t is entirely a coincidence that today's Times has an op ed by Antjie Krog on the parole of Eugene de Kock.
South Africa’s most notorious apartheid-era assassin, Eugene de Kock, has received parole after spending 20 years in prison. The government’s decision to let him walk free has unleashed a sort of identity crisis among South Africans. Could a man once known as “Prime Evil” really have changed? Why are we showing such charity to the deadliest cog in apartheid’s racist machine? And more important, why are so many South Africans — mostly white — so angry that this specific prisoner has been freed?Has he really changed? This man who oversaw, who arranged, who ordered kidnapping, torture, murder of black South African's, anti-apartheid activists and then just people who happened to be black. This man who arranged to have the crimes blamed on - and sometimes done by - other black South Africans. Who acted to preserve the system of apartheid, itself a moral abomination.
Has he really changed? Is change of such a person even possible? And frankly, so what?
Krog gives some background.
After South Africa’s transition to democracy in 1994, Mr. de Kock disclosed the full scope of his crimes as part of his testimony before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission as both an amnesty applicant and an expert witness. This commission was set up as an example of restorative justice — granting amnesty to perpetrators of violence after they confessed in public. By telling the truth and proving that a crime was committed for political reasons, a perpetrator could receive relief from civil and criminal prosecution. Witnesses and victims of gross human rights violations also testified before the commission, and some received reparations.And so he received amnesty. But not for everything. 89 charges remained. He was sentenced to 212 years in prison. A sentence he clearly could never serve. Still, he was the Prime Evil.
As a reporter covering the often heart-rending hearings in the 1990s, I watched Mr. de Kock calmly correct facts, expose lies and name superiors who then quickly had to apply for amnesty themselves. He became the polygraph machine of the commission. Without him the “truth” part of the T.R.C. would have been sorely lacking.
Then the unthinkable happened. With his intimate knowledge of apartheid-era security agencies, he began to assist victims in finding the remains of loved ones. He provided answers and pointed to places where bodies could be found. Mr. de Kock openly confessed his regret directly to victims and admitted that nothing could redeem him. This contrasted sharply with many of his commanders, who openly refused to apply for amnesty, or the politicians who denied that he had carried out their orders.
Regret, Krog tells us, was not a requirement. Mere admission was all that was required. But this was something more than either.
Marjorie Jobson assisted victims’ families who wished to meet Mr. de Kock in jail. She describes him as “a treasure trove.” In meetings lasting over two hours, he told in “the finest detail exactly what had happened affecting the people in the room.” When these families left, she added, they would begin to sing “from the sheer relief of having received answers.”
But really, is it sincere? Has the leopard changed his spots? Can he? Is it a sham? Jut the psychpath gaming the system?
For Krog, it's enough.
For me it is irrelevant whether this change is genuine; the fact of his assistance to the victims is what counts.
Of course, it matters just what we're trying to accomplish.
Thane Rosenbaum wants revenge. There's no stopping point to that. Robert Blecker wants retribution which he insists is something different because revenge is about getting even (and has no stopping point) while retribution is about getting even (and has no stopping point). For them, for Bill Otis and Nancy Grace and the rest, it's about, well, there's no stopping point. They don't care about redemption. Only about punishment. The more the merrier.*
Oh, sure. Maybe de Kock has been good for 20 years. And maybe he'll be good for the rest of his life. So what? He was evil. And evil he remains. Whether or not he evinces any more evil. Whether or not he actually remains evil.
Off with his head.
The problem with LWOP sentences is that they're built around the commitment to throwing away the key. They either assume improvement impossible or declare it irrelevant. Let us decide today and forever.
An attitude the parole for de Kock just rejected. Because regardless of whether he deserves it, we do. Because, as I've said repeatedly, mercy and grace aren't about them, they're about us. They aren't earned, they're a gift. And they make us better.
Which brings me to why Krog's op ed is coincidental. For which you'll need to read Part the Second, since this post is already too long.
*That's not entirely true. Blecker, at least, clearly cares about redemption. He just thinks it shouldn't be allowed to interfere with the glory of punishment. Good that they're redeemed. Now, get on with making 'em suffer.