Inside the TRC (6/99)

The Jakaranda trees were in full bloom in late October when I arrived in South Africa’s capital, Pretoria, as part of a massive media contingent covering the national event of the decade – the hand over of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) final report to President Nelson Mandela. The purple flowers, like the customary garb of the TRC’s illustrious chairperson, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, seemed to overwhelm everything.

Unlike most other journalists – pampered, pompous, and jockeying for position in this earth-moving event – I was tired and disoriented from a 19-hour bus ride, and still recovering from almost three years in the cauldron of the TRC Investigative Unit. Nevertheless, I was eager to see what the commission would release as the product of all our work. I didn’t really doubt that it would "do the right thing," yet I wasn’t certain exactly how the report would look when unveiled to the world. And I couldn’t forget the deep, almost soul-destroying battles which had been waged behind the scenes.

The night before, I walked into the Holiday Inn for a social event set up specifically for the press. The somber mood of the Commissioners, including Archbishop Tutu and my own former head of investigations, TRC Chair Dumisa Ntsebeza, was shocking. To the last man and woman, they looked depressed. I realized the proverbial shit had hit the fan.

Even before its release on October 29, the document was the subject of two court challenges in the Cape High Court. The first came from former President F.W. de Klerk; the second, filed by the African National Congress (ANC), came just hours before the report was scheduled to go public. Ruling in favor of de Klerk, the court forced the commission to blank out a section implicating the former president as "an accessory after the fact" in two bombings. In the case of the ANC, Justice W.J. Thring ruled against the application, which requested that the report’s release be put on hold until the party and TRC could meet to discuss the findings.

Now that it’s out, the report has set off a vibrant debate across the country. Overdue by several months, it reviews the commission’s work and provides a chronological overview of the conflict inside and outside South Africa. It also details cases illustrating a broader pattern of abuses by the then existing state and the former liberation movements, reveals who authorized and executed them, summarizes victim statements, and reviews submissions made by institutions and communities of interest.

In order to understand the first four volumes of the document, it is necessary to read volume five, which contains the findings and a discussion of the path taken by the commission. Possibly the most critical part of the document, it’s sure to form the basis of numerous court challenges and produce strong reactions at the base of the society. It also provides a context for the commission’s recommendations.

The primary finding is that the Apartheid state was the main perpetrator in the conflicts that raged in and outside South Africa from 1960 to 1994. Apartheid was a crime against humanity, it concludes, a policy that wreaked havoc and brought untold suffering not only to people inside South Africa, but also to the independent African countries to the north, then known as the frontline states.

The commission also concludes that P.W. Botha, former defense minister Magnus Malan, and former Law and Order Minister Adrian Vlok were responsible for the actions of security forces which interpreted words such as "eliminate" to mean killing government opponents. The commission rejects the position of former intelligence chief Neil Barnard, who claimed during public hearings that he and his former operatives of the National Intelligence Service (NIS) couldn’t be held responsible if the agency’s information resulted in death, torture, abductions, and other gross violations of human rights. In setting out its findings, the commission clearly draws a distinction between the state and the former liberation movements, endorsing the concept of a "just war."

Nevertheless, and as expected, the report does include some pretty devastating findings against the liberation movements. The commission found that they were responsible for gross human rights abuses in the camps, particularly at the Quatro detention facility in Angola, where political opponents were tortured and sentenced to death. Despite the just war it was waging, the liberation movement blurred the distinction between hard and soft targets. As a result, civilians were killed by landmines in border areas and bombings in urban centers.

The commission calls upon the ANC to accept some responsibility for the many abuses committed by the Mandela United Football club. This structure, operating with the approval of Winnie Madikizela Mandela, was found responsible for murders, abductions, and arson. The report claims that Winnie was central to the establishment of this "vigilante” group, which waged a reign of terror. Both politically and morally, Winnie is responsible for these atrocities, says the report.

With the insights of an insider who worked in the TRC Investigative Unit, I know that the resulting document isn’t perfect. Thick on management and conceptual issues, it’s thin on reportage of actual cases solved by the commission. This isn’t surprising, since the TRC’s work is sure to be used by other countries where civil and political conflict has raged. But it’s also why the report needs to be assessed soberly, yet irreverently, and not treated as a sacred cow. And to understand the ground the TRC has broken, as well as the process it used to produce this voluminous document, it’s necessary to know more about its fulcrum – the Investigative Unit.

Private Confessions

On September 19, 1996, a special TRC sub-committee decided to hold in camera (closed) hearings as part of the evidence-gathering process. A list of procedures was adopted at a subsequent meeting of the full commission in November. The decision to include in camera procedures, as stipulated by Section 29 of the Promotion of National Unity and Reconciliation Act of 1995, provided the investigative unit with an important avenue for inquiry. It also served as a critical instrument for bringing perpetrators into the amnesty process.

The fact that these inquiries haven’t been the subject of much discussion, either by the commission or the media, stems from the fact that most people simply don’t know what happened. Yet, from their inception, the hearings served as an important mechanism for testing evidence presented to the commission, authenticating documents in the possession of the investigative unit, confronting people with serious and potentially damaging allegations, and soliciting further details from implicated parties and amnesty applicants.

The procedures developed by the TRC protected those called to give evidence, as well as the integrity of the process. Among the guidelines: proper and timely notification of witnesses; their right, irrespective of economic standing, to legal representation; and procedures and standards to be applied during hearings.

All witnesses were treated in a dignified manner, but those subpoenaed or invited could be compelled to answer all questions, even if the testimony was self-incriminating. In such cases, however, the attorney general was consulted and the panel chair had to be satisfied that the request was reasonable, necessary, and justifiable. In addition, any document used as a basis for questions was provided to the witness and his legal representative.

From the very start, these hearings directly influenced the responses of implicated parties and alleged perpetrators of gross human rights violations, and assisted the commission in its quest for information. In several cases, an appearance at an in camera inquiry actually opened the way for an implicated party to consider applying for amnesty. Two examples are former Vlakplaas operatives Sgt. Thapelo Johannes Mbelo and Capt. Riaan "Balletjies" Bellingan, subpoenaed to testify about the killing of the Guguletu Seven, who were ambushed by security forces in March 1986. Brought before the TRC by the families of the deceased, they revealed that security police in the Western Cape asked for the assistance of the notorious Vlakplaas hit squads to stem the tide of revolutionary activity in the region.

Col. Eugene DeKock, who was in command, put together a team of his best operatives, a group that included several "turned" members of the ANC and one of its most notorious assassins, Jimmy Mbane. Working with the local "terrorist" tracking unit, they infiltrated a group of Black activists in a squatter camp, armed and trained them, and eventually led them into an orchestrated ambush. All seven young men were killed in a hail of gunfire. Several of the officers involved are senior members of the current command structure of the Western Cape police force.

After a probing inquiry by the panel, a viewing of the edited police video made at the scene, and the realization that the investigative unit had documents and other evidence that was potentially damaging, Mbelo requested processing for amnesty, and asked that the full transcript of the hearing be attached.

At the start of the hearing, held in Cape Town in December 1996, Bellingan said the youths were killed during a legitimate anti-terrorist operation. However, under cross-examination his position shifted on statements he’d made at the time of the shootings. He was confronted with encrypted correspondence, some of which he authored and signed. A probing session with the investigative unit slowly opened his mind, and gave rise to a second amnesty application related to the Guguletu Seven.

Frans "Lappies" Labuschagne was called to give evidence about several abductions, killings, internecine fights, tortures, weapons violations, and structures which targeted activists. His amnesty application, which had earlier listed three matters, was expanded to include everything listed on the subpoena.

The case of Col. Chris Nel opened a huge window into the activities of the former South Africa Defense Force (SADF). In camera hearings in May and June 1998 provided critical information concerning the Civil Cooperation Bureau (CCB), the uses of the former government’s chemical and biological weapons program, the involvement of key individuals and covert structures in abuses, current activities of disgruntled former covert operatives, and on-going attempts to destroy documents.

The CCB functioned differently from any other arm of the security forces. The activities of its 185 aware members and 215 unaware members were known only to a small, tightly knit inner circle. From Nel we heard how its activities, mainly covert, were carried out with high level political and military authorization under Special Forces, the most specialized arm of the SADF. Semi-privatized, it was set up like a modern corporation, and allowed the government to use plausible deniability if its cover was blown.

On several occasions since those hearings, Nel has demonstrated his willingness to fully participate in the process. Threaded very carefully through the TRC final report, his testimony provides the necessary backup for many of the cross-border matters listed in volume two of the report. While almost 100 in camera inquiries were conducted by the investigative unit, the matters mentioned below illustrate the nature of the exercise and the way it impacted the commission’s work.

Abuses in the Movements

Allegations of abuses involving the liberation movement came in the form of statements by survivors and victims, submissions by political parties, and comments by private citizens. They ranged from torture to abduction and extrajudicial killings. The most prominent, of course, are those allegedly committed by the ANC at its Quatro detention facility.

While several former Quatro detainees spoke both with the commission and the media, the most high-profile statement came from Land Claims Commissioner Joe Seremane, who accused the ANC of the torture and extrajudicial execution of his brother, Timothy "Chief" Seremane. The allegations were supported by affidavits from Gordon Moshiou and Gideon Mashotane, who said they were detained and tortured at Quatro. They also claimed they were detained with Timothy, who was "tortured beyond recognition" and later executed on the orders of a kangaroo court.

These charges were the subject of a public hearing when Commissioner Seremane made an impassioned plea, opening up a public debate. Articles in the Weekly Mail printed allegations against current senior members of the SANDF – which integrated Apartheid military with guerilla forces – and National Intelligence Agency (NIA), as well as the affidavits of Moshieou and Mashotane.

Pursuing its mandate to uncover all relevant facts, the commission called Gen. Andrew Masondo and Major John Mnisi of the SANDF, and Mtunzi Gabriel "Sizwe" Mthembu of the NIA for in camera inquiries into the allegations of severe mistreatment, torture, and executions at Quatro. They were to answer specific questions about the establishment of the detention facility, its command structure, procedure and standing orders, interrogation of detainees, and authorization for use of force. Other questions listed in the notices to appear included the mechanisms for the control of excesses and abuses, guidelines and procedures of the ANC’s tribunal, minimum conditions for executions, and specific allegations surrounding the deaths of Timothy, Boihlomo Leballo, Philip Mangena, Joseph Mokwena, and Gabriel Mosheou. As with every in camera hearing, each person called was provided with a comprehensive file of documents, including statements and affidavits of witnesses and complainants, relevant parts of the ANC’s submission to the TRC, and complete reports from the Stuart, Skeyiya, and Motsuenyane Commissions, established by the ANC to look into charges of excess and abuse by the movement.

Masondo, Mthembu, and Mnisi appeared March 26, April 3, and May 5, respectively. Despite his position as a senior member of the SANDF, Masondo elected to appear, facing all questions without legal representation. Mthembu and Mnisi were represented by Brian Kupedi.

The Quatro Hearings

The candid testimony of Masondo was particularly instructive. He was national commissar in the period directly preceding the establishment of camp 32 – or Quatro, as it was known by the guerrillas – and remained in that position until after the Stuart Commission, which was established by the ANC in 1994 to look into disturbances at several ANC camps in Angola, including Quatro. He traced a series of events in which widespread destruction was averted only through quick action of the command structure in Angola and the timely intervention of Cuban internationalists. These included random acts of sabotage, the mass poisoning of almost 500 cadres, and the aerial bombardment of the Katenga camp by South African security forces in 1979.

Both he and Mthembu described the poisoning incident known as Black September. Fresh from training, 500 guerrillas consumed food laced with an unknown substance. "We ate," Mthembu recalled, "there was nothing wrong, but in no time each and every one was complaining of some stomach disturbance. As others were complaining of that, others were vomiting, others were having diarrhea. I don’t have words to describe the agony that one had to go through as a result of those pains. So agonizing was the pains that you were not shy to relieve yourself in front of everybody. Women were not shy, men were not shy, seniority did not matter. Had it not been for the intervention of the Cuban specialists, most of us would have died."

Another incident that preceded the establishment of Quatro was the aerial bombardment of the Katenga camp. Masondo explained, "In 1979, Vorster made the announcement they were going to attack Katenga, so Mzwandile Piliso and I sat down and said to the Cubans, ÔWe must do something, the South Africans are coming.’" After convincing the Cubans and the leadership of the imminent danger, underground bunkers were constructed and anti-aircraft weapons were moved. Masondo claims the SADF bombed the camp, killing one South African and one Cuban.

The concentration of fire by SADF forces is what most struck Masondo. "You see, when we started to check what was happening, we found an interesting thing about that raid. We had changed the anti-aircraft positions and when those chaps came, they hit where we had the anti-aircrafts. They also chose a time when we would be on parade, or in the dining hall. So they had very good information."

In his view, this incident gave rise to the tightening of security and opened the way for ANC officers and security people to be brought under one command. "I told the cadres, we are at war," he recalled. "I think our hearts became a bit hardened."

The final step toward opening Quatro came after the Angolan government abdicated its legal responsibilities and ceded detention of suspected South Africans to the ANC. At that time, approximately 10 South Africans were detained in Angolan prisons, creating a problem for the host country. According to Masondo, the negotiations involved President Oliver Tambo, but the plan was executed by Joe Modise, Piliso, and himself.

"We had a sizable number of people strongly suspected of being in the payroll of the Apartheid system, who were confessed or proven enemy agents," Mthembu explained. Speculating that this could have been as many as half of those in one camp, Kibashe, he argued that if people hadn’t been separated from the rest and locked up at Quatro, a massacre might have resulted.

All these factors, said the three witnesses, informed the attitudes of the young people who were assigned as command, recording officers, or guards. On the deaths of Timothy and five others, Masondo recounted several serious violations committed by the men, including torture, beatings, murder, and the wrecking of vehicles that were crucial to the liberation movement. Claiming he was forced to act, he admitted setting a trap for Timothy and direct involvement in his detention at Quatro. During this period, a fully-fledged spy ring was discovered; the information was cross-referenced with ANC intelligence and security structures in Lusaka, Botswana, and with Southwest Africa Peoples Organisation (SWAPO), the liberation movement which led the fight for Namibian independence. After reports on the suspects were checked, the names of Timothy and others were referred to a judicial commission, which handed down the death sentences.

The clearest admission of wrong doing by the ANC’s security apparatus at Quatro was summed up by Mthembu when he was asked whether the security department had overstepped its bounds. Observing that the ranks of the security department were "not pure," he said, "We also had people who committed very, very serious acts of indiscipline, we had comrades who abused their positions. To be a member of security and intelligence afforded you with certain powers, so other people did take advantage of this. Either abusing power to get a hold of women … others beat up comrades because they were members of security. We’ve had those cases. There were cases we dealt with, but others got away with murder, they were not punished."

The Real Terror Network

DeKock’s trial provided significant insights into the modus operandi of Vlakplaas, a government-sponsored hit squad responsible for a 12-year reign of terror, as well as crucial information about several acts perpetrated by operatives working within what was then known as C Section in the South African Police. However, DeKock was on trial at the time for crimes ranging from murder to fraud. As a result, his revelations were viewed with some skepticism, possibly as an attempt to implicate his peers and superiors in gross abuses of human rights.

To confirm DeKock’s charges about Vlakplaas and its operatives, it was essential to corroborate his statements and present allegations by victims and survivors to the key commanders and operatives. Among the key witnesses who testified under section 29 were Brigadier Willem Frederick Schoon, who commanded C Section and Vlakplaas from 1980 to 1989, effectively taking over from Col. J.J. Viktor, who set up this structure in 1979. Questioned about the relationships between C Section and other parts of the National Security Management System, Schoon admitted that this structure was central to the country’s security establishment at the time. He also conceded that there was liaison, particularly after 1987, with the Counter Revolutionary Intelligence Task Team (TREWITS), which processed information related to specific targets. These included political activists, academics, ecumenical leaders, or guerrillas who resisted the Apartheid State. The Western Cape Investigative Unit uncovered hundreds of documents relating to planning around specific persons.

TREWITS included representatives from Military Intelligence, NIS, C section of the security police, and Special Forces. TREWITS dealt with several levels of targets, but mostly with the leadership or key guerrillas and commanders of the armed wings of the liberation movement. The idea was to provide a clearing house where all those involved in targeting could get together, exchange information, update dossiers, prioritize, and plan.

To some extent, Schoon explained how operations were conceived and executed, including the connection between Vlakplaas and the Special Forces. For example, the rigged grenades handed by Joe Mamasela to several comrades killed or injured during Operation Zero-Zero on June 15, 1985, were custom-made by Special Forces.

Like others at that early stage of the process, however, Schoon wasn’t convinced the investigative unit had enough information, and therefore denied knowledge of certain murders and other acts associated with Vlakplaas. He specifically denied that he had any knowledge of the role of Vlakplaas in the killing of Griffiths Mxenge, Batando Nndondwe, or the Cradock Four. Thus, it was necessary to question the operatives who had executed missions under orders from C Section command.

On December 6, 1996, Mbelo appeared before the investigative unit to answer questions about his role and that of other Vlakplaas operatives in the Guguletu Seven case. Conceding that the ambush which led to the killings was planned and orchestrated by Vlakplaas operatives working with Lt. Liebenberg of the Cape Town security police, Mbelo stated that the order was to "sweep" (kill) the intended targets. He also implicated then Sgt. Bellingan in the close range execution of Zabonke John Konile.

Mbelo further told the panel about the "rehabilitation" of former members of the liberation movement, Akaris. When a member was arrested, detained, and handed over to Vlakplaas, he explained, "[T]he first thing they will look for from him – it will be information. And to get information these people were tortured. He was tortured to the point where he will say, ÔI will give up and cooperate with you’." Methods included the "tube," which was pulled over a victim’s head to cut off circulation, and electrical torture.

Because he was testifying in camera, Mbelo felt safe to open up. His decision to attach the transcript of the proceeding to his amnesty application not only created quite a stir in the security establishment, but also opened the way for Bellingan’s application.

Bellingan appeared on February 12, 1997. At first maintaining that nothing untoward had occurred during this operation, Bellingan and his attorney eventually conceded that he was weighing his options. He also reflected with regret on his time at Vlakplaas, saying he was exploited as a "useful idiot" by the powers-that-were.

The Transkei Raid

In contrast with evidence provided by Masondo, Mnisi, and Mthembu on abuses committed by the liberation movement in Quatro, the commission experienced several problems when probing allegations against the former SADF. One example was its raid into the former homeland of Transkei on October 8, 1993, resulting in the execution of five children.

This was brought to the TRC’s attention through statements by, among others, the families of deceased and Gen. Bantu Holomisa. The initial investigation was conducted by the Eastern Cape Investigative unit, and later referred to the national office. Documents on the investigation, press cuttings, and the civil action brought by the families were supplemented by press statements received from SANDF Nodal Point.

The Nodal Point had been created after old guard generals reacted strongly to the Investigative Unit’s searches on military bases. It was set up to process requests for documents related to cases and structures under investigation. This agreement between the TRC and the old guard securocrats resulted in several acrimonious exchanges. At a national workshop of investigators in October 1996, the majority demanded the scrapping of this agreement.

To find out more about the raid – who was directly involved, details of intelligence gathering, the planning, who was consulted – several key players were called before the section 29 panel. Invitations were issued to Gen. Meiring, Gen. Kat Liebenberg, de Klerk, and Mbelo. In Greece at the time, de Klerk asked the commission to excuse him, offering to provide written answers to any questions. Before the hearing could get under way, legal representatives of Meiring and Liebenberg requested time-consuming postponements.

Because his relationship to this case was somewhat different from that of the others, Mbelo agreed to appear before the panel on April 1, 1998. But the first part of this hearing turned out to be a request by Mbelo’s attorney, Peter Williams, that Ntsebeza recuse himself, which he did. Subsequently, under critical examination by the panel, Mbelo presented important testimony about how the intelligence was gathered for the pre-dawn raid at Umtata, Transkei.

This information was critical. When international reaction against the raid and the savage slaughter of five young non-combatants threatened to scuttle the talks between the government and the liberation movement, de Klerk, his cabinet, police, and military generals all claimed that they’d verified the Azanian Peoples Liberation Army (APLA) membership of four of the five victims. APLA was the armed wing of the Pan Africanist Congress of Azania. When confronted under oath, Meiring was forced to admit that he hadn’t clearly verified intelligence on the intended target, or the existence of a large cache of weapons.

With most of its budgets and front companies known only to a select few, the intelligence community enjoyed a special status under Apartheid. Yet, the TRC has yet to hear a clear explanation from people like de Klerk, Botha, and Meiring about why there was absolutely no information on the house where five children went to sleep for the last time.

The release of the TRC Final Report has provided the basis for a more in-depth review of a tragic, disturbing period in South Africa history, and opened the way for a transparent, sane, and democratic era to dawn in this vibrant and beautiful part of the world. In so doing, it creates the space to discuss the gaps in the report and the hard labor behind the scenes of an investigative unit which Dr. Biki Minyuku, the TRC’s executive officer, says "did more with less."

Zenzile Khoisan is a South African journalist. A former exile, he spent several years in Southern and Central Africa and the US, and worked in the TRC Investigative Unit from April 1996 until September 1998. He hosts Bushmanbeat, a current affairs program airing twice weekly in Cape Town. The next part of this series will explore some of the unit’s successes and look at how its work will affect a major TRC recommendation – that perpetrators who didn’t apply for amnesty should be prosecuted.