Burying the truth... again

TERRY BELL | Friday

VALUABLE fragments of the apartheid past unearthed by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) have been reburied - apparently by the National Intelligence Agency (NIA).

After three years of confusing and contradictory responses received by archivists and researchers in search of certain TRC documents, it now seems clear that at least 34 boxes and two folders containing thousands of TRC documents have disappeared.

Abdullah Omar, at the time the minister of justice, told the truth commission in an April 1999 letter that he had personally taken charge of them.

His administrative secretary, JN Labuschagne, subsequently informed the commission that the documents had been handed on to the NIA.

Last week David Porogo, a representative for the Ministry of Justice and Constitutional Development, admitted that he was aware that “the NIA now denies having them”. But he could not say where the documents were.

Franois Hugo, speaking for Minister of Intelligence Lindiwe Sisulu, last week said that the “the whole matter of the TRC is complex”. Only the minister could comment on missing documents, but she would be unavailable until this week.
At the time of going to press she was still unavailable.

The fact that such documents could disappear has raised fears that they may be “sanitised” before reemerging, or be shredded.

“It is deeply worrying,” said Richard Mendelsohn, head of the history department at the University of Cape Town. “Any historian would be concerned about the loss of access to information of crucial importance to our past.”

Verne Harris, director of the South African History Archive at the University of the Witwatersrand, has tried for nearly three years to discover what happened to the documents, and he is as concerned.

As a member of the former TRC team that investigated the large-scale destruction of documents to keep them out of the hands of the new government and structures like the TRC, he is acutely aware of how much of the record of the past has been mutilated by intelligence and security bodies.

The TRC team discovered that the destruction of records continued until at least 1996. Among the 34 missing boxes are 13 containing the complete public record of the TRC hearings into the apartheid state’s chemical and biological warfare programme.

This record includes “classified” documents handed in to the hearings by former surgeon general Niel Knobel and quoted extensively during the hearings. All were vetted by the TRC and lawyers representing the Department of Foreign Affairs and the Non-Proliferation Council before being released as part of the general TRC record. This record was to be housed at the National Archive in Pretoria. The TRC decreed that it was to be regarded as “a national asset, which must be both protected and made accessible”.

Former TRC CEO Dr Biki Minyuku disagreed. He categorised the documents in 34 boxes and two folders as “sensitive” and arranged for them to be handed to Omar. But he had no apparent legal authority to do so. The TRC, through his replacement, acting CEO Martin Coetzee, said as much, stating that he had “acted without mandate”. Coetzee noted last week that he could see “no reason why all of those documents should not be in the public domain”.

Among them is a file relating to an uncompleted TRC investigation into the 1988 assassination of African National Congress chief representative in Paris, Dulcie September. There were no applications for amnesty for the murder, but it is speculated that several well-known figures in the previous security apparatus may have been involved. There are also a number of transcripts of public hearings, copies of published reports and even newspaper clippings included in the documents removed.

Taken together, the list of “sensitive” documents comprises what one former senior TRC official has labelled “a most bizarre collection”. Former TRC investigator Chandr Gould, who catalogued and packed the 13 boxes of records relating to the chemical and biological programme investigation - in which she was personally involved, was also unable to gain access later.

In October 1999 she was given permission by the TRC to consult some non-governmental notes in the record for the book she is writing on “Dr Death” - Wouter Basson, the head of the apartheid state’s chemical and biological warfare programme. After a year during which she made hundreds of telephone calls, wrote letters and attended meetings, she gave up.

Harris first discovered that the “sensitive” TRC documents were with the NIA when, as a deputy director of the National Archive in Pretoria, he attended a meeting with Coetzee in Cape Town. The information made him redouble his efforts, using every official and informal channel. But still he drew a blank.

In October 2000, at a conference in Cape Town on some of the unfinished business of the TRC, he mentioned in passing his concern that the NIA had apparently taken charge of a collection of “so-called sensitive documents”.

A report of the speech caused concern within the Ministry of Arts, Culture, Science and Technology which controls the National Archive. Within a week, a circular to all National Archive staff ordered that all future presentations or papers delivered by staff especially “in the official’s private capacity” should be vetted by the ministry.

Harris, however, left the National Archive. He took up the directorship of the South African History Archive at the University of the Witwatersrand in May last year - and continued his inquiries. In the process he discovered that the military had hidden vital apartheid-era records from the TRC.

When the Mail & Guardian reported on this in October last year, Minister of Defence Mosiuoa Lekota announced an immediate inquiry. Five months later, nothing has emerged.

“There have been problems and we are still trying to get to the bottom of this,” said Ministry of Defence representative Sam Mkhwanazi.

“As soon as we have the details, they will be made public.” The military has, in the meantime, cooperated with Harris’ staff investigating the 35 series of documents the apartheid-era chiefs withheld from the TRC.

“But we still don’t know what has happened to the 34 boxes of documents, why they should have been regarded as sensitive in the first place and under what authority the NIA could possibly have custody of them,” Harris said this week. “The whole matter is simply outrageous.”

Terry Bell is the author of the recently published Unfinished Business: South Africa, Apartheid and Truth

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