Child of apartheid meets prime evil the weekly

On just the previous weekend, political scientist Piet Croucamp had told a group of mutual friends at the Full Stop Café in Johannesburg of his close bond with Eugene de Kock. He had spoken of his own visits to the prison, of Eugene’s razor-sharp intelligence, of thinking it unjust that Eugene was the only person still sitting in jail for doing the apartheid government’s dirty work.

While the conversation had likely been coincidental, it happened at a personal turning point. That year, I found myself in the no man’s land of an unlived life and resolved to challenge myself. That same evening I asked Piet whether I could accompany him to Pretoria Central one Sunday. A one-off visit, I had thought: just to see what a jail looks like inside.

And suddenly he appeared: the man with the spectacles. Or, to be more precise, the man without any spectacles, who now preferred contact lenses. He walked towards us from the holding area where the prisoners waited for their visitors: a tall, well-built, upright man. He looked different, moved differently, from the prisoners around him. Purposeful. Resolute.

I drove back home to my husband and children, to a safe, warm house, and it hit me like a thunderbolt that I knew nothing about the times and events that had clattered like gunfire from his mouth. Had I been fast asleep in the 1980s and the early 1990s? Born in 1964, I had grown up in apartheid’s zenith. Thinking back to my youth, I am surprised and shocked at how uninformed and naïve I was. Did I not want to know why our country was burning or was I just blind?

We had a domestic worker who lived in a maid’s room behind our house. Nesta cooked, cleaned, washed and ironed for all the Venters of Fleur Street. It shames me that I can’t remember her surname. Samuel looked after the garden. They both drank their coffee from tin mugs and had their own plates and knives, stored under the sink. We called them by their names; they called me and my sister nonna Anemari and Annette and my brother kleinbasie Hennie. My father and mother’s word was law.

I had no idea my father was a Broederbond member. He worked for Armscor and was overseas for months on end. My mother got a pistol and kept the safe key in her dressing-gown pocket. She attended shooting practice organised by local reservists. At school, we attended Youth Preparedness (“jeugweerbaarheid”) classes. On Fridays, the boys wore cadet uniforms and marched on the rugby field.

In October 1989, Butana Almond Nofomela was on death row for the murder of a white farmer. He would be hanged. His security police colleagues refused to save his skin, so he decided to speak out about Vlakplaas. The very next month, Dirk Coetzee, a former Vlakplaas commanding officer, dropped the bomb about the Vlakplaas death squads in interviews with the Vrye Weekblad’s Jacques Pauw.

Until the visit to Eugene de Kock in June 2011, when something shifted in my consciousness. Our blood-soaked past punched me in the stomach. I began to wish that I had known, thought, done more. Thirty years later, I want to recoil in shame over my ignorance, my apathy, my blind acceptance of the illusion of normality while a low-intensity war raged in our townships and we fought a full-scale war in what was then South West Africa.

The hour-long visits were always intense. One talked quickly, focused acutely, breathed shallowly. Then it was time to say goodbye again. Who is the real Eugene de Kock? He is a complex individual. It didn’t take me long to realise there is more to him than the media’s label of Prime Evil. I began to read up on the Bush War and the apartheid era.