Military 'third force' walks free

Round one is over and the scorecard shows that the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s (TRC) game plan - to force human-rights abusers to come clean in exchange for amnesty - failed where it expected to triumph.

But, in the process, it became an unexpected victor. The most telling statistic from the TRC’s provisional breakdown of the 7 000-odd amnesty applications it received when the deadline expired on Saturday is that “only a handful” of forms came from members of the former South African Defence Force’s covert units, the Inkatha Freedom Party and the National Party.

Yet there is abundant evidence that senior leaders of these three parties were responsible for the single most barbaric development in this country’s history: to create covert military units of the type that devastated Angola and Mozambique and let them loose on the civilians of this country. We are still living with the consequences of this decision: lawlessness, an abundance of unaccounted-for weapons and vicious vendettas still being fought in parts of the country.

The TRC has simply failed to flush out the masterminds and perpetrators of what was probably the apartheid government’s single biggest crime. To be fair, the odds were stacked against the TRC from the moment that KwaZulu-Natal Attorney General Tim McNally failed to secure a conviction against former defence minister Magnus Malan and the other military men who evidently set up the death squads that still haunt this country.

For there is another pattern that emerges from the TRC’s logbook. Convicted prisoners, with nothing to lose, show a remarkable penchant for the truth. By far the greatest number of amnesty applications came from behind bars and, in the case of former colonel Eugene de Kock, provide damning evidence which may still be used to ensure some justice is done.

The other major defeat for the TRC was suffered on KwaZulu-Natal’s battlefields, where, even though a low-intensity civil war that claimed up to 20 000 lives was fought in the last years of apartheid, not a single warlord has come forward to claim responsibility.

The task of extracting the truth about those terrible years now falls to the criminal justice system. Offices of the attorneys general are inundated with enough evidence to book at least some of the NP, IFP and military men who must be scoffing at the TRC’s failure.

The De Kock trial showed how vital it is, in a country that has to restitch its tattered social fabric with moral fibre, to have a dynamic ability to prosecute those who abused human life and rights. It is now over to the Department of Justice and the attorneys general to find the staff, money and courage to ensure that all those men who formed and fomented the Third Force and used it to devastating effect in KwaZulu-Natal are not allowed to walk free and unrepentant.

This is all the more important given the need to ensure that such savagery is never again unleashed on this country. But it is in this regard that the TRC has come up with an unexpected triumph. That is in the form of an almost complete admission from the African National Congress about the abuses committed by its cadres.

The party owned up to and accepted full responsibility for heinous attacks on civilian targets and serious abuse at its detention centres in exile, including unsolicited detail about the rape of women cadres. The ANC also admitted to its decision to set up and arm township self-defence units in the early 1990s.

Deputy President Thabo Mbeki this week admitted his organisation had been unable to control many of these bands when they ran wild, terrorising ordinary residents and, in many cases, provoking support for Inkatha’s paramilitary counter to them. “At that stage few would have been wise enough to anticipate us not being in control later,” said Mbeki.

It may sound like a quibble now, but had Mbeki and his colleagues read and heeded the warnings published in this and other papers about the renegade self-defence units, they may have acquired that wisdom and saved lives in the process. But the honesty and openness of the ANC can only augur well for the future.

As Tom Lodge, professor of political science at the University of the Witwatersrand, says: “The TRC has told us rather more about the behaviour of the liberation movements than about the government of the day. But as the previous regime is unlikely to be in power again, it is perhaps more important that the current government has given such an account of its past.”



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