Tue, Aug 07, 2007 - Page 6 News List

Apartheid-era killings return to haunt de Klerk

WHO KNEW WHEN? South Africa's last white president denies knowing about official hit squads, a claim challenged both by his enemies and former security service agents

THE GUARDIAN , JOHANNESBURG

Few in South Africa took much notice when five sleeping teenage boys were shot by a military hit squad just days before the country's last white president, F.W. de Klerk, received his Nobel peace prize for ending apartheid.

But 13 years later the deaths have returned to haunt de Klerk after a decision to prosecute one of his former Cabinet ministers for apartheid-era crimes prompted fresh scrutiny of what South Africa's last white president knew about the campaign of assassinations, bombings and torture against the regime's opponents.

The man once lauded across the globe for freeing former president Nelson Mandela and ending white rule now faces headlines at home declaring "You're a murderer too, FW!" and accusations that his Nobel prize "is soaked in blood."

Former enemies, and some of those who served the apartheid security apparatus, are questioning de Klerk's claim that he knew nothing about police and military hit squads and other illegal covert activities.

Among his accusers is Eugene de Kock, the ex-commander of a police murder squad who is serving a 212-year prison sentence. He says he has "new evidence" against de Klerk who he described in an interview to a Johannesburg radio station as an "unconvicted murderer."

But the accusations have created a backlash among some whites who say that if there are to be prosecutions for politically-motivated crimes then many at the top of the ruling African National Congress should also stand trial.

De Klerk has acknowledged that there was a strategy to murder prominent anti-apartheid activists but says it was carried out by rogue elements within the security forces and he was horrified when he found out years later. At a press conference in Cape Town, his voice cracked with emotion as he said he was being unfairly implicated.

"I am not standing here to defend myself. On these issues my conscience is clear. I am owed a fair deal in my own country," he said. "I was never part of policies that said murder is fine, cold- blooded murder is fine, rape is fine, torture is fine."

He said the accusations were intended to strip him, and the 70 percent of whites who supported his reforms in a 1992 referendum, of an "honorable place at the table as co-creators of the new South Africa."

The spotlight shifted to de Klerk after his former law and order minister, Adriaan Vlok, was charged last month with attempted murder for ordering a police hit squad to poison an anti-apartheid leader, the Reverend Frank Chikane, who survived and is now the director-general of President Thabo Mbeki's office.

Johannesburg newspapers reported that Vlok is striking a plea bargain in which he implicates de Klerk.

The former president has denied that his law and order minister consulted him before ordering the murder attempt. But de Klerk has not denied ordering the 1993 raid, in which the five boys were killed, on what was described as a Pan Africanist Congress (PAC) safe house used to plan "terrorist attacks."

After the attack, the military said the dead were men who were armed and shooting but photographs of the scene showed the boys still in their beds, riddled with bullets and no guns in sight. De Klerk later described the killings as a tragic mistake.

Sigqibo Mpendulo, a PAC activist who was imprisoned on Robben Island for five years and lost his twin 16-year-old sons in the attack, says the former president should be prosecuted because it was the modus operandi of such attacks to massacre everyone in the targeted house, as happened in similar raids on in Zimbabwe and Mozambique.

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