JOHANNESBURG – Does forgiveness lead to a better society? Or are some crimes so atrocious that the perpetrators should not be forgiven? South Africa faced these difficult questions after apartheid ended two decades ago, and confronts them again as the government considers parole this year for a notorious death squad leader who worked for the white racist government.
Eugene de Kock, head of a covert police unit that tortured and killed dozens of anti-apartheid militants, was arrested in 1994, confessed to crimes and was sentenced in 1996 to two life terms plus another 212 years. After 20 years in jail, he says he is the only member of the former police force serving time for crimes committed on behalf of South Africa's old order and maintains he acted on instructions from leaders who were never punished.
"Not one of the previous Generals, or Ministers who were in Cabinet up to 1990, have been prosecuted at all," he said in an affidavit signed in January as part of his parole application.
Julian Knight, de Kock's lawyer, said he is pushing for a parole decision this month. He speculated that the government might delay the decision, timing it to celebrations later this year of South Africa's 20th anniversary of democracy, or until after May elections to minimize "any negative fallout."
De Kock's case revives debate about South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which recommended amnesty to some who recounted wrongdoing during apartheid and showed remorse. The goal was to promote reconciliation by allowing the cruelties of the past to be examined, for victims to face repentant human rights violators and seek closure.
But some South Africans, including the family of slain activist Steve Biko, believe that more apartheid-era enforcers should have been punished. Lobbying for prosecutions continues.
And a group that represents 85,000 victims of apartheid says a state plan to pay reparations is inadequate and far behind schedule.
De Kock contacted the group Khulumani — the word means "Speaking out" in Zulu — over the years to offer to meet people who suffered at the hands of apartheid's agents, said Marjorie Jobson, the group's director.
"It was the most relief that I ever saw anybody get," Jobson said of bereaved relatives who visited de Kock in prison in hopes he would shed light on the deaths of family members.
Now 65, de Kock cooperated with the 1990s hearings of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and was pardoned for some crimes, but was convicted on murder and other charges linked to his role as head of the C10 police unit stationed at Vlakplaas, a farm west of Pretoria, the capital.
De Kock's possible release doesn't matter to Lizzie Sefolo, who met the assassin in prison. Her husband, Harold, was abducted and killed by de Kock's team in 1987. His body and those of two other victims were blown up by a landmine in an attempt to disguise the cause of death.
"They can punish him. They can release him," Sefolo said. "I won't gain a thing from that because I've lost."
She said: "I did bury my husband and so that made a closure to my husband because I know where my husband lies. Other people are still waiting to know. They don't know where to go."
The minister of correctional services is considering numerous parole applications, including that of de Kock, ministry spokesman Logan Maistry said.
"Each case is judged on its own merits," Maistry said.
De Kock sought parole last year, but was rejected.
Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela, a Truth and Reconciliation Commission member and now a senior research professor at South Africa's University of the Free State, wrote a book called "A Human Being Died That Night," which is based on jailhouse interviews with de Kock in the late 1990s. She believes he deserves freedom for cooperating with authorities and family members, and showing remorse after meditating on his own terrible deeds.
But she acknowledged the mixed feelings still felt by many South Africans 20 years after the brutal system of apartheid collapsed: "There are victims and family members of victims out there who are still angry and who have not been able to heal. The challenge is, how do you grant a person who has committed these deeds pardon when there are so many people suffering?"