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Saturday, 27 January 2007 00:00

Meeting Adriaan Vlok the encounter that never took place... Sunday Independent 2007 Jan 28

The article below was published by the Sunday Independent 28 January 2007

Meeting Adriaan Vlok – the encounter that never took place...
“I never asked questions because I did not want to know.”

I was introduced by Professor Piet Meiring of the University of Pretoria to Adriaan Vlok – he said in a vague way that he had heard of me. Shortly thereafter we met in a small lecture theatre. Piet invited me to sit beside Vlok.

Piet had called me a few days previously to say that he had invited the former Minister of Law and Order from the apartheid era and that we would share a platform in a session about forgiveness and reconciliation at the Southern African Missiological Conference in Pretoria in late January 2007..

I was slightly uneasy about the proposed encounter. When the famous “feet washing” incident took place, I was out of the country. I had read about it. A number of my friends had joked about the incident in a disparaging way. I read and was moved by the President's passionate defence of Vlok's initiative. What did I think? I was not sure. I had felt uncomfortable that the person who was responsible for the suffering of so many had chosen to make his symbolic act with someone who is representative of the new order – was it just “old” power talking to “new” power.

The night before the “encounter”, I did not think much about the next day, but prayed for guidance and wisdom.. Also I wanted to be open minded as to what would happen.

I received a letter bomb from the apartheid state in April of 1990. I could not quite remember whether Vlok was still minister at the time of my bombing. The night before the conference, I had even checked on the internet but only found out when he became a minister and not when he stopped. I guess in the back of my mind was the question of whether and what Vlok knew about my bombing. Just before his presentation Vlok told me that he had indeed been Minister of Law and Order till about '93. He told me that he was currently living in Centurion, caring for his elderly mother – just an ordinary chap – dressed in blue jeans and an open necked shirt.

As Adriaan Vlok spoke, I found myself growing in sympathy with the man – as he told the story that lead to his encounter with Chikane and the Mamelodi mothers – not least how the media coverage had not been of his making. He said God had lead him to the realisation that at the heart of the apartheid issue was lovelessness and his own sense of superiority. He said that people had to believe perpetrators because of their sincerity. I felt a little uneasy.

Then it was my turn to be the first respondent. I said that it was a significant moment for me because I had been a victim of the apartheid state. I went on to reflect a litte on some of the public response to his initiative as well as my own. I expressed respect for the step Vlok had taken. Many people were worried that he did not seem to be at all forthcoming about all that he knew about the past. I said that it was not often easy for people to believe in an apology until people saw what perpetrators did with the rest of their lives, including their money, their time, their energy.

I said that Vlok had done rather better than his leader.

Whilst I was speaking Vlok proceeded to occupy hmself with shuffling his papers, putting them away and taking them out.again.

A second respondent, Professor Nico Botha said he could not question Adriaan Vlok's integrity and suggested that he might have a particular mission to carry out amongst his own people

From the audience the point was made that whilst perpetrators received amnesty they were able to continue to live in wealth while vctims often still lived in abject poverty.

Then it was time for Vlok to respond to the questions and comments. To my astonishment he ignored all that had been said and rather implored us all to love one another. He said he was sorry about all the hurt that had been caused. Vlok said that they had been fighting a war against communism. I interjected to ask if he still believed that – he said “yes” and that he had documentary evidence of Russia's plans. He said that things like killings had never been discussed. Again I interjected to say “But it was in the minutes” which he rejected.

After the meeting ended, I pressed him again privately, about what he must have known as a member of the cabinet and state security council. He said he admitted that he should have questioned more but he didn't because he didn't want to know. I wished him well as he waited for God to tell him what to do next.

The scale of denial concerning what happened on his watch was disillusioning and difficult to swallow. The hour we spent together had been a roller coaster. I had been impresed, moved and sympathetic during the first segment and then confused and disillusioned by what was to follow.

I have always been slightly incredulous that the whole world knew in significant measure, exactly what was happening in South Africa during the apartheid years except those who were at the top of the chain of command. The inquest into Steve Biko's death in police custody took place back in 1978 and was comprehensively covered in the Rand Daily Mail, I remember saying to myself, “Let no-one ever say, 'We did not know.'”

I couldn't help reflecting on what Michael Worsnip had written in my biography, Priest and Partsan about the use of the doctrine of deniability by the apartheid state – how the chain of command was broken deliberately in such a way to enable the political masters to seek to avoid, political, moral, and criminal resposibility for heinous crimes such as death squads. But this was a bit different – here was Vlok who was saying sorry, and had sought amnesty from the TRC, but was claiming that such things were not discussed and that he knew very little. Not wanting to know for me is the give away – because the knowing would bring with it at the very least moral responsibility not to mention political and criminal responsibility. Not wanting to know suggests also, at the very least, suspicion that very bad things were happening.


What was also striking about Adriaan Vlok was his piety and religiosity. From his presentation Vlok implied that he had always been quite religious. Until very recently his religiosity seemed not to have interfered with his own view of his conduct as Minster of Law and Order. In the context of his faith, there has been a shift towards apology. When more information was requested, the response was to preach. I was reminded of a workshop some years ago with members of the riot police. Some of them complained that there was not enough praying and singing at our workshop, which they preferred to telling others about their own woundedness and “touching” and listening to the pain of the “other”.

Ironically it struck me that our religiosity can become a primary obstacle on the journey to healing.

As a nation, through the TRC it was asserted that we would not take the route of punishment, we would even give amnesty – but we needed the truth.

I wondered for a moment whether I should forgive Vlok for what happened to me, but how do you forgive what is claimed to be unknown? I rememer reading once that the words, “I forgive you” is also an accusation.