The meeting of March 19, 1984, began promptly, with some of the highest-ranking members of South Africa's apartheid government -- President Pieter W. Botha and Internal Affairs Minister Frederik W. de Klerk among them -- taking their places at the table.

One of the first orders of business, according to the minutes of the meeting, was Item 5, vaguely titled "Unrest in Black Schools." The group quickly disposed of the matter. The minister of education and training, Barend du Plessis, said casually: "In Cradock, there are two ex-teachers who are acting as agitators. It would be good if they could be removed."

Two days later, government henchmen began planning the assassination of Matthew Goniwe, a black activist in Cradock in the Eastern Cape. Nearly a year later, Goniwe and three colleagues were dragged from their car on a darkened country road, stabbed, tortured and burned to death.

The minutes of that meeting 15 years ago were leaked to the Mail and Guardian newspaper and published today. They provide the strongest suggestion yet that several officials, including Botha and de Klerk -- who rose to the presidency in 1989 and shared the 1993 Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts to end apartheid -- not only were aware of the political violence that occurred under the apartheid government, they suggest that some of them ordered it.

"It's not quite the smoking gun," said George Bizos, a lawyer who represents Goniwe's family. "But it is certainly the most compelling evidence to date that de Klerk and other members of his cabinet sanctioned the kind of violence responsible for the death of Matthew Goniwe and others." Several who attended the 1984 State Security Council meeting went on to serve in de Klerk's cabinet, including du Plessis, Foreign Minister Roelof F. "Pik" Botha and Defense Minister Magnus Malan.

De Klerk, Pieter Botha and their colleagues have denied playing a role in, or even having direct knowledge of apartheid-era killings. They have characterized the assassinations of black activists such as Goniwe and Stephen Biko as the work of rogue police elements acting on their own to rid South Africa of opposition to white-minority rule.

Even as South Africa prepares to go to the polls Wednesday for its second all-races election, the trauma of the final years of apartheid has not relinquished its grip. After the 1994 election brought majority rule to South Africa for the first time, Parliament created the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to investigate the human rights abuses of that apartheid era and offer amnesty to offenders -- black and white -- who confessed to politically motivated crimes.

The goal was to help South Africa bury its tortured past, but the results have been mixed. None of South Africa's former leaders has applied for amnesty, including those at the 1984 security meeting. While white police have acknowledged their roles in the assassinations of several activists, their testimony has largely left unanswered the question of how far up the chain of command the covert operations went.

In an interview published in today's Mail and Guardian, de Klerk said that the word used by du Plessis in the meeting -- "removed" -- meant only that Goniwe, an elementary school teacher, would be transferred to another school to deter his efforts to organize in the Cradock area.

Jann Wagner, an attorney for former security police chief Johan Coetzee, who was present at the 1984 meeting, agreed. "If I wanted to have someone killed, would I put it in writing, have it typed up by some secretary for at least a few dozen people to see? Can they have been that stupid? I think that's ridiculous to assert that they meant that Goniwe should be killed."

Goniwe was a prominent anti-apartheid activist who organized youth groups and residents to protest their substandard housing and the high rents they paid to white landlords. He became so popular that when he refused to transfer schools in 1983 as ordered by education officials, a school boycott on his behalf followed.

Truth commission testimony has revealed that plans to eliminate Goniwe were set in motion on March 21, 1984 -- two days after the State Security Council meeting. While Goniwe, Sparrow Mkonto, Sicelo Mhauli and Fort Calata were returning to Cradock after an anti-apartheid meeting on June 27, 1985, they were intercepted by white police officers. Autopsy reports concluded that the four men had been stabbed 63 times.