Exposing the dirty deeds of the apartheid death squads was a cleansing experience for Jacques Pauw, writes Angella Johnson
ONE of the most poignant moments in Jacques Pauw’s remarkable two-hour television documentary on mass murderer Eugene de Kock was the moment he faced the camera and confronted his own apartheid ghost: the role he played in the murder of human rights lawyer Bheki Mhlangeni .
“Hardly a day goes by when I’m not haunted by the fact that I did not believe the bomb existed and therefore forgot to pass on a warning, to someone I knew well,” says Pauw. “I keep thinking that just a five-minute phone call could have prevented it happening.”
Mhlangeni was killed in 1991 by a parcel bomb sent by De Kock and his Vlakplaas death squad cohorts to their former commander-turned- African National Congress-informer Dirk Coetzee.
What Pauw neglected to tell his audience was that the ANC had also been warned about the suspected parcel six months previously yet failed to stop it blowing up one of its own. It is as if Pauw wants to find some tangible way of attaching blame to himself for not preventing the brutal repression of black people and their white supporters by the De Kocks and Coetzees of this society.
It took Pauw, his cameraman Jan de Klerk (nephew of former state president FW) nine months to track down such infamous De Kock colleagues as assassin Joe Mamasela and convicted murderer and CCB operative Ferdi Bernard.
On Wednesday, the day after the second instalment of his two-part tour de force, Pauw looked like a man who has been through the wringer. Looking tired and visibly embarrassed to be in the spotlight, he responds shyly to the chorus of congratulation as he strides through the corridors of the SABC.
Not for him the pleasure of a job well done. Pauw is a man happiest when involved in an obsession. Exposing the actions of apartheid death squads has been his obsession for seven years and he confesses to a sense of “anti- climax” now that it is all over.
Pauw’s public confession, like his film’s exposure of Vlakplaas killing sprees, can be seen in the context of a much broader confrontation in which he comes to terms with his Afrikaner background and bloodletting carried out by security police in its name. It is a double cathartic cleansing.
“When I started looking at death squads in 1989 I had no idea it was so widespread. I thought it was a limited manifestation of police brutality,” says Pauw.
Within a short time it became clear just how widespread the killings were and that they were state-sponsored. The revelation both shocked and repulsed him. “I could not believe that as South Africans we were so naive to have not known that in a repressive society these kinds of things were bound to happen.”
That he feels some guilt for enjoying the fruits of apartheid is clear. “I think people did not know what was going on because they did not want to know. Very much like what happened under the Nazi government in Germany during the Second World War.”
The guilt theme runs like a lit fuse through Pauw’s expos. It shows a man trying to come to terms with his history. “It’s very important that every white person takes responsibility for the actions of Eugene de Kock because he did it in our name. And many showed their approval by ever-increasing votes for the National Party, for over 40 years.”
Born 37 years ago in Pretoria to die-hard Afrikaner parents, Pauw has long since shed the volk and fatherland indoctrination of his childhood.
His grandmother, who took her first breath in a British concentration camp in 1902, took her passionate hatred of the English to the grave. His father, a headmaster, was a member of the Broederbond and Pauw was brought up steeped in Afrikaner tradition.
Although he considered himself a liberal during his youth (he was member of the Progressive Federal Party) Pauw never thought of the ANC as anything other than terrorist until he helped found the newspaper Vrye Weekblad in 1988 and revealed the existence of death squads. “I started meeting activists from the United Democratic Front and gradually my eyes were opened to the truth.”
Prior to that he considered the ANC an irrelevant evil. “I believed the propaganda that they were communist devils.” He even did his bit for apartheid: first as a conscript in the army, where he worked in the propaganda unit churning out reports about how the South African army was thrashing Renamo; then as a reporter on Rapport.
“I remember one particular story when I wrote about the killing of Janette and Katryn Schoon by a parcel bomb sent by Craig Williamson. General Johan Coetzee, who was police commissioner, told me it had been caused by an internal power struggle within the ANC and I wrote a story saying that.”
It was in the second edition of Vrye Weekblad that he really began his Damascus journey. Pauw wrote a challenging article about PW Botha lunching a known Italian mafia boss living in South Africa, in a bid for campaign funds. PW sued for defamation.
“When my mother saw that the story was leading the television news, she rang me and cried so much she could could hardly speak.” He gently declined her plea for him to use a pseudonym.
Although at this time he was still invited to family gatherings, the invitations from cousins, uncles and aunts eventually dried up as he was regarded as having betrayed his people. When his first book was launched in 1991 by Nelson Mandela he invited the entire clan – only his mother turned up. His father had by then died.
Pauw does not consider himself an Afrikaner. “I am an Afrikaans-speaking South African. I don’t want to be sidelined somewhere in a corner of this great country, but part of the larger nation.” It is all part of the internal struggle which appears to fuel his cultural angst. For while on the one hand he despises, even hates De Kock and his fellow killers, Pauw admits to feeling a certain empathy with them. “I got on well with them,” he says.
“Perhaps I got too close. My wife certainly does not understand how it is that I can have them over at my house for a drink. Maybe it’s the language and the shared indoctrinated background?”
Where his passion shines is his belief that it is the role of former and current National Party leaders to take a lead in purging themselves of their apartheid guilt because it is the only way to close the book on the evils done to uphold the system.
“I think the state should stop pretending that it never happened. Top politicians like PW Botha and FW de Klerk must come clean about their involvement. They must take responsibility for what was done in the govenment’s name.”
De Klerk in particular comes in for much criticism for allowing Vlakplaas to continue operating three years after discovering what it was doing. When the unit was shut down De Kock left the SAP aged 44 with a R1-million goodbye cheque.
Despite the risks involved in uncovering these homicidal security police operatives Pauw, who is married with a stepson, says he has never really feared for his life. “These people were nothing more than a bunch of drunken criminals and I decided that they had more important people to take out.”
Now that his journey has come to an end Pauw is looking to spread his tentacles wider afield. His next planned project is to do a documentary on the death squads of Chile and Agentina. He would also like to interview FW de Klerk and write another book loosely based on the documentary.
But for now he simply wants a break from it all. “I hope that what we have done is to show what happened and help to bring about a climate of understanding the reasons why.”