Pinky Khoabane

Pinky Khoabane says that white South Africa has never forgiven McBride despite the amnesty granted him by the TRC.


Johannesburg - In the week that white South Africans were up in arms over Robert McBride’s nomination to head the Independent Police Investigative Directorate, “Dr Death” Wouter Basson was, quietly, facing the Health Professional Council of South Africa (HPCSA) over his unethical conduct in apartheid South Africa’s chemical and biological warfare.

Both men were involved in the violence perpetrated during apartheid and I use this description of their deeds as prescribed by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) – that farcical process which South Africa opted to take in dealing with the violent crimes of the time instead of the more commonly followed manner of dealing with crimes of gross human rights violations. And I say farcical because it is a process which treated the crimes equally when, in truth, one was in response to an evil system declared a crime against humanity by the UN.

Germany, for example, used the Nuremberg trials to prosecute Nazis involved in the violence perpetrated against Jews and the International Criminal Court (ICC) currently conducts trials against political leaders implicated in gross human rights violations in their countries. For purposes of this debate, let’s put aside the fact that the ICC has focused its attention only on African leaders, largely ignoring the crimes perpetuated by the West, including those by the US and Israel. That the US is not a signatory to the Rome Statute and yet, it sits on the UN’s Security Council and deliberates on which countries should be prosecuted, is a point of much consternation for those at the receiving end of the ICC.


But back to the issue of white South Africans’ refusal to forgive crimes done to their relatives during apartheid, as demonstrated by their uproar over McBride’s nomination in contrast to the deafening silence to Basson’s attempt to remain a practising medical doctor, despite his heinous crimes.

McBride, introduced to political activism at a young age, decided to join the liberation struggle and together with other freedom fighters waged an armed struggle as the only means of toppling the apartheid system.

He led the operation that bombed the Why Not Restaurant and Magoo’s Bar in Durban on June 14, 1986. Three women died and 69 people were injured in the attack. The TRC report declared that many of the victims of this attack were civilians, for which McBride was granted amnesty.


Basson, a practising cardiologist, is accused of establishing a chemical warfare research laboratory, producing large-scale Mandrax, cocaine and tear gas which the apartheid government supplied to Angola’s Unita rebel leader Jonas Savimbi.

For those of you who will want to point out that these are simply accusations and nothing else, let me quickly explain that this is newspaper jargon meant to avoid litigation.

The truth is that South Africa waged chemical warfare against political opponents. Basson headed this barbaric project which created, among others, cyanide capsules which were distributed among operatives and other substances which were injected into anti-apartheid activists leading to their collapse, unconsciousness and death.

That a South African court cleared Basson is not the issue. Not only was evidence of the horrendous crimes committed in the name of apartheid revealed at the TRC by apartheid operatives who were lured by the opportunity to be granted amnesty, but we also know that many of the judges who sit in our courts are the same people who sent political activists to hang for nothing else but fighting for freedom.

In a normal country, Basson’s crimes would be seen for what they are – criminal activities in the same vein as those who persecuted Jews. But not in South Africa.

Basson was a soldier, the explanation goes. But if we were to accept that he was, why do some among us struggle to accept that McBride, too, was a soldier?

While we’ve been fed the line of the relatives of the victims of Magoo’s Bar as reason for the uproar every time McBride’s name crops up, what about Maria Ntuli – and many others – whose son was abducted by apartheid’s operatives under the pretext he was joining Umkhonto we Sizwe in Botswana?

Jeremiah Ntuli was only 16 when he, together with nine other teenagers from Mamelodi, were lured into a minibus in the pretext of joining the armed struggle. It was 1986.

The events leading to their death were only divulged when Jack Cronje, Jacques Hechter, Paul van Vuuren, Wouter Mentz and Roelf Venter approached the TRC for amnesty.

The killers explained how the teenagers, once recruited and lured into believing they were on their way to Botswana, were injected with a chemical. When they fell unconscious they were bundled into a minibus full of explosives and detonated.

Maria Ntuli and the mothers of the other teenagers who were with her son – now famously known as the Mothers of the Mamelodi 10 – have been among those who have objected to Basson’s return to medicine. They have consistently shown their support for the HPCSA’s efforts to have Basson stripped of his medical badge. But of concern is that even as their names emerged during Basson’s hearing two weeks ago, South Africa turned a deaf ear, but instead, focused on McBride.

White South Africa has never forgiven McBride, despite the amnesty granted him by the TRC, which was also granted to many apartheid operatives who roam freely today.

His is not an isolated revulsion though. We see the constant double standards displayed in our racial response to all manner of crimes committed in our country. There will, however, never be true peace in this country if we continue to have these double standards in response to perpetrators of crimes during apartheid.


* Khoabane is a writer, author and columnist.

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Newspapers.

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