About this site

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 It is the product of almost two decades of research and includes analyses, chronologies, historical documents, and interviews from the apartheid and post-apartheid eras.

10 Aug 2000: Van Der Merwe, Johan

POM     Maybe we could start on that note, General, what you are preoccupying yourself with these days?

JVM     To start with we are engaged in quite a number of organisations, mostly welfare organisations, where we assist with the needs of our community and also our ex-colleagues but also we are engaged in the activities of the Community Police Forum where we assist with crime combating and the problems that we experience with regard to crime in our area and also in other areas. I have also a number of other matters to which I normally attend, obviously with regard to the activities of the TRC we assist all our members who are either applicants in amnesty hearings or otherwise implicated persons in investigations where we assist them. We are aware that in most of these cases the matters to which we attend actually started 20, 30 or 40 years ago and it's very difficult to trace the records. Most of the case records are not available and we have to rely on memories and we have to do quite a lot of research to get all the facts which they require for these hearings. So it's almost a full time job.

POM     Now one of the, and we spoke about this the last time, that one of the, not findings, facts put forward by the Truth & Reconciliation Commission is that there was a systematic eradication of records that began in the police force, first in the Security Branch in 1992 but that continued through 1993.

JVM     Once again, I've explained that many times, that was not deliberately planned to erase certain information with regard to atrocities as I think is the general perception. Obviously not, I mean one would have to be very stupid to enter any information into a file which can be used or which reflected any atrocities. Obviously all these cases where certain actions occurred, which occurred outside the law, they were never reported in such a way that one could deduce from that that members of the security police were involved. So our files for that matter were in all respects available apart from the fact that it was secret and in many cases top secret. There was no information in the files of any incriminating nature. So that was not the reason but what actually happened was that since 1990 we changed the system. Before 1990 we had to concentrate on the ANC and other banned organisations. After 1990 they were unbanned in most or all of the cases and that changed the complete direction of the Security Branch. It also became the crime combating investigation branch at that stage, the name wasn't changed. That means for that reason in most of the cases the records were no longer required. At that stage we were completely unaware that there would be such a thing as a Truth & Reconciliation Commission, there was no effort to conceal any evidence or anything like that. Well to be quite honest it would be a great help if these files were still available. In many of these cases we are completely lost without these files but unfortunately because at that stage it was not foreseen that there would be such a position in many cases the files were destroyed because they were no longer required. In other cases they changed it, they put it on computer and they used only the information which they required for reference purposes and in many of the cases they erased the other information. That's the reason why the files are no longer available.

     I was saying that the perception that these files were destroyed to conceal certain evidence against us, that's completely unfounded. In most of the cases we require these files more than the TRC for our purposes. And as I have said, no-one would have been so stupid to enter any information into a file which can be used against him afterwards. That's the practice all over the world. No security agency will enter any information into a file which can be used against it. They will actually enter it in such a way that only the facts are recorded and not the role that members of that agency actually played in that incident. That's obvious, so that's not the case. In most of these cases we don't have the files available.

     I'll give you just one example. I'm involved at present in a hearing where we first of all went into Lesotho and we shot a number of members of MK who were on the point of entering the Republic just shortly before Christmas to create a black Christmas, to murder and maim certain persons shortly before Christmas and create chaos and anarchy throughout the country. That was during 1985 and according to all these circumstances I cannot remember that incident very clearly because we were involved in numerous incidents. But according to the evidence, the Co-ordinating Intelligence Committee actually gave permission for that raid but there is no record of that and, obviously, all the members of the CIC, as it was called at that time, they deny any knowledge of it so the only person who now remains to take responsibility is me. That was according to the circumstances, I cannot remember what they were, but the mere fact, if we had our files available it would have been possible to check it but we don't have these files available so we have to rely on the notes of other departments which are incomplete and for obvious reasons also incomplete in such a way that it covered the persons involved to protect them in such a way that you cannot one way or other get to the truth. So that's a problem that we have at this stage and we have to do research to see where we can get some information. We have to go through files which are still available but in most of the cases do not actually relate to the real incidents.

POM     Now I was surprised with the TRC report. First of all it gave some figures that said 21,000 statements had been received during its mandate, 38,000 allegations had been made involving 10,000 killings and that most of the statements referred to the period 1990 – 1995 and then from 1983 - 1989.

JVM     I would say it all depends now if they refer to statements which in turn relate to certain murders, whether they mean things which occurred during actions of the ANC/SACP alliance, that is normal terrorist activities as we described them during these hearings. I would say actually the peak as far as terrorist activities are concerned were during the period 1983 up till 1988, that was the peak period and I think most of the deaths, necklace murders, etc., occurred during this time. Obviously after 1990 when the ban on the ANC and the other organisations was lifted, black organisations became involved and a power struggle between them actually started at that stage, that's now between Inkatha and many black organisations and I think during that period quite a number of persons died during the violent incidents, far more than actually before 1990. And I think there's no doubt, especially in KwaZulu-Natal when Inkatha and the ANC were involved in the struggle but also in the townships, in the hostels and so on.

POM     Do you feel that the SAP has been maligned? I'm just going to lay it out in the following way what I mean by that. You had the Waddington Report at the time of Boipatong which was rather scathing in its criticisms saying that the SAP was essentially a confession oriented police force, that it didn't collect evidence, that it depended on getting a confession, that a confession was accepted as evidence by judges on the basis of on a confession alone a person could be convicted, so it didn't depend upon the normal police procedures, collection of forensic evidence, corroborating statements, etc., etc. Two, over the years there had been innumerable reports that documented widespread torture of detainees, where torture took the form of sleep deprivation, making people stand long periods of time, using Section 29 to keep them in solitary confinement which is a form of sensory deprivation which is called torture, that most of the killings they refer to here of the 10,000 refer not to what would be called black on black killings but killings committed by the security forces over the mandate period of the TRC, in fact that you were a brutal instrument of the state that cracked down ruthlessly, in very many cases illegally on blacks particularly in the townships rather than those involved in direct MK activities, that you made no distinction between people who were peacefully opposed to apartheid and those who were more militant activists. All these allegations appear again and again in the TRC and come out in its report, that's the picture they paint.

JVM     They actually gave.

POM     That they paint of you, a very maligned picture. One, do you accept at this point that widespread torture of one form or another did take place among the over 100,000 people that were detained?

JVM     What we accept is that torture did take place but not widespread. Firstly the system was such it was impossible and we've explained that many times. For instance in the case of persons whom we had detained in terms of Section 29 there was a certain procedure.

POM     I've read that.

JVM     You've read that, which made it almost impossible for the person –

POM     Was that followed?

JVM     That was followed. There were judges involved and there were magistrates involved and there were inspectors involved, there were so many other persons involved in that regard.

POM     But my understanding is that under the Emergency Regulations if they detained somebody they didn't have to notify the person's family, they didn't have to notify their legal representatives, in fact to all intents and purposes the person had –

JVM     No, no that's not correct. There were various procedures. In terms of Section 29 if we arrested a person in terms of Section 29 to start with he must first be examined by a District Surgeon. That's the first requirement. Secondly, the Inspector of Detainees must be informed, that was a magistrate, to visit such a person and then he was also to be examined once every 14 days by a District Surgeon, to be visited by an inspector on a regular basis and in any case if such a person submitted a complaint that complaint was to enter into an Occurrence Book and the inspector to be notified.

POM     I've talked to quite a large number of detainees and they all say that never happened.

JVM     But that's nonsense, that's nonsense. They lie. It obviously happened. They all lied, yes, obviously, because I can give you numerous incidents where we've been engaged in court cases and that system was thoroughly tested and I can bring you various representatives, legal representatives who can vouch to that, that that procedure was applied and was very, very strictly followed in each case where we detained that person.

POM     So when the TRC makes a finding that there was widespread torture among detainees?

JVM     Completely unfounded. There were cases of torture obviously, we admit it, but widespread as they actually allege, completely unfounded, that's completely unfounded and it cannot be substantiated because none of these cases were actually tested by means of cross-examination, by means of proper legislation procedure and we've complained to them. That's the reason why, from the outset, we went to the courts to try to create a system where we can test the evidence in court and they have never - you are aware of the judgement of the Appeal Court in this regard?

POM     No.

JVM     You're not aware of it? We went to the Appeal Court because from the outset we've said there is nobody –

POM     You went to the Appeal Court when?

JVM     That was during 1995/96, but I can give you a copy of that. That is when the proceedings of the TRC started. When these proceedings started from the outset we said no, it's impossible if they are not going to allow us to test the evidence by means of cross-examination and by means of actually submitting our own evidence in one way or another to give the persons who are actually attending to the hearing the opportunity to establish the truth, there is no sense in the whole proceedings of the TRC. They refused that from the outset, no cross-examination, they have not even notified us at the beginning when the hearings actually were in process and in the end we went first to the High Court for a judgment and we obtained one by Judge Heath who said it's the duty of the TRC to inform us and to give us the opportunity to test that evidence in terms of the constitution.

POM     Test it in terms of cross-examination?

JVM     Cross-examination and also to submit our own evidence where necessary. After that they went to the Full Bench in Cape Town which actually reversed the decision of Judge Heath, then we went to the Appeal Court and five appeal judges upheld the decision of the judge. They said, no, that's the duty of the TRC. But they never adhered to that, not one single piece of it during the hearings of the committee and all these findings are based on the Committee for Gross Human Rights Violations.

POM     So in fact a judgment was given by the Appeal Court that you should have the opportunity to cross-examine and present evidence in the case of everybody who made an allegation that they were tortured or whatever in detention and that the TRC did not follow?

JVM     They did not follow that.

POM     In fact they disobeyed the law.

JVM     They disobeyed the law completely. They disregarded that decision, there was not one single incident where the Committee for Gross Violation of Human Rights, where they have given us that opportunity or where they followed the instructions of the court.

POM     Do you have a copy of that judgment?

JVM     I have a copy of that judgment, yes.

POM     The world has this picture of the SAP, and particularly the dreaded security force, they always call it notorious or whatever, as being the instrument of total oppression. How would you view, as a man who came up through the ranks and occupied every senior position until you became Commissioner, how would you view your own police force?

JVM     I would say, as I described it in The Other Side of the Story, we were in a very difficult situation.

POM     I read your submission.

JVM     And the book, The Other Side of the Story, you've read that as well?

POM     No I don't think so. You gave me a book the last time, that could have been it, but one of my cases on the way back to the States got lost and it had a number of books in it.

JVM     I have another copy. You can read that yourself. We said here –

POM     This is in The Other Side of the Story, page 150.

JVM     We cannot describe it better, I cannot explain it better than it is put here. We said,

     "The nature of this conflict and violence blurred the traditional distinction between combatants and non-combatants, between legitimate and illegitimate targets and more importantly between acceptable and unacceptable matters. They often occurred in the grey area between legitimate orders given, the implementation of such orders and circumstances where secrecy and other factors made proper implementation difficult or impossible (I would say also in many cases very unclear orders), requests which were not always properly expressed or formulated and mixing of cultures of the various departments through the National Management System which inevitably affected the normal day to day function of the South African Police."

     Let us also bear in mind that we had to deal with violence on a scale which is unknown, I would say, in almost the world. Bear in mind that in our case we had to deal with between 15,000 and 20,000 murders in a year and I don't think there is any other police service in the world –

POM     Are these 'normal' murders as distinct from political?

JVM     That's normal murders as well as political murders. That obviously included political murders but most of them were normal murders, that's between 15,000 and 20,000 a year. So if one goes back to the Waddington Report and to the other reports obviously we also followed the normal procedure, forensic and other tests and so forth, but there is no way that we can do in such a perfect way as in the case of a police service who have ten, twelve, twenty officials to attend to one murder. In our case we had one official to attend to 50 or 60 murders during a month. I think that's the difference between the SA Police Service and other police services even, I think, today. There is no way that they can do it in such a perfect way as other police services normally investigate a murder case. They can only do what circumstances allow them.

POM     So even during this period, and let's just talk about the eighties and nineties, the police personnel available to investigate 'ordinary' crimes was totally inadequate for the amount of crime being committed?

JVM     Obviously, yes, there was no way. One can imagine if one has to deal with 15,000 to 20,000 murders during a year, I think in SA there are more murders on one day than most of the other countries would have in a year. I think in one day more persons are killed in SA, say if one compared that to some of the other countries, for instance Switzerland and these places. It's unknown that kind of violence.

POM     But yet again you had the reputation that you were so efficient that if a member of the MK sneezed in Swaziland before he had blown his nose you had him picked up, by the time he had crossed the border.

JVM     We had a very well founded system with regard to the gathering of intelligence information. But once again I know there is quite a difference by handling an informer. You can handle one informer which can move into various circles but in the case of the normal murders in the country that is more complicated because many of the cases you cannot have informers in all the places. If you concentrate on a certain organisation then it's very, very easy to establish what is it, that is possible to establish actually what is happening in the range of that organisation. But to attend to normal murder cases when in many of the cases there is not always the information available that one actually needs to investigate such a case, it's more complicated.

POM     Just to repair to that point for a minute, this reputation for efficiency and your performance network, I think on a previous occasion in our last interview you said that there were many senior members –

JVM     Who spoke to the ANC.

POM     Spoke to the ANC, members who today occupy senior positions in government who were informers.

JVM     Informers at that stage.

POM     Do you think, given the way things turned out, maybe senior elements in the ANC itself would have vested interest in seeing that the proceedings of the TRC only proceed so far, they don't want it to appear that the ANC - ?

JVM     I think at this stage the ANC is in position whenever they go, they have the National Prosecutor at their disposal, he's one of their men. The whole system is at their disposal, they can manipulate the system so they can protect themselves. I think that's the one reason why –

POM     Do you believe that the senior leadership in the ANC know the individuals who were informers?

JVM     Obviously not, obviously no. I don't think that they are known within the ranks of the ANC. Then they would have been killed long ago. No, no, they would have destroyed them if they should know who they are. No, no, obviously they are not known to each other, not to the other members.

POM     Do you think any of them live in fear that one day - ?

JVM     They may be exposed?

POM     That there's a certain inevitability to this kind of thing?

JVM     Very difficult to say. I think at this stage they think they can more or less control the system. I think in many of the cases they are in a position to do so and they hope that they will continue to do so.

POM     When you say 'they', you mean?

JVM     I mean these previous informers. I think many of them are now in a position where they think that the ANC control the system and they can one way or another use the system in such a way to protect themselves. I think that's the impression that one gets.

POM     Let me put things in a broader framework. You said one thing that I found very interesting the last time and that was that you, the police, and probably the SADF had concluded in 1983 that the situation was becoming untenable and there had to be a political settlement of some description. You said that the communist threat was the main threat in 1983, you said eventually it changed, "I would say during 1983 when the United Democratic Front was established it was obvious then to all the persons that we have to deal with more than a communist threat. At that stage it was obvious that most people in SA, especially the black people, were more or less against the regime and that they were joining hands with the ANC and that the government was up against more than a communist threat to contain." Did you ever ponder, driving home in the evening or just sitting on your own, that here I am, a very senior official, head of the police force, where the majority of the people of the country who I am supposed to protect are against the police force, there's something really wrong?

JVM     Yes, but then once again one has to bear in mind that one is in Africa. Africa is Africa. Yes, obviously, but it's very difficult in such a situation to determine what the solution really is. I was aware, we were all aware, that there must be some kind of a political solution.

POM     When you say 'we'?

JVM     That's the members of the security forces. We were aware that there must be some solution but at that time we did not see any way how they are going to solve the political problems in such a way that we do not completely surrender and it becomes an African country, which eventually happened. I think at that stage we were still looking for some kind of solution and that was not in sight. That was our problem. We all knew we would have to change political structures but the way to do that was very difficult at that stage.

POM     Did you not as a policeman, as a professional policeman, did you not find it crazy that you were in charge of a police force which was to protect all the citizens of the country where most of the citizens of the country had turned against you? How can you police a community if the community has turned against you?

JVM     It's obvious there was no other solution at that stage. It was obvious that it was a very difficult situation but nonetheless if you've got no other solution it was more the case where we had to wait and see what possible political solution the leaders at that time could bring forward.

POM     Do you think that the politicians, and here I really mean the politicians of the National Party, let you down when they went before the TRC, and I've a quote here from Leon Wessels and when Leon went before the TRC he said, "I further do not believe a political defence of 'we did not know' is available to me because in many respects I believe we just did not want to know." Do you think that other ministers knew what was going on?

JVM     Obviously they did know. What they exactly knew is very difficult at this stage to determine but they were aware in most of the cases of the security forces. Obviously I don't think they were aware of all the details, all the facts, but that the security forces were involved obviously they must have been aware of it, all of them, unless they were completely stupid.

POM     Security forces were involved in?

JVM     Involved in many of these cases, many of these incidents.

POM     Many of these illegal incidents?

JVM     Many of these illegal incidents. Once again we have to distinguish between what now is being regarded as illegal and at that stage would have been illegal. For instance in many of the cases cross-border raids at that stage were regarded as legitimate within the power of the government of the day. It was also regarded as a function of the security forces, the police service, cross-border raids. Obviously now in terms, or even at that time, in terms of the law it was unlawful but nonetheless at that stage it was regarded as legitimate and no action was taken in these matters. So I would say in most of the cross-border raids the government were aware although perhaps they were not always informed before the incident of the actions we were going to be taking but afterwards they became aware and they condoned these actions, they did not take any action against me first of all or even to establish who were involved for that matter but many of the other cases they must have been aware that the security forces were involved. For instance with regard to the present hearing of Dr Wouter Basson, there is no way that persons like General Magnus Malan or Mr du Plessis and the others can now come and say, well they was not even a suspicion with regard to those activities. Then you must be completely stupid or out of contact with reality. I would say that's impossible. But in many of these cases I would say there were aware or, as Mr Wessels described it, they knew something actually was going on but they did not want to appear to actually know what the facts were to protect themselves.

     Many of the cases I would say they also knew one or other … instigate many of these actions. Once again now it's very difficult to substantiate or to prove it. It's impossible because, obviously, it was done by means of certain needs, a subtle approach and so on and as one of my colleagues says, what can one say, you actually deduce from certain of the body language of a person that he actually requires certain actions to be taken, you know very well what he means by that but how the hell are you going to give evidence now? Are you going to say, well his body language actually indicated to me that he wanted that person killed? It's impossible. But in many of these cases that occurred and at that stage they flatly denied. What they would say? Where they actually let us down completely is the mere fact that a person like Mr F W de Klerk, he was not involved in the struggle, he took over from Mr P W Botha, he took over the responsibilities of Mr P W Botha but in that was never accountable. You can flatly denounce the part Mr Botha played during the struggle, himself was not involved, Mr Botha himself is now an old man, he's actually a sick person, not able to –

POM     But as a senior minister in the government of Mr Botha and as an occasional member of the National Security Council, would he too, like Leon Wessels, know that something was going on but not enquire about it?

JVM     That's difficult to say in the case of Mr de Klerk because he appointed the Goldstone Commission and my impression was that he was actually so concerned with his own image that he would have used every means to protect himself. So I would say in the case of Mr de Klerk it's difficult to say he was aware because in the case of the defence force he acted on some very flimsy information, I would say some unfounded information, to get rid of some of the Generals of the police force, actually later turned out to be completely unfounded in many aspects. So in the case of Mr de Klerk it's very difficult to say.

POM     Some of them took court cases against him, did they win?

JVM     No, but they settled it, they settled it out of court.

POM     Was that a settlement between him and the Generals or the government?

JVM     Between him and the Generals, between Mr de Klerk and General Chris Thirion. He admitted, Mr de Klerk, in the settlement out of court that there was no evidence whatsoever that General Thirion was involved in any unlawful matters.

POM     I'm going to read you two statements: The politicians in the end left you to hang out to dry, twist in the wind. They absolved themselves from all responsibilities, piously said we never knew anything illegal was ever going on, we never noticed anything, and left all the security people –

JVM     I agree with that.

POM     Do you resent that?

JVM     Yes obviously.

POM     Do you and your colleagues, like when you – ?

JVM     One cannot generalise because in the case of Mr Adriaan Vlok he came forward. He said, "No, we were aware of some unlawful actions." In many of these cases he himself gave approval for these actions. So he actually, insofar as the role he played, confessed to that. I think to a certain extent also General Magnus Malan. I think in his evidence he also said that yes, there were some unlawful actions and in many of these cases they were aware or they should have been aware of these actions. So Magnus Malan, Leon Wessels, I don't know about Mr Meyer, Roelf Meyer. To a certain extent he also conceded.

POM     He did?

JVM     To a certain extent, not all the way.

POM     He used a phrase like Leon Wessels.

JVM     More or less in the same manner. But I think the other ones, well he's now dead, Mr Kobie Coetsee, I think he was aware of quite a number of actions. It's difficult to establish all the others but many of these cases, obviously after the Khotso House and the Cosatu House incidents, we were congratulated by many members of the cabinet. One cannot remember where and when but obviously they were – Mr Botha was the one who said, well he was completely unaware, because when he asked Mr Vlok who did it, Mr Vlok said well no-one knows actually who is responsible. But the fact is you must be completely stupid at that stage if he thought that somebody else than the security forces actually were in a position to commit that act. So in many other cases, I would say that unless a person was completely unaware of what was going on in this country he must have been completely stupid if he did not for one moment suspect that the security forces were involved in many of these incidents.

POM     I picked up Bishop Tutu summarising the findings of the TRC and he says, "Evidence brought to us indicated, and we found in the report that the state resorted to unlawful methods dealing with … about the time of Mr P W Botha - (break in recording)      First as Prime Minister in 1978 and later as State President, his criminal conduct stretched from then into the period of his successor, Mr F W de Klerk. The state entered the realm of criminality and could hardly be considered as being a legitimate authority. Mr Botha, according to Mr Vlok who was a cabinet minister at the time, ordered the bombing of Khotso House, headquarters of the South African Council of Churches, in August 1988. The commission found it was highly improbably that members of the State Security Council did not foresee the possible consequences of adopting an increasingly military strategy. We found they did nothing to distinguish between people involved in military operations and those opposing apartheid peacefully. The term 'terrorist' was used widely and not defined precisely, all opponents were treated as legitimate targets to be eliminated."

JVM     That's one thing which we always tried to maintain, and that's distinction between persons who were actually involved in certain radical activities and these persons who were peacefully protesting because, and I've explained that also here in our previous conversation, once you've detained the person you've made such a person a driven person. So if you detain a person who was not actually involved in radical activities without proper grounds for such distinction, you actually militarise such a person. And we've been very careful, I've explained that to my men over and over: before we detain a person make sure that we have information that that person is really involved in radical activities, activities which constitute a threat against the state. Because if you detain an innocent person it means that that person actually comes into contact with more radical persons and obviously that will influence him negatively and that will influence the whole system. So we have been very careful and I've also explained to you in many of these cases the National Intelligence Service actually demanded that we should detain certain persons without information or evidence to actually substantiate that claim that they're involved in certain radical activities. We refused completely, we said no.

     So, no, we have tried as far as possible, we may have made mistakes but I would say in about 95% of the cases where we have detained a person that person actually was involved in radical activities and I think if one looks at the picture as it is now, in many of these cases it's now confirmed that persons who at that stage denied that they were involved in ANC activities, they now come forward and say yes, we were actually involved in ANC activities. So they now confirm the information that we had at that time. I would say, no, in most of the cases we did make that distinction. We only detained these persons as far as possible who were really involved in radical activities and we tried not to detain or act against a person who was only peacefully involved in the whole process.

POM     So you would find that statement?

JVM     Unfounded.

POM     Unfounded.

JVM     Insofar as that is concerned, not completely but I would say so far as that is concerned, no. So far as the security forces, the security police are concerned that's one thing and they can go back. In many of these cases we've been involved in court cases.

POM     When it says the state entered the realm of criminality and it could hardly be considered as being a legitimate authority?

JVM     Well that's a general statement which I don't think could at this stage be substantiated by the evidence. Obviously, not reliable evidence which normally would be acceptable to any court, obviously not.

POM     Again just going back to Leon Wessels, and I want to ask you two questions about him, but one is again a quote. It says,

     "Leon Wessels, the former apartheid cabinet minister, was closer to the mark when he said that they had not wanted to know but there were those who tried to alert them. There were those with eyes to see, there were accounts of people dying in security detention. There were those with ears to hear those disquieting and even chilling, but like the three monkeys they chose neither to hear, nor see, nor speak of evil. Some did own up but they passed the blame to others, 'we were carrying out orders', refusing to acknowledge that as morally responsible individuals each person has to take responsibility for carrying out unconscionable orders."

     Would you agree with that, that those with eyes to see?

JVM     Yes, but you know once again it's very difficult to generalise. That's the problem which one has in the very complicated situation in which we had to deal. In some of the cases, yes, that is true, but to say that was generally so in all the cases that's not true. So one cannot actually apply that point of view to all the cases. In some of the cases it may be true but not in all the cases.

POM     What would Mr Wessels' role have been when he was Deputy Minister of Law & Order and he was the Director of the National Management Security System? Would he have been privy to the inner workings of the Secretariat of the National Security Council?

JVM     Yes, as far as the National Security Council is concerned, yes he would have been obviously.

POM     You were asked this question during your hearing that, "In our report we identified some of the phrases we found both in the security documents and in politician's speeches on public platforms, 'eliminate enemy leaders', 'neutralise', 'neutralise intimidators by using formal and informal policing', 'destroy terrorists', 'physical destruction', 'take out', 'wipe out', 'remove', 'cause to disappear', 'make a plan', 'methods other than detention', 'unconventional methods'." Would he have seen, those phrases insofar as they appeared in minutes or whatever, or documents of the National Security Council, he would have seen those?

JVM     Obviously yes, he would have been aware of that.

POM     So that in a sense he would have known more about what was going on than Mr de Klerk who wouldn't have seen?

JVM     Mr de Klerk also would have seen most of these documents.

POM     Even as an occasional minister?

JVM     Even as an occasional minister he would have seen most of these documents. But once again one must bear in mind that these documents were compiled by the Secretariat of the National Security Council and it was actually worded in such a way that there was nothing wrong with the contents as such. Many of these documents are still available and at the disposal of the TRC, so if one reads the document as such there's nothing wrong with the document, it's only the interpretation which actually eventually led to the problems that we now face. But the document itself, one cannot use that document and say in this document there are instructions to eliminate certain persons or to take out certain persons or to destroy certain targets or what the case may be. There is not such a document available. The documents as such, although their contents may be very subtle in many ways, very difficult to interpret, to know exactly what the meaning of the document actually was, I don't think – there is no case at this stage where we can say yes, a document in which instructions are that certain persons should be eliminated, for that matter means to be killed, or should be taken out or that certain targets should be destroyed or whatever the case may be. There is no such document available. All the documents are there. It's not the case that some of the documents disappeared insofar as the National Security Council is concerned. The documents are there. So it's not near a case where one can say these instructions actually were for all practical purposes included in such a document and that the persons who read that document should be aware what the document actually meant. That's more complicated than that because these documents are available and I can assure you none of these documents at this stage prove any of the allegations contained, or for that matter the points of view contained, in the report of the TRC.

POM     Is there anybody that you know doing 'counter research' to show that many of the conclusions reached by the TRC are really based on suppositions?

JVM     I think Jeffreys, I think she's done a really remarkable job in that regard. You've seen her book?

POM     She wrote The Truth about the Truth Commission?

JVM     Yes, have you seen it? I think that is right on the spot.

POM     Just coming back to De Klerk, Wendy Orr one of the commissioners, she was talking about when he had finished giving his testimony the second time around, which got him into all kinds of trouble with the Archbishop and with the TRC and made a big row about it, but she says, she's talking about when he was being questioned, "Mr de Klerk blustered, flustered, objected and denied. He refused to accept that any human rights violations had occurred with the knowledge or sanction of senior government officials. He made it clear that government policy had never contemplated abuses of the method of retaining power. By doing so he abandoned every one of his operatives from General to foot soldier and effectively made it very difficult for them to be granted amnesty. If there had been mavericks, bad apples, they could not get amnesty."

JVM     I would agree with that.

POM     Again I go back to the question of, do you not feel angry that the politicians have moved on to different lives and different positions, they're all doing well for themselves, some are still even in parliament, most are now in the private sector and you guys are painted as the bad guys and your political superiors say 'we never knew a single thing, we walked around with blindfolded eyes, we never gave an order, we never condoned anything, we are pure, if they did these things they did them on their own without our authority and of course if we had known about them we would have said don't ever do that'. Does that cause you to feel angry?

JVM     Yes, but once again it is such a complicated situation and I must say that not only applies through the politicians, that also applies to all the senior officials of all the other departments, even persons like Dr Niel Barnard, Mr Niel van Heerden and all the others. At this stage they all deny it. You know Dr Niel Barnard was the head of the Intelligence Service and they claim to be more or less equal to the best in the world and at this stage he's the one who claimed that he was completely unaware of many of these unlawful actions. To give you an example, for instance in the case where we've acted against a number of MK members in Lesotho during 1985, all the members of the security forces were completely aware that that was done by members of our branch and Dr Barnard during the recent hearing of the TRC claimed that he was completely unaware of that. He only became aware now during the proceedings of the TRC that the security branch actually were responsible for the actions against that group of MK members in Lesotho. You know, we've accepted at this stage that one cannot rely on your previous colleagues in the other departments, one cannot rely on the former political leaders. One has to accept your own responsibility and account for your own actions and that is where we stand at this stage.

POM     If the head of the National Intelligence Service didn't know what was going on –

JVM     How on earth can one expect the political leaders to know what was going on? They claimed that they were more or less equal to the best in the world. So they deny at this stage, so I would say that's quite human and we've accepted that. One has to live with one's own conscience and it means I take responsibility for the orders which I have given and insofar as the political leaders and other persons are concerned they have to account for themselves.

POM     Looking back at your career do you ever feel that you spent most of it in the service of governments that instigated, forced a system called apartheid, a system that was evil and oppressive, that damaged the majority of the people in the country in irreparable ways and that whites in general owe an apology to black people for the wrongs done to them during apartheid both by governments and by security forces?

JVM     No, most definitely not. If you go to any country in Africa and you can show to me that the people of that country are now at this stage in a better position than our people, then I will apologise. You can show me any country in Africa where you can say quite honestly, look, the people of that country are more advanced, are in a better position than the people of SA, there's a better infrastructure and better incomes and they are more educated than the people in SA, I would say yes I apologise. No. We've left the ANC with an infrastructure, with an economic system and all the people of SA with a system which is the best in Africa. In spite of what they say about apartheid if it was not for apartheid they would not have been in the position which they are today. That I can say, according to my convictions.

POM     Are you saying in a peculiar way that apartheid established – ?

JVM     An infrastructure, an economic system.

POM     An infrastructure and an economic basis in the country that allowed blacks even during apartheid years –

JVM     Even during apartheid.

POM     To be better off than –

JVM     Than most of, more than all the other African countries. If one compares all the African countries, you can go and have a look for yourself. If there is any other African country which one can say honestly is in a better position, that the blacks are in a better position than in SA, then I will say I will apologise but otherwise no.

POM     How about looking at what's happened to SA since the changeover in government? Do you think many white fears were unfounded?

JVM     I would say in many of these cases they were founded. I think we are going the way of the rest of Africa at this stage.

POM     What would you point to?

JVM     I would say if one looks at the administration, well infrastructure, which is going down the drain, if one looks at many various aspects at this stage where you can say if one compares it with the same situation four or five years ago, obviously in that regard there is deterioration. I would say unless there are some drastic changes we are on the same way as any other African country at this stage. We are going eventually to face the same problems as the rest of Africa. There are no indications at this stage that the present government actually really is capable of making these changes in such a way that we can more or less compete with Europe and the other countries. So it means eventually we will just become another African state.

POM     Was there a smile across your face when you picked up – well I picked up the paper yesterday and saw that the government wants to introduce anti-terrorism legislation that would provide for detention without trial for 14 days, did you say déjà vu?

JVM     Obviously, yes I did. Then once again, once again I think these aren't realities, they are actually, and I quite agree with it, I don't think they can do without these measures. Whether that is in terms of normal human rights that's another matter, but in Africa, in our circumstances, if one wants to combat crime one would like more or less to deal with matters which eventually may lead to anarchy, unfortunately these measures are necessary. So, yes, I know, and we have said so many times, it's unfortunate, it's very difficult but you can actually preach human rights but then it must be in a developed country where all the persons more or less can account for their actions on a very well developed … But in an African country such as SA one has to take certain measures to make sure that law and order actually are maintained.

POM     I would like to discuss with you for a moment, again I always thank you for the time –

JVM     You're welcome.

POM     The Goldstone Report of March 1994, this was where substantive allegations were made against defence force Generals

JVM     Basie Smit

POM     There has been since 1989 a programme of destabilisation of South West Africa and supplying arms to - a person I interviewed for a number of years was Themba Khoza, and the IFP and the involvement of Eugene de Kock and the operation of Vlakplaas. When all these things came to your attention what was your reaction? These were your close colleagues and in some cases, I would assume, friends of yours.

JVM     I've discussed that matter with Mr de Klerk and also Judge Goldstone in his presence. What actually at that stage I must say was very disturbing was the mere fact that in most of these cases the allegations were based on hearsay evidence and I pointed that out to Judge Goldstone at that time. And at that time when Judge Goldstone actually submitted his report, well with his first report, after 1994 when the change of government took place I think he submitted his final report, but his first report which actually contained all these allegations was submitted to Mr de Klerk, it was during 1993 and at that stage –

POM     It was in March I think, March 1994. About a month before the elections.

JVM     Before the elections, that's quite correct, that was before the elections. When he submitted that we discussed it and I said to Mr de Klerk I think the correct thing to do is to give that report to the Attorney General and for the Attorney General first to analyse it and to see whether the allegations can be substantiated, whether there is any real evidence at this stage to act against General Basie Smit. There were three persons, General Basie Smit, General Englebrecht and General …. As far as I am concerned this is hearsay evidence which cannot be used for any proceedings at that stage.

POM     Couldn't be used at that stage?

JVM     At that stage. Obviously as matters developed even today they have not charged one of these persons and they have not substantiated one of these allegations, even today.

POM     Have any of them been called before the TRC in connection with other matters?

JVM     Well they've been called before the TRC in connection with other matters, no, not with these matters. In the case of General Basie Smit, as far as the allegations are concerned, insofar as the Goldstone allegations are concerned, but once again even before the TRC there is no evidence at this stage to substantiate the allegations made by Judge Goldstone. None of these allegations have been substantiated, have been proved since that date. So at that stage, I indicated to Mr de Klerk, I'm not prepared to act on these allegations because they are not substantiated and in terms of the normal requirements of our law they are not sufficient evidence to take any action. I also invited him to submit that to the Attorney General to see what he would say about that evidence. At that stage Mr de Klerk actually preferred to ask them to abstain from duty, he did not force them but he asked them, abstain from duty to enable – that was then handed over to Dr Olivier, the Attorney General, for further investigation to enable him to complete his investigation. After Dr Olivier completed his investigations none of these persons were charged and there was no further evidence as far as I am aware which actually connected them with the allegations made by the Goldstone Commission.

POM     So they did not resign, they were not asked to resign?

JVM     They were not asked to resign, no they were not asked to resign and no further action was taken against them.

POM     And they remained in the SAP?

JVM     They remained in the SAP and they eventually, when all the changes took place after 1994, they eventually went on pension.

POM     Again, do you think this is one of the things that has not been cleared up? The Goldstone Commission's reports are treated as 'proven'.

JVM     No, no, obviously that's one of the cases, you are quite correct, which was not cleared up and where certain allegations were made which actually were not substantiated, were not proved and were not carried any further.

POM     Do you think that the SAP and the SADF were fighting a just war?

JVM     Yes, obviously. A just war in the fact that at that stage there was a terrorist onslaught without any doubt and there was an effort to overthrow the government of the day and there were also various attempts to maim, to kill and to terrorise the people of this country. So, yes, we were fighting a just war without any doubt.

POM     Just a couple more things. A reference I came across that when we had been talking the last time you referred to a man named Timol, you said he jumped, he was on the 4th floor of the building and there was no doubt about that because Timol was in possession of such valuable information. I don't know where he jumped. Then Goldstone in this report I came across the name, William Coetzee and then in brackets it says Timol: "From the East Rand Security Branch organised sustained violence in co-operation with De Kock". They're not the same person?

JVM     No, not the same person.

POM     I just thought it peculiar that Timol –

JVM     No, no, that's not the same person.

POM     Your assessment, SA in 1990 and SA today, is SA better off, worse off?

JVM     I would say quite honestly I think it all depends from which point of view one is looking at the situation. Yes, from a human rights point of view better off, far better off, obviously. From an international point of view, yes, we are better off. But insofar as the individual man on the street is concerned, whether he is better off, whether his circumstances are better now than they were during the apartheid era that's difficult to say. I think as far as the activists are concerned they are better off but if one speaks to the man in the street and especially the black people in the street, if they are honest I think they will have their doubts whether they are better off now than they have been previously. But I would say generally it all depends which direction events will take, whether eventually we will be able to come more or less a country where each person will have the right, which is a normal human right, as applied in other countries will also be available to us. This I don't think is so because –

POM     Human right?

JVM     The human right to live, to be appointed and to be promoted on merit where merit and not the colour of the skin actually dictates whether one will be acceptable in certain posts, whether one will be promoted or whether one will be appointed.

POM     Could one not apply the same criterion to the SAP and say that until the changeover in government in 1994 almost all of the senior positions were occupied by people of one colour?

JVM     Yes, obviously, but I think the difference is the general perception was that now they are going to change that and all will be equal. I think that did not actually happen. So, yes, if one compares this with the other situation we can say, well yes. That's the reason why I say it all depends from which point of view one is looking at the situation. It's obvious, you cannot say at this stage that before there was discrimination, there was discrimination before. Yes obviously. If one says well there can be discrimination now because they've been discriminated against in the past and for that reason it is fair, well obviously there is no argument. If one says it is supposed to be a new SA where all persons are equal and where colour no longer plays a role then I say well that's not the case, it only changed and that means that the white persons are now being discriminated against whilst the black persons have all the privileges.

POM     The last thing I want to ask you about, well almost the last, is Operation Vula which I think occurred in 1991, the present Chief of Staff of the SANDF, Nyanda, and Mac Maharaj. How serious was that?

JVM     I think that was very serious. If one looks, and it is fully described in this book, you can have it, I think it was very serious at that stage. When we discovered Operation Vula they actually were on the point – and you know what the intentions actually were at that stage? It was to murder Mr Mandela, to create anarchy and chaos through the country and then more or less take over the government by means of MK forces.

POM     Vula was - part of the objectives of Vula were to – ?

JVM     To take over the country.

POM     To have Mr Mandela murdered?

JVM     That's correct. That was actually the main objective of Vula, to murder Mr Mandela and through that, as they had quite rightly at that stage assessed, chaos and anarchy would follow, there would be violence, as for example look at the case of Mr Hani when he was killed, one can imagine what would have happened in the case of Mr Mandela. So their intention was to murder Mr Mandela, to create the impression that that was done by the security forces and during the chaos and the violence which would follow, take over the government. That was the main objective of Operation Vula.

POM     Did you discover documents?

JVM     Documents, evidence.

POM     That laid that out?

JVM     That laid that out completely.

POM     Are those documents available any place?

JVM     They are available, they should be available as far as I know. In any case we've outlined it in this book, you will see it.

POM     It will give the sources?

JVM     The sources as well. What is very obvious is the mere fact that the TRC and the ANC … in their quest for Operation Vula to be properly probed, there was never any hearing with regard to Vula and that in itself speaks very, very loudly because if they were, and I think that is obvious, that should be obvious to any person, if they were of the opinion that the security forces were involved as some of the members of Vula at some stage tried to indicate, they would have gone full out for the security forces. They are well aware that Nyanda and Maharaj and the other members were behind Vula and for that reason it was covered up, there was no way whatsoever either by the TRC or by any other instance to try to establish what really occurred in Operation Vula.

POM     When I read your submission to the TRC it would appear to me that if that had happened that the level of violence in the townships would have been so uncontainable that in fact the people could have swept to power.

JVM     Yes, yes.

POM     The people's war could have won.

JVM     Obviously, there's no doubt about that. If one looks, I don't know whether you've seen the reports when Mr Hani died what actually happened countrywide, and one can never compare Mr Hani with Mr Mandela. There's a vast difference between the two personalities as far as that is concerned, but even in that case we had to deal with the violence countrywide when his death occurred. So one can only imagine what would have happened if Mr Mandela was murdered. I mean if that would happen, the bloodshed on a scale never before -

POM     When Mr Hani died one reads accounts of how Mr Mandela went on television and calmed the people down, the violence, a lot of violence didn't break out but a lot of violence did.

JVM     Still occurred.

POM     Did break out.

JVM     Did break out, yes.

POM     I've often wondered how he would have calmed all the black people in the country by going on television since I assume most black people don't own televisions.

JVM     But in many of these cases they have certain central spots where television sets are available in the townships. So they actually have access to television sets, the black people. Even at that stage most of the cases where they work at their workplaces during the daytime they have access to TV sets, so it is possible, and apart from that there's one thing which is so remarkable in the case of black persons and that is their ability to convey messages from one person to another. If one person has seen a TV report then the ability that they have to convey that from one to another person, that's remarkable, it's something which is only … to our black people. That's the one reason why I've said that in many of these places it was impossible to create any perception because they know very well what actually was going on in black townships because they convey that from the one person to the other in such a way that they all know what is going on. That was the one weapon which the ANC used very effectively and that is the ability of black people to communicate in black townships without all the TV and other equipment at that stage.

POM     So do you today feel proud to be a South African, proud to call yourself South African?

JVM     Yes, obviously.

POM     And if I ask you your prognosis for the country do you think it will get over the hump?

JVM     Very difficult to say. It all depends whether they are going to use all the available resources. If they use all the resources that they have, yes, but if they stay on the same track which they are on now they are going just the way of any other African country.

POM     Which is? I'd like you to explain that because many people would say that the government is following a conservative economic policy, it's in good favour with the World Bank, it's in good favour with the IMF, it's controlling government expenditure, it's trying not to be wasteful. What's the problem?

JVM     If one looks at all the structures, eventually they can only do that if they can maintain the infrastructure. If one looks at the infrastructures and all the resources to maintain the infrastructure –

POM     When you talk about infrastructure, you mean the roads?

JVM     The roads and the various departments and so on, they form the infrastructure of the country. Eventually they can say what they like, they can say the economic powers actually control nowadays the situation in each country. That may be true but to a certain extent the infrastructure, the various departments and the various role players, the persons who actually have to attend to the infrastructure to keep the infrastructure up, these persons make what a country is. If we are not going to use all the available resources to maintain the infrastructure as it is now at this stage, or to improve even because I think there are signs everywhere that the infrastructure actually is deteriorating, there is no way that eventually that they are going to –

POM     Are you talking about the performance of the public service?

JVM     Performance of the public service, performance of the police to cope with crime, the actual maintenance of the roads, the maintenance of our water resources and so on, eventually, well they can do what they like, yes I quite agree. I think that from a business point of view at this stage the indications are quite good insofar as the businessmen are concerned but eventually if they are not going to maintain the infrastructure that will affect the economy, it will affect the whole system as such and one must realise that at this stage they are still making use of an infrastructure established over the apartheid years. It remains to be seen whether they will be able to maintain this infrastructure, whether they will be able to maintain the administration which actually one can say is the heart of your infrastructure. If that goes down the drain the whole system goes down the drain.

POM     Did you get a copy of – ?

JVM     Yes I did. I have made certain corrections.

POM     That's fine. I'll have a copy of this interview made for you as quickly as possible because I might want to come back and interview you again on some points.

JVM     You're welcome.

POM     But you make the changes, particularly on name spellings.

JVM     Yes here and there, I think there were misunderstandings, a few minor corrections.

POM     Thank you ever so much for your time.

JVM     You're most welcome.

POM     I always enjoy hearing the other side of the story.

JVM     It's very difficult, because obviously we are aware that the other side is also a subjective side but the only way that one actually can establish what the real facts are is to weigh the one up against the other one. There's no other way.

POM     We were just talking about the Appellate Court decision and you were saying that the changes –

JVM     The committee which actually more or less, or it's involved completely, is the Gross Human Rights Violation Committee. The other committees, well there are only three committees, the Amnesty Committee, they adhered to the rules of our law. I would say in most of the cases judges are the presiding –

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