Bird Island child abuse: The truth will set us free

The past is a foreign country. Until it shakes us out of our collective slumber on a cold Sunday morning. It confronts us from the front page of a Sunday paper. Secrets long hidden burst to the fore like a ripe abscess. The recent revelations of the sexual abuse of boys by National Party ministers in PW Botha’s Cabinet can be described as the last taboo.

The three ministers were exposed for paedophilia — Magnus Malan (defence), John Wiley (environmental affairs) and a third minister whose identity has not been revealed — after the recent release of the book, The Lost Boys of Bird Island, and in subsequent media reports.

It is clear that, even in the context of unspeakable atrocities, some atrocities can seem qualitatively different because they hurt children. And that even in the age of exposure, some atrocities resist uncovering.

The sexual abuse of children was suppressed by historians for many decades after the Holocaust. In light of the careful documentation of the large variety of atrocities committed during the Holocaust, the fact that atrocities of this kind stay hidden for this long is significant. The documentary Screaming Silence, aired on Israel’s Channel 1 TV on Holocaust Day in April 2015, was one of the few attempts to shine the spotlight on these crimes. In the documentary many Holocaust survivors spoke for the first time of what they endured as children. In spite of Nazi eugenics it was fairly common for boys to be taken as servants and sex slaves. The silence was broken in 1961 when the book Piepel by Ka-Tsetnik 135633 was released. Piepels were young boys selected by camp officers in Auschwitz for their sex orgies. Many of the victims kept their sexual abuse a secret from everyone, including their families.

Over the past week a few commentators have argued that the recent reports should serve primarily to focus attention on the sexual abuse of children. It is clear that the plight of abused children needs attention. But to me the revelations highlight something more specific: the acute need to uncover the truth about the past and to revive the project of prosecuting the perpetrators of apartheid crimes.

None of the former cabinet ministers testified before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. This in itself shows a collective cover-up of a many atrocities these ministers would have been privy to. There was further a marked absence of remorse on the part of the more senior government members who did testify. Apology was not a requirement for amnesty. Adriaan Vlok, the lone minister to apologise later, was mocked endlessly for his attempts at winning some sort of absolution. When a friend of mine asked on Facebook, “What would persuade you that someone has changed?”, the overwhelming response was that a leopard does not change his spots.

For all of Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s talk of forgiveness, it seems little has sunk into the collective consciousness.

The protracted Malan trial of 1996 — where he and 19 others faced charges of murder, setting up South African Defence Force paramilitary death squads in KwaZulu and the 1987 killings of 13 people (including children) in KwaMakutha — was possibly a diversion from other dark long-hushed acts. Malan ultimately escaped all forms of accountability.

South Africans have finally been exposed to a new level of degradation. On the isolated occasion of being confronted with the rumour of paedophilia, Malan defiantly asked:“What is a paedophile?”

South Africans’ reactions of disbelief or of shrugging off the news as “nothing surprising” seems to be an inappropriate and lazy response. In light of the all-encompassing power of Malan and his supporters, it is now less surprising than ever that the Malan trial ended in an acquittal.

Towards the end of The Lost Boys, Mark Minnie writes of the changes to the law that sexual crimes prescribe after 20 years. In June this year the Constitutional Court confirmed a high court order that the Criminal Procedure Act, which imposed a 20-year limit on prosecution for sexual assault, was unconstitutional. The victims of abuse by the Bird Island ministers could institute action even though many years have passed since the atrocities were committed.

From the book it seems that some of the abused boys were paid for their silence. In addition to the shame that accompanies these crimes, it is possible that the dehumanising effects of apartheid could have clouded the judgment of victims who might have come to experience the abnormal as normal.

Seven years ago, Malan ended his days in an upper class neighbourhood in Pretoria East. Surrounded by supporters and friends, he was shielded from mass reproach or any realistic awareness of the pain of countless victims. The isolated nature of South African middle class suburbia means that it is possible to live in denial.

It is this bubble of denial that should be pricked by the sharp force of criminal law. Many white South Africans claim fatigue of being reminded of the apartheid past. But the fatigue is premature and cowardly. This is not the time to become desensitised or disinterested. There have been only a handful of prosecutions and few convictions. Last year’s re-opening of the Ahmed Timol inquiry, whose death the apartheid state was of suicide while in detention, has led to a renewed momentum to prosecute. It is urgently necessary that the remaining perpetrators be tried. Successful prosecutions call for the overhaul of the National Prosecuting Authority — an overhaul that can only take place with refreshed political will. The claims in The Lost Boys need to be verified in a court of law.

The past is a rocky island many have never been to. The main thing found on Bird Island is guano. The Malan revelations makes us sink further into the dirt. It is time to point fingers and also point at ourselves. The hypocrisy and immoral value system that sustained apartheid also preserved the blanket of post-apartheid secrecy that covered us all. If we want to fertilise a new morality we need to find the energy to further expose crimes and to prosecute.

Mia Swart is a research director atthe Human Sciences Research Council

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Mia Swart
Mia Swart
Mia Swart is a research director atthe Human Sciences Research Council

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