SAfrica, Jan 29 – More than 20 years after putting one of its most notorious apartheid murderers behind bars, South Africa will decide Friday whether Eugene de Kock, dubbed “Prime Evil”, will be paroled from prison.
The decision is fraught with political risk in a country still struggling for racial reconciliation to heal the scars of its history. Whichever way the decision goes, it will rekindle bitter debate over the crimes of the former white-minority regime.
To some, the former police officer is a symbolic and repentant prisoner serving time as a scapegoat for countless perpetrators of apartheid evil who were never punished.
To others, his crimes of multiple murder, kidnapping and torture are too heinous for forgiveness.
De Kock was sentenced to two life terms plus 212 years in prison for his activities as head of the infamous Vlakplaas — the counter-insurgency police’s death squad targeting anti-apartheid activists.
He has by all accounts been a model prisoner, engaging with the families of his victims and cooperating with the government in locating their dumped bodies.
Now 65 and eligible for parole for over seven years, De Kock remains in a Pretoria prison following denial of his release request in July — a ruling contrasting the parole board’s recommendation.
Correctional Services Minister Michael Masutha acknowledged De Kock had “certainly made progress” in jail, and said he could re-apply for parole within a year. But a court compelled Masutha to reconsider De Kock’s application by January 31.
– ‘He’s a savage’ –
Last month a grim scene next to a dry riverbed near the Botswana border demonstrated why De Kock’s release provokes impassioned opposition.
“He’s a savage,” Victor Makoke, a relative of one of De Kock’s victims, told AFP. “He needs to rot in jail.”
Just to Makoke’s right, forensic pathologists removed the remains –- bone by bone –- of his brother-in-law, Phemelo Moses Ntehelang, from a pit.
An “askari”, or double operative, Ntehelang had gone from fighting for freedom in the military wing of the exiled African National Congress to working for De Kock after his capture by the security police.
He was beaten and strangled at a Vlakplaas facility in 1989, when officials suspected Ntehelang was going rogue.
De Kock confessed to more than 100 acts of murder, torture and fraud before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), which was established in 1995 to consider amnesty for those who confessed their crimes during apartheid.
The highly-decorated former colonel was granted amnesty for most offences — including the 1982 bombing of the ANC’s London offices, and his part in Ntehelang’s death — but was jailed for six murders found lacking direct political motivation.
Even as he was being sentenced, however, many believed De Kock was taking the rap for half a century of institutionalised racism, while other perpetrators walked free.
“As human beings, we have a natural tendency to scapegoat,” says Mike Batley, director of the Restorative Justice Centre. “We’re looking for someone to blame, and I think to a large extent that’s what happened here.”
It’s a point De Kock made in his court appeal of last year’s parole denial.
“Not one of the previous Generals, or Ministers who were in Cabinet up to 1990 have been prosecuted at all,” he wrote.
“What do we accomplish by keeping him there?” asks Batley. “The context in which he committed the crime is completely gone, so why are we keeping him in jail?”
– ‘Burden of rage’ –
That’s a point acknowledged by the very ministry that has kept De Kock jailed.
“It’s important for us to remember that even the perpetrators of these heinous killings also deserve to be pardoned, forgiven,” Correctional Services Deputy Minister Thabang Makwetla told AFP at Ntehelang’s exhumation in December.
“Both perpetrators and victims were victims of the system that destroyed our minds. But on their own, if born in a different country under different society, they would not have done those things.”
When De Kock was first jailed in 1994, South Africa was a different country –- a Rainbow Nation, with reconciliation at its core.
The South Africa of 2015 is cynical, angry, and increasingly critical of the broad-stroke forgiveness granted by former president Nelson Mandela to white South Africans following the dawn of democracy.
“We carry this huge burden of rage from the past,” says Verne Harris, director of research and archive at the Nelson Mandela Foundation. “People don’t feel there has been an accounting.”
De Kock was the exception, but is carrying the weight of the system on his shoulders, says Harris. His release would be a reminder of all those who escaped justice.
The alternative, though, could be interpreted as a betrayal of the new South Africa.
“We as a society have to bite the bullet, because if we don’t the consequences will be dire,” says Harris. “If we can subvert the process now because of all this rage we carry, well then we can do it again –- and then it becomes a culture.”