The painful truth
A controversial commission probes an ugly past
Seventeen years ago, a white South African building contractor named Fritz Jansen was driving home on a Cape Town highway when he was stopped by a black mob. Seeking a white victim for their protest against apartheid, they dragged Jansen from his car, doused him with gasoline, set him alight and beat him with stones. He died the next day.
Fifteen years ago, a black South African student leader named Siphiwo Mtimkulu was dosed with rat poison by white apartheid police while in detention in Port Elizabeth. That didn’t kill him, so after a few months the same policemen picked up Mtimkulu again, drugged him with sleeping pills, shot him in the head, burned his body while they barbecued sausages, raked up the ashes, broke his bones and dumped it all in the nearby Fish River.
Two men, two races, two horribly cruel murders committed long ago on opposite sides of the apartheid divide. Now two families, still grieving, have to face the possibility that South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission may grant amnesty to the murderers of Fritz Jansen and Siphiwo Mtimkulu. Since April, 1996, the truth commission’s job has been to listen to victims’ stories, often
told by surviving relatives, and to offer amnesty in exchange for the truth from the perpetrators of political crimes during the era of whites-only rule. The commission’s rock of credibility is its diminutive chairman and father-confessor, retired archbishop Desmond Tutu, who won the 1984 Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts to end apartheid. But as it heads into the final phase of its mandate, recently expanded until next July to handle the flood of amnesty applications, it has become as controversial as the crimes it investigates. Many blacks believe the commission is biased in favor of whites, and many whites that it leans towards blacks. The televised hearings were supposed to be Oprah-style tell-all sessions promoting national reconciliation and healing. Many victims and their families, however, complain bitterly that the amnesty hearings have become legalistic tugs-of-war in which the perpetrators of political crimes lie or fudge the truth, admitting only what is already known and offering insincere apologies. This week, President Nelson Mandela’s ex-wife, Winnie, may mount a new attack on the commission as she faces hard questions about murders in which she has long denied involvement.
‘These people are still lying,” said Mzolisi Mtimkulu as he listened to testimony from the four policemen who killed his brother. They are the same officers linked to other notorious murders, including that of Black Consciousness leader Steve Biko in 1977. In the Biko hearings, police stuck by their 20year-old story that Biko died from a head injury sustained in a fall during a fight he provoked with officers.
Unlike the Biko case, however, there was a witness to the murder of Siphiwo Mtimkulu. The officers’ black henchman, Joe Mámasela, who calls himself “a political serial killer,” has told the commission that Siphiwo was not “humanely drugged and shot,” as police state in their amnesty applications, but was tortured to death. “In 15 years since my brother’s death, the police haven’t revealed anything,” said Mzolisi. “We feel sometimes the TRC is so biased.” His mother, Joyce, whose white hair stands on end as though reflecting the shock she still feels over Siphiwo’s suffering and death, fainted while watching the policemen testify. She brought to the hearing a patch of her son’s hair that had fallen out after he was poisoned; some scalp was attached.
The Jansen family has not yet had its day before the commission to challenge the amnesty application of Afrika Hlapo, one of the mob that killed Fritz. But they have gone public with their sentiments. “The savages that inflicted so much pain now want forgiveness,” wrote Jansen’s nephew, P. F. Roos, in The Cape Times. “In my opinion, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission is causing more harm than good by scratching the scabs of wounds that have taken so many years to heal.”
Yet some families have already forgiven those who hurt their loved ones. Leading the way were the parents of Californian Amy Biehl, who was chased, tripped, stabbed and stoned to death by a black mob in a Cape Town slum. She was there as part of a voter education program prior to the 1994 elections. In July this year, her parents shook hands with the parents of the men who murdered her, who now want amnesty. “I don’t have anything to forgive because I’ve never really felt hatred,” said Amy’s mother, Linda Biehl. “Amy talked so much about the disenfranchised young lions of this country. It’s such a complicated society. Who’s really to blame?”
Not everyone is so forgiving. Many blacks attending the hearings say their faith has been shaken by the commission’s decision to grant amnesty to Dirk Coetzee. A hitsquad leader working in the murky depths of the apartheid security services, Coetzee has admitted killing black human rights lawyer Griffiths Mxenge, who was stabbed more than 40 times in 1981. Awful as his crime was, Coetzee met all the legal criteria for amnesty. An applicant must convince the commission that he has revealed all he knows about the crime, that the crime was motivated by politics rather than personal
gain or enmity, and that the crime was commensurate with the political aim. The perpetrator must also name any highers-up who ordered the crime, but need not apologize for his actions.
Thanks to the commission, Dirk Coetzee is a free man, despite his court conviction for Mxenge’s murder. Moreover, having a clean slate meant he was able to resume his job with the National Intelligence Agency. “Anyone who thought the TRC would not be controversial was being too hopeful,” Tutu told Maclean’s in an interview. Tie Coetzee case is an example of what Tutu calls the “evil compromise” struck in 1993 when the apartheid government was negotiating to
hand over power to Nelson Mandela. Mandela would not accede to white demands for blanket amnesty for apartheid crimes. The former National Party government refused to give up power without some assurance there would be no Nuremburg-style trials for those who would soon find themselves on the wrong side of history. The amnestyfor-truth exchange was the deal that broke the logjam.
So far, amnesty has been granted in very few cases: only 82 of 7,041 applications have been approved, while 2,097 have been refused; the rest are pending. But given the reaction to the Coetzee decision, Tutu admits he is concerned how the public will react if amnesty is granted to the killers of Chris Hani. Tie charismatic Communist leader was gunned down in his driveway by a white right-wing extremist in 1993. The assassination brought the country to the brink of civil war. Blacks are vehemently opposed to an amnesty, but the assassin and his accomplice may well meet all the commission’s criteria.
Finding Mobility of the spirit7
Despite having undergone radiation therapy for prostate cancer last summer, former archbishop Desmond Tutu looked fit and relaxed as he answered questions from Maclean’s correspondent Kate Dunn in Cape Town on his work as chairman of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Excerpts:
Maclean’s: How has the truth commission experience affected your faith in mankind?
Tutu: It has been almost breathtaking, this willingness to forgive, this magnanimity, this nobility of the spirit. The stories that have been told in criminal court cases and hearings have left people livid. But they have not gone out in an orgy of revenge. I’m very hopeful.
Maclean’s: You have taken heavy criticism from the white-run National Party and the Zulu-led Inkatha Freedom Party, which claim the commission is biased against anyone who isn’t with the ruling African National Congress. What do you say?
Tutu: It is so interesting that those who are the most vociferous opponents of the commission tend to be those who benefited most from apartheid.
Maclean’s: There are suggestions that truth commissions be established to deal with atrocities committed in such places as Rwanda and Bosnia. What recommendations would you make?
Tutu: In Chile, the military allowed a truth commission only by saying, we’re going to have a blanket amnesty. Here it’s amnesty only on the basis of individual application.
In other truth commissions, the proceedings have been held in secret. Here, with few exceptions, it’s transparent and out in the open. A truth commission should be of short duration. And the composition should be carefully chosen. Here, some
feel the commission is loaded in faof people who, if they are not members of the ANC, would naturaly sympathize with the ANC. So maybe it was a weakness not to have someone from the National Party and the IFP.
Maclean’s: South African blacks are still poor, whites are still rich. How can your commission achieve reconciliation with the past when the inequities endure?
Tutu: Whites won’t be free until blacks are free. Freedom is indivisible. So I am dismayed by this continuing sense of entitlement on the part of the white community. Because it really is amazing. Blacks could easily have been browned-off. They have a new democratic government that was supposed to deliver a million houses. Yet they still get up from their shanties each morning. They go to work for whites in affluent suburbs and, at night, they return to the squalor of their homes, their unlit streets, with no running water, no clinics, no schools. And yet they don’t rampage through the largely white pockets of comfort and affluence. And all some whites do is moan about this and that, when really it’s about their loss of power.
Tie perception that the commission exists to let perpetrators off the hook worries Tutu. “A very good case can be made that this commission, required by law to be victim-friendly, appears to be perpetrator-friendly,” Tutu says. Amnestied criminals go free, he notes, while victims get nothing more than the chance to tell their stories to a sympathetic forum. The commission has proposed a victims’ reparation fund of about $850 million, but it is unlikely the finance ministry can afford such a plan.
And despite the offer of amnesty, the commission has failed to elicit credible testimony from the presidents, cabinet ministers and generals who sat at the apex of the apartheid system. F. W. de Klerk, the country’s last white president and the man who freed Nelson Mandela from jail, has apologized for apartheid. But he maintained to the commission in May that “there was never any state-sanctioned criminality aimed at serious violations of human rights such as murder or assassination.”
He insisted that rogue elements in the security forces, rather than the cabinet, should be held responsible for those crimes.
Some of the most terrible revelations have come out of the infamous Vlakplaas farm north of Pretoria, headquarters in the 1980s for soldiers of the government’s dirty war against the liberation movement. Their sadistic treatment of detainees became ritualized and spread to similar centres across the country. As in the death of Siphiwo Mtimkulu, Vlakplaas agents usually held a braai, the typical South African barbecue, at the same time as they cremated their victims’ remains. “Turning two sets of meat,” commented Tutu. Of all the testimony he has heard, he says, the barbecue-cremation story “hit the depths of depravity.” He was especially moved by the sight of Mrs. Mtimkulu at the hearing, stroking the patch of her son’s hair.
De Klerk denied knowing what was really going on at Vlakplaas.
But commission investigators have found cabinet documents directing state security agents to “eliminate,” “neutralize” and “rub out” the government’s enemies. According to former foreign minister Pik Botha and ex-law-and-order minister Adriaan Vlok, those words meant “detain,” not “kill.” Tutu is dismissive of that semantical debate. “We know that almost everyone on the list who had these wonderful words used about them—‘eliminate,’ ‘neutralize,’ ‘remove permanently from society’—were, in fact, killed,” he says. “The language meant what most people think it meant.” The commission has yet to hear from the man known as “The Great Crocodile,” P. W. Botha, de Klerk’s predecessor as president. He is expected to testify late this month under subpoena.
Meanwhile, the footsoldiers of apartheid are aghast at being cast adrift by their former leaders. Ex-Vlakplaas leader Eugene de Kock says he has been “sacrificed while the real guilty people have walked away from the gruesome past.” He is serving two life terms for six murders and dozens of other crimes. Former apartheid “superspy” Craig Williamson said apartheid leaders built deniability into their language in order to avoid “having blood on their hands.” Both men have said their superiors, all the way up to the cabinet, “must have known” about their activities, but there are very few smoking guns linking politicians and generals with specific crimes. There is, however, ample evidence that they sanctioned such acts,
particularly by allotting budgets to secret operations.
One was the government’s scheme to fund and train black hit squads operated by the Inkatha Freedom Party in KwaZulu Natal province. Commission documents show the intent was to use the squads to attack the African National Congress—ferocious black-on-black violence that continues today. The revelations have severely damaged the political career of Inkatha’s Zulu leader, Chief Manogosuthu Buthelezi.
Buthelezi dismisses the commission as the puppet of his ANC enemies. In fact, all political parties, including the ANC, have criticized the commission as their opponents’ tool. Tutu says jovially it is perhaps a sign that the commission is getting somewhere. It has certainly shown that no one is clean in a dirty war.
In July, Lita Mazibuko testified that she was raped and mutilated by her fellow soldiers in the ANC army. Even more damning was the angry plea from Joe Seremane, chairman of South Africa’s land claims court. He asked the commission to investigate the alleged torture and execution of his brother Timothy, who disappeared while in an ANC detention camp in Angola sometime in the 1980s. “I am insisting that a thorough inquiry be made and the people responsible brought to face questions,” said Seremane in late July. Members of the state’s security forces have come forward, he said, “but we hear nothing from the ANC. Why do you cheat me of my brother’s bones?”
Another lingering embarrassment to the ANC is Mandela’s former wife, now known as Winnie Madikizela-Mandela. In September, she was forced by subpoena to appear in camera before the commission to answer allegations that she was involved in the kidnapping, torture and murder of Soweto teenagers, including 14-year-old Stompie Sepei, and the killing of a township doctor. The indomitable Winnie chose that time to announce her candidacy for the deputy presidency of the ANC in December, a post some give her a good chance of winning, given her popularity with South Africa’s poor. Analysts said how she fared at the commission’s hearings this week, held in public at her request, would be crucial to her political future.
Apartheid and the liberation struggle may officially be over in South Africa, but in reality both are very much alive. The commission has turned up evidence of a dirty-tricks campaign to discredit one of its members, Dumisa Ntsebeza, possibly because commission revelations have humiliated the police service. The government has appointed Judge Richard Goldstone, the United Nations’ former war crimes prosecutor, to investigate the matter as evidence of subversive activities on the part of the police.
Even worse for South Africans are revelations that police continue to routinely torture, even murder their prisoners. Between April and September, 370 people died while in police custody or as a result of police action. There were 49 complaints of torture in one province alone. “There is still a long road ahead of us,” said Tutu, before taking a break for his midday meditation. “But the truth must out. That’s our ultimate purpose so that we can heal, reconcile this nation, and move on.” For the families of Fritz Jansen and Siphiwo Mtimkulu, that will not be easy.