A poster taped to the wall of a steamy City Hall auditorium here warns, “The Truth Hurts, but Silence Kills.” But inside the hall, dramatic confessions by a top apartheid police general and five former security police officers to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission suggest the bitter silence of apartheid is finally ending.
Over the last two days, these six men have unleashed a torrent of charges against their former superiors, accusing two retired Cabinet ministers and other senior officials of past governments of ordering bombings and assassinations of black opponents, destruction of incriminating documents and other abuses.
In the most sensational charge, retired police Gen. Johan van der Merwe told the commission that Adriaan Vlok, then minister of law and order, ordered him to arrange the 1988 bombing of the South African Council of Churches headquarters in Johannesburg.
Van der Merwe, who appeared Monday under subpoena, said Vlok told him “this instruction had come from President P. W. Botha personally.”
Van der Merwe is the most senior official to publicly accept responsibility for state-sanctioned terror under apartheid and the first to admit that murder and sabotage were approved at the highest levels of government. He commanded the dreaded police security branch from 1986 to 1988 and was the nation’s top police official from 1990 until he retired last year.
Botha, who is retired, could not be reached for comment on the hearsay charge. Both Van der Merwe and Vlok told reporters that, because of their own complicity, they are considering applying for amnesty from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which is investigating gross human rights abuses of the apartheid era.
Alex Boraine, commission vice chairman, said Tuesday that Van der Merwe’s testimony would be investigated “as a matter of urgency.” He called it “highly improbable” that the nation’s top police officer “would make up such far-reaching allegations.”
Boraine warned that the commission would subpoena Botha to testify if he refused to cooperate. Botha, president during the strife-torn years of 1984 to 1989, has said he has nothing to confess and will not appear before the panel.
The predawn police bomb in 1988 caused massive damage to Khotso House, as the church and labor union office building was called, and injured 23 people. Van der Merwe said the site was targeted because it was viewed as the “internal headquarters” of the then-banned African National Congress and its resistance campaign against minority white rule.
The Rev. Frank Chikane, who was general secretary of the church council at the time of the bombing, said Tuesday that the group was “vindicated” by Van der Merwe’s frank admission after years of “direct lying at high places.”
Van der Merwe also said former Police Minister Louis Le Grange had approved his plan to secretly supply booby-trapped hand grenades to ANC guerrillas in 1986. Eight people died when the grenades exploded prematurely, and the ensuing township riots led then-President Botha to declare a national state of emergency that amounted to a police state.
Former police hit-squad leader Eugene de Kock indirectly implicated Botha, Vlok and other officials in a variety of crimes in court last month after he was convicted of six murders and 83 other crimes. The latest revelations added substance to his testimony and pushed blame farther up the chain of command.
But President Nelson Mandela said Tuesday that Van der Merwe’s admission simply confirmed what was widely suspected.
Van der Merwe appeared in support of five former security police officers who have applied for amnesty in exchange for full confessions about their roles in about 40 murders and assassinations of anti-apartheid activists in the late 1980s.
One of the five, former police Col. Roelf Venter, said Tuesday that he and other officers were ordered by the security police headquarters in Pretoria to destroy any potentially incriminating documents shortly before the all-race elections of April 1994 finally ended apartheid.
Another amnesty applicant, former hit-squad leader Brig. Jan Cronje, said a secret group was formed in 1985 of senior military intelligence, army special forces and security police officials and met monthly to select targets for assassination.
Cronje said covert “death squads” were created to “eliminate or permanently neutralize” anti-apartheid activists who had launched a growing guerrilla war against the white regime.