Defend Truth


It’s about time we dealt conclusively with the devil in our midst


Tony Heard was Editor of the Cape Times 1971-87, and a ministerial and Presidential adviser in the Mandela and Mbeki administrations.

The notion that apartheid was not a crime against humanity has reached its shelf life.

How any South African who lived through the gross privilege amid the imposed hell of others during apartheid can believe that this was not a crime against humanity defies logic and destroys rationality. It strikes at our own humanity, and future, as a democratic country.

Apartheid was the enslaver of a least 75% of our people. It controlled their movement from cradle to grave, because they were not white. It required black Africans to carry passes and forbade them free movement around their country of birth. It forbade Indians overnighting in the Orange Free State. It removed whole communities because they were not white. Close friends of mine, such as a pioneering “coloured” reporter on the Cape Times, George Manuel, and his family, were removed from their homes more than once. Because they were not white. 

It is a long, tragic story. Many South Africans have their own personal stories of chilling times past. I have too many to relate in detail. Just one galling memory should suffice.  

A fellow student and friend at UCT, quiet-spoken Rick Turner, who sat next to me in philosophy in the 1950s, was shot, like a cane rat, at his front door in Durban, because he held a radically alternative view from that of the imposed Authority. That authority was the minority, racial clique who ran the country undemocratically and by force of arms. They did it as if the majority were non-existent.  

This Sorbonne-educated young thinker, Rick, was thus not able to make a potentially vast contribution to our non-racial future because he crossed Authority, influencing black unions, fuelling other progressive trends with his thoughts and writings. So, thus challenged by a brilliant mind, white authority ordered his death, at his front door, his two daughters present. He was a rarity, a white killed by apartheid’s security gunmen.

To me, that’s a crime against humanity.

How FW de Klerk, the man who in 1990 bravely turned the key in the door of our democratic future, risking being disavowed by his own (white) following, could suggest today that apartheid was not a crime against humanity, the flurry of subsequent apologies notwithstanding, leaves me gobsmacked. Happily, his own foundation has acted with alacrity, apologising for something that was “unacceptable”  – as he has too.  

The authority given for this corrective stance is none other the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court. 

But doubts linger after such incidents, for anyone interested in the future social stability of SA.

Lawyers will always come with abstruse points. Yet any dolt with eyes to see and ears to hear, and a heart that beats, living through it all, would have had more than a suspicion about one thing: That in those apartheid days we were officially committing crimes against the human race. 

When I worked with Mandela minister Kader Asmal, a human rights exponent and head of humanities at renowned Trinity College Dublin for a decade, he embarked on a book called Reconciliation Through Truth, in collaboration with his wife Louise and lawyer-writer Ronald Roberts. 

In this book there are more than 20 indexed references under “apartheid: as crime against humanity”, and the message was clear: It certainly was just that.

To summarise the book’s index, there was genocide, international unlawfulness, violence against Frontline States. There are references to fascist tendencies, illegality, Nazi influence, global significance, etc.  

It was bad, real bad in the days of apartheid. Anyone who yearns for them requires an early appointment with an analyst. Militant opposition to racism in those days could (and did in some cases) lead to the Pretoria gallows, where around 100 South Africans were executed for various crimes each year. Today it is not one, and that must be left inviolate in our unfolding history as a democracy. 

The new South Africa under Nelson Mandela in 1994 chose the path of reconciliation through truth, not recourse to Nuremberg or Japanese war crimes tribunals. We should build on that generosity, and not allow recidivism to beckon us towards a ghoulish past.

Let us check through some contributions to this debate by Kader and his associates in their book published by David Philip in 1996, a book I got to know in some detail as Kader’s adviser.

I quote (at page 6): “There was no moral similarity between the goals, instincts, basic values, or even the tactics, of those who fought to end apartheid when measured against the values and conduct of those who struggled to uphold it. Not once did the ANC target any apartheid leader for assassination. The apartheid state systematically targeted its opponents.”

Page 7: “Apartheid was evil. It was a crime against humanity …”

Page 16: “The Western-dominated United Nations Security Council itself reaffirmed, on the day following the 16 June 1976 Soweto uprising, that ”apartheid was a crime against the conscience and dignity of mankind and seriously disturbs international peace and security”.

Page 181. … “Some now seek to deny the fact that apartheid was a crime against humanity by claiming, backhandedly, that only the Nazi holocaust qualifies for that designation… this view is simply incorrect as a matter of legal doctrine.” (The passage in the book details why.) It goes on:  “The attempt to contain the scope of crimes against humanity, and to deny the concept a living and admonitory presence is a device to smooth historical forgetting. A formal acknowledgement of the wisdom of the international community on the matter is an essential part of reconciliation.”

The book discusses specific ways, summarised above, in which fundamental human rights were invaded. I felt the case was unanswerable when the book was published. And 24 years later I believe that now. Precisely why De Klerk, and some others, are controversially raking up past history to give the EFF’s Julius Malema publicity and a chance to abuse them in public, eludes me. It’s like shooting oneself in both feet simultaneously.

My advice, with respect, to such people, is: Show some sensitivity to others’ opinions and past hurts, or bow out of public life and leave it to a younger generation to work out their, and of course our, damnation or salvation. I fervently hope it will be the latter. DM

Tony Heard has just published a book, “8000 Days” on his 22 years serving in democratic governance, a decade of this spent in the Presidency as a special adviser. He is a former editor of the Cape Times.


Please peer review 3 community comments before your comment can be posted