Laureate with blood on his hands

2012-05-15 00:00

THE latest furore about statements made by former apartheid president F.W. de Klerk has raised one very pertinent point: the political considerations that go into the decisions regarding the award of the Nobel Peace Prize. It also raises again the circumstances in which that prize was jointly awarded to De Klerk and to Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela, and seems to highlight the underlying prejudices of De Klerk.

For, in the words of Mandela, just a month before the award of the prize, De Klerk was guilty of “an act of thuggery” and was “a man with blood on his hands”.

Such comments were made and recorded, but little attention was paid to them as uncomfortable evidence was, by then, being swamped by a feel-good wave of Rainbow Nation euphoria. Fact was fast becoming embedded in fantasy and a simplistic promotion of reconciliation was the dominant theme.

As moves toward a negotiated settlement in South Africa got solidly under way, it became clear that the Nobel committee was in favour of the award to Mandela. But, as myth took the place of calm, critical analysis, political considerations took the place of principle. Would not a joint award help to promote reconciliation and peace in South Africa? Broad agreement was canvassed from several leading anti-apartheid figures, including, apparently, the 1984 recipient of the prize, then Anglican archbishop, Desmond Mpilo Tutu.

So it was that the Nobel committee decided on the joint award to Mandela and De Klerk. The two men were scheduled to travel separately to Oslo in December 1993 to have the honour conferred on them. De Klerk, as the last apartheid president, would fly in the presidential aircraft, NAN, calling in on various heads of state along the way. Mandela would make his own way to the Norwegian capital.

Then, on October 8, one of the apartheid state’s hit squads, with the authorisation of De Klerk and his top ministers, crossed the border into the then still nominally independent Transkei, and murdered five schoolchildren. That massacre at 47 J. C. Jordan Street in the Mthatha suburb of North Crest is now part of the apartheid claims case scheduled to be heard in the United States.

In that October, De Klerk became the first South African — and perhaps only — head of state, let alone Nobel Peace Prize nominee, publicly to claim credit for a massacre. While the gunmen and their immediate superiors remained a mystery, De Klerk announced that he had ordered the destruction of “an Apla facility” in the Transkei. The house in North Crest, he said, was a base used by the military wing of the Pan Africanist Congress “to launch attacks on South Africa”.

This appeared to be a public relations exercise calculated to reassure the restive right-wing elements within the still ruling National Party that De Klerk was not “going soft”. And De Klerk duly announced that he had been “fully informed” of every aspect of the raid.

There was also no doubt of the lethal success of the venture, for there were even colour photographs of the bodies that De Klerk displayed. The police followed up with a statement in which they said that the raid on the North Crest house had been a “27-minute operation” and that the “five terrorists” who had died had “offered resistance”.

These were lies. And they were quickly exploded, largely through the work of Dumisa Ntsebeza who was then still a human rights lawyer based in Mthatha.

There was no evidence of any resistance and the dead, shot on mattresses on the floor as they slept before the television, were Samora and Sadat, the 16-year-old twin sons of local butcher Sigqipo Mpendulo and their friends, Thando Mthembu (17) and Mzwandile Mfeya and Sandiso Yose, both just 12 years old. An independent post mortem later established that 16 bullets had been fired into the body of Sadat Mpendulo, 11 into his twin, Samora and that, between them, Sandiso Yose and Mzwandile Mfeya had been shot 37 times. Six bullets ended the life of Thando Mthembu.

Mandela was briefed about the killings and, two weeks later, in a televised interview, stated: “For a president to authorise the killing of children is a blatant act of terrorism.” He went on to note that De Klerk had not apologised and “did not have the decency to apologise”.

These statements tended to be buried in the local media amid all the speculation about a negotiated settlement and the prospect of the joint peace prize award. Mandela too, did not again raise the issue even when, just days before the award ceremony in Oslo, a civil action demanding compensation for murder from De Klerk, his foreign minister, Roelof “Pik” Botha, law and order minister Hernus Kriel, as well as defence minister Kobie Coetsee was lodged with the Transkei supreme court.

But no major newspaper, radio or television station took up the issue. As Fergal Keane, then the BBC correspondent in South Africa noted: “Who wants to bugger up a fairy tale?” However, Mandela did state, on his way to Oslo, that De Klerk was a man with “blood on his hands”.

A year later, De Klerk was to complain bitterly to American author and journalist Patti Waldmeir about the accusation. He said he was horrified to be labelled in this manner. It was unfair. Mandela had failed to understand “the complexity of the situation”.

Later, and again without attendant publicity, Mandela intervened and De Klerk was persuaded to offer compensation to the families of the murdered pupils in exchange for the civil murder case being dropped. State money was allocated to pay for the funerals and the legal costs of the families and to compensate them for their loss. In the name of reconciliation, a convenient blanket of silence fell over the massacre.

But Sigqibo Mpendulo, father of the twin boys who were butchered by the death squad, would not let the matter rest. He wanted to know who had actually pulled the triggers, what was the chain of command, from De Klerk down, and how erroneous information came to be acted on. As a result, he was one of the first claimants in the series of class action lawsuits lodged in New York in 2002 against banks and companies that profited from the apartheid system. He made clear that he wanted the murder of his children to be seen not as an isolated or aberrant act, but as a logical extension of a system that made victims of millions of people.

That is the very point De Klerk dismissed in his recent controversial interview in which he excused the concept of apartheid as the recognition of historically justified ethnic homelands that had, unfortunately, resulted in hurt and harm. It provided evidence — if ever more was needed — that De Klerk persists in promoting the apartheid mythology of a virtually empty land of South Africa, colonised by the Afrikaners. It also seems that Mandela was correct when he stated in 1993 that “when it comes to the blacks he [De Klerk] is absolutely insensitive”.

• Terry Bell is the author of Unfinished Business — South Africa, apartheid & truth (Verso, 2003).

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