De Klerk knew of death squads, witness says

Published Sept. 19, 1996|Updated Sept. 16, 2005

Eugene de Kock, one of the apartheid era's most notorious assassins, accused former President Frederik de Klerk on Wednesday of deliberately lying when he denied even knowing about government death squads operating in the run-up to the 1994 democratic elections.

De Kock told a Pretoria court that his secret police hit squad carried out a raid on a house allegedly used to store arms in the former Transkei homeland in October 1993. Five youths were killed as they slept.

De Klerk, then president, confirmed at the time that he had authorized the attack but indicated it was a purely military operation. He denied as recently as last month that he ever approved the use of a death squad or was even aware of such groups.

"Surely he knew there were covert units with this ability," countered de Kock. "Who did he think was going to launch the attack?"

The Pan Africanist Congress, a black militant group targeted in the attack, insisted the five victims were all schoolchildren. De Klerk's government, then in the twilight of the apartheid era, said they were terrorists.

De Klerk last month told the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which is investigating the political crimes of the apartheid era, that he never authorized "assassination, murder, torture, rape, assault or the like" during his years in government. He later said he was "at no stage aware of any unit carrying out assassinations."

De Klerk insisted that he closed illegal government operations as soon as he learned of them. De Kock's covert Vlakplaas unit, named for its base outside Pretoria, was publicly exposed in newspapers and court proceedings starting in 1989. But it was not formally disbanded until 1993.

In a statement Wednesday, de Klerk said he had approved the 1993 raid because intelligence reports indicated a "substantial hidden cache of arms" was present and it thus appeared a "legitimate military target." He said his authorization specifically excluded attacks on civilians.

De Klerk, who heads the opposition National Party, holds an odd public position here. Overseas, he is hailed as a bold politician who released Nelson Mandela from 27 years in prison in 1990, legalized anti-apartheid groups and helped negotiate the fragile transition from apartheid to democracy.

At home, he is far less popular. Mandela, who succeeded him as president and shared the 1993 Nobel Peace Prize with him, bitterly accused him of doing nothing to stop massacres of blacks during the pre-election period.

And de Kock, who testified for the third day at a pre-sentencing hearing for six murders and 83 other charges, undoubtedly spoke for many right-wing whites when he denounced the former president for supposedly surrendering without a fight.

"I regard him as one of the greatest cowards the country has ever produced," de Kock said. "Not because he wanted peace _ that is a noble cause. But because, like a small puppy, he turned on his back and wet himself."