Apartheid-era security minister pleads guilty in murder plot

Adriaan Vlok allegedly attempted to kill prominent church leader by lacing his clothes with poison.

Adriaan Vlok 298.88 (photo credit: AP)
Adriaan Vlok 298.88
(photo credit: AP)
An apartheid-era government minister whose name was synonymous with terror pleaded guilty to attempted murder Friday in a plot to kill a prominent church leader by lacing his clothes with poison, but may serve no time in prison in a plea deal. In the first trial of a minister from the white racist government, former law and order Minister Adriaan Vlok and his police chief Johannes Van der Merwe were both sentenced to 10 years - but will not have to spend any time in prison if they commit no crimes for five years. Three other former top security officials were given five year sentences for their role in the 1989 plot to assassinate Frank Chikane, then secretary-general of the South African Council of Churches and now a top adviser to President Thabo Mbeki. Like Vlok and Van der Merwe, they will not have to serve any time if they commit no crimes for the next five years. National Prosecuting Authority spokesman Panyaza Lesufi said that under the plea bargains, Vlok and the four others would assist in further prosecutions should they arise. That could open the way to a fuller accounting of apartheid era crimes. Vlok's case had boosted hopes that the masterminds of apartheid era crimes would be brought to account but also reignited a national debate whether this should include former African National Congress freedom fighters. Vlok, 70, was composed as he appeared at Pretoria's High Court. After the proceedings, he shook hands and exchanged telephone numbers with Chikane - whose feet he washed last year as a gesture of atonement - and voiced "sincere regret" at the murder attempt. "I would like to say, 'Obey the Lord and He will heal the land," said Vlok. Chikane, who nearly died in the assassination attempt, has said he has forgiven Vlok. "I am pleased that this thing is over and we can move forward," Chikane told journalists Friday. "I hope that whatever happened today can be used as a way of resolving all the outstanding issues." National Prosecutor Vusi Pikoli hailed the outcome as a "victory" for South Africa, and said any future cases would be guided by the constitutional principles that call for effort to "heal the divisions of the past and establish a society based on democratic values, social justice and fundamental rights." Vlok was minister of law and order from 1986-1989, when an estimated 30,000 people were detained. Torture survivors and family members of people who disappeared or were killed by apartheid security forces demonstrated outside the court room Friday, as did relatives of those who died in bombs planted by the military wing of the ANC. The protests highlighted the divisions between the black majority and white minority which still run deep in modern South Africa, 13 years into multiracial democracy. One demonstrator carried a placard with the face of former President F.W. de Klerk and the caption: "selective memory denialist, Nobel peace laureate?" De Klerk, who became president in 1989 and shared the Nobel Peace Prize with Nelson Mandela in 1993 for helping usher in black majority rule, insists he knew nothing of any atrocities. He recently said if there were to be further prosecutions, former ANC guerrillas as well as members of the white security forces should be targeted. Vlok appeared before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, set up to help the nation come to terms with its past. He was one of some 1,000 South Africans who were granted amnesty for confessing to various crimes during harrowing two-year hearings. But he never applied for protection from prosecution for the attempt on Chikane's life. Although the vast majority of atrocities were committed by white security forces, ANC guerrilla forces waged land mine and bombing campaigns in which innocent civilians died. There also have been accusations of human rights abuses in camps the ANC ran for its fighters in exile. A group of 37 ANC leaders applied for a blanket amnesty at the start of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings. This was denied because they had to apply individually, but none have ever faced charges.