New face of justice: along with many black South Africans, Pumla Godobo-Madikizela thinks Eugene de Kock should be freed. Photo: Bloomberg
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Should the apartheid regime’s “Prime Evil” be released?

Ten years ago psychologist Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela wrote a book about the encounters she had with Eugene de Kock, head of apartheid South Africa’s death squad, when in Pretoria prison. She thinks he should be pardoned. 

Two South African men. Both white. Each played a significant role in upholding apartheid. Each intimately involved in killing other human beings in support of white supremacy. One I knew. One I didn’t.

Craig Williamson was a high-ranking officer of the much-feared Bureau of State Security (“Boss”). In 1977, in the guise of an anti-apartheid activist, he led me across the border from South Africa to Botswana when I escaped from house arrest. He then became one of the most successful double agents in history and badly undermined the assassinated Swedish prime minister Olof Palme’s efforts to assist anti-apartheid activity.

In 1980, after Williamson had been unmasked as an apartheid spy, he returned home a hero and went on to even higher office in South Africa as a member of the State President’s Council. He was also the hands-on architect of the killing by parcel bomb of two people I knew. Two heroes of the apartheid struggle. Both white. Both women.

One, a best friend, Jeanette Schoon (and her six-year-old daughter), splattered against the walls of their home in exile in Angola. The other, Ruth First, blown up in Mozambique. There were many others whose blood is on his hands who I didn’t know.

Williamson went before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) in 2000 and confessed to his role in these killings but little else, claiming that they were “legitimate acts of war”. He offered no remorse. He offered no information that could ease the pain of those whose loved ones he’d killed. He received a full amnesty and resumed a normal life in South Africa as a security consultant. In his case, the TRC achieved neither truth nor justice for the victims and their families.

The other man is Eugene de Kock, alias “Prime Evil”, who was the head of the apartheid regime’s death squad, which tortured and killed opponents with impunity. In 1996 he was sentenced to 212 years in jail for crimes against humanity. He went before the TRC, said he was truly sorry and offered comprehensive information on his victims to the families, how they died and where they were buried. He was granted amnesty for some crimes but his prison sentence stood. He was set to rot in prison for ever.

The two men are connected. In 1996 de Kock testified that Williamson had been involved in the assassination of Olof Palme. In his testimony, de Kock said that the murder, by a lone gunman who shot Palme in the back of the head, had been the work of Operation Long Reach – a secret apartheid-era programme, set up to harass, silence and gather information about opponents of the South African government abroad.

Ten years ago Professor Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela, a psychologist, wrote a book about the encounters she had with de Kock when, at the personal invitation of Nelson Mandela, she served on the TRC. Their meetings happened in the maximum-security section of Pretoria Central Prison. She is elegant, highly intelligent and black. He a baby-faced white killer. He in orange prison overalls, feet chained. She seated in a chair with wheels so she could scoot out of danger should the need arise. Her subject is the nature and origins of evil, the power forgiveness bestows on the victims and their relatives and the conditions for perpetrators’ readmission to the human community. It serves no former repressive society well to ring-fence evil in a few individuals and absolve the rest. The capacity for evil and good resides in us all.

Gobodo-Madikizela firmly believes that de Kock should be pardoned and allowed back into society. He accepts full responsibility for what he did and has asked forgiveness from his victims’ families. De Kock is the only apartheid police official still imprisoned and his latest application for parole is pending. None of his colleagues or superiors was imprisoned.

I read Gobodo-Madikizela’s book, A Human Being Died That Night, and optioned the rights to produce a play. Shortly afterwards, her 40 hours of taped interviews with de Kock were stolen from her assistant on a Cape Town train while en route to make copies for me. The professor was understandably distraught. I arranged for a reward for their return to be offered through radio announcements and posters at railway stations.

If the tapes had been taken by South African intelligence agents or ex-agents we stood no chance of getting them back. But the reward would be attractive to a petty criminal. Three months later Professor Madikizela received a telephone call. A priest in a black township said a local gangster had some audiotapes. Victory? Kind of. He had only four tapes out of 40.

I commissioned the South African-born Nicholas Wright to write a play based on her book and the remaining tapes. When the production opened at the Fugard Theatre in Cape Town in February (it’s now running in London at the Hampstead Theatre Downstairs until 21 June) the reaction was profound. Most black people who saw it felt de Kock should be released: Archbishop Tutu voiced the same opinion. White viewers were less certain.

The play deals with horrific officially sanctioned apartheid-era murders and the physical and emotional pain of victims and survivors, but it is bathed in the overwhelming humanity and intelligence of the black character, Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela.

Eric Abraham was a foreign correspondent in South Africa in the mid-1970s

Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela’s “A Human Being Died That Night” is published by Portobello Books (£3.99)

This article first appeared in the 04 June 2014 issue of the New Statesman, 100 days to save Great Britain

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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle