Blood on our hands

2011-04-21 00:00

IT is not forbidden, says the Constitutional Court, to call Robert McBride a murderer. But it is not fair to do so, implies Judge Zakeria­ Yacoob in the Mxenge Memorial Lecture printed in The Witness, because Robert McBride killed for a moral cause.

To be fair, Yacoob made no direct­ comment on McBride's bomb in Magoo's Bar which killed three women. It was The Witness which put McBride's picture against the heading "Killing for a Moral Cause". Yacoob was simply pondering whether the amnesty granted to those who killed, both to struggle heroes and to apartheid villains, could be equated.

He was talking about the apartheid villains who killed the Mxenges. Yacoob said: "There must therefore be a fundamental distinction between the unlawful conduct of those who were heroes in a just moral cause and the villains who dared to act illegally in support of the unacceptable apartheid sin."

Was McBride a hero in a just moral cause? Hardly, in my view. He hated apartheid, and with good reason. He wanted to take up his part in the rightful struggle. But did that justify three innocent deaths? Even if the cause for which you are fighting is just and moral that does not mean that whatever you do in that fight is just and moral.

Apartheid was a terrible sin. It gave rise to many other terrible sins as in its last days its perpetrators sought to defend it. Magoo's Bar was reportedly a favourite­ haunt of off-duty police officers. But does the fight against apartheid entitle a person to kill police officers who are off duty?

In the event the three dead victims and most of those injured had no police connection, but were innocent bystanders. Suicide bombers may be murderers but at least they sacrifice their own lives along with their victims. They accept that to take lives demands that we sacrifice our own too. McBride placed his bomb and ran away.

So yes, he was a murderer. But in any war, one may argue, innocent bystanders are likely to be killed. It is a regrettable but un-avoidable part of a just struggle. By extension are we to say that Nelson Mandela, and those with him who embraced Umkhonto we Sizwe and the armed struggle, were implicated in murder too? Was it okay to kill in order to end apartheid?

On the other hand, what of those who killed to defend apartheid? It is easy to agree that those who killed the Mxenges, those who killed the Pebco three, the CCB, the hit squads, were murderers. But the troopies who killed Cuban soldiers in Angola in what they were told was their line of duty, were they murderers too?

There are no clean hands. Apartheid was a very grave sin. Even more grave sins were committed in order to defend it. Those who took up the armed struggle in Umkhonto we Sizwe thought they had no other way to overcome it. But armed struggles have a way of getting out of hand as the liberation soldiers, remembering Quattro, know very well . Whether the random acts of terrorism in the name of that armed struggle played any part in the demise of apartheid is dubious. In my view apartheid fell primarily for economic reasons, because people were tired of sending sons for a wasted two years in the army and because the consciences of white Afrikaners caught up with them.

Were the members of hit squads murderers? Yes, they were. Was McBride a murderer? Yes, he was. Were the troopies murderers? It sounds harsh, but yes, they were. But what made McBride the tortured, sick man that he seems to be? And who sent the troopies to that pointless war? And indeed who made Ferdie Barnard and Dirk Oosthuizen and all the other apartheid killers the monsters that they were?

We are all complicit — the politicians who sent our sons to Angola, P. W. Botha, Magnus Malan, Jimmy Kruger and all those other near-forgotten names. But yes, all of us too who did so little to oppose apartheid, all of us who by our inaction made the McBrides of the world.

I do not agree with Yacoob. The killings committed by liberation soldiers are not less tragic than the killings committed by the forces of apartheid.

In almost every case, the victims of both were innocent victims of the system. We mourn them all; and we repent of them all for to some extent we all have blood on our hands.

• Ronald Nicolson is a retired academic and Anglican priest.

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