Reconciliation and redemption: The old man and the dark shadow of the past

As a brutal war rages in Europe, this writer considers what South Africa’s own violent history reflects to the wider world about reconciliation and even redemption.

I have been haunted by this image for months: an old man in an ill-fitting, pale blue shirt and flapping khaki pants, wearing a grey woollen beanie on his head at the height of summer. He is walking down an uneven brick driveway cautiously feeling each step with a three-footed aluminium cane.

He draws behind him a dark past, its heaviness bearing down on his frail body as he hobbles toward me. I have seen him often in my own past, but I have never actually met him before. I know much about his outer public and political life – as does all the world. I know, too, something about his inner life to have seen that he has spent the second half of his life trying at least publicly to atone for the horror of what he decreed should be done to others.

He was one of the most powerful and terrifying protectors of white privilege in the dying days of apartheid. As deputy and then minister of law and order, he was one of the inner circle, one of the merciless anointed, who had the power to condemn anyone in the country to imprisonment, torture or, often – death.

He ordered the clandestine bombing of the headquarters of Cosatu and of Khotso House, the seat of the South African Council of Churches. In 1989, while early talks between the ANC and the apartheid government were taking place, he gave a clear order to murder. He instructed secret agents to place underwear laced with a deadly nerve toxin in the luggage of the Rev Frank Chikane, who was very nearly killed by the poison and only survived through specialised medical treatment in the US.

In 1986, while Adriaan Vlok was deputy minister, 10 activists from Mamelodi near Pretoria were tricked by a security policeman into believing they were going into exile, injected with a drug that made them unconscious and then burned alive in a minibus.

Some years after the end of apartheid, Vlok spoke out about his evil career. In 2007 he pleaded guilty to the attempted murder of Chikane and received a 10-year suspended sentence. He also talked publicly of apartheid as a sin and how he had sinned against God and against the people he had ordered brutalised and killed. In 2006 he even went so far as to visit Chikane and wash his feet in an open gesture of repentance. He also washed the feet of the widows and mothers of the “Mamelodi 10”.

He then went on to do extensive charity work, feeding children in the townships around Pretoria, funding much of it with his government pension money.

But all of Vlok’s efforts at penance will never be enough for Lukhanyo Calata. He was only three years old when, in 1985, the car carrying his father, Fort Calata, and three fellow activists, Matthew Goniwe, Sparrow Mkonto and Sicelo Mhlauli was stopped at night by the police at a roadblock on their way home to Cradock from a meeting in what was then Port Elizabeth. They were never seen alive again. Their grotesquely mutilated and burned bodies were found days later scattered in the bush of the Eastern Cape.

In 2021 I spoke to Lukhanyo as part of a team making a film for Al Jazeera on the fate of those responsible for the murder of the Cradock Four. He has spent most of his adult life trying to bring them to trial.

“The government banned the funeral,” he tells me. “That is my first memory of my dad, his funeral. Later that afternoon, the government declared a State of Emergency.”

He gestures towards a huge pile of documents he has collected over the years. “These files are the base documents that prove beyond any shadow of a doubt that my father was killed by the apartheid government. On 5 June 1985, Adriaan Vlok takes a drive to where we stay and my mum remembers thinking, ‘Oh, that’s Vlok,’ because she was looking through the window.

“On 6 June, Vlok chaired the meeting of the Eastern Province Joint Management Centre and on 7 June a military signal is sent to the State Security Council. This signal recommends the permanent removal from society of Matthew Goniwe, Mbulelo Goniwe and Fort Calata.”

This violence is layered deeply into the present. Lukhanyo cannot hold back the tears as he tries to make sense of his father’s murder and what it has meant for his life.

“My son knows absolutely nothing about his grandfather. I struggled to raise my son until today. There are many days when I have no clue as to whether what I’m doing in raising my son is the right thing as a father.”

He wipes the tears from his eyes as his anger rises. “Everyone who had anything to do with my father’s death, they must all be investigated. They must all be prosecuted, and they must all be convicted for taking my father away from me.”

But the law has never taken its course in this case. All the men who actually did the killing have died, but Vlok is still alive. Last year I interviewed Vlok about his involvement in the killing of the Cradock Four.

He lives in a modest suburb of Pretoria. Unlike at most homes of the South African middle classes, his gate is unlocked. People, both black and white, come and go. As we are setting up for the interview a migrant from the DRC comes in. Vlok has given him shelter in his home. A young black woman slides the gate to go out. She, too, lives on the property.

We settle into our chairs for the questions to begin. There is the sound of an engine outside. A white man in a bakkie comes to pick up a load of food to be distributed in the nearby townships, despite Covid restrictions. Another once homeless white man is packing the freezers in Vlok’s front rooms with food for the needy.

Today Vlok lives the biblical adage that faith without works is dead. What is happening here this morning is part of an ongoing way of empathetic living far different from the cold, utterly ruthless and privileged existence of an apartheid Cabinet minister.

"So, we live today in a country where the clearest truths are still never spoken because of the lies that have been hidden. Our politicians have been too easily allowed to equate silence with reconciliation, or even at its lowest and most cynical, an agreement as a clandestine form of pseudo-legality that the state can still hide behind."

As we begin the interview, I am aware that Vlok has a long history, dating back to the 1980s, of lying and fudging issues around his own and his colleagues’ guilt of both knowing about and ordering apartheid atrocities.

What, I wanted to know, was his involvement in the killing of Lukhanyo’s father and his comrades?

His face betrays little, if anything, as he replies. He has heard this kind of question before.

“I really had no authority to do these sort of things. I went to these areas. I asked the security forces to give me a briefing: what is going on, what is the situation? But I could not give them instructions to kill people. My authority stretched as far as, I said to lock them up.”

It’s the same old answer that stretches back to the time when he and his government held absolute power over all South Africans and their lives.

The sheer dishonesty angers me. I cannot help being aware of his present humble and compassionate life and the obscene contrast with what he is truly prepared to say about his shameful record. His expressionless face hides a lifetime of brutality and dishonesty, a carefully constructed carapace of hidden complicity that he holds up to the world without visible shame.

“But,” I must ask. “There was definitely an order that found its way into the State Security Council saying they must be permanently removed from society. What did that mean?”

He hesitates and looks at me very carefully. “To remove a person from society…” he stumbles over his words.

“You know, we in the Security Council, we were very careful not to tell, not to say and to make a note and to have in the minutes to kill anybody. So… we would say, uh, remove a person from the society, remove him. And, you know, never nobody said killing. But we – I thought probably it was meant if you can’t solve the problem by removing the guy, then you could kill him.”

I can barely believe the admission, halting as it is.

“You thought that then?” I stammer out.

There is an openness in his eyes as he answers: “Not consciously, but afterwards, thinking back, I must admit that I realised this was a possibility.”

There it is: an admission – at least a partial acceptance of responsibility, for the first time ever. It remains slippery, unrepentant even, an admixture of sincerity and duplicity – a cunning twist of open contrition and something still of old practised political and legal sophistry – aimed at not being sufficient to have him jailed; but it is certainly never enough to atone for his victims’ pain.

Indeed, there is evidence that the ANC made a secret pact with the outgoing apartheid government to not raise the issues of each other’s responsibility for bombings and killings on both sides.

So, we live today in a country where the clearest truths are still never spoken because of the lies that have been hidden. Our politicians have been too easily allowed to equate silence with reconciliation, or even at its lowest and most cynical, an agreement as a clandestine form of pseudo-legality that the state can still hide behind.

Lukhanyo has launched a bid to force the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) and the police to come to some meaningful conclusion on who is responsible, at the very least, for his father’s murder, along with that of his friends. But nothing so far has come of this fragile hope. Although he told me recently: “We expect to be in court within the next month or two.”

The courts can decide on the question of guilt. But we must live with the one unbreakable law of human misery: not even God can change our past. We go on together bound by the unalterable cruelty of our history, by the legacy of murder bequeathed us by this now limping old man Adriaan Vlok and the evil counsels of the secret meetings he chaired. Ours remains a fractured, half-healed land, where the redemption Nelson Mandela made us hope for eludes us, and yet, we are by no means entirely broken.

Vlok and I part on neutral terms. In the car driving back, I find myself thinking that I will never know what he believes in his truest heart today. As a fellow human being, I cannot judge the quality of his atonement. One thing, however, is indisputable: a generation has gone by, but the suffering he caused and utterly believed in then as a twisted moral imperative to save his white race has not seen its end.

I wonder what it truly is that we must still learn and teach our children about the possibility of real redemption. I wonder what lies waiting to be spoken in the heart of our unspoken silences. I wonder how far we have truly come and yet still not reached. DM

hamilton wende

Hamilton Wende is an author, journalist and TV producer. He has worked all over the world, covering historical events and some 17 different wars and conflicts. He is based in Johannesburg and travels from there. He has worked for a number of international networks including BBC, CNN, and Al Jazeera. He has also reported on events in South Africa for the last three decades. He has published many articles in newspapers, magazines and websites around the world. He is the author of 9 books. House of War, Only the Dead and The King’s Shilling are thrillers based on his travels around the world as a journalist. His latest book Red Air is based on his experiences filming with the US Marines in Afghanistan. He has a master’s degree in Creative Writing from Wits University.

He is also the author of the popular children’s books: Arabella, the Moon and the Magic Mongongo Nut and Arabella the Secret King and the Amulet from Timbuktu which are set in Johannesburg and Knysna. He is working on the third volume in the series.

Only the Dead

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