Mercy or Madness? Freeing Eugene de Kock in South Africa

The South African Minister of Justice, Michael Masutha, granted notorious South African apartheid-era death squad commander, Eugene de Kock, parole after spending 20 years behind bars. De Kock was sentenced to two life sentences and a further 212 years in prison in 1996.

Although he granted De Kock parole, he denied parole to Clive Derby-Lewis who was involved in the assassination of Chris Hani in 1993. Hani was a popular Communist Party politician and leader of the African National Congresses’ (ANC) armed wing. The murder caused riots and created a very tense situation not long before the 1994 elections, threatening to derail South Africa’s transition to democratic rule. Masutha indicated that he did not believe Derby-Lewis had told the whole truth and that, unlike De Kock, he had shown no remorse.

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De Kock appeared before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), which was established a year after South Africa’s democratic elections in 1994 and chaired by Anglican Archbishop, Desmond Tutu. De Kock confessed to more than 100 murders, tortures and fraud. He headed up the notorious apartheid “Vlakplaas” police unit that kidnapped, tortured and murdered political activists—often using the most gruesome of methods.

During the TRC hearings De Kock described, in graphic detail, how he murdered a number of ANC members in countries around the region—including Lesotho, Swaziland, Zimbabwe and Angola.

De Kock made contact with some of his victims’ families while in jail asking them for forgiveness. One of his victims was Glenack Mama; De Kock killed him in 1992 when his youngest child was just 8 months old. The BBC asked his widow, Sandra Mama, for comment on Friday when the news broke of De Kocks parole. She said she believed this was the right thing to do.

“We’ve come a long way,” she said, “I think his release will once again help with the reconciliation process.” Mama and her children visited De Kock in prison after he reached out to them. Her daughter, Candace, asked De Kock when she met him if he had forgiven himself. She describes his response: “He dabbed his eyes and looked down, then he looked me in the eye and said, ‘When you've done what I've done, how do you forgive yourself’.”

Marcia Khoza also publicly pardoned De Kock, who was nicknamed “Prime Evil” for his death squad activities, for killing her mother, ANC activist Portia Shabangu. Shabangu was killed in an ambush in Manzini, Swaziland, in 1989. Khoza was five years old when her mother was murdered; she grew up never quite knowing the circumstances around her mothers’ death. Khoza visited De Kock in Pretoria Central Prison so that she could ask him questions that were “bothering her” about the circumstances surrounding the murder. She then forgave De Kock publicly.

De Kock implicated a number of apartheid-era leaders in his confessions. He claimed that he was carrying out orders from above. In a 2007 radio interview from prison he claimed that former (and last white) South African President, F.W. De Klerk, had hands “soaked in blood” for ordering specific people be killed. De Klerk denied these allegations and said that he lived with a “clear conscience”.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who wept during TRC hearings when some of the brutal killings were graphically described by men like De Kock, reacting to De Kock’s release said: “I pray that those whom he hurt, those from whom he took loved ones, will find the power within them to forgive him. Forgiving is empowering for the forgiver and the forgiven—and for all the people around them. But we can't be glib about it; it's not easy.” Tutu also said that his release is a milestone on South Africa’s road to reconciliation and healing.

President of the Southern African Catholic Bishop's Conference (SACBC), Archbishop Stephen Brislin of Cape Town, said in response to De Kock's release, "The granting of parole to Eugene De Kock is to be welcomed considering that due process has been followed and the De Kock himself, despite the terrible crimes he committed in the name of apartheid, has admitted to them and has sought to make amends with families of his victims, not least by supplying information as to what happened to loved ones. The granting of parole indicates that vengeance is not the spirit of 'ubuntu' [a word that denotes a spirit of humanity or humaness which recognises the inherent dignity of all people] but that remorse, rehabilitation and forgiveness capture that spirit."

Archbishop William Slattery of Pretoria, spokesperson for the SACBC and in whose Diocese De Kock served his prison sentence, said, "The release of Eugene De Kock is a beautiful example of an attempt to overcome evil and revenge by the power of reconciliation. This is a generous act. This pardon realises one of the most generous ideals of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission—to bring offenders back in to the fold and to allow them to become human again."

Not everyone welcomed the news—some are clearly disappointed. Bheki Mlangeni, a human rights lawyer, was killed by one of De Kock’s letter bombs in 1991. His brother, Lindani, does not feel that justice has been done. He told the BBC that he thought De Kock should have served at least 50 years. “They call him a killing machine. How can he be afraid of dying in prison?” Mlangeni asked. He also suggested that the ones who gave the orders should go to prison or, at least, tell their stories.

When the Justice Minister announced that De Kock would walk free, he said that he had made this decision “in the interests of nation building.” It is remarkable, I think, that black South Africans chose to do this. What De Kock did to many people was nothing short of barbaric. When I heard the news break on Friday, and the comments made by some of families of his victims about the need for forgiveness not just for them but for the nation, I could not help being deeply moved. This is God’s work, this is the Spirit moving amongst us bringing healing and hope to a broken society.

South Africa is a land of many and complex problems. Racial tensions still exist, the gap between the rich and the poor continues to grow, the crime rate is high, and there is political corruption. We cannot deny this; we have a long way to go. Yet, this kind of gesture, even if not accepted by everyone, is a sign of the immense capacity that is within every human heart prompted by the Spirit. Some call it madness, others mercy—it is remarkable.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
David Blyth
2 years 8 months ago
de Kok's release was wise The refusal to release Derby-Lewis was not. Those that ordered them to perform their activities were not held to account for their actions. The same is true for the ANC and other terrorist organisations whose members now are in high positions in a corrupt and criminal regime. I would recommend all who are interested to read Anthea Jeffereys' book "The people's war" - ti gives an insight which has escaped the popular media

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