Narrow brief limits the scope of Harms inquiry

Fears are growing that the Harms Commission into political killings is more an exercise damage-control investigation than an inquiry that will get “to the bone,” as President FW de Klerk promised. And it will not necessarily be the fault of the commissioner, Mr Justice Louis ’ Harms. 

The terms of reference of the commission limit its investigations in ways which make it difficult for him to get to the marrow. By limiting the commission to an investigation of politically related killings within the borders of South Africa, De Klerk has ruled out the vast majority of covert action against opponents of apartheid.
Cross-border actions were more frequent and more horrifying than many of the internal ones in the years of the ‘‘total onslaught’‘. 

However, this is not the only problem facing Harms. He also has to deal with a security establishment not used to being called to account for its actions. Harms has agreed to an in camera hearing relating to allegations that murdered Swapo lawyer Anton Lubowski was an agent of the SA Defence Force. The hearing will determine whether evidence relating to Lubowski’s relationship to the SADF should be heard in open sitting. The outcome may be the first credibility test for Harms. 

Harms said yesterday that there would probably be an open hearing on Monday, dealing with the Civil Co-operation Bureau - the secret SADF agency allegedly responsible for the murders of Lubowski and Johannesburg activist and academic David Webster. Harms was unable, in terms of his brief, to take immediate strong action against Major-General Eddie Webb-head of SADF Special Forces and CCB chairman - when the latter, with a cynical dismissiveness reminiscent of the Steve Biko inquest, all but refused to co-operate with the commission.

Meanwhile, Defence Minister Magnus Malan - despite his prominent position in former State President PW Botha’s State Security Council since its inception in the late 1970s - claims that he knew nothing about the CCB until November last year. This claim is being disputed by Army Chief of Staff Major-General Jan Klopper and SADF Deputy Chief of Staff Major-General Abraham Joubert, both of whom gave evidence to the effect that Malan would indeed have known of special force operations. Supporting Malan - in effect, if not necessarily in intention - was General Rudolf “Witkop” Badenhorst, Chief of Army Intelligence. 

According to Badenhorst, who is the intermediary in the chain of command between Webb and Malan, CCB chairman Webb had kept him in the dark about the existence of the CCB and, equally, about the nature of special forces operations. What many observers interpret from all the intrigue by the top military brass - especially in view of the fact that the formation of the CCB has been conclusively documented at the highest levels of the state security apparatus - is that Webb is being set up by his fellow officers to take the fall. He, on the other hand, is reacting the only way he knows bow: with silence and aggression. Perhaps the most significant problem the commission will be grappling with in the coming months is its definition of the interests of state security. 

In the past, the securocrats manufactured a condition of ‘‘total onslaught” and used this to justify the most extreme measures against the AN C. The notion of state security became little more than a synonym for the repression of the ANC/SACPIPAC/Swapo. Now, however, the situation has changed. The ANC has been unbanned and can no longer be portrayed as the sinister force the securocrats wanted it to be. So, too, the notion of state security itself has become highly questionable. Far from providing the excuse the securocrats would like, “state security’’ is precisely the problem.

This article originally appeared in the Weekly Mail.

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