Former apartheid-era police colonel Eugene de Kock. File photo: Denis Farrell
Former apartheid-era police colonel Eugene de Kock. File photo: Denis Farrell
Bulelani Ngcuka was urged by Thabo Mbeki not to get snagged in the past.
Bulelani Ngcuka was urged by Thabo Mbeki not to get snagged in the past.

Johannesburg - The most striking thing about Eugene de Kock after serving just over five years in C Max of a 212-year sentence, is the shadowing around the eyes. De Kock’s eye sockets, offset against an unhealthy prison pallor, are a matte black colour, as though smudged on with a thick application of make-up, and the effect is only intensified by the greyish tinted dominee or civil servant-issue Coke bottle spectacles.

If the eyes are the windows to the soul, the lights here were switched off some time earlier.

It is some time early in 2001. I am working as a senior special investigator with the now defunct Scorpions. I have been given what, in retrospect, might be counted a thankless tasking.

When the Truth and Reconciliation Commission wound up its business in the late 1990s, it left behind a substantial body of unfinished business. This was made up largely of incidents and abuses on record where evidence, much of it compelling, had been led about likely guilt and responsibility, but where amnesty had either not been sought or had been denied.

Such matters were fair game under the processes of common law, and had been referred back to Bulelani Ngcuka’s National Prosecuting Authority for further investigation and possible prosecution.

Well and good. Only then-president Thabo Mbeki – presumably having done some rough calculations around the possible cost, material and political, of meaningful reparations and thousands of possible prosecutions – has indicated, publicly and privately, it is time to put the past behind us.

As conveyed to me by my bosses, Ngcuka and the late Percy Sonn, then head of the DSO, the strong message was we should be focusing on developing an internationally cutting-edge law enforcement for the future, not getting snagged up in the past.

The long and the short of it was that my bosses have urged me to keep it very short indeed. What we were looking for was a very limited number of high-profile, apartheid-era atrocities that could be taken to court at relatively minor expense, and could be expected to deliver the right kind of publicity and the right kind of convictions, thus assuaging the public’s need for closure.

It was to be as much a symbolic as a prosecutorial exercise. Thus briefed, I had scoured the evidence handed over by the TRC and sketched in some possible lines of investigation, settling, in the end, on a series of notorious security police actions in the Eastern Cape in the mid-1980s, notably the still unpunished assassination of the so-called Cradock Four in 1985, but also touching on the killing of three other activists known as the Pebco Three who were lured in the same year into a Security Police trap, believing they were collecting donor funding for the struggle against apartheid, but taken instead to their death.

There was, I believed, a logic running through the two sets of murders, and I was looking to find it. In respect of the Pebco Three – civic activists Sipho Hashe, Champion Galela, and Qaqawuli Godolozi – the now late Security Police Colonel Gideon Niewoudt (also one of the many cops, incidentally, allegedly involved in the brutal killing in 1977 of Steve Biko), whom I had identified as an initial target for investigation, had in fact applied for amnesty, but unsuccessfully.

With regard to the Cradock Four assassinations, while the killings were allegedly committed by members of the notorious Civil Co-operation Bureau, parachuted in from Gauteng, there was a paper trail thanks to former Transkei military ruler, the redoubtable Major General Bantu Holomisa.

As the TRC had entered in evidence, a South African intelligence signal had been anonymously shared with Holomisa, in which was recorded an “urgent” need for the “permanent removal” of Matthew Goniwe, his brother Mbulelo, and Fort Calata from the community of Cradock. As Holomisa pointed out in a letter to Transkei’s director of Military Intelligence at the time, there is no doubt that the physical elimination of Goniwe and Calata “was approved at the highest echelons of the state security council”.

I was interested in securing De Kock’s assistance in tracing responsibility for the murders back to those who had ordered them. He was way ahead of me. As I made notes, he sketched in a spider’s web of suggested strategic interventions as coldly ruthless as, I am convinced, they would have been devastatingly effective if they had been acted upon.

Niewoudt, he noted, had a much-loved daughter busy with tertiary education, and dependent on Niewoudt’s police pension to continue with her studies. He pointed out that the NPA as an agency of state was in a position to see to it that this pension was summarily withdrawn or at least suspended – of course to compel Niewoudt’s frank assistance in return for it continuing.

Getting Niewoudt to provide evidence against his immediate superiors was just the beginning for De Kock. His ruthless logic and insider knowledge turned their dark, unblinking spotlight on these figures’ particular vulnerabilities – the point at which they would be faced, in Mafia jargon, with offers they could not refuse. In some cases it was a need for chronic medication, and therefore police medical aid. In others it was the kind of prurient personal scandal that could leave a spotless reputation in tatters overnight. De Kock knew exactly where the bones were buried, and in which safes the incriminating pictures could be found.

I walked out of the prison all but shell-shocked that day. To be sure, there was something creepy and inhumane about the relentlessly icy logic of De Kock’s analysis. At the same time, though, I was sensible to the remarkable resource that was lurking behind those shadowed eyes in the highest security prison in the land.

Although I had anticipated having to prevaricate and fudge what we were offering as a trade-off, there had been no attempt whatever on his part to trade his information and insight for personal benefits. The sole concern he expressed was that apartheid’s footsoldiers should no longer be forced to take responsibility for orders that they had been merely following.

I prepared my report and submitted it and, I guess it found its way to gather dust in an ever-expanding pile marked “Good Ideas – Never Acted Upon”. And in general the responsibilities inherited by the NPA from the TRC remained on the back-burner until 2006, when somebody decided the way to deal with the unresolved past was to have former police minister Adriaan Vlok bathe the feet of then-Presidency director- general Frank Chikane in a public ceremony.

Meanwhile, Niewoudt re-entered the public purview when it turned out he had served as the conduit at least for the discredited identification of Ngcuka as security police agent RS 452, later punted by Mac Maharaj, now Presidency spokesman, and former spy boss Mo Shaik – until the real RS 452 was revealed.

The encyclopaedic resource that is De Kock has on occasion been drawn upon over the years of his incarceration, notably by the dogged NPA team of former TRC investigator Madeleine Fullard in her efforts to find the bones of the disappeared, and bring their families and communities towards closure.

More recently, when Nobel Peace Prize winner and former president FW de Klerk told the world he had a “clear conscience. I am not guilty of any crime whatsoever”, De Kock reached a tipping point, approaching the Jacob Zuma presidency claiming to be in possession of new evidence linking De Klerk to abuses of power in the apartheid years. There followed what was reported as a three-hour meeting in 2010 between De Kock and Zuma himself. The Presidency later denied the meeting had ever taken place.

And, though eligible and recommended for release on parole, De Kock remains in the dark world of C-Max.

Weekend Argus