THE way in which former supporters of apartheid and the security state have shrugged off the past and adopted a born-again attitude, which appropriates much of the terminology of their democratic opponents, is one of the disturbing features of the new South Africa. The attitudinal baggage that accompanies such conversion suggests that little, if any, real change is intended at all. A set of values which suggests that a clean break must be made with the past (in other words, to all intents and purposes the past must be forgotten) and that we must co-exist in a spirit of ‘forgive and forget’ needs serious challenge.

No one can afford to ignore the past: we are what we are as individuals, groups and a society because of it. Nor does any society exist in the sort of vacuum implied by the drawing of a notional line across South African history as of 2 February 1990. It is easy to see why some would want to do this, looking back at the appalling history of our country under decades of colonialism, segregation and apartheid. In particular, the last twenty years have seen the forced relocation of thousands of people, the stripping of citizenship from millions, detention, brutal torture and assassination. In effect, the state declared war on the majority of South Africa’s people through the policy of apartheid and enforced it through coercion of various types. Cosmas Desmond, who saw the effects of forced resettlement at first hand, controversially accuses the South African government of genocide for the physical and psychological wounds inflicted upon black citizens.

Apologists for the State often argue that its operatives were merely working under war conditions. This may be so. But this was civil war initiated by the State itself; and more often than not fought with no regard to the rules of war. The bodies of Matthew Goniwe, Florence and Fabian Ribeiro, Stephen Biko and David Webster attest to this. The State cold-bloodedly murdered peaceful anti-apartheid opponents. The damage the authorities have done goes beyond that experienced by individuals or even communities: they have destroyed people’s faith in the law, in the role of the state and in the future.

Should there be no redress of wrongs in the face of this history? Should the perpetrators of human rights abuses be allowed metaphorically to walk away from the scene of the crime with the occasional word of regret? There are good moral and practical reasons why this should not be so; and why there is a case for trials for crimes against humanity committed during the apartheid era.

Clearly there is no room, nor valid purpose, for revenge. On the other hand, walking around as free citizens are those who tortured and murdered in the name of the State; and, even more important, the securocrats who gave the orders and the politicians who framed the political context and policy. Some individuals are being called to account for their deeds. Brian Mitchell and four other policemen have been sentenced for murders at Trust Feed, but in a sense they are as much victim of the security state system as those who died. The people who should also be standing in the dock are the securocrats and architects of Total Strategy who made it all possible but are shielded by layers of bureaucracy, power and privilege. Without a deliberate programme of war crimes trials these people will never be brought to book. It is not enough that minor functionaries should be prosecuted while the worst the major actors have to endure is limited newspaper publicity.

South Africa is now beginning to learn not only about the civil rights abuses that went on in the name of apartheid but also the consequent financial corruption. The scale of loss is monumental, even more so when put in the socio-economic context of a Third World society: millions of South Africans lack housing, medical care, education, jobs and, consequently, hope. National assets have been stripped while large parts of the population go hungry. The commandeering of national wealth by an establishment elite has also masqueraded as privatisation, which will make the task of achieving economic justice even more difficult.

Societies in general have few problems with prosecuting and punishing individuals responsible for murder and assault, or financial misdemeanour. There is no reason why the position of those acting in the name of the State should be any different. Indeed, they carry the responsibility of looking after the best interests of society as a whole. In countries with a modicum of democracy, government ministers resign readily for failures in their departments as a demonstration of the gravity of this responsibility. In South Africa this is an unknown concept: ministers have shown contempt for the population as a whole, behaving like arrogant feudal barons while they forced the country down a path to political, social and economic disaster. For this they should be held responsible in law.

If they are not, the obvious lesson to be learned will be that human rights abuses, financial corruption and dereliction of duty are the acceptable norm. There is so much about the new South Africa that is a replica of the old. A truly new society needs the cathartic experience of a reckoning with the past. An amnesty for human rights abusers will simply show future rulers that society cares nothing for past victims and that oppressors are likely to get away with similar activity, to be explained away simply as a mistake. Some sort of reparation is necessary: it is doubtful if there can be peace without justice and reconciliation without a full accounting with the past.

Those who ruled South Africa at the height of apartheid still arrogantly dominate a society that can be characterised as neo-apartheid. Part of their assumption in the negotiation process is that they can bargain for an amnesty for their crimes in the hope that not only will they receive a pardon, but the details will remain clouded by the endemic secrecy that shrouds South African affairs. The signs are that people responsible for crimes against humanity while acting in the name of the State will achieve just that. It is the responsibility of individuals and groups holding human rights in high esteem to make sure they do not get away with it.

This article was first published in The Witness on 30 June 1992 and entitled ‘Crimes against humanity’. Another version appeared in the Cape Times on 20 August 1992 entitled ‘The crimes of apartheid must be purged in court’.

Further reading: Eugene de Kock, A Long Night’s Damage: Working for the Apartheid State, as told to Jeremy Gordin (Johannesburg: Contra, 1998); Jacques Pauw, Into the Heart of Darkness: Confessions of Apartheid’s Assassins (Johannesburg: Jonathan Ball, 1997).