De Klerk Acknowledges Illegal ActivitiesBy Paul Taylor
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, December 20, 1992; Page A01
CAPE TOWN, SOUTH AFRICA, DEC. 19 -- President Frederik W. de Klerk acknowledged today for the first time that senior members of South Africa's security forces had engaged in illegal activities -- probably including assassination -- against political targets, and he took disciplinary action against almost two dozen officers.
"I'm shocked and disappointed, but I'm also resolute," the president said in disclosing preliminary findings of an internal probe he ordered last month following independent revelations of wrongdoing in the defense and military intelligence apparatus.
"I have always said that if there is a sore, I want to cut it out right down to the bone, and I think we are finally on our way to doing so," he added.
De Klerk announced that he was either suspending or forcibly retiring 23 officers, including two generals and four brigadiers, and said further disciplinary action and possible criminal prosecution would follow, pending the completion of the probe.
He neither named the individuals involved nor disclosed any details about their alleged wrongdoing, but said such information would be made public within weeks. He also said no cabinet officials were implicated and that top government officials had been unaware of the alleged activities. Rather, he said, a "limited" number of military personnel had systematically misled their civilian superiors.
De Klerk did say the wrongdoing included "activities which could lead to the conclusion that political murders had occurred." Anti-apartheid activists have for years maintained that the security forces have systematically engaged in political killings of people ranging from anti-apartheid leaders to everyday township residents.
In admitting that his government's most severe and persistent critics have been at least partly right about security force abuses, de Klerk is thought to have given new thrust to negotiations aimed at replacing white-minority rule with a nonracial political order. "I think it's clear the show is really on the road, and we're going to see a lot more action on the negotiations front in the next few months," a Western diplomat said.
The announcement was welcomed by the U.N. observer mission here, but it was dismissed as "not nearly enough" by the African National Congress, South Africa's largest anti-apartheid group. The white, far-right Conservative Party decried de Klerk's actions as a "witch hunt."
The wildly disparate reactions reflect a society undergoing a tortuous political passage and deeply divided over its military, which whites tend regard as a bulwark against anarchy and blacks see as an agent of oppression.
De Klerk's announcement comes at a time when multi-party transitional executive bodies -- which would control, among other parts of the government, the military -- are expected to be created within a few months and an election for a nonracial interim government held within a year to 15 months. Several analysts said it was this quickening pace of change that prompted him to clean house, a step his critics have been urging on him for years.
"I think he realized he had to move decisively now if he didn't want the interim government to be crippled by the sins of the past," said Robert Schrire, a political scientist at the University of Cape Town. "He also seems to have figured out that the dynamics of change were working in his favor. Even for the real baddies in the security force, he's able to say: 'Look, it's better I do this to you than leave it for the next government.' "
South Africa's transition has been marked by widespread violence, and controversy has raged over whether the more than 3,000 political killings a year are purely the result of factional fighting among South Africa's blacks or have been fomented by a "third force" within the security apparatus.
De Klerk reaffirmed his rejection of the "third force" theory today, suggesting that only a "relatively limited number of people" were involved in security force misdeeds. But many people who have long seen the security forces' hand in political violence asserted that de Klerk's statements confirmed this.
"My own feeling is that he has known about these abuses for a long time but he's only willing to do something about them now because he has taken a terrible knock to his credibility in the past few months," said Max Coleman, a director of the Human Rights Commission, an ANC-leaning watchdog group.
One of the revelations that forced de Klerk's hand was the discovery last month by the independent Goldstone Commission -- which de Klerk appointed -- that the military intelligence unit of the defense force was conducting an operation as recently as 1991 to discredit leaders of the ANC's military wing by using prostitutes, drug dealers and homosexuals.
In addition, a judicial inquest last month into the political assassination of David Webster, an anti-apartheid activist gunned down outside his home in 1989, implicated a number of top officials, including military intelligence chief Stoffel van der Westhuizen.
© Copyright 1992 The Washington Post Company