To forgive a monster

2014-07-15 18:00

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Jacques Pauw goes behind Eugene de Kock’s dead eyes to understand why the assassin deserves the second chance he denied so many others

Eugene de Kock’s eyes – sunken, sombre and almost devoid of life – spelt doom for scores of activists and revolutionaries who confronted them during his two decade-long killing spree.

Most are not here to speak of the terror because South Africa’s most prolific assassin “made a plan” with them. Some were left to rot in the sun, others were dumped in shallow graves, a few were blown up and the bodies of others were incinerated.

A ring of dark, lustreless skin surrounds De Kock’s eye sockets, accentuated by a pasty prison pallor acquired after 20 years in jail.

I’ve always been fixated on De Kock’s eyes, almost an armoured barrier blocking the window to the most wicked of souls.

Justice and Correctional Services Minister Michael Masutha had to decide this week if he was fit to walk out of Pretoria Central Prison and take his place among you and I.

Last November, the national council for correctional services (the old parole board) recommended De Kock’s release. It said he was rehabilitated, had sought forgiveness from his victims’ families and posed no threat to society.

Masutha torpedoed De Kock’s hopes of an early release when he said the apartheid assassin would remain in prison until “the families of the victims are afforded an opportunity to practise in the parole consideration process”.

It was a terrifying thought that the man they call “Prime Evil” (others, whose admiration got the better of their fear, called him “The Lion”) was about to be back in our midst. Many argue that he should rot in prison, his deeds unpardonable and unforgivable.

But our model Constitution doesn’t allow us boundless revenge against even a beast like him. It tells us that everyone is entitled to a new beginning, offering even the vilest a fresh start once they have done their time.

Eugene de Kock has served 20 years of a life sentence, deemed to be 25 years. He has asked forgiveness from the families of each of his (known) victims and greatly assisted the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in lifting the veil on our dark past.

And this is why the minister’s pronouncement is so utterly bizarre, and makes no sense.

Who, according to the minister, is supposed to have consulted with his victims’ families? Correctional services? And because it is incompetent and didn’t do its job, the minister is empowered to deny him parole?

De Kock applied for parole for the first time more than two years ago. Surely that is enough time to consult the families?

Most of De Kock’s victims’ families have forgiven him. Only two – those of Japie Maponya and lawyer Bheki Mlangeni – have for more than a decade now refused to meet him and have opposed parole. Their stance is well-known. So what’s new, Mr Minister?

It is fair and just that Eugene de Kock now be released on parole.

Do we forgive him? I’m not sure. Maybe we need the wisdom of Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu: “Forgiveness does not erase accountability. Forgiveness is about understanding that every one of us is both inherently good and inherently flawed. Within every hopeless situation and every seemingly hopeless person lies the possibility of transformation.”

When I heard this week De Kock might be released, I looked at a photograph taken of him at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission during a hearing in Port Elizabeth, where he testified about his role in the blowing up of the Motherwell Four, three of whom were police officers.

His face was clean-shaven and he wore his peculiar Beatles-style fringe. But what struck me again were those eyes – drab and dark as he spat venom at the generals who sent him into battle and pinned medals on his chest as the corpses piled up.

I vividly remember the day in October 1996 in the Pretoria High Court when Justice Willem van der Merwe condemned De Kock to two life sentences and an additional 212 years behind bars.

As he was led down to the court cells, he glanced through his square glasses – a journalist aptly compared the lenses to the base of a Coke bottle – to the public gallery, nodded at a friend and disappeared for the last time.

I had looked into those eyes for several years after that and saw them light up only once.

I was writing a book and making a TV documentary about De Kock and used to visit him – armed with hot peri-peri Nando’s chicken – on Sunday mornings in Pretoria Central Prison. I asked him to introduce me to three people who knew him intimately and could tell me more about him and his past.

One was an Angolan, Lukas Kalino, who fought with him in the police’s Koevoet unit during the Namibian war. Kalino and De Kock were among the most acclaimed soldiers – and prolific killers – in Koevoet and were in 600 firefights against Swapo guerrillas.

Kalino, a block of a man, came to South Africa after Namibian independence in the early 90s and named his young son Eugene de Kock Kalino. He wanted to see De Kock again, and I took him and the young Eugene to Pretoria Central.

It was a quiet, almost serene, reunion between two men who had forged a bond over the barrel of the gun. They spoke little. It was then that I saw those eyes light up and detected a flicker of life, maybe even a hint of benevolence and kindness, not emotions an assassin entertains.

When your finger curls around the trigger, there isn’t time for smatterings of pity. You do your job in the same way a plumber fixes a toilet or an accountant draws up a balance sheet.

De Kock was 44 years old when he was sent to prison; most of those 44 years were spent being primed to become a killing machine.

The son of a stern, uncompromising magistrate father, De Kock stuttered terribly as a boy. When he wanted to join the police’s elite task force, he was turned down because of poor eyesight.

He instead became a security police officer and was sent to fight alongside Ian Smith’s Rhodesian forces against the liberation forces of Robert Mugabe and Joshua Nkomo.

In 1979, De Kock co-founded Koevoet, a secretive police counterinsurgency unit associated with horrifying human rights abuses. There, he acquired the unit’s highest “kill rate”.

I once obtained photographs (taken for the pleasure of the men) showing De Kock interrogating and torturing a Swapo detainee. In one, he stared into the camera. His eyes spelt doom.

His biggest assignment came in 1984 when he was sent to the police’s death squad based on the farm Vlakplaas, 20km west of Pretoria. He became the unit’s commander a year later.

Many of De Kock’s operations – often preceded by and celebrated with orgies of booze – were executed with extreme cruelty. In 1985, for example, De Kock and his men kidnapped Maponya, a young Krugersdorp bank employee who was due to get married in a few days.

Maponya had no political affiliations, but his older brother was believed to be a member of Umkhonto weSizwe. They thought he knew where his brother was.

De Kock took him to Vlakplaas, where several police officers tortured him. They hit and kicked him and sprayed tear gas in his face. It became clear he didn’t know anything about his brother.

General Johan le Roux then ordered De Kock “to make a plan” with Maponya ¬– security police officers never used the word ‘kill’. So De Kock loaded the injured man – his hands and legs bound – and drove him to the South Africa-Swaziland border. There, he and one of his men threw him over the fence and dragged him into a forest. De Kock then killed him with a spade.

When one of the Vlakplaas men lost his service pistol, De Kock and another police officer killed him with a snooker cue. They rolled his body in a carpet and buried him in a shallow grave.

When De Kock feared that another police officer was going to spill the beans on the death squad’s existence, he ordered his assassination and blamed it on the ANC/Pan Africanist Congress. He then gave him an official burial on the farm.

The list is long.

None of the generals or politicians who spurred De Kock into action, blessed his operations and pinned medals to his chest have ever been charged. Their hands dripping with blood, they said they didn’t know anything.

But when De Kock and his men blew up Khotso House in Joburg in 1988, then minister of law and order Adriaan Vlok flew by helicopter to Vlakplaas to decorate the men.

After a Vlakplaas raid into Lesotho in 1985 in which seven people were shot dead, De Kock was summoned to police headquarters, where then commissioner General Johan van der Merwe pinned another medal to his chest.

After I exposed De Kock and Vlakplaas in the Afrikaans anti-apartheid newspaper Vrye Weekblad in November 1989, I tried to count how many people he had killed. I estimated that since its inception in 1979, the Vlakplaas unit had assassinated about 100 people – inside and outside South Africa.

De Kock’s predecessor, Captain Dirk Coetzee, the man who told the world about Vlakplaas and De Kock, had killed “only” six people.

Those are the ones we know about. In the early 90s, De Kock acquired an even more sinister role: that of heading up a so-called third force to turn townships into blood baths and prevent a democratic election.

When Namibia gained independence, several truckloads of weapons were ferried to Vlakplaas, from which De Kock personally passed military hardware to Inkatha warlords to use in their battle against the ANC.

These weapons were used in some of the biggest massacres – Boipatong and Sebokeng – and an estimated 64 tons of them remain hidden in undisclosed caches in KwaZulu-Natal.

After he left the police, De Kock was found with 88 mortars, 288 hand grenades, 200 antipersonnel mines and 250kg of explosives. He was ready to turn the country into a theatre of carnage.

This is the man who everyone expected to emerge from the innards of Pretoria Central Prison on Thursday.

I have been invited several times to visit him again, but have always felt that I would wait for his release.

I want to look into those eyes again to see if there is more life.

But for now, it will have to wait until the minister is brave enough to embrace the Constitution’s principle of forgiveness and compassion, and give De Kock a second chance.

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