/ 8 September 2006

Vlok: ‘My role in dirty war’

Apartheid law and order minister Adriaan Vlok this week shed new light on his involvement in the dirty war against activists in the 1980s — including signing pre-drafted letters thanking policemen for carrying out assassinations. In a wide-ranging, two-hour interview at the <i>Mail & Guardian</i>’s offices, Vlok also admitted using words like "eliminate" in motivating policemen to crack down on political troublemakers.

Apartheid law and order minister Adriaan Vlok this week shed new light on his involvement in the dirty war against activists in the 1980s — including signing pre-drafted letters thanking policemen for carrying out assassinations.

In a wide-ranging, two-hour interview at the Mail & Guardian’s offices, Vlok also admitted using words like “eliminate” in motivating policemen to crack down on political troublemakers.

And he described former president PW Botha’s “intense interest” in security and central role in getting police to maak ’n plan (sort out) unrest. Botha had congratulated Vlok for police operations, including the bombing of the South African Council of Churches’ Khotso House headquarters in Johannesburg.

And it emerged this week that he had extended his journey of repentance by washing the feet of 10 widows and mothers of the “Mamelodi 10”, who were lured to their deaths by police agent Joe Mamasela. Their bodies were burned and buried in a field in Winterveld, near Pretoria, where the remains were recently found and identified by the National Prosecuting Agency.

However, Vlok remained adamant that he had nothing more to tell and that he could not “lie” to satisfy victims’ demands for information.

He insisted that, in general, he did not know the details of police operations — including cross-border raids and assassinations — and knew nothing of the police hit squads operating from the notorious Vlakplaas base.

Vlok was catapulted into the spotlight after presidential aide and former anti-apartheid churchman Frank Chikane told a media conference he had washed his feet. His interview with the M&G was the most detailed and revealing he has yet given.

Vlok placed a coaster on a glass of water, using it as an explanation of South Africa in the 1980s. It was like “a pot of boiling water with a lid on”, he said. “It could not go on and boil forever. Eventually the steam would blow the lid off. That was the situation we were in. An absolute state of anarchy and disorder was developing. More than 80 000 cases of unrest were reported to me from 1986 to 1991.”

Vlok depicts himself as a leader who prodded policemen into action without knowing, or caring, what they were going to do.

The notorious “Pebco Three” incident, in which three Port Elizabeth activists were murdered, is a case in point. Police officer Harold Snyman has described a visit by Vlok, then defence minister Magnus Malan and Botha to the Eastern Cape shortly before the killings and the “pressure … exercised from the government’s side to act in a drastic way to neutralise activists and to help the security situation to normalise”.

Vlok said he had travelled to many places “under siege” and spoken to “many Harold Snymans”.

“It’s true pressure was exercised on the security forces to stabilise the country. I held motivational talks with the security forces in which I told the guys to make a plan. And we used words like ‘eliminate’ in the speeches.”

Vlok said he believed United Democratic Front activists and other troublemakers had to be “neutralised” in some communities. He told state personnel in hot spots to “maak ’n plan”.

Vlok also described his role in a dirty tricks campaign aimed at quelling a consumer boycott in Mamelodi after complaints by white business. The police had distributed hoax pamphlets in the township telling residents to collect food packages from the houses of members of the boycott committee at a certain time, together with their addresses. When no food was produced, the crowd burnt down the activists’ houses.

“That was dirty tricks. We called it Stratcom,” he said.

Vlok said he did “not for one second” believe he was on the wrong side. He saw himself as responsible for a security solution, while others like PW Botha focused on a political solution.

Vlok said he and Malan worked very closely with Botha, who always showed an intense interest in security issues.

“But he was also very strong on the principle of ‘need-to-know’. Frequently after a Cabinet or state security council meeting, he would say to one or two ministers present and even heads of department: ‘Can you please stay behind?’ This was the case in the Khotso House bombing.”

Botha had been happy with the bombing. “With operations he would congratulate us and say ‘that was good work and I am happy with you’,” Vlok said. “He was particularly happy that there was no loss of life.”

Vlok said he functioned mostly as a channel through which Cabinet and security council decisions were relayed to police chiefs.

Asked if the state security council discussed “taking out” particular individuals — removing them from circulation — he said lists of names had been handed out at the council.

“You have to make an analysis of your opponent,” he says. “We had to know what the influence of leader figures were and their role in creating a revolutionary climate. We talked about how we could limit these people. But never that we should kill them.”

He maintained that he was never personally involved in organising police actions — instead he received briefs about his department that he never questioned.

Vlok also denied deliberately lying to Parliament about Gauteng activist Stanza Bopape, who died in detention. His subordinates had informed him in a written memo that Bopape had escaped when they had stopped the vehicle transporting him to fix a puncture.

“I told this story to Parliament,” he says. “I got another note from the police saying one of their reporters had spotted him in the vicinity of Krugersdorp. I had no reason to think Bopape was dead.”

He said it was only during the Truth Commission process that he found out about Bopape’s death in custody shortly after his arrest.

Questioned about the extensive use of torture by the police, Vlok initially said he believed reports of police brutality were anti-government propaganda.

However, he later admitted that he was not wholly in the dark. “As general Johan Van der Merwe has often told me, maybe we also closed our eyes against the practices. You must remember you are busy with a war. If you can get info from a guy and you can use that info to stop the explosion of a limpet mine, or a car bomb — if you can stop it, we said thank you, and that was wrong.”

Denying any knowledge of what was happening at Vlakplaas, Vlok said he had only met jailed assassin Eugene de Kock on brief visits to the police base.

“If I think back, I did not visit Vlakplaas more than two or three times, maybe four times,” he said. “But I knew Vlakplaas scared the living daylights out of the opposition.”

Vlok portrayed himself as a hands-off minister, with little detailed knowledge of police activities. Eastern Transvaal police commander Lappies Labuschagne told the Truth Commission that Vlok had sent him a letter thanking him for the cross-border assassination of Theophilius Dlodlo in Swaziland in 1987.

Vlok said the policemen involved might have drawn up a letter for him, thanking Labuschagne for his “good work” without specifying what he had done exactly, which he then signed. “But even if I did not have the knowledge, I left the impression with these guys that I approved of their actions,” he said.

Asked about police cross-border raids in countries such as Swaziland, Vlok denied any knowledge of the assassinations of Cassius Make, Paul Dikaledi and Connie Burns, among others.

“If I became aware of anything that had happened and I asked the commanding general ‘what happened — was that us?’, he would reply: ‘Sir, it is better if you don’t know’,” Vlok said. “And yes, sometimes they told me a lie.”

He explains his ignorance as a great loyalty to the police.

“I was loyal to the police, maybe it is one of my shortcomings,” Vlok said. “But I stood up for them. I protected them. I should have asked more questions. Maybe I could have prevented some of these happenings.”

In his application to the Truth Commission, he tried to create a legal framework that would give policemen the opportunity to come forward and talk about their role in apartheid crimes.

“Those policemen that got amnesty referred to this framework,” he says. “We gave the grounding to them to tell the amnesty committee that politically we were responsible and not they. They carried out a political order.”

Now it’s mothers of ‘Mamelodi 10’

Vlok washed the feet of the mothers and widows of the “Mamelodi 10” shortly after meeting presidential aide Frank Chikane to perform the same act of contrition. He washed their feet a day before Chikane spoke to the media.

Their meeting was one of the meetings between victims and perpetrators organised by the Khulumani Victims Support Group, which originated from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC).

Vlok was introduced to the mothers by Brigit Hess, who had worked with the Mamelodi group since 2003 as part of a doctorate.

“Truth is not about facts, you can get facts from the TRC,” said Hess. “Truth is about looking into someone’s eyes.”

The Mamelodi 10 were teenagers­ killed in 1986 after being lured into an ambush by police askari Joe Mamasela. Mamasela later told the Truth Commission that he had promised to send them to Botswana to join the ANC.

Hess raised the idea of meeting the mothers when she met Vlok in 2004. When the first meeting happened in May 2004, he said he was sorry and explained he was also a victim because his wife had died.

The mothers had also met another police commander implicated in atrocities, with high expectations that he would shed light on their sons’ fate. But Khulumani’s Marjorie Jobson said the mothers had left devastated. “He couldn’t say sorry, and that was all they really wanted.”

In July this year, Vlok read an article by Dutch Reformed Church pastor Stefan Joubert, about a former air force lieutenant washing his maid’s feet in Mamelodi to atone for her treatment.

At a second meeting with the Mamelodi women, Vlok was inspired to wash their feet. Initially, some of the women had hesitated, but Catherine Magabula, who had lost her son, Jeremiah, immediately removed her socks.

“Mr Vlok swallowed his pride, that is why the ladies accepted,” a Mamelodi widow, Lizzie Sefolo, said.

Vlok said it would have been easy just to meet them and wave goodbye. But the encounter had turned into a deep spiritual experience for everyone.

The mothers also met jailed police killer Eugene de Kock at the Pretoria Central Prison, and he had spoken in great detail about events of which he had knowledge.

Jobson said De Kock “reeled” when the women asked him to pray for them at the end of their meeting, but had agreed.

Jobson said she had received anonymous calls as a LifeLine counsellor from white men suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, and alcohol and drug dependency who had been involved in police activities during apartheid. “People are not disclosing the extent to which they were not able to get their lives together because of the nightmares and the memories,” she said.

Jobson said that even before Vlok’s formal acts of atonement, he had seemed different from his former colleagues in the security establishment. She recalls an invitation to meet the former law and order minister when she was a member of a small “standing for truth” committee in the late 1980s.

A man not fully freed from the past

Adriaan Vlok could have been en route to a state security council meeting in the 1980s when he met the M&G this week, write Yolandi Groenewald and Tumi Makgetla.

In a neatly pressed navy suit, he carried a worn briefcase filled with folders still bearing the seal of the old South Africa.

But the lines of age and stress are clearly visible on his face. Being law and order minister during the most violent period of South African history has left its mark.

So has personal tragedy. Vlok’s first wife committed suicide just when he was ready to retire “to Melkbosstrand to watch the sea”.

He found love again two years later with Antoinette, the former wife of fellow Cabinet minister Barend du Plessis.

Vlok accounted to the Truth Commission for police atrocities under his watch, but in a very limited way. He sought amnesty only for the bombings of Khotso House, the South African Catholic Bishops Conference headquarters in Pretoria and Cosatu House. He admits that only in the past 10 years has he seen the light.

His briefcase also contains his meticulously handwritten diary, filled with appointments.

“It’s been quite a busy few weeks,” he says. “I’ve lost count of how many people have called me.”

Suddenly, his cellphone bursts into an electronic rendition of Die Stem, suggesting a man who has not fully freed himself from the past. The number itself is a closely guarded secret. Instead, he arranges his appointments through an answering machine on his landline. But an avalanche of interview requests in recent days has flooded his machine, forcing us to “doorstop” him at his Centurion home.

Driving past well-clipped lawns, we nearly missed his old orange-painted house.

When Vlok emerged to speak to us, he was surprisingly polite and immediately agreed to be interviewed by his old enemy. Grinning, he reminded us that the M&G’s Inkathagate exposÃ