South African police colonel, convicted of murder, details apartheid terrorism He was trained to commit acts by government, he says

September 18, 1996|By Michael Hill | Michael Hill,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

PRETORIA, South Africa -- For two days of testimony in a courtroom here, Eugene De Kock has painted a portrait of government-ordered terror in South Africa during the apartheid years and a self-portrait of a man who was known as "Prime Evil."

De Kock, at one time a colonel in the South African police, has begun speaking for the first time during his 18-month trial. Late last month he was convicted on 89 counts, including five murders and other crimes such as blowing up the body of a murder victim with high explosives to destroy the evidence.

Now he is testifying during the sentencing phase of the trial, trying to convince the judge to give him something less than the numerous life sentences he could receive. His strategy is to show that in committing the murders he was doing what he had been trained to do during a career in the South African police -- fighting enemies of the Afrikaner state by whatever means necessary.

Honoring the promise of his former masters, the government is paying for his defense at a cost already estimated at $2 million. De Kock's testimony has attracted a nearly full house, including several officials of the government now dominated by the very blacks his former masters wanted dead.

The 47-year-old former assassin looked through thick glasses and spoke in a soft monotone as he described growing up in an Afrikaner household in the Johannesburg suburb of Brits, being taught in the Afrikaner version of Boy Scouts that "we are at war."

He joined the police force in 1968 and spent most of the next 15 years in operations outside of South Africa, first in what was then Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe, and then in the notorious Koevoet units, police operatives who battled black rebels in the border area between Namibia and Angola.

"We were taught that the man who shoots first will win," he said. "Shoot second and you're dead."

De Kock said that some of the battles between his well-armed troops and the rebels "were not fair fights. They made me feel dirty."

Rebels taken prisoner were often shot and buried in shallow graves, he said. He worked with black troops and objected to the discrimination they faced. "If a white man was wounded, a helicopter would come right away. That was not the case for a black."

De Kock emphasized that most of these operations were far out in the African bush, away from any conventional command, and that he was expected to achieve his aims as he saw fit. De Kock's lawyer, Flip Hattingh, confirmed he wants to make the point that when De Kock later committed the murders in South Africa, he was using the same tactics against those identified as the enemy of the white-controlled state.

"We are not saying that is an excuse, but it is a mitigating factor," Hattingh said.

De Kock came back to South Africa in 1983, joining Vlakplaas, a secret police hit squad run out of a farm by that name near Pretoria. He said he participated in several raids into the small neighboring countries of Lesotho and Swaziland aimed at wiping out operations of the African National Congress founded by Nelson Mandela.

He told of blood flowing from a bedroom to a bathroom, throwing a grenade into the bathroom to finish off a wounded man, of shooting a man who jumped through a window, finishing him off as he staggered away.

In one assault into Lesotho, he said he locked up a baby and its baby-sitter in a bathroom.

"We were told not to shoot women or children unless they became directly involved," he said, though in that operation the baby's mother was killed when she grabbed the silencer of a gun. De Kock said he called local police to make sure they freed the trapped baby.

In yesterday's testimony, De Kock described traveling to London to assist in the bombing of the ANC headquarters there. He also said his unit was involved in various bombings in South Africa, either at ANC-aligned targets or at other buildings whose destruction could be blamed on the ANC.

For months the bunker-like courtroom was nearly empty as the charges rolled out against De Kock: that he and his henchmen killed four would-be bank robbers who were members of the Pan Africanist Congress, shooting them in cold blood in their van, then making it look as if they died in a gunfight with police; how De Kock's unit tested a booby-trapped Walkman on the head of pig before sending such a death instrument to an African National Congress lawyer who died when he turned it on and it blew off his head; how he participated in the murder of one suspected informant by hitting him with a shovel, another by hitting him with a pool cue.

As head of Vlakplaas, it was thought that De Kock might give details of the involvement of high level government officials in sanctioning the killings and brutality that were used to maintain minority white rule.

De Kock has said he was told that several of his operations had the approval of then state President Pieter W. Botha and Foreign Minister Roelof F. "Pik" Botha, but he says he never received direct orders from them.

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