Vlakplaas, the notorious farm of Eugene de Kock and the apartheid police death squad. Picture: ROBERT BOTHA.
Vlakplaas, the notorious farm of Eugene de Kock and the apartheid police death squad. Picture: ROBERT BOTHA.

SOUTH Africans may not like this yardstick, but their democracy has been in existence for as long as former police captain Eugene de Kock has been in prison. That is, the much-vaunted New South Africa can be measured precisely by the number of years De Kock has spent in jail.

You will recall that De Kock, the last commander of the apartheid police death squad based at Vlakplaas, was arrested in May 1994, a few weeks after South Africa’s first democratic elections. According to author James Sanders, De Kock was enjoying a quiet drink at a police club in Pretoria when his erstwhile colleagues pounced.

At present, he is a guest of the state at the Pretoria Central Prison, where he is serving multiple life sentences, plus 212 years.

There is no doubt that De Kock deserves to be in prison. He did, after all, commit the crimes for which he was convicted.

There is also no doubt that his actions caused many families untold pain. Pain that may never go away.

For his part, De Kock has had 20 years in prison to think about his actions and their consequences.

As those who know the man will tell you, De Kock knows that what he did was wrong and that there are very few South Africans in a position to forgive him — namely the people he killed and the families of those he killed.

But, to state the obvious, dead people cannot forgive their killers. As for the survivors, they might choose to forgive De Kock — and in fact some already have — but that will not bring back the dead.

What, then, about De Kock himself?

What interests are served by continuing to keep him in jail?

That is a difficult question, particularly coming from someone who cannot claim to have been a direct or indirect victim of De Kock’s state-sanctioned violence.

But there is something fundamentally egregious about the fact that, 20 years into South Africa’s democracy, De Kock is still the only senior servant of the apartheid state serving time in jail for crimes committed on behalf of a state which the world knew and considered to be criminal.

In the time that he has been in prison, De Kock has helped make the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

It is thanks largely to De Kock that we know more about the workings of the apartheid state’s security machinery than we did before.

De Kock not only told the commission about what happened, how, where and, crucially, who gave the orders, he also forced many apartheid officials to come forward.

That many did so to cover their backsides is secondary. What matters is that De Kock helped lift the veil of secrecy and anonymity that had settled over past atrocities.

But De Kock did not act alone. He could not have known everything. There are many others in different parts of the country who operated apartheid’s killing machines. They have yet to come forward.

A few of those who came forward only told the commission enough to get the threat of prosecution off their backs.

They have gone back to their complacent ways. Some have even been emboldened to fashion themselves into critics of the democracy they fought so dirtily to prevent from coming into being.

How many of us know that, despite the racially promiscuous nature of the apartheid conflict, in absolute and proportional terms more black perpetrators of violence applied for amnesty than did white perpetrators?

That cannot be right. In fact, this continuing imbalance only encourages the sense of impunity that explains (in part) South Africa’s crime problem.

South Africa needs those people to be held accountable. It needs apartheid bureaucrats, especially those who committed violent crimes, to be called to account.

We need these criminals to be prosecuted so future generations know that apartheid was not some failed welfare project but a criminal system of rule.

The question, it seems, is whether continuing to have De Kock in prison serves any purpose.

Should De Kock be pardoned? Should he be let go?

The answer must be a qualified yes.

Why qualified? Because nothing will alter the fact that De Kock and his men killed and did so for an illegitimate state.

Nothing will change the fact that there are people today without parents, siblings and other loved ones because of the actions of De Kock and the men under his command.

De Kock himself probably recognises this. He would probably be the first one to admit that nothing that he does today will change the facts of his past.

But there is a lot that South Africans still do not know about their sordid past and De Kock can help with that.

He can use his extensive network from the past to help the prosecuting authorities find missing bodies and to compel criminals to come clean.

He can use his vast knowledge of how the security police functioned in the past to help close many cases.

None of this would bring back the dead or wipe the slate clean. But it would help families still struggling to discover what happened to their loved one to find some sort of finality.

Releasing De Kock from prison would not be a pleasant matter — nothing about the De Kock case is pleasant — but some good would at least be got out of the man.

At 65 years old, De Kock is not so young anymore. But he is also not too old either. He could help South Africans gain a fuller understanding of the past. But he cannot do that alone.

More important, having De Kock out of prison would help challenge the complacency that his imprisonment (out of sight, out of mind) has engendered.

The simple truth is that apartheid was a violent system that needed violence in order to function.

That violence came in different forms. Some of it — such as the actions of the police and military death squads — was spectacular.

But a lot of it was ordinary, banal even: such as the humiliations heaped on thousands of people by state bureaucrats, the petty slights meted out to people at factories, in homes, on farms, and on the street. Apartheid was violence.

None of this is to excuse De Kock’s crimes or to relativise his violence. It remains in a league of its own.

Sure, not every crime De Kock committed was the result of orders given.

Not everything he did was in defence of apartheid. Some of it was crime pure and simple, intended for his enrichment. But he was not alone.

We need him outside to help us come to terms with the past.

More than that, we need him outside as a reminder of the violence of the past and of the complicity that many South Africans — black and white — bear for that violence.

It has been 20 years since South Africa became a democracy and De Kock was sent to jail.

Is it not time South Africans had a new measure of how far they have come?

Is it not time that the worth of South Africa’s liberation was measured in something other than the number of houses the government has built, or the length of time De Kock has spent in prison?

Dlamini, a 2013 Open Society Fellow, is writing a book about askaris and other apartheid collaborators.