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Last Updated: Friday, 17 August 2007, 17:45 GMT 18:45 UK
South Africa reopens old wounds
Protesters outside the High Court in Pretoria

By Martin Plaut
BBC Africa analyst

While many South Africans will rejoice that justice is now, at last, being done to former Police Minister Adriaan Vlok and four other former "securocrats" - as they were called during the apartheid era - there is a real danger of reopening old wounds.

Under a plea bargain, all five have received suspended sentences for admitting to attempting to kill prominent black activist Frank Chikane in 1989 by lacing his underwear with a nerve toxin.

But the prosecution could undermine the stability of the country's post-apartheid settlement.

This settlement was, in reality, a compromise.

Adriaan Vlok. File photo
Vlok was in charge of security in South Africa during the late 1980s

White rule in South Africa, Namibia or even Zimbabwe was never defeated on the battlefield.

The fighters of South Africa's African National Congress (ANC), Namibia's Swapo and Zimbabwe's Zanu or Zapu did not win the long-predicted and much hoped for military victory.

Their leaders, including Nelson Mandela, Sam Nujoma and Robert Mugabe respectively, agreed on a simple but unspoken compromise: political power would pass into the hands of the majority black population, but whites would be allowed to retain most of their wealth.

And all sides would put the atrocities of the past behind them.

In this they learnt from Angola and Mozambique, where the Portuguese left taking everything they could carry - including any light bulbs that could be unscrewed.


In South Africa, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) was established to try to ease the pain.

Past wrongs could be confessed to and forgiven.

Protesters outside the High Court in Pretoria
Some want to see justice before reconciliation

Many refused to attend, including former President PW Botha, in power during the height of the anti-apartheid struggle.

But he was not alone. Mangosuthu Buthelezi's Zulu-based Inkatha Freedom Party refused to testify before the TRC, which concluded its work in 2003.

So did the ANC and Pan Africanist Congress, which did not discuss the killings they ordered inside South Africa, or the murder of their own members while in exile.

With Vlok having faced the courts, others are calling for the prosecution of ANC leaders who ordered killings inside and outside South Africa.

Afriforum, a right-wing human rights organisation, is supporting Dirk Van Eck, who has asked for the prosecution of those who ordered the laying of a landmine that killed his wife, Kobie, and their two children during a game drive near the border with Zimbabwe in 1985.

Zimbabwe alternative

In Namibia, the policy of national reconciliation is also under threat, with the National Society for Human Rights attempting to take former President Sam Nujoma and three other Swapo leaders to the International Criminal Court for the killings they are alleged to have ordered during the wars of liberation.

So far both Namibia and South Africa have benefited from not raking up the past and accepting that whites have a legitimate, if economically privileged, role in their societies.

Their economies have flourished and there is peace.

Land is gradually being redistributed, even if some argue the process is too slow.

The alternative can be seen in Zimbabwe.

President Robert Mugabe's decision to seize white farms in 2000 has driven the country into an economic and political crisis.

It would not be impossible for either South Africa or Namibia to go down the same road, with terrible consequences for all of their peoples, black and white.

Background to the anti-apartheid killing case

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