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The Late Mr President


This interview first appeared in MAGILL magazine in February 1999

South African Prime Minister Dr Hendrik Verwoerd was addressing Parliament one day when a messenger, Greek immigrant Dimitri Tsafendas, came up to his bench and stabbed him to death. Tsafendas later told police that he had been ordered to do it by a giant tapeworm.

Verwoerd had lovingly perfected the hated apartheid regime, and it is a sign of the times that when in his room at the Shelbourne Hotel I meet the man who had been at the helm of the dismantling of that regime his security was zilch and the only Greek around was Elita, the new wife in the new life of FW De Klerk, the last white President of South Africa.

I explained who I was. He said he knew. I told him I was in a cell in Crumlin Road Jail in February 1990 when I heard on the radio his famous speech when he unbanned the ANC and the South African Communist Party, released Mandela one week later, lifted the State of Emergency, and paved the way for unconditional all-party talks. I tell him that his name has entered the political lexicon in complimentary terms. Critics and cynics, however, grant him no saving grace, say he was compelled to carry out reform, to hand over power, because of all the disparate pressures; accuse him of being up to his neck in ‘the dirty war’ which involved bombings and undercover assassinations of political opponents, and of arming the ANC’s rivals in Natal province, Buthelezi’s Inkatha Freedom Party [IFP]. But as far as he is concerned the only violence he was involved in was good violence.

I’ve been in the company of many a bomber but this man on my left could have detonated six nuclear warheads. He decommissioned them in December 1989 and claims that out of principle he would never have used them, that their construction pre-dates his accession to power, that they were there for deterrent’s sake only, meant to draw in the West were South Africa’s hegemony seriously threatened from without.
People in conflict speak in different languages. The IRA never ‘assassinates’, it executes. The British army ‘kills’, it never murders. The writer Rian Malan recalls asking a Boer farmer the name of his district and he replied ‘Weenan’, which means the Place of the Weeping in Dutch, named in remembrance of 530 Voortrekkers massacred nearby by the Zulus in 1838. However, if the same question was posed to the Zulus, they would reply quite proudly that the land is called ‘Nobamba’, which in their language means the Place Where We Caught The Whites!

I am fascinated by the choice of language, enlisted as it is to the cause of politics and propaganda, ultimately legitimacy and morality.

Fourteen thousand blacks were killed in Natal on so-called black-on-black violence which the ANC claimed was fomented by a Third Force organised by this man’s government. Twenty thousand people were detained without trial while this man was President. At the height of internment in Long Kesh in the North, about 1,200 were imprisoned, I myself as a teenager. Yet, I also believe that despite his flaws, De Klerk was a force for good and that without a ‘De Klerk’ South Africa could have been plunged into a most ferocious civil war. Nevertheless, I feel I have a British prime minister in my sights, an autocrat who had before him one’s papers without understanding the significance of one’s humble past, the currents of one’s small history.

“You must know that when you are arresting people, interrogating people, people get beaten up in custody.”

“You know, I think you… What more can a President or a leader do, than to have rules which are planned to be effective in preventing the misuse of power?”

“I accept that, but at the same time…”

“We had such rules and I felt strongly that such rules should be there and should actually be strengthened… But you needn’t be uncivilised. And you needn’t become supportive…”

“No leader in the world has ever been able to rule lily-white…”

“But you need not become supportive of things which morally you don’t accept. I’m not saying I’m holier-than-thou, but I have certain values. What does the Bible say? How must you treat your enemies?”

“Love your enemy.”

“Yeh. I’m a religious person. I can’t associate myself morally, and I could never, with playing beyond what one could call the Queensbury Rules of a dirty fight. There are still rules in such a fight. You draw the line somewhere. Yes, you open some people’s post. Yes, you do disinformation. Yes, to prevent chaos you put people in jail without trial. To have a cooling-off period. Yes, you silence people. Yes, you inhibit their freedom of speech. All that is part of the Queensbury Rules, but no… you don’t draw people’s toe nails… and you don’t burn them with cigarette ends, and you don’t kill them.”

“But this all happened!”

“I’m sorry but there is a passage which you will find, also in my submission to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission [TRC], that having been forced and having found it necessary to also have undercover operations, to also have systems where some people are doing some undercover things and where the need-to-know-rule is applied, that all that creates circumstances which makes it easy, much easier and conducive towards the miscarriage of justice. That, I admitted freely, and I admitted also that I was part of it, and when those decisions were taken, one looks at the balance, what was happening. Bombs were being placed at sports stadiums, innocent civilians were being killed, terrorist methods were being used…”

“And government funds were paying for it!”

“For the bombs that the ANC planted?”

“Obviously not.”

“Russian money was paying for them.”

“But it was discovered that Inkatha was funded and armed by state forces.”

“When that training took place, it was to develop a VIP-protection squad because scores of IFP leaders had been assassinated in cold blood by the ANC. Buthelezi came to us and said, ‘We need protection. My people are being murdered at random.’ We said, ‘Okay. You can have protection.’ That is what is in the minutes. That is what was before me. We trained those people but then later discovered – as a result of the investigation of the Goldstone Commission which I appointed and, later, through the Truth and Reconciliation Committee – that some of the police were involved in cold-bloodedly murdering political opponents.”

“That’s exactly my point. Once you roll a snowball and hand it to someone you have no control over who gets hit. It is naïve not to anticipate that these things happen. All I am saying is that instead of these denials you would be less vulnerable to criticism were you to come clean and simply say, ‘Yes, we were involved in undercover stuff, in illegalities…’ Everybody assumes anyway that you have blood on your hands, just as does Bill Clinton and Tony Blair and Nelson Mandela… myself… anyone who is involved in conflict.”
But no. He does not accept that. He attacks the TRC, accusing it of being ‘loaded’.

“I have no doubt they went to great lengths to try and concoct something so at least they can try to put a finger on me.”

He is also critical of the Amnesty process, claiming that only those who qualify under the Norgaard Principles should have been released: these exclude those involved in “the gratuitous murder of civilians and other crimes with a high degree of premeditation and violence.”

I point out that had these criteria been applied to National Party ministers throughout the apartheid era very few would qualify for amnesty. Here the double-standards are never starker.

“But the Norgaard Principles don’t say, WHEREVER a civilian died… the Norgarrd Principles said…”

“But Steve Biko was beaten to death in custody…”

“But, yes, so if anybody was found guilty of doing that, that person would not, eh… because that was beating somebody to death. The Norgaard Principles put the emphasis on excessive violence and on cold-blooded, premeditation of killing people or seriously maiming people. It is not just the test if it is a civilian or not, it is the subjective, it is the same difference between manslaughter or murder.”
“Your predecessors were in charge of police who opened fire on students and children in Soweto, at Sharpeville, and I don’t think you would attempt to justify those killings, would you?”

Ah, volks. He hesitated. Overlong. A disastrous moment in public relations.

“Well, under the circumstances some of the shootings arose because an order was given, because the officer in charge gave evidence in investigations afterwards, that there was a serious threat of themselves being killed and creating a self-defence situation…”

Yeh. We were fired on. Six of them were found to have blast bombs in their pockets. The other weapons were spirited away.

“That’s prevarication! You must understand that there were civilians killed.”

“That’s the law… I’m sorry, that’s the law. The law throughout the world is that under certain given circumstances members of Security Forces can use their arms. It’s the law in each and every civilised country. The test is, when they do so, is there a process and procedure to check whether those circumstances were there. If they weren’t there, it’s murder, and then such a person should be charged for murder. It was indiscriminate use of his authority. If the circumstances were there, then, in terms of the law there is no civil liability. That’s the law across the world.”

As we part he returns to the issue of apartheid and the irony of the West which criticised the National Party’s policy of ‘Homelands’ for the separate races now pressing Israel to grant just that to the Palestinians.

“‘You’ went for too much territory,” I said.

“You’re absolutely right.”

But I was thinking, Antrim and Down and maybe parts of North Armagh.