Nearly two years ago, 96-year-old Oskar Groening, known as “the Bookkeeper of Auschwitz”, was sentenced to four years’ imprisonment for being an accessory to the murders in the infamous Nazi concentration camp.
Groening, whose task was to count and process money and valuables taken from prisoners, had tried to avoid trial on the basis of age when he was arrested at age 93.
He lost this battle and his sentence appeal. He died in hospital last year before starting his sentence.
An interesting element of his story is that he had, since the 1980s, become an ardent activist against Holocaust denialism, and much of the evidence used in charging and convicting him was gleaned from his confessions on public platforms and in the media.
Haunted by what he saw at Auschwitz, Groening took full responsibility for having witnessed and abetted evil.
He was just one of many perpetrators of evil deeds who had been pursued and brought to book worldwide long after the fall of their regimes.
These include South American junta military men, Khmer Rouge enforcers and Rwandan genocidaires.
In all these instances, there has not been a rush to “close the chapter and put the past behind us” but a determined effort that healing cannot occur without truth and justice.
In South Africa the thinking is the opposite, or so it would appear.
In our midst there walk thousands of men who committed the most heinous murders and torture in the name of preserving the apartheid system and defending the state that underpinned it.
Many of these perpetrators of apartheid crimes are known, either because they appeared before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) or because they were named by those who appeared before the body.
Some applied for and obtained amnesty, while another lot were denied it in accordance with the law and the TRC’s guidelines.
In the case of those who are not known, their crimes are known. There are victims and families of individuals who are waiting for answers and justice.
The apartheid government had nurtured the monstrous streak within them.
But even in today’s post-apartheid republic, there is no appetite for truth and justice.
This is despite the fact that the Constitution and the TRC process – while accepting the centrality of reconciliation – deemed the pursuit of justice necessary.
Justice, not vengeance.
It is not just a lack of appetite. There has been a concerted effort by the authorities to suppress the pursuit of apartheid-era crimes and huge boulders have been placed in the way of the law enforcement agencies.
This practice has traversed the tenures of all our presidents, starting with the one who championed nation-building through to the one who promoted a kleptocracy.
This lack of appetite prompted former TRC commissioners, among them Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu, to write to President Cyril Ramaphosa last week, urging him to appoint a commission of inquiry into political interference in the investigation of apartheid-era atrocities and to apologise – on behalf of the government – to victims who have been denied justice.
“The failure to investigate and prosecute those who were not amnestied ... stands as a betrayal of victims who have been waiting for the criminal justice process to take its course and has added considerably to their trauma,” reads part of their letter.
The former commissioners charge that “it can be safely concluded” that the SA Police Service (SAPS) and the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) “became captured by political forces in respect of the TRC cases”.
They say that both institutions “colluded with political forces to ensure the deliberate suppression of the bulk of apartheid-era cases”.
Saying they are “deeply outraged”, they describe the role of the NPA and the SAPS as amounting “to the most fundamental violations of the Constitution and the law”.
So, has there been a deliberate attempt to suppress the pursuit of justice, and if so, why?
The first question is largely answered not by conjecture, but by the actions of senior people and some papers that have come through the court system.
Something quite close to a smoking gun is a stern letter written by former justice minister Brigitte Mabandla to erstwhile NPA boss Vusi Pikoli in 2007, in which she chides him for proceeding with apartheid-era cases without her permission.
Reacting to media reports quoting Pikoli on the matter, Mabandla said that the reports “caught me by surprise” because Pikoli had – according to her – undertaken that he would not be proceeding with prosecutions and had even promised to put this in writing.
Such a close interest in prosecutorial action by a minister is direct interference and a violation of the NPA’s independence.
As to why she was so peeved about the decision to prosecute is best left to her to explain.
Then last week, the NPA’s Torie Pretorius threw into an affidavit what seemed like a legitimate argument on why politicians may have had a hand in the delay of some political cases.
In an affidavit deposed in the case of former security cop Joao Rodrigues’ quest for a stay of execution in the Ahmed Timol murder case, Pretorius states: “It should not be surprising that the government of the day may have taken steps to find a political solution to the political murders which were perpetrated by agents of the pre-1994 government. It is irrelevant as to what one calls such steps.”
Actually, it does matter. Political meddling in investigative and prosecutorial decisions is in itself appalling, but if action by the political executives has in some way contributed to the delay in bringing justice to those who have been wronged, then it is diabolical.
It cannot be dismissed as just one of those things that happen.
Pretorius further states that the NPA “does not deny that the executive branch of the state took what one can describe as political steps to manage the conduct of criminal investigations and possible prosecution of the perpetrators of the political murders”.
But it should not be up to Pretorius or his colleagues to answer or explain.
The answer should come from those who have placed boulders on the road to justice.