/ 8 December 1995

The Prussian of Pritchard St

Klaus von Lieres, ex-Wits attorney general and now KwaMakhutha trial defence counsel, in THE MARK GEVISSER PROFILE

OI’M glad,” said one particularly laconic senior counsel after the opening of the Trial of the Generals in Durban last week, “to see that Klaus is feeling a little better.”

The comment was a reference to the fact that the advocate defending the accused is none other than Klaus Peter Constantin Otto von Lieres und Wilkau, the former attorney general of the Witwatersrand who took early retirement, aged 55, in May because of ill- health. Now, six months later, he finds himself, boisterously, at the centre of the grandest show-trial of our time — representing, interestingly enough, not the generals themselves (his former commanders: he is a Citizen Force brigadier), but those Inkatha Freedom Party members accused of actually pulling the triggers of the guns that killed 13 people at KwaMakhutha.

KwaZulu-Natal Attorney General Tim McNally told the media that his courtroom clash with Von Lieres would be a “battle of the giants”. The shadow of OJ falls long indeed: just swop the bloody glove for a note reading “Chapter 1, verse 1” and the Bronco for a white Combi, then throw in a slaughtered goat for that African feel. Von Lieres as Johnnie Cochran and NcNally as Marcia Clark — if nothing else, there is a vocal congruence: Klaus, like Johnnie, is booming and bluff; Tim, like Marcia, is reedy and shrill.

Von Lieres says he barely ever watched the OJ trial: he doesn’t approve of televised courtrooms — “it’s the modern version of a Roman circus”, turning legal procedure into mass entertainment. He does, however, understand the enormous significance of the KwaMakhutha trial. “There is a critical issue at stake: may the government act outside the bounds of the law when it finds itself in a situation of crisis?”

Given who his clients are, he will not venture to answer this question. Klaus von Lieres remains something of an enigma in South African law. This is the man who fought the battle to have the AWB election bombers denied bail — and won it. This is the man who made the decision to prosecute Winnie Mandela, who was the first prosecutor to charge a security policeman with the death of a detainee, who got Janusz Waluz and Clive Derby-Lewis convicted of murder for the death of Chris Hani. He was that rare thing indeed in the ranks of the state advocates, not only a sharp lawyer, but a showman.

But to many of the lawyers who have found themselves pitted against him during his 30- year tenure as a state prosecutor, Von Lieres’ not-unexpected spurt of activity so soon after his May retirement is further proof of his ideological bias. Von Lieres disputes the characterisation: “I retired my post for one reason only. I was diagnosed as having a vascular occlusion in my legs, and the stress of managing a team of 300 prosecutors was dangerous to my health.” Now, as an advocate at the bar, he can work at an easier pace. And he took on the KwaMakhutha case for one reason only: he was briefed, and he couldn’t refuse. That was that.

Most of his colleagues acknowledge that he is a good prosecutor and a very clever man. But they also describe him as “brash”, “bullying”, “of obtrusive temperament”, “rude, difficult and unhelpful”. I sit with Von Lieres in his temporary office in Schreiner Chambers, where he’s not quite at home yet. He is a large- boned man, but there is, today, none of his legendary fury. If he is the Bismarck of Pritchard Street I see none of it. In fact, if there is any vestige of Prussian aristocracy in his demeanour (his father, a German nobleman, emigrated to South Africa in the 1920s), it is extreme courtliness. He answers my questions, talking to a point four paces behind my left ear. When pleased with himself, he allows the quickest of snake-lick smiles to flash across his features. He is opinionated and self-assured, yes, but in a most bland and evasive way.

Except for the knuckles. Garlanded with chunky gold rings inlaid with stones —upmarket knuckledusters — I catch them cracking against each other as he makes a point about conflict. From that moment on, I cannot take my eyes off them. They move with a deliberation that borders on menace. They remind me that my subject is containing himself for the purposes of a media interview. They are involuntary signifiers that their owner is, in another context, a fighter.

He answers the charges against him ably. As a prosecutor he was, he insists, utterly independent. Was he not the first to lay charges against a security policeman for the murder of a detainee? Did he not bring policemen to book and get them the noose for killing suspects in drug investigations? If he was an apparatchik, why did Chris Heunis once accuse him of “undermining” government policy by refusing to prosecute squatters? He even prosecuted a National Party MP for electoral fraud, for God’s sake!

He certainly does not speak like a discarded apparatchik. He believes we are reaping the harvest of the past, because “the state used legislation to try to enforce its political policies and once you misuse law, the citizenry loses its respect for it … That is why we are in such a total mess today.”

His only complaint about the transition to democracy, he says, is that “it didn’t happen 18 years earlier, when PW Botha first started speaking about it. Eighteen lost years!”

Why, if this is what he thinks, do so many people consider him to have been an agent of the state during those 18 years? He answers with a rare surge of extremity: “The revolutionary alliance’s propaganda machine, with all its international support, was absolutely brilliant. It even outdid Goebbels. It was so good the government itself began to believe it. The biggest propaganda trick of the 1980s was [to claim] that South Africa was a police state. This was done by concentrating on so-called security offences. Sure we had lots of people in the security branch; but no way was South Africa a police state. If it was, we would never have had so high a crime rate!”

He is particularly proud of the fact that he made a point never to prosecute anyone under security legislation if he could get them under common law. Others counter that by using common law rather than security laws he was refusing to acknowledge that the people he was prosecuting were not common criminals, but rather individuals committing criminal acts for a political cause.

One judge, who clashed often with Von Lieres in court when a lawyer, feels that the attorney general was neither corrupt, nor a state hack, but rather that he was just unable — or unwilling — to see dissent as anything other than criminality.

The judge points to the fact that Von Lieres sued Minister of Justice Kobie Coetzee for reneging on a promise to appoint him director- general of justice (he lost the case). “This man is no lackey. He is his own boss; he doesn’t toady to anyone. But it just so happens that his belief in Olaw and order’, in defending South Africa from the forces of darkness, coincided perfectly with the political aspirations of those in government. There was no improper interference; there didn’t need to be.”

Another senior counsel, who knows Von Lieres well, feels that even his tough prosecution of “bad cops” fits this profile well. “They were the bad apples that were contaminating the whole cart and thus had to be made an example of. But the cart, in his eyes, was good and proper; it was never questioned.”

Perhaps the problem, ventures an advocate who does much criminal work, “is that Klaus as prosecutor was not just a man representing the state’s side of an argument. He was a missionary, a crusader. He was right, and if you represented the Ocriminal’, you were wrong. You were not just doing your job, you were an evil and dirty person, and he had no time for you.”

Another advocate laughs, remembering how he was once invited to a function in the attorney general’s office. “I had to leave, as there were just too many generals there who I had cross-examined in one case or another!” Von Lieres is as much a military man as he is a legal crusader. Much decorated, he is in fact one of only three brigadiers in the Citizen Force (another is Roy Andersen, head of the Johannesburg Stock Exchange). He sees no conflict of interest in being an independent attorney general and an SANDF senior official. “Look at Andersen! Does the fact that he’s a brigadier affect his business on the JSE?”

It is a spurious argument. Klaus von Lieres, unlike Roy Andersen, was a public official appointed to be the public’s representative in court. He represented our interests. Certainly, he prosecuted generals accused of fraud, but how could he have been entrusted to keep a check on the often-illegal military activities of the state when he was deeply implicated in the military hierarchy himself?

Von Lieres insists that he had “nothing to do with Military Intelligence or covert action”. There is no reason to doubt him. But there is evidence that he was deeply involved in the repression of dissent. He served on the Steyn commission of enquiry into legislation affecting the security forces, was chief investigator in Judge Eloff’s commission of enquiry into the South African Council of Churches, and was Judge Steyn’s deputy in the notorious commision of enquiry into mass media, which ruled, in 1982, that the media be controlled through a state-established council and register.

His relations with the media have always been strained. In 1993, he made the decision to prosecute rookie Beeld journalist Andries Corniellesen for refusing to testify against Peter Mokaba in the “Kill the Boer” brouhaha. It was a capricious and irrational action, and for that reason Corniellesen’s 12-month sentence was overturned on appeal.

Previously, he locked horns with the Vrye Weekblad, suing Max du Preez for accusing him of wearing grey shoes and of conducting a vendetta against the paper, and for persistently calling him, in its satire column, “Herr Klaus Peter Constantin Otto von Lieres und Wilkau (wasgoed ingesluit)” — the last an idiomatic expression roughly approximating “everything including the kitchen sink”. Perhaps it wasn’t a vendetta (he won), but, according to Du Preez, the Weekblad was charged 12 times in two months – — once for paraphrasing Joe Slovo before he was unbanned.

The cynics would say that by taking on the KwaMakhutha case, Von Lieres is betraying his political sympathies. Or that he is desperate, in that nowhere called “retirement”, for the limelight once more. Perhaps, like Johnnie Cochran, he has found a perfect way to merge political zeal with a love of glamour. Glamour? We’ll have to wait till March, but my instinct is there’s not going to be much of that commodity hanging around the KwaMakhutha trial.