On Friday 30 January 2015, the minister of Justice of South Africa, Masutha, declared that after 20 years imprisonment Eugene de Kock will be paroled. De Kock, nicknamed Prime Evil was a covert police officer who had been convicted for two life sentences and 216 years in prison in 1996 for crimes committed in South Africa during the Apartheid’s regime. According to Masutha his release is in the interest of nation building and reconciliation. The date and conditions of the release will not be made public. But who is Eugene de Kock?
Eugene de Kock was born on the 29January 1949 in South Africa. His father, a typical Afrikaner was a magistrate, fiercely anti-Communist and a fervent nationalist. He was a senior member of the Afrikaner Broederbond, a secret organization that believed in and strived for white supremacy and a personal friend of Prime Minister John Voster. De Kock’s father was a strict disciplinarian with an alcohol problem. He was aggressive and often abused Eugene and his younger brother Vossie. His parents quarrelled often and his father continuously abused his mother verbally. According to his brother, Eugene was a shy and lonely child who had a hard time at school due to his stuttering problem. De Kock, may be as a consequence thereof, did not do well at school. At age 19 he wanted to join the army but was rejected because of his stuttering problem. He then decided to join an elite unit within the police force but was rejected once again, this time because of his poor eyesight. So he joined the ordinary police. During training De Kock was told about the atrocities committed in the war in Mozambique and that day he decided that: ‘such savagery would never happen in this country … I decided that I wanted to specialize in combatting terrorism.’ (Gordin 1998, 54)
In 1969 De Kock was sent to Rhodesia and fought in the ongoing brutal war there in which over 40.000 people died. During the war he came to realize that there was no mercy: it was shoot or be killed. Ten years later, in 1979 he was sent to Namibia and became one of the founding fathers of Koevoet, an infamous counter-insurgency unit which was responsible for hundreds of deaths and many atrocities against the civilian population. Within the unit De Kock had a reputation of being a fearless fighter. The way they fought against their enemies who were thought to be terrorists was extremely brutal. Later his brother Vossie states that De Kock changed during his period at Koevoet: ‘I think … they were pushed a little too far and had to commit too many atrocities.’ After this period he suffered from a Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, anxiety and a lack of sleep.
In 1983 he became a member of a covert South African Police unit which was based at Vlakplaas, a farm 20 kilometres from Pretoria. It was a secret counter-insurgency unit which was founded by Dirk Coetzee in 1979. P.W. Botha, who at the time was prime minister of South Africa, stated that the country was in a state of war against the black opposition. The unit at Vlakplaas was the armed wing of the National Party responsible for upholding law and order by whatever means necessary. They were specialized in illegal operations: abductions, torture and murder. They were the secret death squad of the Apartheid’s regime and as such responsible for some of the most prominent murders such as the one of Griffith Mxenge. On July 1st 1985 De Kock became the commander at Vlakplaas. He was however more of a warrior than a policeman. A warrior with a holy cause: fighting terrorism and communism which he both saw as a threat. De Kock stated: ‘I had a duty to protect my country against demonic forces.’ (Gordin 1998, 101). He also realized that the war could not be won by merely relying on legitimate methods: he consequently fought his enemies the same way he had fought them during his time at Koevoet. De Kock himself admitted to this: ‘I walked from one war to the next. There was a difference in tactics, but the enemy remained the same. The war never stopped.’ Under the leadership of De Kock Vlakplaas became one of the most notorious police units in South Africa. The men from the squad ambushed, kidnapped, tortured and killed political opponents such as members of the ANC. Before they went out on a mission, De Kock often let his men drink. Under his rule Vlakplaas became known for the heavy-drinking. After the killings they often had a “braai” (a barbecue) together while the bodies of those murdered were burnt so that no traces of the murder were left. De Kock was not a racist but he fought against the political opposition because he believed that it was the right thing to do and because he received the orders to do so. The political leadership of the country was happy with him: he was decorated for his ‘good work’ several times.
De Kock was often physically present and he himself tortured and killed people by shooting them point-blank. De Kock was described by his colleagues as very cold-blooded, ruthless but also disciplined, obedient and extremely loyal to the cause he was fighting for. In his own eyes he was fighting terrorism and in this struggle he was fearless. His job was to kill people and he was good at his job. Some of his men admired him for this, others feared him. Amongst other things he ran the so-called Askari system. This was a very brutal system in which De Kock and his men forced black captives to work for them, infiltrate in the black opposition movements and then betray them. De Kock was extremely harsh and brutal on the Askaris whom he never fully trusted. The Askaris feared him and he beat them up when they wanted to leave. De Kock is known to be involved in at least the murder of 65 people. He did not feel sorry for his victims: it was a job which had to be done. Pauw quotes De Kock to have said that he was suffering severe stress from work but that he had to keep his work a secret.
The operations of De Kock’s unit were covert but in 1989 while on death row Nofemela, an Askari of the Vlakplaas unit, revealed what Vlakplaas actually was. A little while later the former commander Dirk Coetzee who had defected to the ANC gave evidence on what was going on at Vlakplaas. This triggered an official investigation but De Kock and his men got off the hook by lying and killing dangerous witnesses. The high-ranking people who had regularly visited Vlakplaas and joined in the parties however no longer came. De Kock suddenly realized that he was expendable and that the political leaders who gave him his orders would deny their own responsibility. This led De Kock to start to look after himself and as off 1992 he got involved in common crime and fraud. He started to steal from the available police funds and became a gun runner delivering guns to Inkatha.
In 1993 when the political climate started to change, Eugene de Kock was forced to leave the police force. He was very bitter about this and felt betrayed by De Klerk. De Kock had served the Apartheid system and fought the dirty war they had launched but De Klerk claimed that De Kock was one of the few rotten apples within the security system. De Kock thus became the symbol of everything that was rotten in South Africa. (Gordin 1998, 31). In May 1994 De Kock was arrested and charged with 121 counts including 9 murders. The trial lasted 18 months. During the hearings many of his former colleagues received indemnity and testified against him leaving De Kock behind as a bitter, lonely and deserted man. De Kock insisted that he received his orders from the highest generals of the South African Police and they received theirs from the government but they all denied and few were prosecuted. The full burden of the crimes fell upon him alone. During his sentence hearing De Kock stated that he was sorry about everything and that he should never have joined the South African police. The Judgment was delivered on 30 October 1996 and De Kock was found guilty of 89 counts including 6 murders and sentenced to 212 years in prison plus two life sentences. The judge, Willem van der Merwe, concluded that the crimes were ‘cold-blooded, cruel, calculated and callous’, he however also stated that: ‘a rotten system allowed De Kock to commit these crimes’ and that this system approved his actions. He was scapegoated for the crimes the Apartheid regime committed. He stayed angry at De Klerk, recipient of the Nobel peace prize as he felt abandoned by him. In 2007 he gave a radio interview and once again he stated that De Klerk’s hands were soaked in blood. De Klerk denied but De Kock is still bitter about the fact that he has to serve a long sentence while the people who gave him the orders never had to serve a day in jail.
In 1998 De Kock testified before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and gave full testimony on his role and its connection to the government. To him it was important to show that he had not acted alone nor on the basis of some deprived motive but that he acted on orders of the state. De Kock thus played an extraordinary role: because of his testimony many of his confederates decided to come forward themselves. De Kock stated that he was a loyal and patriotic soldier who tortured and killed on orders of the state. That was his job and he didn’t do it for pleasure but out of a sense of duty, loyalty and obedience. He believed it was necessary to win the fight against terrorism and communism. He felt that he was a ‘crusader’ (Gobodo 2003, 53) and that he ‘had to keep voters happy, to show them that the government can protect them from the onslaught of the liberation forces.’ (Gobodo 2003, p. 31). De Kock did receive amnesty for many of his crimes but not all of them as according to the TRC some crimes including six murders lacked political motivation, which explains why he as one of the very few has actually served a prison sentence.
Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela interviewed De Kock in the high security prison in which he was kept. She interviewed him for a total of 46 hours in a six-months period and wrote a book called: a human being died last night. De Kock explained to her that he had to make sure ‘to get the job done. The question of whether what we did was legal or not did not come into the picture. How we did it was not important. The results were. People wanted to see results. They wanted to know that we were rooting out what at the time we called terrorism.’ (Gobodo 2003, 74). On the question how he could cope with the violence, De Kock explained that during missions the training took over: ‘there you are, like become automatic … well, I personally was totally, totally drained, mentally but even physically. When you are psyched up, hyped up, your training takes over, and also your fear…. It is very fast, in a way surgical. Cold. You are in an emotional block, or else you wouldn’t be able to pull the trigger.’ (Gobodo 2003, 76) His life outside Vlakplaas was like hell, he stated as he always had to carry a gun with him. ‘You are in some twilight world of no peace, no rest, no trust, nothing.’(Gobodo 2003, 109). The dead haunted him.
At some point during the interviews De Kock had tears in his eyes and Godobo-Madikizela comforted him – to her own surprise- by putting her hand on his. Later when he testified before the TRC he asked to meet her and told her: ‘You know, Pumla, that was my trigger hand you touched.’ Pumla Godobo-Madikizela was shocked and confused by this and started to doubt whether his tears were genuine. In her book she notes: ‘He had penetrated my defences. I felt invaded, naked, angry.’ It might just have been a means to gaining the upper hand in the interview. In her book, she admits that she was afraid of her own empathy for De Kock.
For many years De Kock has tried to get parole. He met with family members of the people he killed and told them he was sorry. Some of them publicly forgive him, while others felt that he was just asking for forgiveness in order to get parole. De Kock also helped to find the remains of the people killed. On 30 January 2015 his request for parole was finally accepted leading to a controversy in South Africa between those who think De Kock now deserves to be a free again and those who do not.
- Gobodo-Madikizela, P. (2003). A human being died that night – A south African story of forgiveness, Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company.
- Gordin, J. (1998). A long night’s damage – working for the Apartheid state, Contra.
- Pauw, J. (1997). Into the heart of darkness: confessions of Apartheid’s assassins, Johannesburg: J. Ball.