‘I don’t feel morally culpable’

What was your relationship with the ”securocrats” in PW Botha’s Cabinet and administration, such as Magnus Malan, Adriaan Vlok and police chief Johan van der Merwe? Did they not keep you informally abreast of policy developments in the war against political resistance in the Eighties?

When I refer to ”securocrats” in this and all my other replies, I am referring only to those who, in retrospect, were aware of, or involved in, the chain of command leading to the perpetration of gross violations of human rights. It is my opinion that the great majority of the members of the SAP [South African Police] and SADF [South African Defence Force] were honorable, dedicated and trustworthy people and were equally uninformed about extra-legal murders, assassinations, et cetera. Many of those involved whom I describe as ”securocrats” might have believed that there was authorisation from ”the top” and may have very mistakenly regarded their activities as justified in a vicious revolutionary conflict where the other sides accepted no rules.

Naturally, the security ministers and senior officers regularly briefed the cabinet and the SSC [State Security Council] on the struggle against the revolutionary threat. However, they did not brief us on clandestine operations involving murders, assassinations or the like — all of which were evidently carried out strictly on a ”need to know” basis. Also, when I became president and was briefed on secret operations, no mention was made of units like the CCB [Civil Cooperation Bureau] or Vlakplaas or of their illegal activities.

General [Magnus] Malan states in his autobiography that I was not informed about the clandestine activities of elements in the security forces, for reasons that he set out, inter alia, on page 364. General [Johann] Van der Merwe said the following in an interview with Rapport last Sunday: ”De Klerk knew nothing of security matters before 1989. He was clearly confused (about security matters) when he took over (as president). It is not in his nature; he didn’t like it. Cross him out as far as accountability is concerned!”

Was Pik Botha, as foreign minister, not part of PW Botha’s inner circle of securocrats? Could he have been unaware of the move to extra-legal methods of countering political dissidence, including assassination?

Although the department of foreign affairs [DFA] was regarded as one of the ”security departments”, Pik Botha and the officials of the DFA were not part of the securocrat inner circle and, in all likelihood, would not have been informed of such extra-legal activities.

Were you present at State Security Council meetings at which extra-legal methods of countering resistance were discussed? Specifically, were you present at the SSC meeting which discussed ”shortening the list of politically sensitive individuals by means other than detention”. If so, what did you understand by this policy? Did you approve of it? Did you contribute in any way to the discussion?

The short answer to the first question is no. If the second question suggests that ”shortening the list of politically sensitive individuals” implies murder, the answer, as I have repeated many times, is that I was not present at any meeting in any context where decisions to murder people were discussed. I do recall discussions relating to banning orders, restrictions or transferring or redeploying politically sensitive individuals to other places or employment away from their power bases.

Were you present at SSC meetings at which the formation of a ”Third Force” to counter political resistance, and of the formation and training of an Inkatha Freedom Party paramilitary force, were discussed? If so, was it not clear that assassination squads were at issue? What was your attitude to the proposal and what did you contribute to the discussion?

A perfectly legitimate proposal was made at one stage to establish a ”Third Force” akin to the US [United States] National Guard and the French paramilitary anti-riot force to enable the SAP to concentrate on its primary role. However, the proposal did not include provision for assassination squads and was in any case not adopted.

I was present when proposals were made for the establishment of a unit to provide greater protection to Chief Minister [Mangosuthu] Buthelezi and his organisation and did not object to the proposal.

At that time, the IFP was under severe attack by the ANC. ANC radio was calling for Buthelezi’s assassination, and more than 400 IFP office bearers were assassinated or would be assassinated in the course of the conflict. (Has the M&G questioned anyone regarding those gross violations of human rights?) It was quite reasonable to make arrangements to strengthen his security and — given the prevailing political environment — it was also quite understandable that this should be done clandestinely. However, the approval for the establishment of such a unit did not include approval for the commission of gross violations of human rights.

As education minister, were you party to any SSC or other discussions and policy decisions in government relating to the containment of black student unrest? If so, what were they and what contribution did you make to them?

Naturally, I was very concerned by the very serious disruption to education caused by the activists — but the measures we took to counteract them did not include any form of illegal action.

Were you at any stage party to decisions to take extra-legal action against specific anti-apartheid activists, including assassinations?

As I have repeated many times, I was not party to any decision authorising extra-legal action involving murder or assassination. (Has the M&G put similar questions to the political and military command structures of other parties involved in the conflict — and if not, why not?)

Did you know that any such action had been authorised by the state? If so, who did the authorising?


The mysterious murders of high-profile activists such as Griffiths and Victoria Mxenge, the Cradock Four and David Webster were extensively covered in the media. Did you not put two and two together and connect them with the discussions in the SSC about shortening lists and launching a Third Force? How could you have been unaware that you were a minister in a government which had sanctioned political assassinations? Did you never think to ask your colleagues about whether state agents had been authorised to assassinate activists?

One must remember that there was widespread violence and people were being killed on all sides. This was also a time of disinformation, intra-organisational conflict and pseudo-operations.

For example, the ANC would later convince the TRC and many members of the media that the SAP had been involved in the Boipatong massacre — an allegation that was subsequently rejected by the courts and the TRC’s own amnesty committee (those falsely accused of involvement received no apology from the TRC). I also wondered who was killing IFP leaders and who was responsible for necklace murders. As I have said, in retrospect, I should perhaps have asked more such questions during the presidency of P W Botha. However, one of the reasons that the securocrats did not trust me was that they knew that I did ask probing questions. In any event, we were regularly given assurances that the government was not involved in such activities.

I certainly asked such questions after I became president, but even then it was very difficult to penetrate to the truth. All the security ministers and senior officers with whom I spoke in this regard denied any knowledge of such activities. Subsequently I appointed the Harms Commission and the Goldstone Commission to investigate such allegations — and the Kahn Committee to oversee secret projects.

It was only in November 1992 that the Goldstone Commission began to uncover the facts regarding organisations linked to military intelligence. It established the truth of allegations regarding SAP activities (Vlakplaas) only in March 1994.

Even if you did not authorise or have specific knowledge of assassinations or assassination attempts, were you not guilty by omission, by not speaking up in the SSC and government more broadly against such practices? Whatever your legal culpability, were you not morally culpable?

As I have said many times, I take responsibility for all the decisions in which I was involved and overall responsibility for decisions during my presidency. I do not take responsibility or feel morally culpable for decisions in which I was not involved, that were not part of the official policy of the government, of which I was deliberately being kept in the dark, and with which I would not have agreed had I been informed of them — perhaps another reason why I and many of my other colleagues were not informed of such decisions.

Why did you not resign from PW Botha’s cabinet and government?

For all of the abovementioned reasons, there was no reason for me to resign. Also, if I, and the majority of my colleagues who were not part of the securocrat inner circle, had resigned, I would not have been in a position to introduce and manage the transformation process that led to the establishment of the new South Africa, the advent of democracy and the resolution of the dreadful conflict of 1984-1994.

In those circumstances, the securocrats would probably have prevailed and might still be in power in a grim, repressive, impoverished fortress state — or we might have suffered the cataclysmic race war that so many people predicted in the Eighties. The country and economy would have been devastated; we would have lost perhaps a million dead (instead of the 23 000 between 1960 and 1994); and millions more would have emigrated. I doubt whether there would be a M&G today, any form of press freedom or the opportunity for our press so egregiously to abuse that freedom and their own ethical codes.

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