This month, the South African government will have to decide whether or not to award parole to a handful of apartheid era murderers. Pusch Commey reports on the cases the justice minister will have to consider.
Working out what to do with apartheid-era criminals has haunted the South African government ever since the racist regime fell. In the 1990s, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) was established to heal wounds, and some officials of the apartheid state were taken to court, but many others were let off unrepentant and unpunished. Magnus Malan, Minister of Defence from 1980 to 1991, and Wouter Basson, the chemical weapons expert known as Dr Death, for example, were acquitted after long trials, while many others who masterminded the violent regime continue to sit pretty on their estates. Although some killers were jailed, it is well understood that those who gave the orders have been let off.
For many South Africans, the lack of remorse and conviction of some apartheid-era criminals has continued to be a source of aggravation and shame. But now the government has a new problem to deal with. Some of those who were successfully caught and convicted are now applying for parole.
Perhaps the most notorious figure who has been jailed for his crimes under apartheid is Eugene de Kock.
Also known as Prime Evil, de Kock was the commanding officer of a secret police unit called Vlakplaas, a death squad that kidnapped, tortured and murdered countless anti-apartheid activists through the 1980s and early 1990s.
In many ways, de Kock was seen as the embodiment of apartheid’s ruthless, bloody and sadistic tendencies. Prime Evil is estimated to have been responsible for hundreds of murders; his activities continued even after the release of Nelson Mandela as he tried to provoke large-scale black-on-black violence to derail the possibility of a peaceful transition; and the TRC heard how one victim’s body was barbecued down to ash while he and his band ate meat and drank brandy nearby. De Kock is also understood to have committed operations beyond South Africa’s borders in the 1970s, combating ZANLA forces in Zimbabwe, and fighting SWAPO guerrillas in Namibia, for which he won medals for his high kill rate.
De Kock testified in front of the TRC at which he was lauded for his honesty, especially since former ministers in the apartheid regime were trying to blame all the violence on a few bad apples. The assassin received amnesty for some of his crimes, but in 1996, he was nevertheless convicted on 89 charges and sentenced to 212 years in prison. De Kock has maintained that he was carrying out orders and has accused several apartheid leaders, including former president and Nobel Peace Prize winner F.W. de Klerk, of having blood on their hands, but de Kock is one of the very few behind bars. Maybe not for much longer, though.
After 18 years in prison, and at the age of 65, he is making another bid for freedom. De Kock has already made a number of unsuccessful attempts to be released on parole, but is due another hearing soon.
The national council for correctional services had to decide whether or not to recommend de Kock for parole by 19 December and the Minister of Justice and Correctional Services, Michael Masutha, will then make a decision by the end of January.
In jail, de Kock has reportedly been a model prisoner. He has met with the families of victims, leading him to be publicly forgiven in some instances, and expressed remorse. He has also cooperated in trying to help locate where the bodies of victims are buried. Up to now, his behaviour following the fall of apartheid has not been enough for him to be awarded parole, but his chances are getting better.
Another case that Minister Masutha may well have to deal with this month is that of Clive Derby-Lewis, the former politician who was awarded a life sentence for his role in the murder of anti-apartheid hero and South African Communist Party leader Chris Hani in 1993.
Derby-Lewis can also been seen as the embodiment of many of apartheid’s evils. Some of his inflammatory remarks whilst in office are well known for their odiousness. South African commentator John Carlin famously described Derby-Lewis’s reputation as that of “a rabid racist…even by South African standards.”
Derby-Lewis has already made several unsuccessful bids to be released on medical parole. In November 2010, his lawyer reported that the ex-politician was receiving treatment for skin and prostate cancers, hypertension, and a gangrenous spot on his leg.
In his latest bid, he is reported to be terminally ill with lung cancer. According to his attorney, Marius Coertze, Derby-Lewis has been in hospital since March and is inoperable because he is too weak to survive surgery. One of the prisoner’s lungs is riddled with cancer, Coertze has said, and he has been given only months to live.
The Medical Parole Board has been ordered to consider Derby-Lewis’ medical reports and provide a recommendation to Masutha. The minister then has until 31 January to make a decision.
A final parole claim likely to be sitting in Masutha’s in-tray in January is that of Ferdi Barnard, another apartheid-era killer, who is applying to be released.
Parole or prison?
Amongst South Africans, there is a mix of opinions over whether apartheid-era criminals should be granted parole. Many believe they should remain in jail for their crimes while others, including some victim support groups, argue that the likes of de Kock should be released but continue their consultative processes with victims for the purposes of healing.
Former TRC deputy chairperson Alex Boraine has also called for the release on parole of de Kock, as well as Clive Derby-Lewis and the Pole, Janusz Waluś, who he commissioned to assassinate Hani.
“It is overdue. The parole board has failed [de Kock],” he said in an interview with the Sunday Times newspaper, adding “I think the killers of Hani ought to be released as well.” Part of Boraine’s argument regarding de Kock’s release was that he had been a “fall guy” for high-ranking officials. “He was bad and rotten but he was following orders and a great number of people got off scot-free. He has served his time,” he said.
Despite the reservations of the current government and many South Africans, the passage of time, a change in the political landscape, and an African philosophy of justice that places more emphasis on reconciliation and restoration rather than retribution, lie in favour of these apartheid-era criminals. But who is prepared to be forever remembered as the one who let the killers out?