Why the untouchable lion could be let out of his cage: John Carlin in Johannesburg reviews the career of the SA policeman accused of engineering black-on-black terror

SOUTH Africa's security police used to have two secret names for Colonel Eugene de Kock. Some called him 'Prime Evil'. Others, whose admiration got the better of their fear, called him 'the Lion'.

De Kock the Lion, like Carlos the Jackal, is now behind bars and is to stand trial on eight charges of murder, one of attempted murder, several of fraud, charges relating to unlawful possession and supply of arms, explosives and ammunition and charges relating to 26 incidents of violence and terrorism between August 1990 and November 1992. The eight murder charges include the alleged assassination of two police colleagues, who he feared would blow the whistle on his activities.

Weapons found in his possession after he had officially left the police, included 88 mortars, 288 hand grenades, 200 anti-personnel mines and 250kg of explosives. Detectives are still building up the case against him but the prosecution has said that he may face a total of 50 charges of terrorism.

The essence of the charges levelled against him is that he was the cog around which the 'Third Force' machine revolved, that he unleashed the black-on-black conflicts in collusion with Inkatha leaders, that he engineered a terror campaign within the state apparatus and designed, in the words of Nelson Mandela, to drown democracy in blood.

That the campaign failed will serve as scant consolation to the families of the 12,000 black people killed between August 1990 and April 1994 in Natal and the Transvaal.

The court that refused him bail heard that witnesses lived in terror of him; that he had sold his house and that his wife and two children had left the country; that he had bank accounts in London, Switzerland and Jersey; that he had acquired seven false passports.

He is a tall, thick-set man, 46 or 47, with short, dark hair, a curiously innocent Beatles fringe and glasses with lenses thick as bullet-proof glass. His face is clean-shaven, round and boyish. Arrogant in his disregard for convention, long-settled into a belief in his invincibility, he wore jeans, an open-necked cotton shirt and sports shoes to court. Those who know him describe him as an intelligent man with a quick wit, a fascination for military history and a keen admiration for the British Empire.

De Kock never flinched from carrying out murder but his genius, based on the premise that for the white man to survive in Africa he must win blacks to his side, lay in his ability to deploy his black subordinates as instruments in the war against black liberation.

During the war in Namibia in the early Eighties, he commanded a counter-insurgency unit composed almost entirely of black troops, which acquired a reputation for barbarism. Villages were razed and captured Swapo guerrillas driven through the bush tied to the wheels of armoured vehicles.

He moved from Namibia to Vlakplaas, the Pretoria base of a clandestine hit-squad unit known as C1 (later renamed C10) which was made up mainly of turned ANC guerrillas. But it was in 1990, after the release of Mr Mandela and the beginning of negotiations between the ANC and the government, that he embarked on his bloodiest adventure.

Prima-facie evidence released by the Goldstone Commission of Inquiry into Political Violence in March showed that before the bodies started piling up in Soweto, Thokoza and elsewhere in August 1990, De Kock had recruited Themba Khoza, Inkatha's Transvaal chairman, as a paid agent.

Mr Khoza, who sits in parliament as an Inkatha MP, received weapons from De Kock. Mr Khoza also worked closely with the extensive C10 network, as well as friends of De Kock in Military Intelligence, to organise weapons courses for Inkatha hostel-dwellers. In September 1990 Mr Khoza was arrested in Sebokeng, minutes after the massacre of more than 40 ANC supporters. C10 paid his bail and legal fees, tampered with ballistic evidence and secured his acquittal.

Last month, during De Kock's bail hearing, one of the state's investigating officers testified that three other senior Inkatha officials had been working hand in hand with De Kock, one of them C J Mthetwa, a long-standing confidant of the Inkatha leader, Mangosuthu Buthelezi, who has emerged today as Minister of Police in the KwaZulu-Natal provincial government.

On his discharge from the police in April last year De Kock received a 1.2m Rand (pounds 240,000) pay off for his silence. The Goldstone Commission found that the money had been paid with the approval of F W de Klerk's cabinet.

Such is the evidence collected against him that De Kock appears certain to be found guilty. But he could emerge a free man. As he argued in his bail hearing, his activities were political, in defence of the apartheid system, on instructions from - and in collaboration with - people who today remain in positions of state power. The knowledge he carries could sow chaos in the body politic. He will be a prime candidate, accordingly, for amnesty. If it is granted, it will confirm in him a belief that he is, in the words of the Goldstone Commission, 'untouchable, superhuman and above the law'.