Wednesday, January 27, 2010
The day I kicked a soldier's arse
Eugene de Kock: Picture - Times Live
I have been thinking about Eugene de Kock, the apartheid murderer who plied his trade on the state’s behalf at the infamous Vlakplaas. He was one of the very few who came clean at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings. But despite that, he was still convicted on numerous civil charges and sits, to this day, in jail. The rumour is that President Jacob Zuma is considering him for a pardon.
He is a haunting figure - (at least, he haunts me). He looks so completely ordinary. He used to wear thick, beer bottle spectacles. He would appear at the hearings wearing a green jersey, with a kind of khaki shirt. He looked like anyone’s uncle, brother, friend. And yet here was a man who murdered several people personally. A man who would kill, seemingly at will and who engineered the deaths of too many to remember. A man who caused unbelievable suffering, not only to the people he killed and whose bodies be burnt to get rid of, but to their families, their friends and comrades, who continue to mourn their loss. He was dubbed by the media, “Prime Evil”.
I have been dithering, about whether I think he should be pardoned, or whether I think he should be kept in jail for the rest of his life. I watch the polls and I watch the people who take particular sides in the debate. Mostly, they are people whose opinions I admire and respect and I find I just cannot settle on one side or the other.
The whole debate around De Kock which is going on at the moment, is juxtaposed (certainly in the media) with the imminent possibility of the pardoning of the President’s friend, the convicted criminal, Shabir Shaik. Frankly, I find the comparison distasteful. The one is a multiple killer. The other is a crook. I, for one, can’t argue that a crime is a crime is a crime – never mind how irritating I find the fact that the President might be considering pardoning the crook. They are not crimes of the same magnitude. They just aren’t.
That being said, I am not sure, as I have said, that De Kock should not be pardoned. The fact that he has told the truth actually gave the truth Commission the kind of substance it simply would not have had without his testimony. And when one compares that, for instance, to the testimony of Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, (which was shocking in its brevity and economy with the truth) – then I must say, I battle to argue that De Kok should not be pardoned.
But it has turned me to thinking about the complicity of many of us in the whole nightmare that was apartheid and of a memory of something I did way back then – by way of getting even.
I was working in the underground of the ANC and we were instructed by the ANC structures not to travel by air, when we were attending national meetings, because the state was able to keep track of individuals who were flying, and take note of where they were flying and who else was flying there at the same time. So, we were told to travel to meetings by other means.
So, I booked myself on an overnight train from Pietermaritzburg to Johannesburg, to attend a particular clandestine meeting we were having. When I opened the door of the compartment, I was greeted by 5 burly white Afrikaans speaking South African Defence Force (SADF) members. (In those days, of course, only whites were conscripted and only whites could be in certain sections of the train.) I knew, as I opened the door, that it was going to be a really difficult journey.
Because I was white, I was immediately one of the gang. They passed me a beer. They told stories about Angola and about what was going on in the townships. They wanted me to tell them stories too! They got a bit confused when I said I had not been to the army, but before I needed to fabricate a reason why not, they provided an easy one for me: “Oh!” said one, you are in the medical profession!” I said, timidly, yes I was! Which part of the medical profession, they asked? Fearing I might be asked to diagnose rashes and growths, I said “Psychology!”
Immediately, they were in awe. What could I tell them about them? I plumbed the depths of Psych 101 and produced a couple of profiling tests, which they enthusiastically participated in. They were convinced.
But there was one of them, arrogant, racist to the hilt, profoundly offensive, that I determined to teach a lesson to. I waited until we had all taken to our bunks and fallen asleep. I got up and took his entire uniform, beret, jacket, trousers, and shirt. In the pocket of his jacket was his ID document, and a number of other cards identifying him as an SADF soldier. I bundled the entire lot together and wrapped it in my towel and hid it in the bottom of my rucksack.
When everyone woke up as the train neared Germiston, there was a huge ruckus when he discovered that his uniform was gone. “There is a terrorist on the train!” he screamed. He dashed, naked, except for a towel around his waist, up and down the corridor shouting, “There is a terrorist on the train!” Army boys in various states of undress started prowling up and down the corridor looking for the terrorist.
When I asked what was going on, I was informed “They do this kind of thing. They steal uniforms so that they can infiltrate back into the country”. At one point, someone suggested that everyone’s bags get searched. I started sweating. Someone pointed out that in all probability, the terrorist had long gotten off of the train. A point that seemed to be acknowledged by everyone. I was profoundly relieved.
At Germiston station, clothed in his underpants and a towel, he got off the train, cursing the terrorists who had stolen his uniform. I offered him some money to make a phone-call.
I have often thought of that arrogant, racist boy. The perfect product of apartheid. I wonder if he is still alive. I wonder if he has changed. I wonder if he remembers that night when a terrorist stole his uniform. I wonder what the story was that he told about it.
I can’t remember what my feelings were, besides the thrill of danger and the feeling of satisfactory come-uppance which it gave me. Of course, he never would have suspected it was me, because he was too racist to think it was me. Because, as far as he was concerned, all whites were on the same side.
But of course, they weren’t. And neither were all blacks on the same side. And neither are they still. (Please don’t get me wrong. The amount of whites in the struggle, as compared to the amount of blacks, was minute. The amount of whites who suffered during apartheid as compared with the amount of blacks was minuscule. And I include myself here, I did not suffer under apartheid, I only benefited).
Revenge, even in that small dose which I administered, was sweet. But revenge cannot be the thing which dictates the way one lives. And I think the side of me that wants De Kock to stay in jail, is the same side of me that wanted that arrogant little shit of an SADF soldier to suffer – if only through the loss of his uniform and the punishment which would surely follow.
I don’t think that it is an admirable thing and I know it is not sustainable. And doesn’t the fact that De Kock is in jail simply make the rest of us whites, who benefited in every possible way because of the terror he was unleashing, feel as though justice is somehow being done? When we know, without any question, that it has not yet been done, by a very long shot.