SA police face new murder claim: John Carlin in Johannesburg assesses the latest allegations by a top medical pathologist concerning police torture and the deaths of black prisoners

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The Independent Online
The United Nations special envoy, Cyrus Vance, asked upon arrival at Johannesburg's Jan Smuts airport last week whether he foresaw an escalation of international involvement in South Africa, replied: 'I would hope not.'

If, following his few days of exposure to the way things are, Mr Vance still hopes South Africans can sort out their problems by themselves, then he is either a political wizard or a wishful thinker. After the talks he has held with President F W de Klerk, the Inkatha chief, Mangosuthu Buthelezi, the ANC and others, he could have reached only one conclusion: that the political exchange between the country's main political antagonists boils down to a dialogue of the deaf.

Mr Vance's other area of exposure has been through the local newspapers, with more revelations emerging about the government's inability - or unwillingness - to deal with the criminal incompetence of the police.

Yesterday's main front-page story in the Johannesburg Sunday Times hammered home to its white readers what the black readers have long known. Through an interview with South Africa's top medical pathologist, Jonathan Gluckman, the newspaper exposed Mr de Klerk's failure to act upon detailed information on the police practice of murdering blacks held in custody.

Dr Gluckman said he had written to Mr de Klerk on 25 May 'in a mood of utter despair' appealing for ordinary people to be protected against 'barbarism, particularly in the hands of the state's servants employed to uphold the law'. Dr Gluckman said he had 200 post-mortem files in his office, 90 per cent of which contained evidence of people killed by the police, evidence of blacks hanged, shot, 'savagely assaulted' and suffocated to death after arrest. Dr Gluckman said he first wrote to the President on 20 November to draw his attention to 'the utmost gravity' of the situation. He followed that up with another letter expressing his 'increasing sense of frustration and growing horror' before writing for a third time on 25 May.

He decided to go public last week after what he called 'the last straw' - the death of a youth from Sebokeng township, south of Johannesburg, 12 hours after his arrest. 'This is a 19-year-old boy. Not charged with an offence. Tortured, ill-treated and killed.'

Dr Gluckman's testimony reinforced the findings of a report released on Thursday by a British criminal expert, Professor P A J Waddington of Reading University, in which he branded the police conduct before and after last month's Boipatong massacre as 'woefully' inadequate and incompetent. 'I get speechless,' Dr Gluckman told the Sunday Times. 'I get sick at heart. It goes on and on . . . I don't think the government knows how to stop it.'

That is the kind interpretation of the government's response to evidence of the role the invisible agents of the security forces have played in the township wars, in which more than 7,000 have died since January 1990.

The government knows that the South African Defence Force has long funded, trained and politically steered the main aggressors in the township violence, Inkatha. It knows, too, that the chief of military intelligence, General Christoffel van der Westhuizen, is implicated in political murders.

Yet the government still places the blame for violence exclusively on the ANC and its 'mass action' campaign, repeatedly warning that the escalation of the campaign with a planned general strike on 3 August will lead only to more killings.

If the government is proved right, it will have to accept much of the blame. For Mr Vance will also have read in the newspapers that last week's talks between the unions and big business to stop the general strike were scuppered by the government.

Reports in yesterday's press confirmed information obtained by the Independent that Mr de Klerk contacted business leaders last week and warned them off striking a deal with the unions which, had it come off, would have replaced the August protest campaign with a one-day shutdown of industry.

Symbolically, the ANC would have scored political points if the deal had stuck. But a compromise would have meant the suspension of a protest campaign which the government denounces as potentially explosive as well as economically destructive.

The price, Mr de Klerk judged, was too high to pay - evidence, once more, that the government subordinates everything, no matter the cost, to the historic imperative of perpetuating white political control beyond apartheid.