If Apartheid assassin Eugene de Kock did not exist, white South Africans would have had to invent him to absolve us of our complicity in (and/or our benefiting from) the system of Apartheid, which De Kock brutally defended on our behalf. His release therefore leaves me with mixed emotions.
In Roberto Bolaño’s short novel By Night in Chile, Father Sebastián Lacroix (a Chilean Priest and literary critic) relives some of the crucial events of his life in a feverish delirium on his deathbed. Lacroix, an urbane, well-educated and respected member of the Chilean elite, sees himself unambiguously as a good man.
Yes, there was the time, shortly after the Chilean military disposed of left-wing President Salvador Allende in a bloody coup d’état, that father Lacroix agreed to provide lessons on Marxism to insecure coup leader Augusto Pinochet and other senior generals of the military junta. But in the mind of Father Lacroix, he is essentially a fair-minded man, a cultured man of letters, not somebody bothered with politics, but an intellectual concerned about literature – despite his sympathies for the military dictatorship.
During these early years of the dictatorship a curfew was in place in Santiago, but Lacroix often met with other writers and poets at the house of an up and coming writer (whom he at first calls talented, but – tellingly – later dismisses as second-rate) and her “North American” husband. At the sprawling house they held all-night parties, drinking cognac and talking about literature and philosophy.
At first Lacroix says that he did not attend each of these gatherings, which was held about three times a week. Then he says he only attended once or so a week, and later he claims that he hardly went more than once a month. He also claims that he hardly knew the hostess and only spoke to her twice. The reason why he begins to distance himself from these gatherings becomes apparent only later.
After the fall of Pinochet it emerges that in the basement of the house where the literary gatherings were held, the “North American” had been torturing and perhaps killing opponents of the dictatorship. After being confronted with this revelation Lacroix visits the hostess at her house. She asks him whether he wished to see the basement where the torture occurred.
The Priest’s response: “I must be off, María, I really have to go”. He advises her to pray, but “I didn’t manage to put much conviction into my advice.”
As a white South African who benefited from the Apartheid system in whose name De Kock murdered and maimed so many people (and as someone who continues to benefit indirectly because of the advantages granted to my parents and/or myself because of Apartheid exploitation), the story of Father Lacroix is a frighteningly, yet fascinatingly, familiar one.
Many of us (and/or many of our parents) never became embroiled in the murderous depravity into which De Kock and some Apartheid assassins and murderers in the Police and the Defence Force descended. It would be nice to think that – if we were put in the same position as De Kock – none of us would.
But who of us (and now I am not only talking about Apartheid beneficiaries) can say with certainty that, no matter what the circumstances, we would never commit murder in support of a completely twisted but strongly held (and economically beneficial) set of ideals?
As someone who believes that too much certainty (while arguably providing us with a false sense of safety) runs the risk of making us stupid and complacent, I am not in a position to answer this question definitively for myself. I suspect that it is exactly by when you contemplate the possibility that you too – given different circumstances – might have been capable of doing something unthinkably horrible, that you may be best placed to ward off the inhumanity that stalks the world.
De Kock was granted parole last week after only serving twenty years of his 212-year prison sentence imposed on him for six counts of murder, as well as conspiracy to murder, attempted murder, assault, kidnapping, illegal possession of firearms, and fraud. He was one of the few people ever convicted for what he did to defend the Apartheid system. None of the Apartheid politicians, police and South African Defence Force generals ever spent time behind bars for enforcing a crime against humanity.
What De Kock did was monstrous – far more monstrous than anything an ordinary beneficiary of Apartheid did. Whether he deserves to be granted parole is, therefore at the very least, debatable. But singling out De Kock as particularly evil is also comforting for those of us who benefited from Apartheid and continue to do so.
It’s an archetypal example of “othering”. We pinpoint one wrongdoer (the torturer in the attic) in order to obscure our own complicity in upholding and benefiting from the system in whose name De Kock committed his crimes.
Supporting the prosecution and conviction of De Kock and his continued incarceration, and insisting on depicting him as uniquely evil, allows us to avoid having to confront the fact that the system itself was evil through and through.
It helps us white South Africans who lived through Apartheid (or whose parents did) to retain the idea that we were, for the most, “decent” people – lawyers, accountants, clerks, doctors, school teachers, insurance brokers – who read and discussed the merits of good books and movies with friends, who went to the opera and the symphony concert, who cried when that dog was killed in the movie, who treated our servants with condescending kindness. In our own minds we would never, ever deliberately endorse cruelty and violence towards others.
Yet, we benefited from the system whose very raison d’être was to oppress and exploit others and to uphold and defend the sham superiority what is ironically termed “Western civilisation” – the same “civilisation” that produced Hitler, Stalin, Vietnam and Iraq, and embraced and benefited from slavery and colonial oppression.
Of course, the majority of white South Africans actively supported the Apartheid government (how else did the National Party win ever-increasing support at whites-only elections?) and may even have cheered on the likes of De Kock, had they got the chance. A minority formally opposed Apartheid and would have expressed horror at the murderous behaviour of De Kock and other Apartheid security operatives.
But, like Father Lacroix, almost all of us – with the exception of a few truly exceptional people (Bram Fisher, Joe Slovo, Ruth First and others) – were metaphorically enjoying drunken literary parties while the torture and murder was being conducted in our name and on our behalf in the basement of the house called Apartheid South Africa.
Why did more of us not make extreme sacrifices to oppose the system? Why did more not sabotage the Apartheid state in any way we could? Why did so few join Umkhonto we Sizwe? Self-interest, lack of bravery, indifference, or fear stopped a majority of “liberal” white South Africans from making real sacrifices to fight Apartheid.
Some of us might have spoken out against the National Party and its Apartheid policies from the safety of our white, privileged existence. To show our open-mindedness, tolerance and essential decency, some of us might have spoken out about the need to free Nelson Mandela and to get rid of the horrid Nationalists.
(Although, it must be said, for some English-speaking white South Africans this mild “opposition” to Apartheid had more to do with prejudice towards – and feelings of superiority over – white Afrikaners than with genuine abhorrence of Apartheid and support for the Struggle.)
For a white person like myself, this is not easy to admit. But it is – paradoxically – liberating. I suspect it is only after confronting our parents’ (and our own) corrosive entanglement with Apartheid that we can begin to recover our full humanity.
One of the tragedies of our society is that many South Africans (of all races) do not realize how liberating it is to confront their own failings, their fears, their shame, their anger.
How can we begin to heal when we cannot admit that we are broken because of who we are and because of the harm we have caused others? How can we expect others to treat us with dignity and respect when we refuse to admit that we have harmed them in the past or are continuing to harm them now?
Metaphorically speaking (and without being asked) white South Africans have to go down to the basement of that house where we attended the glittering literary parties, we have to open the door to that room where people were tortured in our name, we have to see the blood on the floor and smell the stench of other people’s fear and nod our heads for all to see and say, yes, this was done in my name. DM
Pierre De Vos teaches Constitutional law at the University of Cape Town Law Faculty, where he serves as deputy dean and as the Claude Leon Foundation Chair in Constitutional Governance. He writes a regular blog, entitled 'Constitutionally Speaking', in which he attempts to mix one part righteous anger, one part cold legal reasoning and one part irreverence to help keep South Africans informed about Constitutional and other legal developments related to the democracy.