The Lady and the Tiger...
But Not the Truth
By David Herman
Both are accused kidnappers and murderers. Each unleashed a reign of terror during which men and women were tortured and killed for incurring their personal displeasure. She was the Mother of the Nation; he the Priest from Hell. Winnie Madikizela-Mandela and Gideon Johannes Nieuwoudt. The Lady and the Tiger.
Their characters are so disparate, it takes a great leap of imagination to discern their similarities, but the very distance between them creates an irresistible magnetic charge pulling their fates closer together. The inarticulate Nieuwoudt, a loner, ex-member of a fraternity of cruel and robotic cops. Winnie, the stylish, charismatic ex-member of the royal family.
And yet it wasn't always so. Only a few brief years ago they were diametrically opposed representatives of two sides in a battle that was patently void of any gray area. He stood for the oppression of the country's majority by whatever means necessary; she waved the banner of human dignity. It was a battle I witnessed from the safety of exile in London. My contribution to the struggle lay in not buying South African wine.
In the mid-sixties I fled South Africa, a teenager, terrified of what I might face as a white soldier in the Apartheid Republic's army. Now I was back, keen to see how the new South Africa was dealing with its past on the eve of its second free elections.
The Christmas buntings were still up when I arrived at the airport, but they were wilting in the tropical summer heat. Good news was emanating from the transistor radios in every office. The invaders were being thrashed in the only battle that mattered: the cricket match against the West Indies.
It's late afternoon in Soweto. Nelson Mandela and Thabo Mbeki are kicking off the 1999 election campaign in the dusty soccer stadium. Mbeki, Mandela's hand-picked successor, is not a rousing speaker and is delighted when his speech is interrupted by a tumultuous ovation. It takes a moment till he realises the crowd's applause is not for him but for a lone figure strolling slowly across the pitch. Winnie has arrived, fashionably forty-five minutes late. The throng toyi-toyis in delight. With much grinding of teeth, Mbeki acknowledges the interloper. "Viva the president of the African National Congress Women's League!" "Viva!" roars the crowd. In the first game of the season against the new establishment, it's 1-0 Winnie.
Meanwhile, ex-Special Branch Colonel, Gideon Nieuwoudt, is having less success with his PR campaign. Nieuwoudt has visited Zwide, Port Elizabeth, the home of slain anti-apartheid activist Siphiwe Mtimkulu. He has come to request a reconciliation with Mtimkulu's family. The ceremony is brief. Mtimkulu's son smashes a flower vase over Nieuwoudt's head. Mrs Mtimkulu smuggles Nieuwoudt out of the back door, avoiding the angry mob which has gathered in front of the house.
Lost in the melee of ongoing life are the amnesty decisions of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. "It's over, isn't it?" I hear 'round the grill at a braai, or barbecue, where South Africans hold their clan meetings. Long coils of boerewors, the local spicy sausage, washed down by copious quantities of Castle Beer, break the usual polite reticence and words spill freely into the warm air.
The hearings are over and the report delivered to Mandela amidst a furore of debate. But the amnesty decisions are only now trickling in and it doesn't look good for some of the players. But round the braai the talk is of cricket. And if it's politics you're interested in, it's still about cricket.
"It's a disgrace," said a black newspaper editor between bites on his wors. "The selectors have chosen only one black for the team, and he's the reserve. My eight-year-old son, a cricket fanatic, is proud to be South African and proud to be black, but he's supporting the West Indies."
The reserve is called the twelfth man in cricket. The twelfth man can field in place of an injured player. The twelfth man can run for an injured batsman but can not bat. And here's the rub. In the arcane game that is cricket, the twelfth man has another duty: he serves the team drinks during the tea break. Not exactly a revolutionary position for a black man in the new South Africa.
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission was set up in South Africa in order to lay old ghosts to rest. Nobel Peace Prize winner Archbishop Desmond Tutu, a man of infinite patience, compassion and good humour was installed as chairman. The commission's brief was awesome, but the path to amnesty simple and straightforward. Perpetrators of crimes, some of them guilty of gross assaults on human rights, had to step forward, give an open and honest accounting of their crimes and provide a political motivation. The Commission would provide them with full amnesty in return.
Simple it would seem, till one runs into the likes of Nieuwoudt. He has the answers to a lot of questions, but he's not much good at telling the truth. One might try to stimulate his memory with a few pointed questions. How did you torture Mukuseli Jack? Where did you bury Siphiwe Mtimkulu? When did you shoot the PEBCO 3? Why did you let Steve Biko die?
Nieuwoudt denies none of these crimes associated with his name, but stubbornly refuses to tell the truth. He sticks to the cover-up stories concocted with his colleagues in the Special Branch. He resists breaking ranks, notwithstanding the risk that he will be denied amnesty.
Trivial you might think, unless you were the wife or the son or the mother of one of his victims. They have had to put aside their desire for retribution, have had to be prepared to watch the men who tortured and killed their loved ones walk free in return for acknowledging what happened.
Nieuwoudt has had five separate hearings in front of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission during which he brushed aside troublesome questions with blunt disdain. Nieuwoudt was a ruthless interrogator and, by his standards, these enquiries are a cakewalk.
No one was putting a wet canvas bag over his head and holding it fast till he choked and begged to breathe. None of his inquisitors was beating him with a steel pipe and, Nieuwoudt certainly knew, he was not going to end up naked in the back of a pick-up truck with severe brain lesions, slowly dying, like Steve Biko.
Not wanting to see the killers walk free, Biko's family opposed the amnesty process. They took their appeal all the way up to South Africa's Constitutional Court. In some of the most gently understanding language one is ever likely to hear in a judicial process, the appeal was turned down.
The judges accepted the validity of the applicant's concern. 'The results may well often be imperfect and the pursuit of the act might inherently support the message of Kant that "out of the crooked timber of humanity no straight thing was ever made."'
But in conclusion the judges restated the reasoning behind the amnesty process. They explained that there appeared to be no other mechanism to force perpetrators to reveal their crimes. Families of the victims would not have the truth they so desperately desired. Truth that would empower them while 'the country begins the long and necessary process of healing the wounds of the past, transforming anger and grief into a mature understanding.'
The judges reckoned without Gideon Nieuwoudt. They also underestimated the power and resolve of Winnie Madikizela-Mandela. Neither of them has much regard for the TRC or its noble aims. So, how did such a disparate couple come to occupy the same hotseat?
1977 is a crucial year. Winnie Mandela is the visible spirit of the ANC in South Africa. Nelson Mandela has spent more than a decade on Robben Island, serving a life sentence. After years of being harassed, tortured and held in solitary confinement, Winnie is banished from her home in Soweto and dumped in Brandport, a sandy desolate village in the middle of nowhere. She writes a friend, "The solitude is deadly. Social life is the nightly raids and funerals! Yet there's something so purifying about exile, each minute is a reminder that blackness alone is a commitment in our sick society."
Nieuwoudt's star, by contrast, is on the ascent. 1977 finds him in the old Synagogue in Pretoria which was converted into a court for Nelson Mandela's treason trial in the early 1960s. Nieuwoudt is one of the Special Branch Policemen standing accused that warm December day of the murder of Steve Biko. Biko it seems, was killed not because he was regarded as such a prominent enemy -- in fact the policemen involved knew little to nothing of the black consciousness movement -- but because he refused to stand during his interrogation. He insisted he should sit. Nieuwoudt was outraged by the arrogance of this black man who needed to be taught a lesson. As it turned out, a deadly lesson.
It took Magistrate Marthinus Prins less than three minutes to deliver his verdict: No one to blame. Biko had been eliminated, his death declared an accident. The police had lied, the district surgeons had lied and the magistrate's priority was not truth but support of the Apartheid regime. Nieuwoudt was on a fast track to promotion.
We cut to the mid-eighties. South Africa is in turmoil. The ANC's tactic is to fight the regime by making the Black Townships ungovernable. There are riots and killings. Winnie Mandela is back in Soweto and has become a formidable figure. In the Eastern Cape, Gideon Nieuwoudt is amongst the small band charged with restoring order. The government had been embarrassed by the publicity the Biko hearing received in the foreign press. Henceforth, victims of the Special Branch would either disappear or have their deaths laid at the doorstep of rival black factions.
Witness the case of the Motherwell bombing. Four black Special Branch colleagues of Nieuwoudt are blown to bits in their car in the little town of Motherwell. A police investigation concludes the bombing is the work of the ANC. Ten years later a cop breaks ranks and reveals Nieuwoudt was behind the bombing. Nieuwoudt applies for amnesty to the Truth Commission. He did it, he says, because he discovered the four had secretly joined the ANC. Wasn't he afraid the police bomb expert would identify the explosive not as Russian but as South African police issue? Not really: Nieuwoudt was the investigating bomb expert.
It also turns out that the reason for the killing was other than he claimed. The four black officers had been caught ripping off secret funds and threatened to expose the Security Branch of having killed a group activists if they were charged. Nieuwoudt, known to his colleagues as Mr Fixit, soon sorted it out.
Nieuwoudt was denied amnesty for the bombing. He faces twenty years in jail after conviction in a criminal court.
Amnesty could be granted to people already convicted of crimes if they met the commissions requirements of full disclosure and political intent. A perpetrator of a crime denied amnesty is left open to prosecution for their acts. Their testimony before the Amnesty Commission is not admissible in a criminal court.
By 1997, the Special Branch had more than its fair share of image problems. No longer protected by the apartheid courts, and now being offered the carrot of amnesty in return for full confessions, cops were coming forward and admitting to torturing and killing opponents of the old regime. But they were hedging their bets, admitting only to the more obvious crimes and hiding behind the old saw, "We were only following orders."
Nieuwoudt was feared throughout the Eastern Cape Townships. It was rumoured he was masquerading as a priest on his night-time visits to activists homes, hence the moniker, the Priest from Hell. Siphiwe Mtimkulu disappeared one night. He'd had a history of meetings with Nieuwoudt.
Mtimkulu's mother sat at the TRC hearings clutching a plastic bag with the only remnant she has of her son, a small piece of his scalp with some hair attached. Siphiwe Mtimkulu had been poisoned in prison, causing his hair to fall out. The poison left him confined to a wheelchair. His mother described what her son told after he was released from his first session at the Nieuwoudt clinic.
Siphiwe said he had been brutally tortured. He told his mother he had been starved for days and then chained naked to a rock at the seaside while Nieuwoudt and a colleague barbecued spare-ribs. They threw the stripped bones in the sand at his feet.
Nieuwoudt admitted to the TRC that he later murdered Mtimkulu, but he denied torturing the crippled student leader. He claimed that he drugged him and then shot him in the back of the head while he slept. Then, he said, he burned the body and scattered the ashes in a river. Mrs Mtimkulu does not believe him. Nieuwoudt claims he eliminated Mtimkulu because Mtimkulu was a danger to public order. Mrs Mtimkulu believes her son was killed because he had the temerity to sue the police for poisoning him. The TRC's amnesty decision is still awaited.
Nieuwoudt was the product of a strict Dutch Reform Church upbringing. His lawyer to the Truth Commission gently suggested to him:
"The church of which you were a member also decided at synod level, that the policy of separate development as it was termed by the Government of the day could be justified in terms of the Bible."
"That is correct," Nieuwoudt said, and continued, "The way I understood it is the following, that all measures should be used to protect the government of the Republic of South Africa and to keep them in power, and whatever methods would be used, would be justifiable."
While Nieuwoudt was going about his dirty business in the Eastern Cape, Winnie Mandela had become, to all intents and purposes, a war-lord in Soweto. She must have felt untouchable and, to a degree, she was. Protected by the Mandela name, she trod rough-shod over the black leadership. Furthermore, the authorities felt that Winnie was, in effect, an unwitting ally. Her reign of terror and the mayhem it was creating, not only in Soweto, but amongst the ANC leadership, was more effective than anything the Security Branch could devise. Winnie was out of control. With her husband in jail, she seemed to believe that she was the rightful leader of the resistance movement within South Africa and that anyone who challenged her was an enemy of the cause.
She inhabited an unsavoury world peopled by charlatans, petty thieves and informers, a world whose epicentre was the backyard of her home in Soweto, the headquarters of Mandela United Football Club. The team members were Winnie's foot soldiers, in a league of their own. They tortured and killed with impunity. There are theories and then there are theories regarding Winnie's transformation. It is said that she took to drink and drugs during the lonely years of isolation. It is said that the police broke her during one especially nasty and long period of solitary confinement.
In the rooms and outhouses of the Mandela compound, people were also tortured and killed. Their crimes? They had thwarted Winnie or one of her henchmen. The justification? If they upset Winnie they must be government informers. Two youths had revolutionary graffiti carved into their limbs and torsos and the wounds rubbed with battery acid. A pregnant woman was assaulted by Winnie and later assaulted again by a group of the 'footballers'. She had had the temerity to fall in love with one of Winnie's part-time chauffeurs who also happened to be one of Winnie's own part-time lovers.
I had watched Nelson Mandela and Winnie walk hand in hand out of prison when he was freed after twenty seven years in jail. My heart soared as they raised their clenched fists. I agonised during Winnie's trial and was pleased that she escaped, knowing little about the world behind those dark curtains in Townships like Soweto. Then, slowly, the universe of Winnie Mandela began to reveal itself to the public eye.
Bombshell after bombshell exploded. Winnie was subpoenaed to appear before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. She admitted nothing and was not asking for amnesty. This was during a special hearing into the activities of the Mandela United Football Club. There were eighteen accounts of murder, kidnapping and torture laid out before the Commission. In a full week of hearings, the world heard the stories of men and women who had suffered the same kind of fate at the hands of Winnie and her followers that activists had endured at the hands of Gideon Nieuwoudt and his colleagues in the Special Branch.
During six days of hearings, witness after witness told harrowing stories condemning Winnie. A father wept when he told how he has never forgiven himself for not rescuing his son when Winnie drove him by his house, badly beaten, before he was murdered. Archbishop Tutu had to deliver a solemn warning to the audience after one of the victim's mothers was threatened by Winnie's entourage in the washroom during a break in the proceedings. Winnie sat in the hall with her bodyguards providing her cool drinks and presenting her with flowers.
The last day of the hearing was Winnie's turn. It was her chance to soar above the squalid days of inhumanity and reclaim a place in the forefront of righteousness. Twenty years had passed since she was banished to Brandfort; ten years since the dark days in Soweto; three years since her husband took the oath of office as president of the new South Africa. Instead, she denied everything, dismissing those who had endured so much pain as merely people suffering from hallucinations and dementia. She had not asked for amnesty, and the TRC had no carrot and no stick for her. She dismissed her accusers as liars, lunatics and apartheid-era collaborators.
"Honestly, for me to have to sit here and answer such ridiculous allegations is great pain to me."
When darkness descended, Archbishop Tutu fell back on his last hope of redemption for her.
"I beg you, I beg you, I beg you please. I speak as someone who has lived in this community. You are a great person and you don't know how your greatness would be enhanced if you were to say sorry, things went wrong, forgive me. I beg you."
The hearing room fell silent. Winnie turned to her lawyer, then switched on her mike.
"I am saying it is true, things went horribly wrong. I fully agree with that and for that part of those painful years when things went horribly wrong and we were aware of the fact that there were factors that led to that, for that I am deeply sorry."
The Truth Commission's final report contained a damning indictment of her.
'The Commission finds that those who opposed Madikizela-Mandela and the Mandela United Football Club, or dissented from them, were branded as informers, then hunted down and killed.
'The Commission finds Ms Winnie Madikizela-Mandela politically and morally accountable for the gross violations of human rights committed by the MUFC.'
Nieuwoudt has been denied amnesty in the Biko case. He refused to admit he killed the man and continues to insist it was an accident. If it was an accident, wrote the Commission, we have nothing to grant you amnesty for. Nieuwoudt is now open to prosecution in a court of law. It's going to be difficult to nail him on this one, since there is a twenty-year statute of limitations in manslaughter cases.
Gideon Nieuwoudt waits to face other days in other courts and, when he does, he will be alone and far from the spotlight of national interest. He might yet bring down a retired general or two, but they are past their prime anyway and the collateral damage will be minor.
Winnie is a seasoned fighter. Too many times opponents have swaggered into the neutral corner, waiting to hear her counted out, only to receive a stinging blow to the back of their own heads. On the day Nelson Mandela consigned her to history by marrying Graca Machel, Winnie was attending an emotional funeral for the reburial of the remains of ANC guerilla fighters.
With voting in South Africa's second free elections coming up in June, Winnie is the ANC's spearhead amongst the disaffected who have not gained empowerment in the first five years of black rule. This constituency relates well to her battle-scarred image. Her parting shot after each stop on the election trail is: "Vote for Thabo Mbeki. He is a much younger leader. He will get things done." Only Winnie would have the temerity to so nonchalantly dismiss a demi-god as her husband. The official Nelson Mandela biography, due out this month, recounts her love affairs with young men even after her husband's release from jail.
And the Truth Commission? If one looks at the roots of the TRC they are buried in the days of transition from apartheid. The Nationalist government was determined to protect its own and not lay itself open to Nuremberg-style trials by the new order. The ANC was keen not to provide a provocation which would leave parts of the old military and police forces with a clear motivation for not co-operating. The ANC also had its fair share of skeletons in the closet.
In essence, the Truth Commission sprang from an accommodation with evil and is now bearing the strange fruits of that compromise. The commissioners have struggled valiantly with the concept of truth, but the politicians and the country are less interested in truth and much more concerned with moving on. To that end the TRC has accomplished its mission. It might not have revealed all the facts, but it has provided the valve by which the pressures of political transition could be vented under a façade of decency.
Not a bad outcome when one considers the latest survey of the public's opinion of the TRC. 61% of blacks feel the TRC's decisions were fair, as opposed to 13% of white respondents who believe that. But, in any case, far more people are interested in what is happening on the cricket field. And here the news is sad. Makhaya Ntini was selected as the first black man to represent South Africa. In April, he was convicted in a magistrate's court of rape and within hours dropped from the South African cricket squad for this summer's World Cup in England.
The final word goes to Peter Storey, who was Bishop of Soweto during Winnie's reign of terror. He made the following statement at Winnie's Truth Commission hearing: "One of the tragedies of life, sir, is it is possible to become like that which we hate most. Somebody once said, it is not enough to become politically liberated, we must also become human. This case is about becoming human again and recognising the inhumanities which some of us were capable of because of the times we used to live in."
(David Herman was born in South Africa in 1950. He left in 1965 and has spent the past thirty-four years on the road. Along the way he won an EMMY for an independently produced documentary in the USA and farmed a 100-acre mixed dairy farm in Ireland. He is currently living in Holland with his wife and two children and is writing a novel about the struggle for truth during the dying days of apartheid.)