testimony had appeared, suddenly denied that he had ever asked Mandela to stop the Goldstone investigation, thus flatly contradicting his earlier testimony which, he said, had been “misunderstood”. Vlok, however, stood by what he said. The overwhelming impression was of a clumsy cover-up after arm-twisting behind the scenes.

The whole episode seems to confirm the rumours that have long circulated that the high commands of the National Party and ANC struck a deal in 1990 guaranteeing security from prosecution for the leading actors on either side and protecting the identies of the spies in each camp. How could they negotiate a new democratic order over a period of years without a basic level of trust? And how to achieve that trust if one side constantly feared that the other was aiming eventually to traduce it before some Nuremberg trial? There would have to be a TRC and some part of the truth would have to be told — but the whole exercise would be subject to this protective deal. All that would be required of ministers in the former apartheid government was a formal apology for apartheid not a detailed investigation of crimes committed under their jurisdiction. The targets would be the lower-level security police thugs and assassins.

The existence of such a deal would make sense of the remarkable immunity of NP cabinet ministers. Some have put that down to a miraculously thorough process of document-shredding — but this ignores the personal witness testimony that could have been obtained for many acts of inhumanity ranging from torture to forced removals. Even the pursuit of security policemen was curiously partial: many operatives who carried out torture, savage beatings and dirty tricks have never even been named, let alone prosecuted. A deal would also account for the way in which the TRC pursued P.W. Botha. Few doubt that he was directly responsible for innumerable state crimes and atrocities carried out between 1978 and 1989, but the TRC showed singularly little interest in pinning any of this on him. Instead it almost implored him just to come along and say he was sorry, hug Archbishop Tutu and be done with it. If such a deal exists, Botha doubtless knows all about it. It looks as if he decided to call the TRC’s bluff by refusing to bend the knee.

But any such deal must have a cut-off point and those outside the magic circle stand to become the scapegoats. Hence, the present denouement. General van der Merwe either felt solidarity with the policemen who carried out the Cosatu and Khotso House bombings and wished to protect them — or feared they would point the finger at him. So he confessed and sought amnesty — pointing the finger in turn at his political superior, Vlok. This forced Vlok to seek amnesty, confess and point the finger at P.W. Botha.

General Coetzee, too, presumably belongs within the magic circle that is not to be pursued too vigorously for their crimes since he can implicate everyone right up to the former state president. This leaves Williamson, de Kock et al set up to carry the can for everything. Not unnaturally they are reluctant to do so when they can see their superiors getting clean away.

On the ANC side the situation is much easier. The 37 ANC leaders so mysteriously given collective amnesty have never yet come forward to explain what they needed amnesty for - and the chances of their ever doing so seem to recede all the time. Not even lower level MK operatives have been held responsible for any of their atrocities (the ANC still officially regards Robert McBride’s bombing of Magoo’s bar as an act of heroism), so there is no pressure to point a finger at anyone higher up.

Clearly, another part of the deal was to declare crimes committed beyond South Africa’s borders off-limits for TRC investigation. This has let off both the senior ANC military accused of torture and murder in the guerrilla camps in Angola, and the government top brass who carried out cross-border raids and waged a vicious war in Namibia. The TRC has steered well clear of all this explosive material (though it happily ignored the cross-border boundaries when it wanted to investigate the death of the Mozambican president, Samora Machel, the Helderberg plane crash over the Indian Ocean). But the grisly details of what happened in Joe Modise’s Quatro or Magnus Malan’s Namibia, and who exactly was responsible for what, will never be revealed.