South Africa divided over Vlok trial

As senior apartheid-era security officials go to court on Friday, South Africans are divided over whether it will help reveal the truth and reconcile the nation, or reopen the wounds of the nation’s racial divide.

Former law and order minister Adriaan Vlok, former police chief Johann van der Merwe, and three lower-ranking policemen face attempted murder charges, related to a 1989 attempt to poison anti-apartheid activist Reverend Frank Chikane.

Thirteen years after white minority rule ended, many black South Africans resent the fact that some senior apartheid enforcers were let off the hook, but others fear a spiralling of accusations on both sides could rekindle racial tensions.

“Reopening old wounds will not do anybody any favour,” said 35-year-old Ebrahim Norodien, who grew up in a segregated Johannesburg township. “We want to move forward. ...
We’ve got Aids, there are more pressing things that need to be done.”

But Jane Monakwane, who guides tourists in former president Nelson Mandela’s house in Soweto, said the trial was a good thing. “Talking is helping to heal,” she told Reuters.

Only a handful of cases have seen the light of day since 2003, when the country’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission ended its probe into crimes committed under apartheid, the racially based political system that existed from 1948 to 1994.

This commission granted amnesty to those who admitted their crimes. Cases of murder, torture or disappearances in which the accused had not agreed to appear before the commission, or where amnesty had not been granted, were meant to go to court if sufficient evidence was found.

The case against Vlok and his co-defendants, who were accused of lining Chikane’s underwear with poison that attacked his nervous system in an attempt to kill him, fell into that category. They did not go to the commission to ask for amnesty.

Spiral of accusations?

Some critics talked about a “witch-hunt” when Vlok was charged with attempted murder last month, and when former president and Nobel Peace Prize laureate FW de Klerk was accused by a South African newspaper of being involved in the murder of anti-apartheid activists.

AfriForum, a civil rights group formed by the traditionally white trade union Solidarity, says the justice system is biased and should also investigate black leaders of the ruling African National Congress (ANC).

It supported a South African man, Dirk van Eck, who threatened last month to have ANC leaders prosecuted for the loss of his wife and two children in a 1985 landmine attack by ANC fighters unless charges are dropped against the former apartheid government’s security forces.

“We just don’t want to get into a spiral of finger-pointing but if need be, and the NPA [National Prosecuting Authority] continues to be one-sided, then we have to do everything to make sure that we get balance,” AfriForum’s Kallie Kriel told Reuters, saying his rights group might dig out more cases.

Susan Booysen, a political analyst at University of the Witwatersrand, said the Vlok trial, and possibly others, should proceed in order to draw a final line under apartheid despite the risk that it could trigger reactions such as Van Eck’s.

“The question that it could spiral ... is a serious danger,” she said.

“But there has always been an ongoing sentiment that we have not gone to the bottom of it. Now, 13 years after, maybe South Africa is mature enough now to face these issues in a structured way.”

Both Booysen and Ahmed Motala, of the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation, said crimes on both sides could not be compared.

“One cannot equate the two, the apartheid government had the state machinery behind them,” Motala said.

Hard-line former minister Vlok sparked controversy last year when he apologised and washed the feet of Chikane, who accepted the act of humility.

Chikane, now an adviser to President Thabo Mbeki, wrote in a South African newspaper on Sunday that although he had forgiven Vlok, it was not in his power to ask for the prosecution to stop.

A lawyer for Vlok said he would not comment on the hearing.

Gaps in a Soweto memorial wall to apartheid victims symbolise the fact that not all the truth has come out, Ebrahim Norodien said. The Vlok trial is a test of the country’s readiness to fill the gaps.

“The gaps represent the fact that not all the truth was told in front of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission,” he said.—Reuters

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