About this site

This resource is hosted by the Nelson Mandela Foundation, but was compiled and authored by Padraig O’Malley. It is the product of almost two decades of research and includes analyses, chronologies, historical documents, and interviews from the apartheid and post-apartheid eras.

24 Mar 1997: Goldstone, Richard

Click here for more information on the Interviewee

POM. First of all, Judge Goldstone, looking back to the time when the Goldstone Commission was first established, I've heard two points of view: one that it was Mr de Klerk's own initiative or, two, that it was in a sense his giving in to an insistent demand on the part of the ANC that a commission be set up, a demand to which he acquiesced. Which to your knowledge is correct or are they both correct?

RG. Neither are correct. I don't think there can be any question about it. The idea of setting up a standing commission to look into violence was an initiative of the National Party and they put that statute on the statute book in May 1991. De Klerk, however, never got round, for whatever reason and presumably it was political, didn't get round to appointing either the chairman or the members of the commission so there was a statute and the thing was dormant. Then in September 1991 the Peace Accord was hammered out at a meeting at the Carlton Hotel in Johannesburg. As I recall it was I think 19, 17 or 19 organisations and so on, got together and set up the Peace Accord and it was agreed that there would be a Peace Committee which would be one of the three legs, as it turned out, of the Peace Accord and the National Peace Committee consisted of representatives of each of the parties to the Peace Accord. As new parties joined so they could join the Peace Committee. The second limb were what were initially called the, it's a long time ago, but there were committees in every town, city and village in South Africa. I think they ended up being called Mediation Committees or whatever and they consisted at local level of members of the parties to the Peace Accord. And then, I wasn't involved, but my recollection is that I was told that De Klerk suggested or the National Party, the government, suggested that the third limb should be the Commission of Enquiry and the ANC in particular was reluctant to have a government appointed commission as part of the Peace Accord but they compromised it on the basis that under the statute the President had carte blanche as to who the chairman and four members would be. As part of the Peace Accord the ANC and the other parties agreed to the commission being the third limb of the National Peace Accord on condition that the chairman and four members were chosen unanimously by all of the parties to the Peace Accord, so each party would have a veto. And there followed a two month period between August/September until round about 20th October when agreement was reached unanimously on the identity of myself as the chairman and the other four members. In fact one of the four members agreed refused for professional reasons, an Attorney who didn't have time, and somebody replaced him, but that's how it happened. So it was really part of the whole compromise. That's the story.

POM. Given the state of South Africa at that time, it was a time of tremendous violence which began I think in August 1990 or thereabouts, when you started out with the commission did you have any inkling that the tentacles of violence would spread in a systematic way into just about every part of the security apparatus of the state?

RG. Not at all. I think that's clear from the reports. It was a process that gathered moss as it went down the slope.

POM. I haven't read the final report so I have to say, did you identify in the final report, establish to your satisfaction, that a third force actually existed within the security forces that acted in a systematic way to stymie or derail the process?

RG. Well, again, it happened in stages. The first solid evidence of third force activities was the raid into Military Intelligence in November 1992 and then there was, it was a penultimate report or the third last report that identified the three senior police Generals as being part of the third force activities.

POM. These three were?

RG. Basie Smit, Johan le Roux and Krappies Engelbrecht and that was a whole Vlakplaas/De Kock story.

POM. Did Vlakplaas emerge at that time in the course of your investigations?

RG. It was fully reported in late February/early March, at the joint press conference I held with De Klerk in Pretoria when that report was made public. That was a report really on Vlakplaas activity.

POM. And at that time was he genuinely surprised at the existence of Vlakplaas?

RG. Everybody knew Vlakplaas existed. The issue was that there had never been evidence from Vlakplaas, murderers were sent out to kill people.

POM. I want to turn to something else and that is the Truth & Reconciliation Commission and in particular to ask you about what concept of justice underlies the Truth & Reconciliation Commission?

RG. I think the first point that should be made is that the genesis of the TRC wasn't any moral debate, it was a political debate, it was a political compromise. It was a compromise between the desire of the National Party for obvious reasons and understandable reasons for wanting a blanket amnesty. Let's forget about the past, we've got a lot to do to build a new future and let's get on with that, bringing out the truth and investigations are going to be divisive and it's going to be counter to reconciliation. At the other pole the ANC and the other liberation organisations wanted Nuremberg style trials of the apartheid leaders and the TRC where there would be no criminal prosecutions but indemnity, not a free indemnity but indemnity as a trade off for full disclosure, was a political compromise. I think the moral justification was there in that I think generally summing it up is that truth and acknowledgement is a form of justice and there was that moral underpinning for what was a political compromise.

POM. I can understand the truth part of it and how the revelations add to the knowledge of the past and how they might not have been obtained in the absence of amnesty being a carrot and certainly it's the kind of truth that wouldn't emerge at a court trial, but I suppose I'm confused about where justice enters into it. Whose justice? Justice for whom?

RG. I think it's been the experience in other countries where there have been truth commissions that the public acknowledgement and public exposure of who was responsible for what befell victims is indeed an important form of justice. It certainly is in my book. If you take an extreme case such as those of the parties who tried to have the Truth Commission declared unconstitutional by the Constitutional Court and the Biko and Mxenge families, they said they didn't want to accept that as what they were entitled to as full justice, they wanted criminal prosecution. While I understand that attitude with the greatest sympathy, if not for the Truth Commission they would never have found out who the people were who were responsible for the murder of Steve Biko, for example, so they would have had neither the truth nor a trial and it seems to me, and I say this with great feelings of humility and insufficiency because I don't think anybody has the right to talk about victims other than they themselves, but it seems to be that if victims are faced with no knowledge at all and no criminal justice at all or knowing the facts and having the people concerned come and make public their participation, it seems to me that that's a lot better than nothing.

POM. My experience in talking, say, to government officials here, particularly in the National Party, is complete denial, total unaccountability, taking no responsibility at all for any of the actions that were committed at Vlakplaas or any of the other death squad operatives. That's one. Two, that whites are increasingly turned off, they are again saying we never knew about these things, we would never have accepted or condoned these things, we're ashamed they were done in our name but we don't feel any guilt about it and we certainly don't feel responsible for these actions. And in that sense they've distanced themselves from the hearings of the TRC, kind of tuned out, said we've heard enough atrocities, hearing about one more is just a detail that doesn't add much to the overall picture. On the other hand in talking to blacks, ordinary blacks, I find that they are increasingly angry, that whereas a couple of years ago people who would have been pretty benign, non-revengeful, when they hear now about not just the murders but the manner in which they were carried out and the barbarity that accompanied the murders, and the braaing and people having beers round it, are getting angry in fact that justice in some way is not being served. Just what are your own views on those two conflicting or contrasting points of view?

RG. I think they both must be anticipated because both of them are normal human reactions. People want to distance themselves from criminal conduct and misdeeds and that's to be anticipated and this was the great dilemma I think facing the people who were actually involved in criminal actions. One is seeing the former Commissioner of Police, Johan van der Merwe, initially adopting an attitude that he knew nothing at all but as he realised he was going to be inculpated by irrefutable evidence he came forward so far in two cases. The first one was to admit his involvement in the bombing of Khotso House in 1989 and more recently, in the last couple of weeks, he has now added his name to the list of ten policemen including three Generals who were asking for indemnity, in his case, for having covered up the death of Mr Bopape. So the TRC is getting closer and closer to the bone in that sense and I just cannot believe that it's against the interests of our future in this country that it should come out like this because the truth has a fortunate, in my view, fortunate habit of coming out. Truth will out and as one is seeing - I think the Swiss gold is a good example.

. I was saying that the truth comes out and rather it should come out sooner rather than later in my view. You see really the greatest value of the TRC is that it's much more inclusive than criminal trials, because that's the alternative. I don't think any reasonable person would anticipate that blanket amnesties would be agreed to, would be politically or morally justifiable or even possible. So the choice facing a country like South Africa is a Truth & Reconciliation Commission or criminal prosecution. Criminal prosecutions, it seems to me when one is looking at a history of decades of racial oppression and complete denial of human rights and serious violations of human rights, I don't believe the criminal route is very satisfactory because one has seen in the De Kock and Malan trials how lengthy they are. One would need literally hundreds of such trials to uncover the sort of things that are being uncovered in the Truth Commission and that wouldn't be on.

POM. Someone made a distinction between what they call a vindicated life and a non-vindicated life and their point was that it's easy for a Mandela or somebody who was on Robben Island to forgive, who now occupies a position in government or whatever, that their lives have been vindicated, but that in the case of the families of the victims nothing has changed in their lives since their son or their daughter was murdered or disappeared or whatever, so their lives have been unvindicated and therefore it's much more difficult to expect them to forgive. What must be done, I know this comes down to reparations which seems to be the left out part of the equation, what must be done to give some satisfaction to the families of victims? Is this not an integral part of the process itself?

RG. All that can be offered, there are reparations, there will be token reparations as I understand the workings the TRC.

POM. It will just be token?

RG. The country can't afford more than token. There's no choice. In any event whatever victims get as a token, because money can't replace what they have lost, so it's a token not in any figurative sense, I don't think it's a bad thing, I think rather that there should be that recognition and acknowledgement rather than simply ignoring it. But, again, in any society there are people who are successful and people who are unsuccessful there, people who have enough food on their table and clothes on their back, and there are those who don't, and obviously if you've been victimised the worse your living conditions are, the more difficult it is to accept it. But I'm afraid that's life isn't it. So what's the alternative? There is none.

POM. I don't know, you're the authority. I'm just the questioner.

RG. It's unfortunate, one has to face up to it.

POM. So there is no sense of restorative justice in the sense that something will be restored to these people?

RG. It's just not possible. There's no point in tilting at windmills because that's what it is. Who would be paying for it?  We have a democratic government representing all the people of South Africa and there isn't that sort of money around to be able to restore people and give them meaningful reparation. It will come out of their own pockets in effect.

POM. For example, maybe they could say to a family the state will send your children to college?

RG. Well that may be, I don't think the Reparations Committee of the TRC has really got down to work yet and that could well be the sort of reparation that can and should be offered. I would support that to the hilt.

POM. Where do the two - if there is in a way what seems to me a limited form of justice, at least for the victim, whether it's reparation or whatever and justice in the sense that they can identify their perpetrator and they know who committed the action?

RG. That's totally out of the equation, that without the Truth Commission they wouldn't know who committed the murders or who committed the tortures at all, so it's not a choice between knowing and prosecution, it's a choice between nothing and knowing. Prosecution wouldn't be on, there wouldn't be prosecution without the TRC getting the information in return for indemnity. So it's not the choice.

POM. Yes I get your point. Where does reconciliation enter into this? How is it supposed to emerge out of what's at best a flawed process?

RG. Because the fundamentally important aspect of all this is the attribution of individual guilt. It seems to be that it's becoming more and more clear that there were individuals in the previous regime who were responsible for this and we're very lucky really that we've avoided in this country any serious or widespread attributions of guilt by black South Africans against white South Africans, against Afrikaans speaking South Africans and I think that brings out the fact that individuals who were responsible for these deeds assist in that direction because if you don't do it I think history has shown in other regions of the world that where the truth is submerged, is not allowed to come out, people have attributed collected guilt. One sees it in Rwanda, one sees it in the former Yugoslavia.

POM. If the white community at large is saying we had nothing to do with these actions?

RG. It's not, it's not. I don't accept that. You've had press groups, you've had medical councils, you've had governments, the National Party hasn't pleaded innocence, it said apartheid was a mistake, it hasn't said it was right. I don't think it's accurate to say all whites are saying that we're not responsible. Many whites are confessing not only horror but also forms of responsibility.

POM. Would you not find the National Party's submissions and the statements by their ministers or former ministers to be, yes, we made mistakes but De Klerk still talks about apartheid as being a noble experiment that failed, that it was well intentioned and they made mistakes and it failed, so apology comes with so many caveats as almost to -

RG. I agree with you but there wouldn't even be that if there hadn't been a Truth Commission. It's not a denial any more. It's attempting to excuse the inexcusable.

POM. There was a point I recall you making quite forcibly in Boston and that was that it would be wrong to equate the genocide in Yugoslavia and in Rwanda with the crimes of apartheid, yet the mantra, so to speak, of the ANC is that apartheid was a crime against humanity.

RG. Of course it was, I don't think there can be any doubt looking at it objectively that it was a crime against humanity.

POM. Genocide is a crime against humanity.

RG. But a crime against humanity doesn't amount to genocide. Genocide is, I suppose, if you like, the ultimate form of a crime against humanity but central to genocide is the intention to wipe out, to physically destroy a people. Now there was never any intent here to wipe out people, a people, a nation, a group.

POM. Kader Asmal argues, I don't know whether you've read his book -

RG. Yes I've read his book. I don't agree with that part of it, he's misusing the term genocide.

POM. A funny question, genocide is evil. Was apartheid evil or wrong with stains of evil or was it too evil?

RG. Of course it was evil. I'm surprised you need to ask me that question.

POM. Well I ask you because I asked this question some years ago of, I've asked it over the years of many prominent church people in the Afrikaans community including Johan Heyns, the late Johan Heyns, who couldn't go as far as to say that it was evil, who could go as far as to say that it was wrong but not evil.

RG. It was evil even if one ignores the human rights violations. It was designed to repress the majority of South Africans and in my book that's a very serious evil.

POM. Do you think most whites have come to accept that? I certainly find no evidence of it at all among the people that I talk to and I talk to a fairly wide cross-section?

RG. I think one is finding in South Africa more and more that whites are distancing themselves from apartheid. They are saying we didn't know, had we known we wouldn't have done it. It seems to me that that's a tacit admission of the evilness. Why else would they want to distance themselves from it if it wasn't evil in their own minds?

POM. I'm reading a book at the moment called Hitler's Willing Executioners, which is a fascinating book. I don't know whether you've read the book?

RG. I feel as though I've read it because I've read so much about it.

POM. Do you see any parallel in the sense that the apartheid system could not have worked without the co-operation of in fact not just a large number of white people, but also a large number of black people?

RG. Yes I've got no doubt that's correct and this is where skilful propaganda comes into it. I don't think you can have apartheid or you can have genocides or massive crimes against humanity without dehumanising the victim class and without instilling fear in the class of perpetrators and to that extent there is a common physiology between all of the terrible mass of human rights violations that have occurred in the last fifty or sixty years.

POM. Where does that leave humanity in the sense of you talked about Rwanda and how the tribunal there is really not working, how the one in The Hague has been stymied? What are the lessons of the tribunal in The Hague and the tribunal in Rwanda?

RG. I think the jury is still out because they're not at the end of their work and whether they're allowed to finish it or not are going to be the determining factors as to where they are. I think thus far the major nations, and unfortunately the western nations, have been remiss, culpably remiss, in not following through on their own promises in respect of bringing justice to Rwanda and to the former Yugoslavia. I think my views on that one are fairly well documented. Did you see the piece I wrote for the New York Times two weeks ago?

POM. No, I was here.

RG. I'll give you a copy of it.

POM. If you had to redesign the TRC, looking at the way it's worked and is working and I've talked to a number of the commissioners and some of them say to me it's working very well, others tell me that it is rent with divisions whether it's at the administrative level or at the commissioner level or whatever, so in a sense it depends upon what commissioner you talk to to get an idea of what they think is going on.

RG. It's a very widely representative commission. In my book it's worked out extremely well. It was a very high risk enterprise. It could have been a terrible failure. It could have uncovered nothing and that would have been a failure because what is being uncovered should really come as no surprise to any intelligent South African. The black community knew it because they suffered under it. The white community should have realised it because there was sufficient evidence. Ninety-six people died in one prison in John Vorster Square over the apartheid years in Johannesburg. All of them, according to police statements, committed suicide. Anybody who didn't have strong suspicions that some, if not all of them, met their death through criminal violence was simply refusing to look at reality in the face. So the evidence was there.

POM. Does this make for a certain form of complicity so that when those same people say we never knew these things were going on, it's really just denial, that they're not looking at themselves?

RG. What's coming out of the TRC is the detail. How far does one need to go? There are no South Africans who didn't know that black people because of the colour of their skin weren't allowed to live in white areas which constituted 87% of South Africa. There were no intelligent whites who didn't know that because of influx control families weren't allowed to live together when men came to work, or women came to work for that matter, in urban areas. So all of the pathology of apartheid was there for everyone to see every day of their lives and some whites did oppose it and some whites did talk about it and some newspapers did protest.

POM. Do you see what I would call a significant change in the attitudes of whites or the taking of responsibility of whites since 1994?

RG. Yes I do. Amongst my friends, when I go and play tennis on a Saturday, the discussion at tea is about whites, including the people concerned, all of us having been in some way culpable for not having done either anything or not having done more. And that's a common discussion certainly in the circles I mix in.

POM. Do you think that permeates down to, I won't say - I mean I don't find that frankly among the people that I talk to. I find a resentment, they don't feel they were privileged, they think they worked for what they got, they resent being lumped with the De Kocks.

RG. It's important. I was quoted on the front page of Die Burger this morning, I gave an interview on Sunday to that newspaper, and the point I made, and I think it needs to be made, is that Afrikaners are not on trial before the Truth Commission. It's individuals. What's happening is you're getting the right wing for their own selfish purposes trying to bring all Afrikaners into their net by making allegations that the Truth Commission is anti-Afrikaner. It isn't any more. It was exactly the same pathology I think that led - white South Africans always talked about the anti-apartheid campaign as being anti-South Africa. Well of course it was also clever propaganda because the anti-apartheid campaign was anti-apartheid, it was pro-South Africa and it was certainly pro the majority of South Africans and one is seeing the same thing here. I think one is seeing Boesak doing the same thing when he says that when he's on trial for common or garden fraud involving a lot of money, he's saying that the whole of the anti-apartheid movement is with him on trial. Well again it's people unacceptably and for base motives trying to bring innocent people into their camp in order to, as it were, exculpate themselves. But who are the people who are saying it? It's the people most involved.

POM. Who are the people saying which?

RG. Who are trying to bring other people into their net.

POM. The people most involved.

RG. Yes. It's the people in the security forces particularly who are showing this resentment. The attack on the weekend by the Generals on the Truth Commission, these are the people who were involved directly.

POM. I find the resentment among ordinary people, ordinary whites.

RG. Well maybe, I don't know, I can't speak for that.

POM. I don't mean that you're not an ordinary white person, I'm just saying working class whites feel that some kind of burden is being dumped - that they're being dumped on in a way.

RG. Aren't they associating themselves with what happened in that resentment? I think there's a complex psychological situation here because if they were innocent, if they didn't know what was going on then one can understand their objection to being included in the allegation. I don't think they are being included in the allegations. I've never seen the TRC, for example, suggest or imply in any way at all that any particular group was responsible more than any other for apartheid. It's really a question of the cap fitting.

POM. I think I've exhausted myself today. I will leave it at that. Five interviews today.

RG. Is Albie one of your interviewees as well? Albie Sachs?

POM. Yes. We were talking mostly about the Truth Commission. I suppose what I have, my difficulty again is while I see what you're saying and that there is some justice in the victim knowing who the perpetrator was rather than never knowing or there never being and for the perpetrator to have to admit to it is a form of punishment and brings shame, it's still kind of weak justice for the millions who were oppressed.

RG. Maybe, but again from a practical point of view it's a question of that or nothing.

POM. On that practical note I'll stop.

This resource is hosted by the Nelson Mandela Foundation, but was compiled and authored by Padraig O’Malley. Return to theThis resource is hosted by the site.