The trial of South Africa’s former security minister Adriaan Vlok opens Friday, rekindling hopes that the political masterminds of apartheid-era atrocities will face justice, and reopening a national debate about whether both black freedom fighters as well as their white oppressors should be held to account.
Vlok, former commissioner of police Johannes Van der Merwe and three other police officials are due to appear before Pretoria’s High Court in connection with an alleged 1989 plot to murder a former church leader by lacing his clothes with poison ? one of the many assassination methods used by apartheid authorities who dabbled with chemical and biological warfare in their bid to retain supremacy.
Rev. Frank Chikane, now an adviser to President Thabo Mbeki, allowed Vlok to wash his feet last year as a gesture of atonement. He has said he forgives Vlok but cannot shield him from prosecution.
Other victims say the 79-year-old is bluffing.
“Vlok and his like must face justice for the atrocities,” Mkhize said in a telephone interview from Johannesburg. “How can there be reconciliation when there is no justice?”
Mkhize was a young African National Congress activist when he was seized by South Africa’s dreaded secret police in 1986 and taken to their headquarters at Vlakplaas ? a farm that became synonymous with terror.
Over the next 128 days, Mkhize was electrocuted, dumped in a sack with a cat in the river, suffocated with a bag over his head. One of the favorite methods was the “helicopter torture” where prisoners were attached to iron rods in the roof and suspended face down whilst their captors used acid, electric shocks and the like to extract information about the ANC’s military activities.
“If you passed out, they just tried a different type of torture,” he recalled bleakly. He still suffers neurological and hearing problems and the trauma was so great that he only spoke about the torture for the first time two weeks ago.
He lost “countless” friends at Vlakplaas, where state security thugs were notorious for enjoying barbecues while victims were cremated nearby.
“The memories don’t fade. Whenever we hear the name Vlakplaas we are still haunted,” said Mkhize who now works for Khulumani, a support network for 55,000 victims of apartheid and their families, more than half of whom suffered torture.
He has no doubt about the involvement of Vlok, who was minister of law and order from 1986-1989, when an estimated 30,000 people were detained.
Vlok appeared before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, set up to help the nation come to terms with its past. He was one of some 1,000 South Africans who were granted amnesty for confessing to various crimes during harrowing two-year hearings. But he never applied for protection from prosecution for the attempt on Chikane’s life.
There has been speculation that he and Van der Merwe may have reached a plea bargain deal with the National Prosecuting Authority, possibly implicating South Africa’s last white leader F.W. De Klerk, who became president in 1989 and helped usher in black majority rule.
De Klerk insists he knew nothing of any atrocities and recently said that if there were to be any further prosecutions, former ANC guerrillas as well as members of the white security forces should be targeted.
Although the vast majority of atrocities were committed by white security forces, ANC guerrilla forces waged land mine and bombing campaigns in which innocent civilians died.
Among those were Kobie van Eck and her two children, aged 2 and 8, who died with three of their friends when their vehicle hit a mine laid by the ANC’s military wing in 1985. The two men involved were sentenced to life imprisonment but then given an amnesty by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
Dirk van Eck, who survived the attack, is now lobbying for the ANC leaders who authorized the land mine campaign to be bought to book.
“Not treating the ANC leaders in the same manner, will amount to selective morality,” said Kallie Kriel, head of the white-dominated AfriForum organization which plans to demonstrate outside the courtroom.
Khulumani, the victim support group, said it would do likewise to highlight the plight of apartheid’s forgotten victims.
People like Mrs. Mokoena, who was bypassed by the wheels of justice.Her husband David disappeared in August 1993 on his way to the barber in the tense run-up to the multiracial elections in 1994. Although Vlok was no longer security minister by then, she still looked to the trial to provide answers.
“We still don’t know the truth,” Mrs. Mokoena said. “We want Vlok to tell us where our children and husbands are. Our hearts still bleed.”