The bad old days

12 June 2015

Since leaving South Africa nearly 20 years ago, I have been reluctant to return even for a holiday. I have only been back three times, twice with my husband and children and once by myself. This is strange considering that most of my family and many of my friends still live there. I have abiding memories of a happy childhood and growing up with the kind of freedom that many young people today never experience. Why then the peculiar reluctance?

Today I read the in-depth article “The odd couple: why an apartheid activist joined forces with a murderer” in The Guardian ( and remembered why – the sheer horror of the apartheid years. I emerged from my aforesaid happy childhood into full realisation of the brutality of a political system from which I benefited only because I was white. This put me forever on the wrong side and that is a history from which there is no escape.

Madeleine Fullard’s work in present day South Africa makes it clear that the past is still with us. She is a forensic anthropologist who works with her Missing Persons Task Team to find the remains of anti-apartheid activists who disappeared seemingly without trace. The article outlines the story of Phemelo Moses Ntehelang, an askari who was accidentally killed at Vlakplaas after being tortured by undercover counter-insurgency policemen and then hurriedly buried in an unmarked site in the middle of nowhere. Fullard and her team would have had no chance of finding Ntehelang’s remains without the help of Eugene de Kock, the convicted policeman who was once stationed at Vlakplaas.

De Kock appeared before the Truth and Reconciliation Committee (TRC) and confessed to numerous crimes but maintained that he was fighting terrorism and that those who gave the orders – high ranking officers and politicians – were responsible and were now escaping punishment. De Kock was given amnesty for most of his crimes but he was convicted on 121 charges, including six counts of murder and 59 counts of fraud because he had failed to convince the TRC that these crimes were politically motivated. In1996 he was handed two life sentences plus 212 years.

The horror Fullard experiences when talking to people like De Kock and then finding the remains of people who have been brutally treated is almost too much for her (and for this reader) to bear. Yet she continues because the relatives of the missing need to know what happened to their sons or daughters, mothers or fathers, brothers or sisters. She admits though that the work takes its toll and that rather than taking strength from the families being able to bury their dead with dignity, she is weakened by every case.

The other striking factor about this article for me was the ease with which De Kock and others like him admitted to the crimes they perpetrated at Vlakplaas. Reading about the hard drinking culture practised by the policemen who worked there brought some small sense of relief. They couldn’t carry out those heinous acts while stone cold sober. I clearly remember questions about Vlakplaas being raised by opponents of the apartheid government and the flat-out denials issued by politicians, policemen and army officers. I knew what was happening but did nothing to stop it. That is what haunts me. No wonder I don’t want to go back.

Because I was white, privileged and educated, I could leave South Africa and make a new life in another country. I didn’t hesitate long over the decision to do so – the lives of my own children were far too important – and have never regretted it. But I cannot pretend to miss the land of my birth or hanker after the “good old days”. I don’t sentimentalise the new South Africa and the legacy of Mandela.

For me, the peaceful life we live in our adopted country half a world away means that, in the words of a Carly Simon song, “these are the good old days” and I try not to look back too hard or very often.

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