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Wednesday, October 28, 1998 Published at 11:28 GMT

The voice of 'Prime Evil'

Eugene de Kock: a killer applauded for his honesty

Greg Barrow in Johannesburg looks at the role played in the hearings of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission by a shadowy figure from the apartheid era known as "prime evil".

When you find yourself standing in a gentleman's toilets and someone comes up behind you, it can be quite unnerving.

When you turn round and see that the individual is a mass murderer serving a 212-year prison sentence, it is downright terrifying.

But that is what happened during an adjournment at a Truth and Reconciliation Commission amnesty hearing in Pretoria in July.

Joker in the pack

Eugene de Kock, a former police colonel and apartheid arch-assassin had come to relieve himself, during a break in his testimony.

[ image:  ]
In the deck of cards which makes up the apartheid era government and its henchmen, Eugene de Kock is the joker in the pack.

I watched him as he washed his hands at the toilet sink. A meticulous man, he soaped his arms right up to the elbows, scrubbing every inch of skin before fastidiously drying himself and returning to the hearing.

De Kock's victims say he took the same painstaking care as commander of the notorious Vlakplaas government hit squad during the apartheid era.

First he would kill his target. Then he would incinerate, burn,or even blow up the remains so that no scrap of evidence was left.

An unlikely villain

In the South African media, Eugene De Kock has been described as a mass killer, a psychopath known to the public as "Prime Evil".

He's an unlikely villain. With his carefully combed hair and thick glasses, he looks more like a librarian than a ruthless assassin.

[ image: de Kock is serving a 212-year sentence]
de Kock is serving a 212-year sentence
And in the post-apartheid era of truth and reconciliation he has also become something of a hero, a man of integrity in a community of denial.

Truth and reconciliation has been hard to come by in South Africa. Only one former apartheid cabinet minister has sought amnesty for his role in the political crimes of the last white government.

Every other minister has dodged the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and passed off the crimes of the apartheid era as the work of a few rotten apples.

De Kock is one of the foul fruits grown from the tree of apartheid. When he admitted to his crimes in front of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission he was applauded by a black audience.

They were commending him for his honesty, and his willingness to identify senior politicians on whose orders he carried out his dirty work.

Sleepless nights

De Kock disputes the label of psychopath, arguing that he never took pleasure in killing his victims. It was a job he said, and he was acting under orders from the very top.

Eugene De Kock is on a crusade to finger his old bosses who let him fall for his crimes once he had outgrown his usefulness as an apartheid killing machine.

He still gives them sleepless nights with his clarity and vision in recalling that dark era when a white government was prepared to cling to power by any means necessary.

The flaw within the Truth and Reconciliation Commission may be that such brutal honesty will not be put to good use.

[ image:  ]
When Archbishop Desmond Tutu opened the first hearing of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in April 1996, he set out its charter - to expose the truth about South Africa's dark past, and lay to rest the ghosts of that eraso they could never return to haunt the nation.

Justice was being exchanged for reconciliation, there was to be no Nuremberg trial in post-apartheid South Africa.

Truth when it comes is painful to everyone concerned - only the incredible moral leadership of Archbishop Tutu, and his comrade, President Nelson Mandela seems to have held the whole exercise together.

As a human personification of the power of forgiveness, these two men alone have shown the lead in promoting reconciliation.

Some South Africans have found it within themselves to follow the example of Tutu and Mandela - but human frailty and the desire for revenge has left many others frustrated that the Truth and Reconciliation Commission may have stolen their right to punish the perpetrators of the crimes of apartheid.

A colleague of mine commented that South Africa needs to invent a new word before it can come to terms with its past. That word is "concile".

"How can we be reconciled," he said, "if we have never in our history been conciled".

Stretching all the way back to the arrival of Dutch settlers in the 17th Century, through the Boer War, and on to the foundation of the new republic, South Africa has always been a country in which whites have been at loggerheads with blacks.

'A huge lie'

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission chose only the last three decades of the apartheid era for its frame of reference.

It's a small period of South African history in which an awful lot of crimes were committed under the name of apartheid.

But almost two and a half years on from the first investigative hearing, this Commission of Truth has been left with a huge lie: that it was not the apartheid leaders who were responsible for the heinous crimes of that era, but the foot soldiers like Eugene De Kock.

The ministers who guided and co-ordinated the evil strategy of apartheid have used the Truth Commission like a Catholic confession box.

They have taken their pew and spoken softly only of the crimes they want to confess - and the Commission has absolved them of their sins, blessing them as they leave to forget about that awful past.

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In this section

Truth Commission report: At a glance

Truth report: Key points

TRC findings: Buthelezi

TRC findings: PW Botha

TRC findings: Winnie

TRC: The facts

Mandela addresses truth report ceremony

Seeking the truth: Timeline

South Africans reconciled?

Antonette's story

The voice of 'Prime Evil'

Desmond Tutu's long crusade

Winnie Mandela: Fallen political heir

P W Botha: The 'Great Crocodile'

FW de Klerk: Overseer of transition