The witness delivered his 30-page statement in a matter-of-fact monotone. Onetime South African police commissioner Gen. Johan van der Merwe appeared before Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, ostensibly to help five policemen who are applying for amnesty for more than 40 apartheid-era murders. But the former top cop’s unassuming demeanor did little to dampen the sensation he was creating. Slowly and deliberately, he admitted he ordered the 1988 bombing of the headquarters of the South African Council of Churches in Johannesburg. He also owned up to the boobytrapping of hand grenades supplied to student extremists by government double agents, which killed eight antiapartheid activists in 1985. Van der Merwe was hardly the first to confess to a role in those crimes. But then he rolled out the big names. Former law and order minister Adriaan Vlok, he said, told him to arrange for police to bomb the building—and the order had come directly from former president P. W. Botha.
For the first time, someone at the very top of the law enforcement system had confirmed the role of Botha and some of his most senior cabinet colleagues in the socalled “dirty tricks” campaign against the African National Congress. And it marked a turning point for the truth commission, which has been hearing testimony since April about apartheid-era human rights abuses on both sides. As deputy chairman Alex Boraine put it, “We’re not talking about some activist’s allegations here.” Boraine said it was now inevitable that Botha would speak to the commission, either willingly or under subpoena. So far, the former National Party leader has refused to comment on the allegations that have drawn him into the centre of the inquiry appointed by his longtime nemesis, and now president, Nelson Mandela. But like many others, Botha will finally have to confront the seamy side of his—and the country’s—political past.
That alone has vindicated Tutu’s commission in the eyes of many South Africans, some of whom had criticized it for pursuing truth without consequences. To Mathews Phosa, head of the ANC’s legal department, the testimony showed that “this was the work not of maverick elements but forces conceived, aided and abetted by the National Party government whose primary aim was to destroy the ANC.” Van der Merwe’s post-apartheid successor, police commissioner George Fivaz, said the frankness of the revelations would promote national reconciliation.
Others do not agree. The National Party, which tried to distance itself from apartheid-era crimes under Botha’s reformist successor, F. W. de Klerk, says the truth commission will lose its credibility unless it also exposes the abuses of the ANC. “If the truth must come out, it must be the whole truth—not only half,” says senior party official Fanus Schoeman. A survey in July by the publicly funded Human Sciences Research Council found a profound racial split in public opinion. Two out of three whites did not believe the commission would promote reconciliation, while three out of five blacks thought it would. Race aside, however, 75 per cent of respondents were in favor of giving amnesty to those who confess their crimes.
That remains the deepest source of controversy about the commission, especially among those who have lost loved ones to apartheid’s death squads. Last week, the relatives of three murdered black activists appeared before the commission to oppose amnesty for Col. Roelf Venter, one of the five policemen for whom van der Merwe had testified. Venter has admitted he kidnapped the trio in 1985 but denies a role in their subsequent executions. The relatives had hoped to learn the whereabouts of the bodies of Qaqawuli Godolozi, Sipho Hashe and Champion Galela so they could have proper burials. Venter offered no new information. But van der Merwe’s sensational confession virtually assured absolution for Venter in the truthfor-amnesty bargain that is the basis of Tutu’s commission.
For people like Ntsiki Biko, widow of slain Black Consciousness leader Steve Biko, truth alone is not enough. Biko died in 1977 after days of torture at the hands of security policemen such as those now pleading for amnesty before Tutu’s commission. “I am against giving amnesty to murderers simply for telling about what they have done,” says Ntsiki, who believes even a month in jail would bring home to her husband’s killers that they had done something wrong. “It’s not good enough that they can just go and tell the commission what happened and then walk free—who’s to say they will tell the whole truth anyway?”
Pandelani Nefolovhodwe, deputy president of the black nationalist Azanian People’s Organization, a Black Consciousness political movement, believes it is not in the ANC’s interests to give Tutu and his aides more judicial power. The ANC, he says, “might find a cabinet minister or two in the dock for their own human rights abuses during the struggle.” But an inquiry cannot replace a court of law, he argues. “Just to run to the truth commission as soon as things start to get hot and then get amnesty, that’s not justice and it will never bring reconciliation—or true peace.” The Godolozi, Hashe and Galela families would no doubt agree. But for many South Africans, the process is at least bringing them closer to the truth.
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