South African presidential pardon provokes paranoia

The presidential pardon in South Africa of 33 black, long-term political prisoners has stirred up some strong reactions in the country. Many white South Africans, from the comfort of their middleclass surroundings, are complaining predictably about the government’s “deceit”. And Archbishop Desmond Tutu views the controversial move as “a mockery” of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) he formerly headed.

The pardoned prisoners are all former members of either the African National Congress or the Pan Africanist Congress who had earlier been refused amnesty by the TRC. They were serving long prison terms for crimes ranging from murders to armed robberies and possession of illegal weapons during the fascist, apartheid era.  All the pardoned prisoners had applied for but failed to receive amnesty from the TRC’s amnesty committee.

Many former freedom fighters and supporters of the national liberation struggle are applauding the presidential pardons. They recall that, during the long-drawn Truth Commission amnesty process, former members of the repressive apartheid security forces who received amnesty enjoyed the best available legal assistance, whereas former freedom fighters applying for amnesty received comparatively meagre legal aid. The Truth Commission Report itself noted this gross discrepancy.

But in an interview published in the Johannesburg newspaper Sunday Independent at the weekend (May 19), former TRC head Archbishop Desmond Tutu complained that the “unfortunate” pardons granted last week by President Thabo Mbeki would “undermine the work of the TRC”.

None the less, President Mbeki’s move has gone a long way to restore the confidence and morale of many veterans of the freedom struggle who have in recent times been angered at the generous amnesties granted by the TRC to several high-profile, former members of the apartheid security forces. Such perpetrators included former intelligence and police officers involved in State-sponsored terrorism, torture and death-squad activities.

President Mbeki’s pardoning of the 33 prisoners comes hard on the heels of the recent judicial acquittal of former South African Army chemical and biological warfare expert Brigadier Wouter Basson. Former freedom fighters had described Basson’s acquittal as a “scandalous and monumental travesty of justice”.

Basson and his accomplices had, among other things, allegedly eliminated more than 200 Swapo (South West African People’s Organisation) guerrillas in Namibia during the 1980s. Six charges against Basson, including three charges of conspiracy to commit murder, were dropped at the start of the marathon 30-month trial in the Pretoria High Court.

Those charges alleged that Basson was involved in the poisoning of some 200 Swapo detainees at an internment camp, and the deaths of five other detainees at a military base who were injected with muscle relaxants. All the bodies were allegedly dumped secretly into the Atlantic Ocean from an aircraft.

Basson was also accused of involvement in a plot to kill Namibian public servant Peter Kalangula by smearing poison on his car door and a plan to contaminate with cholera the water supply of a Swapo refugee camp outside Windhoek. The charges against Basson were dropped because of a general amnesty to all apartheid-era soldiers, issued by South Africa’s administrator in Namibia on the eve of the country’s independence in 1990.

(The author is a South African freelance journalist who has been covering the Truth Commission story for the past six years)

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