By Siphokazi Magadla · 2 Feb 2015
The 27th of January 2015 marked the 70th anniversary of the ‘liberation’ of Auschwitz-Birkenau. This is the concentration camp in Poland where an estimated 1.1 million people were killed by Adolf Hitler’s Nazi Germany during World War II. The victims of Auschwitz-Birkenau were killed in masses in gas chambers while some were beaten to death and others died of starvation, endured forced labour and suffered from infectious diseases. Speaking in front of the International Auschwitz Committee in Berlin, the German Chancellor Angela Merkel reminded the world that “crimes against humanity are not time-barred” and challenged that “we will always have the responsibility of ensuring that the knowledge about these atrocities is passed on, and of keeping the memories alive.”
Watching the haunting images of the camp and listening to the testimonies of the few remaining survivors of the holocaust, I could not help but wonder about how South Africa and the world will remember apartheid in 2064. The news that Justice Minister Michael Masutha approved the parole application of Eugene de Kock, the former commander of the apartheid counter insurgency unit Vlakplaas, after serving 20 years of his two life terms in addition to 212 years for the crimes he committed, offers insights into the ways in which we can expect memory about apartheid to be kept “alive” or to disappear into obliviousness at a high cost for both the past and the future.
Like any other prisoner in a constitutional democracy, de Kock has the right to use the law to make the case that he has been a compliant and transformed prisoner who no longer presents a danger to society. I defend de Kock’s right to apply for parole on good behaviour, but I object to the claim, by Minister Masutha, that de Kock’s release serves “nation building and reconciliation”. This form of rhetoric silences rather than builds the nation.
The discourse of nation building is employed with such abandon that it is unsurprising that Masutha did not see it necessary to explain how, exactly, de Kock’s parole contributes to nation building. The act of contributing to “nation building and reconciliation” is treated as self-explanatory. At best we are told that de Kock has made amends with some of his victims and that he remains the only high-ranking apartheid security officer to cooperate with the state in revealing the trail of apartheid secrecy in order to expose more of his counterparts who remain in the shadows, unaccountable for their roles in the decades of mass violence.
Professor Pumla Gobodo-Madikezela has long countered the view that de Kock is the sole embodiment of apartheid evil in our public imagination. She has made the case that “releasing De Kock would open up the possibility of a movement towards a new politics of remembrance, one that would help invigorate dialogue about the kind of future we want and the future of young South Africans.”. In similar vein, Jacob Dlamini has also argued, “We need him outside to help us come to terms with the past.”
The danger of this logic is that in the glare of history, the man formerly known as “Prime Evil” is transformed and subsumed into the reconciliation narrative and comes out looking like the lone killer with a conscience in a context where those who were subjected to his violence are presently under pressure to suppress their claim to a tragic past for purposes deemed to be more expedient for the present.
For instance, while de Kock transforms his image from evil to that of a complex figure, the victims of apartheid violence are still waiting for Masutha’s Department of Justice to distribute money to victims of apartheid brutality who were identified by the TRC as qualifying to receive reparations from the state. These reparations were allocated to assist them rebuild the lives that were destroyed at the hands of de Kock and company. In 2014 activists drew attention to the department’s threat to divert the victim’s compensation fund from the victims of apartheid to municipal infrastructure projects that have no direct bearing on the lives of those who participated in the TRC.
In the logic of “nation building”, a figure like de Kock is transformed into a complicated creature and room is made for him to recreate himself in ways that supposedly serve the nation. It is striking, however, to observe that not much room has been made to accommodate and expand the horizons of those whose wounded bodies offer the most visible evidence of the trail of apartheid brutality. Instead, as a service to “reconciliation” this poor majority is expected to express perpetual gratitude for current partial freedoms in ways that suggest that to talk too much about the past is to not fully appreciate how far the nation has come.
While liberal democracy promises the civil liberties that should presumably allow for a robust and complex engagement with memory, the reality is that many of the wounded are currently experiencing what theorist Angela Davis defines as a “social and civil death”, which makes the possibility of a “dialogue” about the past unlikely. What becomes more likely is that the performance of “nation building” benefits the perpetrator who emerges as more human in the eyes of future generations.
The ability of white males who have terrorized entire societies to escape history’s harsh judgment is nothing new. In death, Chris Kyle, who is known to be the deadliest sniper in American history, is hailed as an American hero with a movie that glorifies his killing of over a hundred Iraqis in order to “protect” America. These Iraqis that Kyle referred to as “savages”, are left to fend for themselves as they quietly pick up the pieces of their lives in order to build a nation destroyed by a mindless war. The price they pay is with their silence. While Kyle’s crooked image is “made right” by the forces of a chauvinist nationalism.
Drawing lessons from Nazi Germany for South Africa, Angelo Fick warns against the use of a “toxic mix of nationalism disguised as patriotism”. While the words “holocaust” and “apartheid” are particular to the brutalities of twentieth century war. I am not so certain that the weight of apartheid will be remembered and “kept alive” in this context where memory is subordinated on behalf of building the nation.
No Future without Forgiveness
The legacy of Apartheid lives on. Unchallenged, largely, by a ruling party who has hopped happily into bed with those political powers that promote the West's neo-colonialist apathy towards the Majority World and their neo-liberal economic policies that continue, jubilantly, to erode away the last little scraps of economic power desperately held on to by the same majority. Let alone the agonising silence our government renders to Israel's violation of human rights, international law, international treaties, the UN charter and their continuous brutal assault on the human dignity of the Palestinians. De Kock had committed gross attrocities. This cannot be disputed. But I would suggest that the African spirit of Ubuntu be our guiding light in this matter of De Kock's parole. Siphokazi does seem to see the beast for the beast though: the opportunistic political manoeuvring of the ANC in this matter to take the spotlight away from the real pressing issues in the background regarding the compensation fund and more. Through their commentary, Siphokazi is in fact adding to this decoy strategy rather than redirecting focus to the real pressing issues: an indifferent government that is leading the way for the minority's wealth to increase rapidly while the majority's disempowerment deepens uncontrollably. America's romanticising of institutional violence abroad is a cultural narrative which is not African and bares not parallel with the circumstances and context around De Kock's parole approval: he is certainly not hailed as a hero. Yet that very desire that Siphokazi expresses for “harsh judgement” towards those who had commit gross atrocities is the exact underlying cultural current that fuels the prejudice and hatred promoting the wars of aggression committed by the USA and that propped up Apartheid and justified it amongst white South Africans. Today, just over twenty years after liberation, South Africa is desperate for leadership; desperate for real economic empowerment for the majority; desperate for the eradication of violence against women; desperate for the silence on continued racism to be broken; desperate for the promises of compensation to manifest as reality. De Kock's parole is insignificant in light of the desperation that grips our nation. We dare not forget our past as the darkness of our past shines light on our future and should guide us to avoid the same pitfalls that had gone before. Similary though, holding on to the bitterness of violation and the debilitation of injustice from the darkness of our past in order to give meaning to the lives of those who had been targeted, is short-changing us all in terms of human dignity. The struggle for human dignity is a strive that needs to be laboured at today, lest we loose the battle entirely. De Kock will carry the weight of his actions for the rest of his life. He had made enormous mistakes. So do we all. And as we ask for forgiveness every time we make a mess lets be reminded of our common humanity in this. And lets remind ourselves of the common roots shared by harsh judgements and the behaviours that will become the subject of the same harsh judgements. Lets remind ourselves, first and foremost, about the heights of the human experience: forgiveness, openness and Love. (The subject of this comment is the title of a book by Desmond Tutu)