This resource is hosted by the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory, 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 It is the product of almost two decades of research and includes analyses, chronologies, historical documents, and interviews from the apartheid and post-apartheid eras.
01 Feb 2000: Wessels, Leon
POM I've re-read our transcripts and I am going to use you as one of the central people in my book because I've decided that what I have to do is to turn the number of people that I've interviewed from 130 down to about 25. You can't use 130 people. I've got to pick interesting people whatever I see that intrigues me in my mind. A couple of things have troubled me. I want to go back to the time in the 1980s when you were the Deputy to Adriaan Vlok, one of the two ministers who has applied for amnesty, he has been granted amnesty. During that time you were the Director of the Management ?
LW National Management Security System.
POM NMSS, which was almost the epitome of a parallel state to a constitutional or semi, whatever you want to call it, at that time. It was the reign of the securocrats and you were at the pinnacle of that, not just an apparatchik, you were running this whole thing that ran down through every element of society and developing it and you sat in on every National Security Council meeting and you either took notes or heard what was going on. Two things have struck me. One is that when you went before the commission and the statement of apology that you made, you became in the eyes of many Africans a hero of sorts. You were the first person who came out, and I can take out Tutu's book where I have a reference to you marked and they are all heroic references, "If everybody had been like Leon Wessels there would be no apology." Part of what you said is that, to speak one phrase: -
"I further do not believe the political defence of 'we did not know' is available to me because in many respects I believe 'we' did not want to know."
I would say there's a contradiction between that statement and the position that you held because you held the position of authority and power and that you had a greater knowledge of what was going on rather than to phrase something later in terms of 'I' and 'we'. Since you were part, in a way, of the inside circle so when phrases like (I'm seeing him next week, General van der Merwe) the phrases of 'eliminate enemy leaders', 'neutralise intimidators by this', 'take out', 'wipe out', 'make a plan', 'methods other than conventional methods', it's a little bit beyond saying I kind of should have known what was going on when in fact you were a part of the decision making process in your position as Director of the National Management Institute. Is that a fair question?
LW It's a fair question. Do you mind stopping that because I just want to check something on the wall? There's a very interesting story behind that statement and may I just, before responding, tell you the following, that I got an e-mail from a friend in Australia who told me that he had read that book and that Desmond had made friendly and kind references to me in the book. I then e-mailed Desmond over the weekend and we had a short e-mail chat about all of that. But just as a warm-up statement.
Let me deal with the royal 'we' before we deal with the contradiction. Everybody had said that 'I didn't know', 'We didn't know', etc. I then prepared a submission, my own submission after off the record behind closed doors discussion with the Research Department of the Truth & Reconciliation Commission. They subsequently asked me whether I would make a public statement on this. I said, well, I only have one request, the request being that you give me the transcription of the private discussion that we had because I do not want to fall short on anything I had said in private because I believe what I had said in private I am prepared to repeat all of that and given the way the question is phrased or given whatever, the atmosphere or anything, I do not want in any way to detract from what I had said in private. So what I had said in private I want to repeat in public. Now whether I had said 'I' or 'we' in that private discussion I do not know and cannot remember. I then prepared the public statement in writing based on 'we'. I just took it for granted that we did not have that excuse and I thought we had all moved beyond, in that particular TRC process, beyond PW's response or lack of response to the TRC, what FW had said, etc. Vlok was going to appear, Roelf was going to appear there, Pik was going to appear and I just thought that would be 'we', there is no excuse. We cannot say we didn't know. And when I listened to the way the others were giving evidence I decided to change my testimony which I did but I had already submitted my written document to the TRC and to the media but when I gave evidence I said delete the 'we' and amend it with 'I'. I now speak for myself because it was clear that nobody else was going to endorse the 'we', the royal we statement. So the printed version was 'we' but as it went in it was 'I'.
And I then carried on to explain why I believed that excuse was not or that defence, judicial or political defence was not available to us because we had listened to the Helen Suzman utterances in parliament, we had said in parliament, "You're talking nonsense, we are in control of the police, the security forces, we know they do not do these things, etc., etc." We had heard rumours formally, informally but we just did not take that
POM Leon, you were chairman. You were chair of the thing.
LW I will come to that.
POM That means more information came to you than came to other people.
LW I will tell you about that but in other words I am not shying away and I still believe that the political defence of 'we didn't know' was not available to us. Now coming to what I was chairing, what we were chairing, what I was chairing, I was not chairing Johan van der Merwe in the sense that he was submitting his reports to me. He was not accountable to me, he never sat in on any of the meetings which I chaired. Johan van der Merwe never ever sat, he had a direct line of responsibility towards Vlok and what we were chairing was the co-ordination function of it all.
POM Not we, you.
LW Yes I was chairing that, sure. And there would be an event
POM And you were doing a good job, right? The late eighties was when suppression and detention and
LW I never detained anybody. I never had the power to detain anybody or recommend
POM But the National Security Management System and the securocrats exercised more power and more influence at that time than ever. Is that true?
LW That is absolutely correct. Now what happened was the following, that on the NSMS would be representatives of all the relevant departments but that co-ordination function would not override the line function responsibilities. In other words the decision to blast Khotso House or the information pertaining to Khotso House was never ever taken at that co-ordinated forum. That's why I did not apply for amnesty in that respect and that is why Johan van der Merwe never reported to that committee. He had a direct responsibility towards the minister. I was never empowered to do that. What I would do as chairman of that committee, we would prepare and look at the minutes and the agenda of the State Security Council which was chaired by PW and we would submit and ensure that all those documents were there but we never had line function responsibilities of either detaining people, either blasting people, be that the police force, the defence force, etc.
POM But the National Security Council, as I would understand it and I'm probably being naïve, as I understand it from what I've read and tried to find out, was like a supra-cabinet. It took decisions that were then delivered to the cabinet and rubber-stamped rather than the cabinet being part of the decision.
LW Let me just help you. That committee you're referring to is the National Security Council and that Security Council was chaired by PW Botha. It was not the committee which I chaired.
POM OK, I've got you, I'm with you there.
LW I was never a member of the National Security Council. I was a co-opted member in the sense that because I was the deputy minister, because I was chairing the National Management System I would have different points on the agenda. Let me give you an innocent, not an innocent because nothing was that innocent at the time, but let me give you an example. There would be an allegation made that refugees from Mozambique are fleeing from Mozambique into this country and that they were not being controlled, there was no way that you could control it at the borders, the entry points, etc. Now whose responsibility is that? There is a police responsibility, there's a defence force responsibility, there's a manpower responsibility, the Department of Home Affairs has a responsibility, there's a health risk in all of this. So who would bring all of those line functions together and say to them, chaps let us try and work out a strategy on how we deal with illegal immigration or legal, what would the correct terminology be, immigrants from Mozambique, and I would take the different line functions, we would try and bring up a policy on that which we would submit to the Security Council chaired by PW. They would take a decision on it and that decision would have to be endorsed by cabinet and as you rightly say, which I was not a part of at that time, I was not a member of cabinet at that time, I would say 95% of the time cabinet would adopt it.
POM Just bang, rubber-stamp.
LW I would say that given the gravitas, the weight of this State Security Council and the members who had already gone through that process it would be unlikely for cabinet to overturn it.
POM Whatever it is, on two occasions they crippled something.
POM That's it during the whole of PW's time in office. Let me again turn it a little bit because this is something I'm trying to get into from a different angle and I'm doing a long paper which I must well it was a long paper till I kept cutting it and cutting it and cutting it to get it to be a shorter paper on what happened at Arniston between the lessons that SA gave Northern Ireland and what we learned from each other. Part of the paper involved making comparisons and contrasts between the two conflicts. I had at one time asked Judge Goldstone, I said at all the tribunals you've been involved in in Rwanda and Bosnia and genocides what makes ordinary people kill each other? He said one word, fear, fear that if I don't do it to you you're going to do it to me. And I tried to work that concept backwards into what would be white South African fears on the one hand and what would be on the other hand Protestant fears of becoming part of a united Ireland. The total onslaught when that was brought in to almost 'substitute' for grand apartheid by giving it a new ideology in a way, a new framework. During that time were people in the country, white people, ministers, bright people like yourself, genuinely fearful of Soviet expansionism or was it a trick?
LW Well let me tell you, I'm not going to speak on behalf of the other chaps, but what I was fearful of was a real fear. I mean I had young kids and there were limpet mines going off in Wimpy Bars and I was telling everybody not to be afraid and I was telling everybody well, you know, this is just a bunch of mavericks. So having said that there was no way that I could in any way tell my kids not to go to a Wimpy Bar because that would be a contradiction and whenever, whether my kids were at home or not at home, whenever a limpet mine went off in a Wimpy Bar I was afraid. So that was the physical thing. I was not really concerned that we would find Russian tanks rolling through the streets of Pretoria. That kind of fear never entered my mind but I was aware of the fact that there was Soviet support for the liberation struggle. I think the fear for communism was not a physical fear but it was a genuine fear given the kind of constituents that we were representing, I would say that.
POM When you were in, not just in cabinet or whatever, and you were in the State Security Council or whatever, and General Malan gave a briefing did everybody say, "Oh God! Here he is again giving us one of his total onslaught scenarios"? Or did people say, "You know what? Jesus!"?
LW I think you should look at the total onslaught presentations that right in the forefront of the total onslaught kind of presentations in order to mobilise and persuade people to support it, right in the front of all that was not a communist somewhere in Moscow. It wasn't exactly
POM The communists were just over border?
LW No, what I'm trying to get at was that the total onslaught had taken on, as far as I understood it and as far as I explained it and as far as people received it, had taken on domestic proportions and the one thing that I will do now and I would like to do in public or wherever and I think I've made that kind of statement over and over again, was that when I got to know most of the security people, the securocrats so to speak, on a very close level, my understanding of it all was that part of the total onslaught vis-à-vis the total solution would be that there would have to be a political settlement. Now let me explain it to you as follows: there was a particular occasion in my area of Krugersdorp where a black person was arrested by a black police officer because he was carrying Soviet arms, be that Markarov pistols or limpet mines or whatever the case may be, and I would always explain this as follows by saying to my constituents, "You have to understand one thing. This thing goes beyond colour. Here we have somebody who was trained and armed in Russia but he was brought to book by another black South African so the issue is much more complex than just a colour issue and it's much more complex than just a Russian thing." And I would ridicule the Russian argument by saying, in the days of real, hard-line apartheid, saying, "You know the Minister of Foreign Affairs or of Defence in Russia, based on his colour, would be eligible to sit in our parliament if he stayed here for longer than five years and became a South African citizen, but that would not be the case for somebody else." So I don't want to ridicule this argument but my understanding of it all was that the total onslaught tried to project that this thing was much more complex than simply a Russian thing. PW, I would concede, when he was Minister of Defence and when he articulated this thing and even today, would very much still get on to the atheist, communist, Russian thing but I think there were nuances even in our own ranks on that.
POM But there was an inter-connection?
LW There was a connection. I cannot dispute that.
POM What has always fascinated me in a way is that even when FW was unbanning the ANC in his inner circles or whatever, there appeared to be controversy over simultaneously unbanning the SACP, saying don't do them! Do the ANC but we can't have the communists coming in. How did it affect the mentality that operated in official circles that again became part of the propaganda that was spewed out that people before the collapse of the Berlin Wall or whatever - ?
LW I would like to believe, and that is my recollection of that debate in the latter part of 1989, is yes there was such a debate. Unban the ANC but do not unban the SA Communist Party because the South African population will understand the unbanning of the ANC (the white population I am referring to), but they will not understand the unbanning of the SACP because they had been fed on this communist diet for so long. My recollection of that debate was that there was never ever a serious doubt that the argument of not unbanning the SACP would carry the day. So yes there was support for that point of view but by far it was not supported in numbers or in quality of debate.
POM I suppose what I come back to is, was the white South African population then sufficiently 'brainwashed' to believe that there was this communist threat and they were using the ANC as a front to get their way into SA and establish themselves and that created an element of fear?
LW Yes. There was this element of fear but because I was never on the side of that side of the debate and the side of the debate which I supported won all the arguments in the eighties right through, taking you as far back as the 1983 referendum, the 1992 referendum, the 1987 election, the 1989 election. What you are saying was certainly the propaganda launched and thrown at us within the circles of the NP fold as well as by the opposition party leaders, Andries Treurnicht, Koos van der Merwe, Clive Derby-Lewis, you name it, Ferdinand Hartzenberg, those were the arguments that were thrown at us. It was a combination, I would like to believe, of fear but also of almost white segregationist policies and white segregationist feeling of supremacy I would guess. I can see Andries Treurnicht standing up in the Town Hall of Krugersdorp and thrashing that poor audience about the threat of communism, etc., and that in effect was his first response after the 1990 speech. But I would like to also tell you that albeit with small margins, they never won those elections in Krugersdorp in 1987 or 1989 or during the referendum in 1992. So it's very difficult to say that was the thinking of white SA because white South Africans were not a monolith at the time, not a homogeneous group. A monolith I said. Is that good enough? OK.
POM Do you think that FW was treated fairly by the TRC?
LW Let me tell you, I was there when he appeared the first time and certainly he was treated fairly on that occasion. I was not there, I had left parliament, politics, when he was there the second time. I am not sure whether he was treated fairly or not. I simply believe that it was possible to do business with the TRC and I think he had a problem with the TRC right from the beginning. So I am not sitting judgement and saying yes he was treated fairly or not, I am simply telling you in a positive tone that I think his line of approach towards the TRC was not the most effective approach, his line of approach. He was Mr Clean, so to speak, because he was never in the inner circle of the State Security Council and he in various and different ways could have explained his position and our position by making the concessions which I think he ought to have made. I just heard briefly what he had to say yesterday and I think that is typical of the difficulties he had with this whole process all along.
POM There is one meeting, and maybe before I leave we can meet again, before I despatch you to Ireland you will get back because I said you're one of those indispensable sources of not just information but of these extraordinary contradictions that must have gone on in your mind and the minds of other people like you who struggled to find a way out of what had almost been a genetically ingrained way of looking at things.
The question is about just before CODESA 1, the day before, when I think the policy group of ministers FW felt that Mandela wasn't treating the DF Malan Accord in the way he wanted them to be treated, that he wasn't living up to his obligations, decommissioning wasn't happening (to bring that awful word up), and that his first impulse was to say I'm not going to attend the meeting but the cabinet said attend the meeting but what you should do is send a very strong message that you are dissatisfied and angry with the rate of progress, of disarmament or whatever on the part of the ANC, that that message was conveyed to Kobie Coetsee to get in touch with Mandela, that he left the room, that he talked with Thabo, came back, said he had talked with Thabo who said he understood the position and would pass it on to Mandela and would understand that there would be a strong statement forthcoming from FW and somehow the message never got through. Is that your recollection of that event?
LW Well I think that is part of FW's difficulty in dealing with the ANC and coming to grips with events, that there never was that very open, clear, frank communication lines between him and Mandela which I believe the situation dictated and I think that that is my understanding also of what happened there. I don't want to talk too I am prepared to talk a lot about the side issues and things, etc., etc., I'm not sure whether it's important but let me just mention one thing, that night after De Klerk had spoken, Mandela had asked to return to the podium, etc., and you had that terrible outburst of both of them, there was a social event for all the delegates which I thought it was an obligation which I should attend and one should be involved in all the small ways that you possibly can try and mend the fences. And I was in a particular corner and Mandela was there and Pik was in that corner, and may I just say that that event was of course after the Oslo thing which is there in the corner, so we had a very good relationship with Mandela, I would like to believe at the time, and we started to talk and so on and Pik and a group of young officials also around us, and Pik more or less said the following to Mandela not to Mandela but to all of us, he thinks that the older people should now speak with one another which was a clear signal that he wanted a kind of bilateral with Mandela, just the two of us and all of us standing a little bit away to give them that space. They had their chat and as Mandela walked past me after that debate, saying goodbye to me, he said to me, "Don't worry, everything will be OK." Now if you were to compare that kind of discussion with the one that you have just construed about a message through a messenger, through a messenger, through a messenger, it explains a lot of the difficulties which we had and misunderstandings which had taken place, which makes for history.
POM I think I've taken you far enough this evening.
LW I'm relaxed.
POM You're talking about the TRC?
LW I'm talking about the TRC and you know when Piet Meiring published his book he gave me a copy and he drew my attention to the sections which he had written to it and I find that I have a lot of explaining to do at times and I thought, well, instead of giving people a copy of the submission I made I will just photocopy the way Piet Meiring reported on it and I'm not sure whether you are aware of that but he writes how quiet it was after Roelf and I had given our evidence there and how it was written in Beeld. Abri Kotze reported the next morning in a report: -
"Only a small piece of the diminutive Archbishop's purple robe could be seen as Wessels dwarfed him in an embrace."
It's not that I'm that smart but it was the situation. So it gives you a little bit of a feeling just there. And this thing - I don't think I've ever given you this. This, there's a gentleman in New York called Steven Ellman and Steven Ellman one day listened to me when I spoke over lunch at the law school and explained to them one or two things and Steven said, "You should write this." And I said to him, "Well I have written about this", and I told him the long story of how I'd written what I told him there and then in Afrikaans and so on and he urged me to write this in English as a contribution to a book that's bound to be published this year. I more or less wrote him my whole story, parts of it all, parts of that and so on as a contribution for his book and I call it The End of an Era The Liberation and Confession of an Afrikaner. It's all these little anecdotes and so on and so on and so on.
POM Thank you.
LW I'm not sure whether it's worth anything.
POM Of course it is.
LW So there you go.
POM After all these years. I think it's good time, a confession of my own is that I had done a whole interview when you were Minister of Housing -
LW I am not so sure given the dynamics of what that whole process was all about that he really was in control of the issue and understood it 100% and completely. Because what was the alternative? Was he going to say, "Yes, prosecute McBride", and you think Vlok was going to agree to that knowing full well that there was a chance that he was going to be prosecuted as well. So the prosecution route, the full blast prosecution route was not going to be supported by even some of his colleagues in cabinet. And the general amnesty route, in spite of what people are saying, I simply believe was not going to fly at the late and final stages given the subsequent kind of discussions.
POM Power had changed.
LW Yes, of what people like Albie Sachs and those who were on the ANC side of drafting the postscript in the interim constitution were saying. So I am not sure what FW believes would have carried the day. It's easy now ten years down the line to say this mistake I took was a wrong one at the time but the wrong decision had to be replaced with another decision and what was that decision going to be? It was not going to be prosecution and it was not going to be general amnesty, so what was it going to be?
POM Well now I have it, just for your information, you probably know this more than I do, but four individuals at the Pretoria Minute who were sent off into a room to draw up a general amnesty, Fanie van der Merwe, Mac Maharaj, Mbeki and Niel Barnard wrote it and agreed on it and Kobie came in and said, "Under no circumstances will I accept this." So he misjudged the issue completely.
LW I've heard that story, I've heard that version of it but I am sure there must be other nuances to it. I have heard that, exactly that one, and my understanding of it is the following, that that position was an unmandated position by both sides and they were exploring. I am not so sure that Kobie could have, would have, wielded the kind of power to overturn that kind of decision right there and then if it had momentum but because it was an unmandated position I'm not sure that that kind of position would have also carried the day in ANC circles had it been placed before all kinds of committees and so on. And what has happened in these small rooms and small, small meetings, understandings were developed between, I almost want to say 'between those partners in crime', because their responsibility was to look at options to break the deadlocks and often they would come back saying, 'Well, I'm afraid it's not going to work', and that small group of negotiators would never ever look at their negotiating partners on the other side as if that was a break of confidence and trust between them. They would simply understand that they couldn't bring their constituencies along. Now that general amnesty from small exploratory, investigative kind of ground-breaking group of negotiators would still have had to travel a long, long journey to receive the support of both power bases and to become a document endorsed in public. So I have my doubts whether that would have been a final resolution to go into the interim constitution. You must remember that we are now looking at an event most likely the first half of 1991, we're not looking at 1992. Yes, we're looking at 1991 not even 1992. We're looking before CODESA and that journey there were many rivers to be crossed before we got to the interim constitution in November 1993. That was still 2½ years down the line and whether that kind of backroom agreement would have carried the day for 2½ years down the line I have my doubts. Given the fixed positions that Kader Asmal and Albie Sachs had on the question of general amnesty, even at that early stage and even Arthur Chaskalson, that would have been fascinating to see. So I am not, yes we look back and it's a little bit easier to look back than to make those decisions on the spot.
POM That's why I like I feel like a fly on the wall in the whole process year after year where people had to speak before they could look back and say, 'Well - '
LW That's right.
POM Now I can rationalise things. It's when you can't rationalise things
LW I just want to tell you something, I don't know whether you want to hear it, I don't mind if you hear it on the record. Last week a telephone call and this and that and a group of TV interviewers came to talk to me about Afrikaner culture, what is this thing called Afrikaner culture. They're making a series of programmes on culture and so on. I said to them, "I think you have a problem with me, I am not sure that I will be the kind of person that you want to speak with." They insisted, they said that I had been recommended by A, B and C and they insisted to come. So I said, "Well, you are welcome to come but this is what my office looks like and I'm not sure what Afrikaner culture you will find on the walls here." And they finally came up and they said to me, "You know in preparation you must bring something of yourself, typical Afrikaans, Afrikaner." I ended up by bringing a set of things. I brought them a range of CDs and it started off with typical Boeremusik, Afrikaner music, the piano accordion, etc., etc., and the Mozarts and the Vivaldis and things like that. I said that I cannot deny that that is where I come from and I still listen to that kind of music but a lot of things have happened since then. We now listen to the Soweto String Quartet, we listen to Jimmy Dludlu, Hugh Masekela, etc., and that has also branched off in different directions. David Kramer has red veldskoens, not the brown veldskoens, and I had a pair of red veldskoen and a real pair of veldskoens etc. And it all comes together in this musician called Nico Carstens who was like typical piano accordion player playing Afrikaans music and how he has twinned and integrated that beat with Jimmy Dludlu and others and the typical African rhythm and beat and I said that that is where we are and where I am. They said to me at one stage, "But how come you always talk around the past and you try and avoid the past and we cannot really pin you down on the past?" And I said, "You know, the past is there to be understood but the future is for living and that's what I try to be."
And that book I wrote, the first one in Afrikaans, The End of an Era, the relief I had after writing that book was that I could forget about it. I did not have to remember it all. People would say to me always, like yourself and others, "One day you must remember these things, one day you have to write a book about it." And I wrote that book so I don't have to remember it. It's like pressing the delete button on the computer, the book is there, the hard copy is there and I don't have to remember it. So when Steven Ellman twisted my arm to write that version, the chapter, I agreed to it reluctantly.
POM He's with?
LW New York Law School.
POM I'm going to sabotage all his files!
LW He's writing about constitutions really and you will see that I'm in a way explaining that I'm not writing about the constitution but the background music to the constitution. So the other contributions are not along the lines which I wrote and was asked to write about. So that's why I enjoy it here in the commission and we're looking at it's a new thing, we're developing new jurisprudence and new kind of law, enhancing the constitution. I was fortunate, I'm concluding the way I started. I was very fortunate to be involved in all of that and through the constitution building, making process and now in the final stage I'm still involved with the constitution. Here, standing up in the Constitutional Court I argued a case last year on behalf of the Commission in the Constitutional Court and it's wonderful. What I'm writing, the LLD, the PhD I referred to, I'm bringing it home, home being Africa international law standards as applied in southern Africa. But that is all another story.
POM Well next week might be another story too. You might find yourself sitting in Belfast.
LW Well I can only tell them what I know.
POM That's all I think that they need in many respects.