CAPE TOWN — South Africa’s most notorious apartheid-era assassin, Eugene de Kock, has received parole after spending 20 years in prison. The government’s decision to let him walk free has unleashed a sort of identity crisis among South Africans. Could a man once known as “Prime Evil” really have changed? Why are we showing such charity to the deadliest cog in apartheid’s racist machine? And more important, why are so many South Africans — mostly white — so angry that this specific prisoner has been freed?
Mr. de Kock was no ordinary inmate, and his crimes featured prominently in the darkest chapters of South African history. After the famous black-consciousness leader, Steve Biko, died in jail in 1977, opposition to apartheid grew. The National Party government realized it could no longer afford the political and economic consequences of activists dying in police custody. So, to continue its dirty work invisibly, a secret counterinsurgency unit was established on a farm called Vlakplaas. In 1983 Mr. de Kock became its commander, and it was from here that he and his men planned the deaths, kidnappings and torture of many anti-apartheid activists.
When former President F.W. de Klerk released Nelson Mandela and lifted the ban on the black opposition parties in 1990, Mr. de Kock was secretly ordered to increase the appearance of black-on-black violence in order to discredit the liberation movements. His squad killed black activists with Russian weapons to implicate the military wing of Mr. Mandela’s party, the African National Congress. They captured black liberation movement soldiers, torturing them until they “turned” and could be used as hit men. This led to a sudden escalation of deaths of black people. In one of his speeches after being released, Mr. Mandela angrily suggested that while the government was talking about negotiations, a “third force” was killing black people. Mr. de Kock and his men were part of that force.
After South Africa’s transition to democracy in 1994, Mr. de Kock disclosed the full scope of his crimes as part of his testimony before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission as both an amnesty applicant and an expert witness. This commission was set up as an example of restorative justice — granting amnesty to perpetrators of violence after they confessed in public. By telling the truth and proving that a crime was committed for political reasons, a perpetrator could receive relief from civil and criminal prosecution. Witnesses and victims of gross human rights violations also testified before the commission, and some received reparations.
As a reporter covering the often heart-rending hearings in the 1990s, I watched Mr. de Kock calmly correct facts, expose lies and name superiors who then quickly had to apply for amnesty themselves. He became the polygraph machine of the commission. Without him the “truth” part of the T.R.C. would have been sorely lacking.
Mr. de Kock received amnesty for the crimes he had committed for political reasons, but enough of his deeds remained unpardoned for South Africa’s courts to afterward find him guilty on 89 charges and sentence him to 212 years in prison.
Then the unthinkable happened. With his intimate knowledge of apartheid-era security agencies, he began to assist victims in finding the remains of loved ones. He provided answers and pointed to places where bodies could be found. Mr. de Kock openly confessed his regret directly to victims and admitted that nothing could redeem him. This contrasted sharply with many of his commanders, who openly refused to apply for amnesty, or the politicians who denied that he had carried out their orders.
To show regret was not a requirement for amnesty, so most perpetrators simply gave their testimony and disappeared scot-free into anonymous lives. During the time of the T.R.C., an army general and 19 members of the top military brass appeared in court on charges of murder and creating hit squads to destabilize the country, but after a seven-month trial, all 20 were cleared, so Mr. de Kock, as “Prime Evil,” became one of only three white men after 1994 to be jailed for atrocities committed during apartheid.
South Africans are obsessed with Mr. de Kock because his case presents us with ethical dilemmas that fundamentally challenge our ways of thinking. Some people dismiss him as a psychopath merely playing at repentance, others believe he has indeed changed.
Marjorie Jobson assisted victims’ families who wished to meet Mr. de Kock in jail. She describes him as “a treasure trove.” In meetings lasting over two hours, he told in “the finest detail exactly what had happened affecting the people in the room.” When these families left, she added, they would begin to sing “from the sheer relief of having received answers.”
For me it is irrelevant whether this change is genuine; the fact of his assistance to the victims is what counts. Unlike many other white people — perpetrators and bystanders — who have benefited since 1994 from the reconciliatory attitude of black South Africans, Mr. de Kock actually began to engage with fellow South Africans in restorative ways. Slowly, over the years, he transformed himself from a highly effective killer to somebody who genuinely engaged with those looking for answers.
This shift underlines the unspoken foundation on which the T.R.C. was initially built: that apartheid destroyed people’s humanity and turned some into murderers. Perpetrators could admit that they had done wrong and be forgiven, allowing them to rebuild their lives. The underlying goal of the T.R.C. was to build a new ethical society through change: The truth about our past should transform all of us from a people apart into a people who care for one another.
But now, his parole has angered a huge number of white and black South Africans — for different reasons. White people in South Africa live by the grace of blacks’ willingness to pursue reconciliation, and therefore many of us would like for Mr. de Kock to remain “Prime Evil” so that we ourselves can escape blame; we prefer that he not change so that the rest of us, who find it hard to confess our beneficial co-culpability in apartheid, need not change ourselves.
Black people, on the other hand, opted for reconciliation because they assumed white people would take responsibility for repairing what they had destroyed. After 20 years of democracy it has become clear that whites are not changing to the extent expected, and this enrages blacks. Mr. de Kock’s parole seems, once again, an example of whites benefiting.
Mr. de Kock is a problem for South African society precisely because he presents the capacity of an evil man to change.
But his parole also reminds us of something more universal: the different life he might have led, had he grown up in a different and more just society. What would he and many others have become if they were not schooled in racism, indoctrinated through religion and educated into violence to protect an unequal social order? And how much of this violence perpetrated by past generations has remained in today’s young men? The increasing number of family murders committed by young Afrikaner men in recent years (Oscar Pistorius is just the most famous of several accused) confronts us with the challenge of changing a culture that propagates machismo and violence in order to protect privilege.
It should continue to torment us that many people like Mr. de Kock who have been jailed as terrorists, guerrillas or fanatics might have — in a different world — become soft-spoken, kind and caring men.
Antjie Krog is a poet, a journalist and the author of “Begging to Be Black” and “Country of My Skull.”