Prime Evil's freedom deferred
Prime Evil is staying in jail. Justice Minister Michael Masutha, faced with making a thorny decision that his predecessor fudged, has said that Vlakplaas commander Eugene de Kock's parole will not be granted due to a procedural error: the families of his victims have not been consulted. But de Kock's application will be considered again in 12 months' time, and Masutha seemed to hint that there was a good chance it will be approved then.
"No story," sighed a journalist leaving Minister Masutha's press briefing to announce his decision on the parole of Eugene de Kock. The journalist was referring, presumably, to the fact that de Kock's parole was not granted. The expectation seemed to have been that de Kock would indeed get his parole: the issue had occupied radio phone-ins and social media for some weeks before the announcement, and responses revealed deep divisions of opinion.
As we noted in May, the decision thrust upon Masutha early into his position was always going to be a hot potato. A failure to act on the matter by previous Correctional Services Minister S'bu Ndebele led de Kock to approach the high court to force an answer, which Judge Thokozile Masipa compelled Masutha to give within 30 days.
But a procedural bungle has given Masutha reason to delay the decision for another year.
An amendment to the Criminal Procedure Act in 2003 specifies that when a person is imprisoned for murder (and a number of other serious crimes), the relatives of the victims have the right to make representations to the parole board. In this case, with de Kock imprisoned for six murders for which he did not receive amnesty, that didn't happen.
"During my consideration of the matter it became doubtful to me whether the victims or their families have been consulted, as required by the law," Masutha said. "This doubt was subsequently confirmed in a meeting which I held with these families on 4 July 2014… After the meeting, it became clear that none of the affected families of the victims were consulted."
It's important to note that the opinion of the relevant families on whether de Kock should be granted parole is not the only factor taken into consideration by the parole board. Those contributions are balanced with a number of other considerations. In this case, Masutha indicated that one of the aspects counting strongly in de Kock's favour is "the assistance Mr de Kock is said to have provided and continues to provide to the missing persons task team of the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA)".
It has previously been reported that on a number of occasions over the past years, de Kock has been taken from prison to point out the locations of bodies of Vlakplaas victims.
Masutha said in addition that he had "noted the various positive reports" about de Kock, as well as "the progress he is reported to have made to improve his skills while in custody". It was noteworthy that his statement did not deliver any reminder of the seriousness of the crimes of which de Kock was found guilty in 1996: 89 charges, including murder, conspiracy to murder, attempted murder, assault, kidnapping and fraud. If you take the general tenor of his statement as meaningful, it seems likely that de Kock is indeed looking at parole next year. A comment made by Masutha to journalists appeared to lend weight to this interpretation: "We want this matter to be expedited and concluded within 12 months".
De Kock's lawyer Julian Knight didn't seem in a mood to be consoled by this possibility, however, telling journalists afterwards that because de Kock was convicted before the victim consultation laws came into effect, they would not apply to his client. He indicated that they would be appealing the matter.
Masutha made it clear that the department was aware that the matter was attracting a lot of publicity - it was for this reason that they took the "unprecedented stance" of calling a press conference on the matter. This being so, it seems all the more perplexing that the necessary procedures were not followed on such a high-profile case. Masutha said that he did not believe it was a "deliberate omission" not to consult with the victims' families, though that probably won't stop conspiracy theories abounding.
De Kock may meet the statutory requirements for parole, but any hints of the release of the man who commanded apartheid's notorious 'death squad' attract heated emotions. The discussion of de Kock's parole inevitably casts a spotlight on how few of apartheid's decision-makers ever saw the inside of a cell.
Responding to Masutha's statement on Thursday, the DA's federal chairperson James Selfe said: "It seems somewhat inequitable that Mr de Kock, who committed extremely serious crimes as a functionary of a thoroughly evil system, is seemingly the only one punished while many who sanctioned the atrocities he committed have never been prosecuted, far less convicted and imprisoned."
On this occasion the DA did not express any objections to the prospect of de Kock's parole, saying that the party "has consistently taken the view that prisoners can and should be released on parole". In 2010 the DA was singing a slightly different tune about de Kock's potential release, with Selfe saying: "Releasing de Kock could never be in the public interest. Instead, it could only serve to open old sores, and insult ordinary South Africans who believe that killers must stay in jail, where they belong."
Even though Masutha's announcement amounted more to a deferral of decision than any actual decision, it was greeted with enthusiasm in some quarters.
"We think this has been the right decision because de Kock has not given an opportunity to the families of all victims to learn from him the circumstances of the deaths of their family members," Marjorie Jobson, director of the Khulumani Support Group - a movement which lobbies for the rights of apartheid's victims - told the Daily Maverick.
Jobson has seen firsthand how powerful it can be for families to discover the truth from de Kock as to what happened to Vlakplaas victims. For a period of several years, the Khulumani Support Group brought groups of families with unanswered questions to talk with de Kock in his Pretoria jail.
"We would have two social workers in the group, and the meetings would last about two and a half hours," Jobson said. "When we would leave, people would be singing from the sheer relief of having received answers."
De Kock remains an extraordinary trove of information, Jobson says. "He could tell you to the finest detail exactly what had happened affecting the people in the room. That is incredibly important to victims." But she said de Kock expressed little remorse during these meetings. "His resentment is that he has been paying the price for his commanders, and it is shocking that he carried the cost, but he is a person who knows what was done."
Jobson fears that with de Kock out of jail, there would be markedly less incentive for him to cooperate with information for the families of victims.
The Khulumani Support Group is a vocal advocate of the need for stringent conditions to be met before parole can be granted to apartheid's main offenders, but Jobson also notes that the system seems to work in occasionally arbitrary ways. She points out that one of the Worcester bombers, Stefaans Coetzee, who has also fulfilled the statutory requirements for parole, has gone to great lengths to engage with his victims and their families.
"[Coetzee] has met all 67 of his victims and has had incredibly moving engagements, but the parole board is still not satisfied. De Kock hasn't begun to go to the lengths that Coetzee has," Jobson says.
For now, there are no doubt some in government heaving a sigh of relief that a final decision on de Kock's release has again been deferred. However many parole boxes de Kock ticks on paper, it can only ever be a deeply charged moment when Prime Evil finally walks free.
This column appeared on Daily Maverick.