One of South Africa’s most notorious apartheid mass murderers, Eugene “Prime Evil” de Kock, was granted parole on Friday after 20 years in jail, a decision set to re-ignite painful debate over the crimes committed by the country’s former white-minority rulers.
“In the interest of nation-building and reconciliation I have decided to place Mr De Kock on parole,” Correctional Services Minister Michael Masutha told a news briefing, adding that he had rejected parole to two other prominent convicted apartheid-era killers.
De Kock was sentenced to two life terms plus 212 years in prison for his activities as head of the infamous Vlakplaas police death squad targeting anti-apartheid activists.
The highly-decorated former colonel confessed to more than 100 acts of murder, torture and fraud before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), which was established in 1995 to consider amnesty for those who confessed their crimes during apartheid.
He was granted amnesty for most offences — including the 1982 bombing of the ANC’s London offices — but was jailed for six murders found to have lacked direct political motivation.
The run-up to the parole decision rekindled bitter debate over the crimes of the former white-minority regime.
To some, his crimes of multiple murder, kidnapping and torture were too heinous for forgiveness.
To others, the former police officer was a symbolic and repentant prisoner serving time as a scapegoat for countless perpetrators of apartheid evil who were never punished.
It’s a point De Kock made in his court appeal of last year’s parole denial.
“I am the only member of the South African Police Service that is serving a sentence for crimes which I had committed, as part of the National Party’s attempt to uphold apartheid and fight the liberation movements.
“Not one of the previous Generals, or Ministers who were in Cabinet up to 1990 have been prosecuted at all,” he wrote.
He has by all accounts been a model prisoner, engaging with the families of his victims and cooperating with the government in locating the dumped bodies of his victims.
He has made confessions before tribunals, written letters begging forgiveness and named top officials who gave him orders.
In announcing his decision, corrections minister Masutha noted the assistance De Kock had provided to the authorities and said he was also satisfied that the families of his victims had been consulted.
“However, I need to remind all of us that parole does not reduce the sentence imposed by the court,” he said, pointing out that De Kock could return to jail if he failed to comply with set conditions.
Masutha said De Kock had asked that the date of his release and the conditions of his parole should not be made public, to which the minister agreed.
The minister however denied parole requests of two other apartheid-era killers — former member of parliament Clive Derby-Lewis is serving a life sentence for the high-profile murder of former South African Communist Party chief and liberation hero Chris Hani in 1993; and ex government agent Ferdi Barnard for killing prominent anti-apartheid activist and academic David Webster in 1989.
On Derby-Lewis, who had been recommended for medical parole, Masutha questioned the level of his illness and said there was no evidence the former MP had expressed remorse.
The murder of Hani, who was also chief of staff of the African National Congress’s military wing, sparked riots and fears of civil war ahead of South Africa’s first democratic elections.
ANC leader Nelson Mandela, who was later to become president, called it “a deed so foul that our whole nation now teeters on the brink of disaster”.
But he called for calm and is credited with preventing major bloodshed.
Derby-Lewis, once described by a fellow MP as “the biggest racist in parliament”, supplied the weapon to the hitman, Polish immigrant Janusz Walus, who remains in jail.