WORLD

Apartheid: can the truth set a nation free?

A new panel is set to probe the horrors of the past

PATRICIA CHISHOLM April 8 1996
WORLD

Apartheid: can the truth set a nation free?

A new panel is set to probe the horrors of the past

PATRICIA CHISHOLM April 8 1996

Apartheid: can the truth set a nation free?

WORLD

SOUTH AFRICA

A new panel is set to probe the horrors of the past

Even in crime-riven South Africa, the face of brutality can be horrifyingly banal. In a rented house in the Southern Cape area, flanked by his wife and two young children, former policeman Paul Erasmus, also known as Mr. Dirty Tricks, breaks off a conversation with a reporter to discuss his daughter’s homework. Smoothly resuming the interview, he is matter-offact as he describes the atrocities he claims to have committed. ‘Torture was easy,” he says. “We simply took the people, beat the hell out of them, and used what we called ‘Radio Moscow’—it had a devastating effect.” The technique, evidently a favorite with police, involved applying electrodes to victims’ ears and genitals to force them to provide information, usually about the activities of the black anti-apartheid group the African National Congress.

The former intelligence officer also says that he routinely threatened white antiapartheid activists and their families, tapped phones, intercepted mail and used informers to harass and spy on ANC members. More chillingly, he describes how he torched St. Mary’s Cathedral in Johannesburg in 1988 by dousing it with homemade napalm, and calmly recounts the time he shot a suspected “terrorist” in the back when the man broke free and ran away. Afterwards he proudly posed for a picture, his boot on the dead man’s back.

The confessions now emerging from men like Erasmus still come as a shock to

many white South Africans, who say they had no idea of the extent of the cruelty and disregard for law rampant in the apartheid era. But such revelations are only a small taste of what is to come. Beginning in midApril, a government-appointed commission will hear from thousands of witnesses about the horrors committed during the struggle over whites-only rule. To coax perpetrators into the open, the optimistically named Truth and Reconciliation Commission has offered amnesty to those on both sides, from foot soldiers like Erasmus up to the most highly placed officials in the former white governments and the ANC.

Nothing can be objectively verified at the truth commission, warns Jody Kollapen, national director of Lawyers for Human Rights. “We must keep in mind that former operatives, like Erasmus, have their own interests to protect,” he says. Nonetheless, President Nelson Mandela calls the exercise an essential step in healing the wounds left by more than four decades of brutal oppression.

Many skeptics, however, believe the endeavor will only inflame passions and create a climate of vengefulness that will tear the country apart. Mandela has countered that the commission, headed by Nobel Peace Prize winner Desmond Tutu, is not a witch-hunt in disguise. “Nobody should lecture me about reconciliation,” he bristled when challenged about the tribunal’s credibility. “I am the architect of reconciliation.”

As he guides a coalition government towards the 21st century, Mandela the con-

ciliator finds himself at a crossroads: his so-called Government of National Unity shares power with the reforming past president F. W. de Klerk, who represents the interests of the more than six million whites who continue to dominate South Africa’s economy. Zulu Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi, whose Inkatha Freedom Party was long engaged in a ferocious war with the ANC, is also a key member of the two-year-old government, the first to be elected by all South Africans after apartheid was formally abolished in 1994. Their agreement runs out in 1999, when Mandela plans to retire.

That delicate balance could be upset if revelations at the commission point to wrongdoing at the topmost levels of the three factions. Although anyone implicated in abuses who voluntarily testifies at the tribunal will be granted amnesty, those who do not can be fully prosecuted. There is already much speculation, for instance, about Defence Minister Joe Modise, who has been accused of participating in the widespread torture carried out by the ANC against members believed to be informants or insurgents. Modise has volunteered to go before the commission, but most senior government officials have not. Many ANC members say that their cause was a just struggle and that they do not have to account for

crimes against upholders of apartheid.

As a result of such debates, tensions are rising over who should have immunity. The list of crimes that could be exposed seems almost endless: during more than 40 years of apartheid, the white government detained an estimated 300,000 people without laying charges. As the charismatic leader of the ANC, Mandela spent 27 years behind bars. Hundreds of black activists were assassinated and tens of thousands more were tortured and brutalized by police. Black guerrillas responded in kind, bombing white neighborhoods and ambushing whites who lived in remote areas.

To bring peace out of ungovernable chaos, de Q Klerk’s government grantig ed temporary immunity to I thousands of ANC mem! bers in 1990 and 1992. But Si after heavy pressure from g de Klerk, ANC-based government officials withdrew that immunity in mid-March, claiming that the Congress now wants all members with skeletons in the closet to testily.

The former president, like many whites, is also furious over the current prosecution of Gen. Magnus Malan, who was defence minister in the 1980s government of P. W.

Botha. Malan and 19 others, including former high-ranking security officials, are being tried on charges ranging from murder to conspiracy. The case arises out of the 1987 massacre of 13 people, including six children, in an ANC-supporting community in strife-ridden KwaZulu-Natal province. The charges were laid last October, before the commission’s offer of amnesty was announced. Many whites believe that Malan’s high-profile prosecution is an attempt to unfairly denigrate the whole white community. But others say the trial is the first step towards proving that the persecution of blacks was a systematic government policy.

“The generals and politicians are frying to make a case that these were the actions of renegades,” says Jakkie Cilliers, director of the Institute for Defence Policy in Johannesburg. “Paul Erasmus and Maj. J. P. Opperman [the first witness at the Malan trial] say the opposite—that they were acting on a specific mandate.”

In the context of trials like this—another, against former police Sgt. Eugene de Kock, lists 121 charges—the credibility of the truth commission is under increasing attack. Many observers believe it has too little time and too few resources. The 17member panel expects to hear four to five cases per day over an 18-month period, a small fraction of the tens of thousands of crimes committed between 1960 and 1994. Already, the families of two prominent murder victims, black consciousness leader Steve Biko and anti-apartheid lawyer Griffiths Mxenge, have rejected the commission in favor of criminal prosecutions.

No doubt, too, some witnesses will try to stretch the truth for their own ends. Erasmus, for example, maintains that his clandestine activities were responsible for unfairly smearing the reputation of Mandela’s former wife, Winnie. He says he got damaging disinformation about her into the international press and made up allegations that she had had an affair with a prominent banker in 1985. While that may be so, most of the charges against the flamboyant 60year-old have been substantiated by court testimony and her own public behavior. Mandela divorced her last month, alleging a later case of adultery, profligate spending and brazen conduct that had publicly humiliated him. His wife wanted to call Erasmus to testify, but the judge rejected the request as not relevant to her recent activities.

Ultimately, the most compelling accounts are likely to come from the many victims, still deeply scarred. Vusi Thabethe, for one, has firsthand familiarity with the Radio Moscow torture technique. Detained in 1988 and accused of being an ANC student leader, Thabethe was held in solitary confinement for 180 days. He was subjected to partial suffocation with a plastic bag, which was kept around his head for up to 20 minutes at a time. ‘When I woke up, they put me in a chair and handcuffed me,” he recalls. “Then they used the wires, one on my wrist and one on my private parts.”

With so many stories to sift through, it is little wonder that Tutu describes the task as a partly spiritual process and asks for the world’s prayers. Indeed, the nation is about to enter a massive confessional.

Erasmus claims he got disinformation about Winnie Mandela into the foreign press

PATRICIA CHISHOLM

SARAH CARTER

CHRIS ERASMUS