Few in South Africa took much notice when five sleeping teenage boys were shot by a military hit squad just days before the country’s last white president, FW de Klerk, received his Nobel peace prize for ending apartheid.
Thirteen years later the deaths have returned to haunt Mr de Klerk after a decision to prosecute one of his former cabinet ministers for apartheid-era crimes prompted fresh scrutiny of what South Africa’s last white president knew about the campaign of assassinations, bombings and torture against the regime’s opponents.
The man once lauded across the globe for freeing Nelson Mandela and ending white rule now faces headlines at home declaring “You’re a murderer too, FW!” and accusations that his Nobel prize “is soaked in blood”.
Former enemies, and some of those who served the apartheid security apparatus, are questioning Mr de Klerk’s claim that he knew nothing about police and military hit squads and other illegal covert activities.
Among his accusers is Eugene de Kock, the ex-commander of a police murder squad who is serving a 212- year prison sentence. He says he has “new evidence” against Mr de Klerk whom he described in an interview to a Johannesburg radio station as an “unconvicted murderer”.
The accusations have created a backlash among some whites who say that if there are to be prosecutions for politically motivated crimes then many at the top of the ruling African National Congress should also stand trial.
Mr de Klerk has acknowledged that there was a strategy to murder prominent anti-apartheid activists but says it was carried out by rogue elements within the security forces and he was horrified when he found out years later. At a press conference in Cape Town, his voice cracked with emotion as he said he was being unfairly implicated.
“I am not standing here to defend myself. On these issues my conscience is clear. I am owed a fair deal in my own country,” he said.
“I was never part of policies that said murder is fine – cold-blooded murder is fine, rape is fine, torture is fine.”
The former president said the accusations were intended to strip him, and the 70% of whites who supported his reforms in a 1992 referendum, of an “honourable place at the table as co-creators of the new South Africa”.
The spotlight shifted to Mr de Klerk after his former law and order minister, Adriaan Vlok, was charged last month with attempted murder for ordering a police hit squad to poison an anti-apartheid leader, the Rev Frank Chikane, who survived and is now the director general of President Thabo Mbeki’s office.
Johannesburg newspapers reported that Mr Vlok is striking a plea bargain in which he implicates Mr de Klerk. The former president has denied that his law and order minister consulted him before ordering the murder attempt.
But Mr de Klerk has not denied ordering the 1993 raid, in which the five boys were killed, on what was described as a Pan Africanist Congress safe house used to plan “terrorist attacks”.
After the attack, the military said the dead were men who were armed and shooting but photographs of the scene showed the boys still in their beds, riddled with bullets and no guns in sight. Mr de Klerk later described the killings as a tragic mistake.
Sigqibo Mpendulo, a PAC activist who was imprisoned on Robben Island for five years and lost his twin 16-year-old sons in the attack, says the former president should be prosecuted because it was the modus operandi of such attacks to massacre everyone in the targeted house, as happened in similar raids on in Zimbabwe and Mozambique. “De Klerk killed my children. They were innocent. They were not [PAC] forces,” he said.
Ten years ago, Mr de Klerk appeared before the truth and reconciliation commission to apologise for apartheid and the crimes committed in defence of white rule but to deny any personal knowledge or responsibility.
The former president grew increasingly agitated under questioning by TRC lawyers sceptical of his attempts to distance himself from the killings.
Howard Varney, a TRC investigator who drew up questions for Mr de Klerk at the hearings, told the Guardian that as the former president sat on the state security council, which decided on the strategy to combat black unrest, his denials were not credible.
“It’s untenable that a cabinet minister who sat in the state security council meetings from 1985 to 1989 claims that he was unaware that gross human rights violations were being committed on an ongoing basis,” he said.
“Aside from the fact that plainly unlawful programmes were being considered by the SSC meetings he attended, he would have been aware that the security forces were running amok on the ground. He took no steps to voice objections or distance himself or to restrain them in any way.”
Among the decisions Mr de Klerk was party to was the establishment of a covert paramilitary force, trained and equipped by the army, that was responsible for much of the violence unleashed against anti-apartheid activists in the mid-1980s.
Mr de Klerk also attended a meeting at which the SSC discussed “shortening the list of politically sensitive individuals by means other than detention”. He refused to answer a question about that meeting at the TRC hearings. Today he declines to interpret what the phrasing might have meant but denies ever endorsing a decision to assassinate activists.
“I was not present at any meeting in any context where decisions to murder people were discussed. I do recall discussions relating to banning orders, restrictions or transferring or redeploying politically sensitive individuals to other places or employment away from their power bases,” he said.
Secret minutes of another state security council meeting attended by Mr de Klerk show he supported a decision to “remove” Matthew Goniwe, a black teacher in the Eastern Cape described by security forces as “at the forefront of a revolutionary attack against the state”.
Two days after the meeting, a security policemen visited Cradock, where Mr Goniwe lived, to size up how best to kill him. The policeman, Jaap van Jaarsveld, told the TRC he recommended that the activist be “taken out” on a deserted road. Fifteen months later, Mr Goniwe and three other men were stopped at a roadblock, strangled with telephone wire, stabbed and shot to death. Their faces were burned to hinder identification, and Mr Goniwe’s hands were hacked off. For years afterward political suspects interrogated by Port Elizabeth security branch told how a senior officer would question them while a pickled hand in a jar sat on the desk.
The minutes of the SSC meeting show the word applied to Mr Goniwe is the Afrikaans verwyder, translated as “remove, get rid of, put out of the way, dispose of, eliminate, estrange, obviate”.
A judicial inquiry in 1989 concluded that a written request by a senior military officer to kill Mr Goniwe which included verwyder amounted to a “death warrant”. The memo was addressed to the state security council.
In 1999, Mr de Klerk told the Guardian that verwyder merely referred to moving Mr Goniwe to another teaching job away from Cradock.
Last week, Mr de Klerk said that although he was a member of the state security cabinet it was not briefed “on clandestine operations involving murders, assassinations or the like – all of which were evidently carried out strictly on a ‘need to know’ basis”.
But suspicion that the politicians knew more than they were prepared to admit was heightened when Mr de Klerk, in his last months as president, ordered the wholesale shredding and incineration of tons of documents, microfilm and computer tapes that dealt with matters such as the chain of command in covert operations.
South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission left crucial questions about apartheid-era atrocities unanswered, such as what did the country’s political leaders know about the assassinations, bombings and other crimes carried out against the liberation movements, and when?
Although former secret policemen and other operatives confessed to murders and other attacks, only one apartheid-era cabinet minister, Adriaan Vlok, admitted his part and so the full extent to which the top leaders of the regime were responsible for the bloody covert war on its opponents has still not been laid bare.
The former president PW Botha was found to have directly authorised “unlawful activity which included killing”. His conviction was overturned on appeal. Other cabinet ministers pleaded ignorance of apartheid atrocities and so declined to apply for amnesty, including FW de Klerk, who dismantled apartheid.