In a period as bloody and violent as the twentieth century, it takes concerted effort to earn the nickname “Prime Evil”. But, with his involvement in the killing and maiming of black activists in South African apartheid, that is how Eugene de Kock came to be known in the aftermath of white rule.
So it came as a surprise to many on Friday when it was announced that de Kock, the former commander of the apartheid government’s infamous Vlakplaas unit – a police squad responsible for unimaginable horrors – was to be granted parole.
De Kock became infamous following his hearing as part of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), a series of hearings where perpetrators of crimes against humanity were pardoned as long as they confessed their crimes and could prove they were politically motivated. During his presentation of evidence, de Kock admitted to perpetrating more than 100 acts of murder, torture and fraud. He also took full responsibility for the actions of the undercover Vlakplaas officers who carried out his orders. Although he was sentenced in 1996 to two life sentences – and a further 212 years – in prison, de Kock will now be released after serving just 20 years.
So, why has he been released? After all, in a world were octogenarians are being prosecuted (rightly, in my view) for their role in the Holocaust, it seems strange that a 66-year-old man should be released simply for good behaviour. According to South Africa’s justice minister, Michael Masutha, de Kock has been released “in the interests of nation building”, in the hope that he will continue to assist investigations into unsolved apartheid cases. The prosecuting authorities say de Kock has co-operated openly and honestly with investigators who are searching for the remains of those activists who remain buried.
The success of the TRC in helping to rebuild South Africa following the release and subsequent election of Nelson Mandela means that further attempts to suture old wounds will likely help what remains a fractured society. Additionally, good behaviour is not the only reason that Masutha has agreed to grant de Kock parole. The justice minister has insisted on a series of meetings between de Kock and surviving relatives of a number of his former victims. Following these meetings, many have spoken of the remorse shown by this one-time killer. Others have added that his release will help to finally close the last chapter of South African suffering, which began with the TRC some 20 years ago.
Of course, not everyone has welcomed the news. Among the positive responses out there, there are condemnations of his release, particularly on social media. Some users have described feelings of anger, hurt, and betrayal.
However, Masutha is supported by Archbishop Desmond Tutu, whose guidance of the TRC is often considered to be an integral part of its success. According to Debora Patta, a South Africa-based journalist for CBS, Tutu has added his voice to the calls for de Kock’s forgiveness. Even if he doesn’t mean them – and there is no reason to suspect that to be the case – Tutu’s calls for forgiveness should have a stablising effect in the immediate aftermath of the announcement.
As a country, South Africa is tense. Old scars that have not yet healed threaten to become new wounds on an alarmingly regular basis. Even today, unrelated to the release of de Kock, South African political and social activist Jay Naidoo warned of “forces within South Africa” that were encouraging “deadly” tribalism. Although Naidoo declined to lay blame for tribal tension at the feet of South Africa’s ruling ANC party, the release of a former violent white supremacist could have disastrous consequences in an already fractured society.
For example, reports from earlier this week told of widespread looting in Johannesburg. Violent gangs – allegedly aided by police – have launched repeated attacks against businesses owned by immigrants, highlighting further still South Africa’s long running problems with race. Underlying problems like this will either be exacerbated or relieved by de Kock’s release; only time will tell.
We must hope, then, that de Kock will use his new freedom to diffuse tensions left over from the apartheid era as investigators continue to tie up loose ends. However, we must also remember that for some there will be no desire to forgive and, above all, that must be respected.