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Apartheid-era secrets now in ashes

Published Jul 30, 2007


Whether former president FW de Klerk and other high-ranking members of the former National Party government condoned or even ordered mass murders and other human rights abuses may never be finally proved.

This is largely because De Klerk, in an act that historians and archivists would describe as gross vandalism, ordered the destruction of tons of files and other documentary evidence of the past.

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Seen in the present context, it destroyed evidence of the chain of command - of who were the planners, the decision-makers and commanders.

This took place as the negotiations for a democratic transition in South Africa drew to a close.

Tons of files, microfilm, audio and computer tapes and disks were shredded, wiped and incinerated over a six-month period over 1993.

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There was so much material that state incinerators could not cope: the furnaces of private companies, such as steelmaker, Iscor, had also to be used.

This was not the first time that the facilities of private companies had been made available to a state government keen to purge physical evidence of past atrocities.

Such disposals were, of course, business transactions and no questions were asked, this being the nature of the relationship of South African business to the state.

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Evidence of the destruction of archives first surfaced in 1991 at the Convention for a Democratic South Africa forum (Codesa) in Kempton Park where government and anti-apartheid representatives eventuallyreached a compromise that would lead to the formation of a multi-racial democracy.

Inquiries about the taped talks in 1988 between then President PW Botha and Nelson Mandela were made at the talks.

Delegates were told that the National Intelligence Service had destroyed the tapes.

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This resulted in immediate demands, from the anti-apartheid representatives, to halt the destruction of state records and to ensure that the national archives be kept reasonably intact.

However, in the end, the protest failed.

It was not only the governing National Party leadership and the generals, brigadiers, colonels and "foot soldiers" in various parts of the security apparatus who wished the destruction to continue.

There were also the various informers and collaborators in business and general civil society as well as within the various anti-apartheid structures who wanted their secrets to stay secret.

Among the negotiators on both sides at the historic Codesa talks were individuals whose future careers depended on records being eradicated.

But, given the delicate nature of the compromise being sought at the negotiations, legal procedures, so far as possible, had to be followed.

High-handed and obviously unilateral destruction could create problems with the transition to democracy.

So, while the talks continued, De Klerk, as head of government, instructed his office to secure a state legal opinion on the issue of the destruction of files.

In what can perhaps best be described as an example of legalistic sophistry, it was duly delivered.

It was decreed that documents labelled "secret" could not exist in the archives.

Seven days later, the National Intelligence Service also procured a legal opinion, which they subsequently quoted to justify the mass destruction of records.

It confirmed the earlier one obtained by De Klerk's office and added that tape recordings, because they were not "written" documents, could also not be archived.

Anything not described as an archive could be destroyed. It was all perfectly legal.

At the time, there was no popular outcry about this bureaucratic action. Only a small number of individuals realised what it could mean.

Brian Currin, of Lawyers for Human Rights, launched a application to the Supreme Court to stop the destruction of files. He lost.

It was a battle hardly noticed as talks at Kempton Park continued, along with bellicose and much publicised threats from the essentially small and fragmented white right.

Also, as a corollary of the talks, there were investigations, formal commissions of inquiry into secret projects and into "third force" violence.

The term implied - as it was meant to - that there existed outside of the armed forces of the apartheid state and those of the anti-apartheid movements another force bent on destabilising the move towards a multiracial democracy.

It was this shadowy force which was said to be responsible for arming, training and transporting various gangs and for promoting violent attacks such as the killing in June 1992 of 45 men, women and children in the township of Boipatong. But it is now known that, whether at Boipatong or anywhere else, there was no "third force".

The units in action were still those of the apartheid state, some of them operating relatively independently, but within officially established parameters.

However, who turned loose these dogs of war and who planned their actions or gave authority for what they did? Who provided the logistics and the orders?

Much of the documentary evidence that could point to guilt or innocence or to levels of complicity was deliberately destroyed.

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