Seeking justice & truth in SA’s tortured past


Terry Bell Writes

News & Views by Terry Bell
Posted on July 8, 2021

In the wake of renewed efforts — including a court decision — to reopen, investigate and prosecute apartheid era crimes, a number of elderly people in powerful  — or once powerful — positions must be feeling more than a shiver of apprehension.   And that applies on both sides of the former apartheid struggle divide.

The renewed drive to haul out from behind a veneer of myth and obfuscation more of the truth of the apartheid past not only threatens future prosecutions, but also acute embarrassment for those individuals who were corrupt, compromised, bought, or guilty of dangerous incompetence.  They relied — and capitalised on — carefully constructed myths concerning the roles they played in the past.

So it is not only the torturers and those who pulled the triggers or burned the bodies —  even those who gave the orders — who are fearful that disclosures of the past could result in prosecutions.  Even some of the revelations about some of the deals done behind the scenes in the run-up to the negotiated settlement could could prove very embarrassing.  

But it is not only the hidden past that may be revealed.  The drive by groups such as the Timol family and campaigners such as Lukhanya Calata, may also tear away what is a relatively flimsy  rainbow veneer and shine a light again on matters long in the pubic domain that have managed to drift to the shadowy margins of public awareness.

Here are to be found leading figures on both sides of the apartheid divide.Until now, a form of “balancer of fear” of disclosure appears to have held in check demands to expose more fully realities of the past.  As a result, the hundreds of prosecutions recommended by the much vaunted Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) have never been followed up.  

For example, six security policemen known to have been involved in the kidnapping, torture and murder of the “Cradock Four” applied to the TRC for amnesty.  News reports at the time noted`: “[they] will certainly be brought to trial if they do not get amnesty”.  They did not — and never went to trial.

But there are also many other, just as well known — even admitted — acts of murder and mayhem that have simply been ignored.

One such case involves former President F. W. de Klerk, the only president to ever admit on television to involvement in a massacre.  Still president in 1993 and months before jointly receiving, with Nelson Mandela, the Nobel Peace Prize, De Klerk announced, with Polaroid pictures as evidence, the deaths of five “terrorists”.

But pictures turned out to be of five school students shot dead while asleep in a private home in the North Crest suburb of Mthatha. .DeKlerk subsequently described this act by one of the state’s death squads as “a mistake”  However he never gave the names of those responsible, nor was anyone questioned about the chain of command and who gave which orders, let alone who pulled the triggers.

The ANC government never put pressure on De Klerk to come clean.  But, having made the television announcement and,, primarily as head of state, De Klerk may be regarded as the head of the chain of command that gave the orders for such killings.  However, as head of a regime that prided itself on having deeply penetrated the ANC, DeKlerk also almost certainly possesses perhaps seriously damaging information about the movement his government negotiated with.  

So too does an apartheid apparachik at a lower level who had even better insight into the ANC:  the notorious letter bomb killer, Craig Michael Williamson.  And he had the ANC to thank for being freed from an Angolan prison in 1996 after being arrested and  interrogated by Angolan security.  The Angolans were aware that Williamson was a former apartheid spy and security policeman and thought he might have been involved in the June, 1984 letter bomb killing in Lubango of Jeanette Schoon and her six-year-old daughter, Katryn.

At. the time, the TRC had not yet started its hearings, and Williamson’s applications for amnesty for those murders and that of Ruth First in Mozambique were not generally publicised.  In his 99-page handwritten “biography” produced for the Angolans, Williamson denied involvement.

But he wrote that he suspected — “although I have no direct evidence” — that the Schoon murders could have been carried out “by SA Military Intelligence, working with Unita” [the Angolan opposition].  He also provided a great deal of information about the workings of the apartheid security establishment and his involvement with the ANC..

He gave details of how he had ingratiated himself with the ANC to the extent that he was “recruited” and was taught by Ronnie Kasrils, in 1996 the deputy defence minister, to distribute anti-apartheid pamphlets by means of “bucket bombs”.  His “ANC handler” at the time was later deputy foreign minister, Aziz Pahad.

The Angolans, who had also managed to seize Williamson’s cell phone with its contact list, were suspicious.  They felt there there might be more to Williamson’s activities than he admitted, so they put together a dossier containing all the information they had, and sent it to the ANC leadership at Shell (now Luthuli) House.  

There the matter died, with the dossier, according to a former ANC executive committee member, “put into a drawer and forgotten”.  Whether this was a matter of incompetence or something more sinister is an open question, but when the Angolans did not receive a response, Williamson was released.

Back in South Africa, he duly received amnesty for killing Jeanette, Katryn and Ruth after claiming vociferously at in camera hearings about the “niggardly” payment of R350 a day for appearing together with R2,000 for his legal fees.  These arguments rankled with TRC staff and form part of the basis for some of the resentment felt by the families of those who were killed, maimed and otherwise victimised by the apartheid state.

And although he was successfully sued by Fritz Schoon, who, as a two-year-old in 1984  had survived the Lubango bomb blast, Williamson managed to avoid paying up.  He had agreed, after insisting on a confidentiality clause, to pay R100,000 in legal costs and R325,000 at the rate of R50,000 a month.  But he reneged, and was declared bankrupt because he had no assets.

His home, in the exclusive Beaulieu Estate in Kyalami, and the up-market SUV with personalised number plate, CMW001, that he drove, belonged to his psychiatrist wife, a former fellow spy and apartheid courier, Ingrid Bacher/Williamson.  Some of Williamson’s colleagues and members of not only the security police, but also military intelligence are known to have carried out murderous actions with apparent inside information and have never even been questioned.

Perhaps now that the National Prosecuting Authority has taken up these historical matters, this will change and a truer picture of our tortured past will emerge. Along with, perhaps, some justified prosecutions.