Eugene: From Apocalypse Now to Scotland the
Over the last year and a half, Jann Turner has visited Eugene de Kock in jail several times. She found him angry and haunted
`Eugene wants to see you.
He says he doesn’t bear any grudges.” The call came from a lawyer I’d met during my work on SABC’s Truth Commission Special Report.
Eugene de Kock had recently been sentenced to 212 years in prison for a host of appalling crimes committed during his time as commander at Vlakplaas, apartheid’s death farm.
Grudges? I wondered. What on earth does De Kock mean? I had never met the man. All I knew was what I’d read of his horrifying effectiveness as an assassin and that on one of the more than 1 000 pages of his amnesty application he detailed his knowledge of my father’s assassination, which was scant and nothing new. But I was curious.
And so it was that I found myself, one sunny morning in September 1997, driving up to Pretoria where I was to meet Schalk Hugo, De Kock’s attorney. I had no idea of what to expect. I thought of the movie Silence of the Lambs; picturing myself as Jodie Foster staring down the restrained psychotic form of a South African Hannibal Lector. I had seen De Kock only once before, during his trial in 1995, and I remembered the pure hatred I felt as I watched him and the rage and disgust I transmitted when our eyes met as he scanned the courtroom.
I chugged into the car park of Pretoria Central Prison at the appointed time. The only other car in the lot was a silver-grey Mercedes. Hugo jumped out to greet me. He was young and well dressed, not at all the “perp lawyer” I’d expected.
I’d never been inside a prison before. Stepping into the maximum security section was stepping into a world I’d rather have remained ignorant of. I was struck by the sounds; of voices, of gates clanging open and shut, of jangling keys. Outside the visitors reception was a tall glass bowl with two beautiful fish swimming in it, sunlight streamed through the water illuminating their brilliant colours. The sight transfixed me. A man with a baby face and sly eyes saw me watching them and approached. He was the keeper of the fish. “They’re called Oskars,” he said. “They’re hunting fish. If you put another fish in there the Oskars would kill them in a minute. They’re very aggressive fish. Very aggressive.”
In the waiting room I asked Hugo if he liked his client. He looked at me and said, “Mmm.” Then he looked away, as if that discussion was over, but suddenly he turned back and said simply, “You’ll like him too.” Yeah, right! I thought. I don’t think so. But Schalk wasn’t wrong.
A minute later we were hustled into the prison itself, towards De Kock, who stood, flanked by two warders, waiting. I was amazed to find myself extending my hand, but I had no idea of how else to greet him. De Kock’s handshake was powerful. “Hi, I’m Jann Turner,” I said, a little shakily. Then we were led into a consulting room. The room was putty-coloured, with mismatching chairs chained to the table legs, which in turn were bolted to the floor. A warder brought us a tray of coffee. I gathered from De Kock’s manner that he had ordered and paid for the coffees. Three more rounds would be brought in before I left.
I didn’t know where to begin, so I launched in with the obvious. “Mr de Kock, I got a message that you wanted to see me.” He smiled, a surprisingly shy, nervous, smile. “You don’t have to call me Mr de Kock - you can call me Gene, or Eugene - or whatever you like.”
He did have something to tell me. He’d read a recent article in the Mail & Guardian in which I’d raised some questions about the identity and whereabouts of some of the former security policemen whose names had come up in the course of my investigation into my father’s murder.
De Kock had the answers. I thanked him for the information and said I would hand it over to the police. He insisted that if there was any theory or name I wanted to run past him, that I should not hesitate to do so. Why on Earth, I wondered, does he want to help? I’m still not sure that I know. As it turned out the information he gave wasn’t much use. But somehow a conversation flowed from that beginning. Looking back I think it was he who initiated it. He simply started to talk.
He was angry. He felt he’d been cut loose by the generals and his superiors. He felt they should be inside with him. “When they start negotiating they have to get rid of the cupboard full of dirty tricks, so instead of being the blue-eyed boy who would be the next general, I’m the leper they must dispose of.”
His glasses are so thick you can’t see the colour of his eyes. I found I watched his mouth more than his eyes. His politeness and intelligence disarmed me. His shyness took me by surprise, the nervous smile and glance as he explained that if he’d known I was coming he would have shaved. He said he didn’t often get attractive women coming to visit him. There was nothing lewd or sexual in the way that he said this, it was an artless, childlike compliment.
At one point Hugo got up and left the room. I wasn’t really aware of how long he was gone although for a second I was conscious of being entirely alone with “Prime Evil”.
I wanted to know how he felt about remorse and forgiveness. I said that if I did ever meet my father’s killer I don’t think I would care if he were sorry or not. He said simply that he would never ask for forgiveness because he didn’t deserve it. If he were in my shoes he would want revenge.
I wanted to know how he walked into his house after a hit, how did he switch from assassin to father reading bedtime stories to his sons? He said sometimes after an operation he’d drink it out of his mind. Sometimes he’d go home and burn all the clothes he’d been wearing, then wash obsessively.
Did his wife know what he’d been doing all those years? He said she had an idea that he was no ordinary policeman, but she had no idea of the extent of it. He said the strange hours and the travel took its toll on their marriage; she’d even thought he was having an affair. He said the night he told her what he’d been doing, when it was all over and he knew he’d be arrested, “it was like tearing my own heart out”.
He talked about the horror that comes back to him at night. How he smells it, tastes it, sees it and he can’t sleep. I remember at the time I found that reassuring, such a man shouldn’t be able to sleep at night.
He described himself as a “veteran of lost ideologies”. His war was over, he insisted. What would he do if he ever got out? He didn’t know. He didn’t think about it. He couldn’t think beyond this amnesty application.
After an hour and a half or so Hugo said it was time to go. De Kock said he hoped I would visit him again.
As we walked out I looked back into the prison, he was watching us go. He smiled and raised his arm in a kind of salute. I waved briefly back, then followed Hugo out through the massive wooden door toward the green moat where geese and goats roamed freely and warders were playing cards at a table set up on the grass. The air was warm and sweet with spring. As we drove back through the prison compound to the car park neither Hugo nor I said a word.
Three days after that meeting De Kock was moved to C-Max and there he hit rock bottom. Former National Party politicians were claiming they knew nothing of the torture and murder of their political opponents during apartheid. At best, they said, it was misinterpretation of policy, but they took no responsibility for the assassins.
Now De Kock was alone. His ex-wife and children had fled overseas; many of his former friends had ratted on him at the trial. When I visited him after Christmas I barely recognised the haggard, thin, depressed and disoriented man the warders brought in. He talked about dying, he seemed to feel he deserved to die.
That day I sensed he was changing fundamentally. There is nothing like staring at the prospect of life in jail to make a person reflect searchingly on what has put them there. I believe that is what De Kock had begun to do. He was overwhelmed by regret, he felt his life had been a destructive waste and he was angry with himself for having been naive enough to believe.
One February morning, at the Guguletu Seven amnesty hearing, I rode up in the elevator with De Kock and his guards. I asked if he felt the truth commission had changed him. He said yes and he said it so certainly that I didn’t doubt him. “You see,” he went on, “the only friends I have now are my former enemies.”
And as the year wore on De Kock was up and down; some days he felt the process was worthwhile, some days he was tired and depressed. He was shunned by most of the other applicants he appeared with, but applauded by audiences and even embraced by the families of victims who thanked him for his refreshing candour.
Hugo said to me once that he was thankful he wasn’t landed with any of the other applicants as clients. “At least my boytjie - although in some instances he did worse things - at least I don’t have to worry about him lying.” Hugo was up and down like his client, strained by the impossibility of judging the outcome; there are no precedents, nothing to suggest how things may turn out.
De Kock fascinated me increasingly. My friend Jon Blair likened it to the morbid obsession of one who is terrified of snakes and who can’t resist watching them from behind the safety of a glass wall in a snake park. Most friends didn’t want to hear about it. He’s a murderer plain and simple, they said, he had a choice, but he became an assassin for an unjust cause. He deserves to rot in jail for the rest of his life.
Nevertheless I felt I had an extraordinary opportunity to understand this man, so my visits continued. One day in the middle of last year I went to see him in the privileged prisoner’s section of C-Max, where he still resides.
The rain clattered down noisily on the corrugated plastic roof, we had to speak up to hear each other. He was unshaven, wearing a grubby orange C-Max boiler suit, but energetic and very up, not a trace of the blues he gets sometimes. He grinned at me. “It’s funny, I was just thinking about you last night,” he said. “I was thinking it’s nice to have you as a friend.”
He was hungry for company and conversation. We talked about books; he loves thrillers, especially Tom Clancy and Ken Follett and John le Carr. His favourite movies are war movies; especially Platoon, Full Metal Jacket and Apocalypse Now. All muscular, testosterone-fuelled flics, yet it’s interesting that they also document the descent into madness of individuals caught up in the horror of war.
He used to own a tape of the soundtrack to Apocalypse Now. He has a radio in his cell and listens to music. His favourites tunes are Scotland the Brave, the great march of Ada and Flower of Scotland. He told me his great passion is bagpipe music - he wants a single bagpipe to play at his funeral and it must play Scotland the Brave.
After nearly two hours it was time to go, we stood up, shook hands and then he embraced me. Just briefly. He told me to take care; I patted his back and said he should do the same. It was a fleeting hug; a brief, seemingly uncomplicated goodbye, but this was not an uncomplicated moment. I’ve spent years looking for my father’s killer, for the killer, instead I found a killer - and for me this is about understanding.
Something had changed for everyone else too. In September last year De Kock appeared at the hearings into the Cosatu and Khotso House bombings. It turned into a Vlakplaas reunion. At the lunch break I watched as his former colleagues circled fearfully, uncertainly round the man who was once their lion.
Willie Nortjie was there, one of the men who’d testified against De Kock at his trial. Nortjie approached nervously and I saw his hand shaking in Gene’s steady one, his gaze flinching in Gene’s unflinching one. De Kock must have been boiling with emotion, but he betrayed not a flicker of it.
Afterwards he said, “Six months ago I would have puked on him, or probably six days ago. But now - ag, whatever, if it makes someone rest easier tonight then that’s fine by me. Finally it just comes down to him and his conscience.” From the look of him nothing rests easy in Willie Nortjie’s conscience.
During Pik Botha’s testimony De Kock got up and walked out of the room. I’d seen him do this before - he sometimes gets panic attacks. I followed him out to the courtyard where he stood surrounded by warders. “Are you okay?” He said he couldn’t take listening to Botha. “Panic attack?” “No. More the moer in.”
Then he said quietly, “I want to ask him who I was supposed to hate so much that I had to go and kill them. Who?” Silence for a bit, then he looked at me very seriously. “Jann, tell me honestly, what are my chances?” I was taken aback, not sure of the answer. “Tell me if it’s bad news. Bad news is like cancer. You have to face it.”
At Christmas I had a terrible dream. I was in a prison, alone. There was chaos all around me. De Kock had escaped. In The Silence of the Lambs Hannibal Lector cut off someone else’s face and disguised himself with the mask. In my dream De Kock had simply cut off his own face and was now at large.
I woke with only a hazy sense of the dream, but felt burdened by this terrible knowledge that he was after all a dangerous psychotic and I felt somehow responsible for unleashing this brutal man onto the world.
I saw him again this week, just before he was to appear at the first six-month cluster of amnesty hearings focussing on his time at Vlakplaas. De Kock smiled and hugged me warmly.
In the conversation we snatched as he was waiting to testify I asked how he felt. He said he hadn’t slept properly in weeks. Terrifying dreams haunt him; in one of them he is being bundled into a tarpaulin and shoved under a bed, he’s unable to scream because his throat has been slit. In another he’s caught in heavy surf and every time he comes up for air another massive wave dashes him down and pulls him under.
The worst, he said, is a dream in which he’s choking. He wakes up and is paralysed, unable to breathe, unable to scream for help and then, after what seems like an eternity, the breath comes and he’s sitting bolt upright in bed, gulping air.
The warders moved, it was time to go in. He squeezed my arm. “Now it’s life or not life,” he said. “This is it.” And seconds later he was out there in front of the cameras and the judges, talking calmly of what he knows best - murder and mayhem.
“I take full responsibility for all operations carried out by my men while I was commander at Vlakplaas.” And, later, “We destroyed lives, ruined the lives of the families of those we killed, by living past one another we destroyed one another. It was a futile exercise; we wasted the most precious thing. Life itself.”
Finally, he said, “I would like to tell these families that I’m sorry. There will always be a yearning and a sorrow, which will never be rectified.”