Mandela's Prison

By Gevisser, Mark | The Nation, November 13, 1995 | Go to article overview

Mandela's Prison


Gevisser, Mark, The Nation


During his recent visit to New York City, Nelson Mandela asked Bill Clinton to intervene personally to help quash a U.S. indictment of Armscor, South Africa's state arms manufacturer, for smuggling arms to Iraq. Why, Mandela asked, should the current democratic government be held accountable for the sins of its illegitimate predecessor?

Just before he left for the United States to attend the ceremonies for the fiftieth anniversary of the United Nations, he met with Gen. Constand Viljoen, leader of the separatist Freedom Front, and agreed in principle to the Afrikaner right wing's demand that the indemnity cutoff date for "politically motivated" crimes be extended to May 1995. The net result would be freedom for twenty-six right-wingers awaiting trial for murder in the April 1994 pre-election bombings that nearly derailed democracy in South Africa.

Mandela made these two interventions - both about South Africa's relationship to its past - in the very week that a selection committee began short-listing nominees for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which will come into being soon. For reasons that are by no means politically unsound, Mandela has nailed his colors to the mast of "reconciliation." While this has served to still the restive right, it also means the possibility of perpetrators of human rights abuses being called to account is slim indeed. South Africa's state-sanctioned arms smugglers, along with its anti-democratic murderers, will go free so that South Africa can have peace.

In the past two years, many of apartheid's worst torturers and interrogators have, like the officer tied to the Steve Biko case [see June Goodwin and Ben Schiff's article on page 565], taken early retirement, commonly on the ground of medical disability ("stress" is most often cited!). At worst they will have to testify before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. They will be indemnified against prosecution for doing so and - retired already - will live out their days in comfort courtesy of South African taxpayers.

Several officers cited for human rights abuses have even found themselves promoted within the new dispensation. In the Western Cape, Andre Beukes, an officer in the Security Branch (the plainclothes unit given extraordinary powers to repress resistance to apartheid) with a long and illustrious career in covert intelligence work against the African National Congress, has been made the provincial commissioner. …

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