David Philips looks at a case study from The Truth & Reconciliation Commission (part 3):
In the last of his three part series for London Grip, the late Professor David Philips analysed a case study from the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), testimony given to the hearings of its Human Rights Violations Committee (HRVC) and Amnesty Committee (AC).  What might it tell us about Truth & Reconciliation?
The Student, the Mother and the Security Policeman: Truth and Reconciliation in the Siphiwo Mtimkhulu case?
Siphiwo Mtimkhulu, Black South African student activist, was detained without trial for five months in 1981. During his detention he was not only beaten up and tortured – particularly by Gideon Nieuwoudt, a notorious member of the Port Elizabeth Security Branch who had been involved in killing Steve Biko in 1977 – but he was also poisoned by thallium which, amongst other things, caused his hair to fall out. When he was finally released, he was confined to a wheelchair. He began to sue the Government for his ill-treatment. This led to his disappearance in 1982.
His mother, Joyce Mtimkhulu, was sure that he had been abducted and murdered by the Security Police. The police denied any involvement, and suggested that he had gone into exile. When the TRC Human Rights Violations hearings began in East London in April 1996, she was scheduled to testify; but Nieuwoudt obtained a court interdict prohibiting her from naming him in her testimony. Eventually, in June 1996, she got her chance to testify. In 1997, Nieuwoudt applied for amnesty for a series of killings, including that of Siphiwo, whose body he had chopped up and thrown into the Fish River.
“I have no idea of what reconciliation is.”
Joyce Mtimkhulu, quoted in Between Joyce and Remembrance (a film by Mark J. Kaplan, 2003)
Siphiwo Mtimkhulu  was a student activist and a leading member of COSAS (Congress of South African Students) in the Eastern Cape from the age of 17. As a result of his activism, he was expelled from two schools, and arrested and detained, more than once, by the Security Police.
On 31st May 1981 he was shot by the police and arrested for participation in a demonstration against Republic Day. The Security Police detained him under Section 6 of the Terrorism Act (1967), and held him in detention without trial for nearly five months.  During his detention, he was interrogated intensely and subjected to various forms of torture – including suffocation, electric shocks, sleep deprivation and being forced to stand on bricks for many hours on end. Prominent among his interrogators was Gideon Nieuwoudt, then a Warrant Officer in the Port Elizabeth Security Branch. Nieuwoudt had been one of the policemen involved in the killing of Steve Biko in detention in 1977, and was to go on in the 1980s to a further horrific record of abductions, killings and torture.
Joyce Mtimkhulu, Siphiwo’s mother, subsequently testified to the TRC that, after his release, Siphiwo told her about his torture at the hands of Nieuwoudt and Captain Roelofse:
Nieuwoudt and Roelofse, according to Siphiwo’s details and information, would take Siphiwo and allow him to take his clothes off. They would chain him and said he must lay on the floor. … Roelofse would also take apparatus or tools to torture him. He would take pipes and the electric wire and he would hit him, flog him on the back severely. And they would always utter some words to him and would say he must speak the truth. They would always say they want documents and I didn’t know what they wanted and Siphiwo would always say he didn’t know what they were talking about. … They would take a towel, this would be a wet towel and they would suffocate you with this towel. They would take you and put you into very cold water in a bath tub, you’ll be taken out and then they would say you are going to speak the truth. … He used to say he would be taken and were taken to the sea. He will be taken there naked and they will go there beyond and would make a braai or enjoy themselves. … He said they would put me on the rocks naked and Roelofse and Nieuwoudt would always say together with Mashekazi Tungata, they would always say to me this is the place where we always get the truth out of you comrades. We always take them and we do everything that we have done to you or that we are still going to do to you, until some of them die. We always torture them until they die. He said he would be put on this rock, he would see that there is no where else that you could go, you would sit, you will be tortured to the extent that you would not know what is happening to you. I was helpless. 
After Siphiwo had signed a written statement about his involvement in the distribution of ANC pamphlets, he was released to his parents, on 20th October 1981. It was immediately apparent that he was seriously ill – vomiting and in constant pain, with his body very swollen. He was eventually admitted to Groote Schuur hospital in Cape Town, where his hair began to fall out and doctors struggled to keep him alive; Professor Frances Ames eventually diagnosed him as suffering from thallium poisoning.  Thallium, a heavy metal, was a rare poison in South Africa at the time, but the Security Police had been experimenting with its use, and it is likely that they had used it on Siphiwo. 
Siphiwo was released from hospital after a month, in January 1982, and was thereafter largely confined to a wheelchair. However, his spirit had not been broken; immediately following his release from detention, he had instituted an action against the Minister of Police for assault and torture; and following his release from hospital, he instituted a second action against him, this time for poisoning. Despite his wheelchair confinement, Siphiwo had become a hero and martyr figure to the radical Black youth of the Eastern Cape. He and his friend ‘Topsy’ Madaka were also running a cell for the underground activities of the banned ANC, distributing political pamphlets and assisting students to leave the country to get military training with Umkhonto we Sizwe, the ANC’s armed wing. Siphiwo also made a criminal complaint about his treatment; a magisterial public enquiry was scheduled for 5th May 1982, with members of the security police subpoenaed to appear – but two weeks after Siphiwo filed his second claim against the Minister, and before the magisterial enquiry, he disappeared forever. 
The Eastern Cape Divisional Commissioner of the Security Police, Col. Gerrit Erasmus, had decided that Siphiwo must be stopped. Detention had not deterred him, and detaining a wheelchair-bound invalid might have a bad propaganda effect; so he ordered his subordinates – Lt.-Col. Nicolas van Rensburg and Captain Hermanus du Plessis – to “eliminate” both Siphiwo and Topsy Madaka. This order was given verbally; his subordinates clearly understood it to mean that they should be killed and their bodies secretly disposed of. Orders to the South African Police death squads to kill activists were always given verbally and in the form of euphemisms – such as “eliminate’, and also (usually in Afrikaans, rather than English): “make a plan with”, “take him out”, “get rid of”, and “solve the problem”.  They enlisted Nieuwoudt to assist them in the abduction and killing.
The last time any of their political comrades saw Siphiwo and Topsy Madaka alive was on the evening of 14th April 1982, in Madaka’s car. After that, they both disappeared completely, and were never seen or heard from again; Madaka’s car was found at Tella Bridge, near the Lesotho border, suggesting that they had fled the country into Lesotho.  Joyce Mtimkhulu searched for Siphiwo, and made extensive enquiries among the comrades in the Eastern Cape, and even the ANC in Lesotho. She also went to the police, who denied knowing anything about it. She suspected that they had been killed by the Security Police, but had no evidence. The Security Police continued to deny having anything to do with their disappearance; Nieuwoudt even harassed the Mtimkhulu family with raids, claiming to believe that Siphiwo was still alive 
In November 1989, Dirk Coetzee, former commander of Vlakplaas the Security Police base for death squads, defected spectacularly, relating to journalist Jacques Pauw the activities of the police death squads – including Siphiwo’s poisoning, and the fact that he and Topsy had been abducted and killed and their bodies disposed of. Coetzee’s revelations forced the De Klerk government to set up the Harms Commission in 1990, to investigate these claims; but the Security Police closed ranks to lie and denounce Coetzee’s revelations as fantasies, and Justice Harms accepted their testimony.  This included denying knowing anything about the fate of Siphiwo; as late as March 1993, the Deputy-Minister of Law and Order falsely reported to Parliament that Siphiwo had been sighted in Swaziland. 
The TRC Hearings Into the Mtimkhulu Case
When the TRC was set up, Joyce Mtimkhulu was due to testify to the very first session of Human Rights Violations hearings in East London in April 1996. But even then she was to be frustrated. General van Rensburg and Brigadier du Preez obtained a Court ruling requiring the TRC to notify all alleged perpetrators who would be named in HRVC hearings, at least 21 clear calendar days in advance, and give them sufficient information to enable them to make representations. Nieuwoudt, by now a Police Colonel, also took Court action, which forced the TRC to agree to inform him in advance when victims wanted to name him in their testimony, and to restrain victims from actually naming him in the hearings.  Under these restrictions, Joyce Mtimkhulu, and some of Siphiwo’s associates, were finally able to testify about his detention, torture, poisoning and disappearance, at the Port Elizabeth HRV hearings, in June 1996. 
In that same month, on 14 June 1996, Nieuwoudt was convicted, along with three White colleagues, of the Motherwell bombing in 1989, in which they had killed four Black members of the Security Police; for that, Nieuwoudt was sentenced to 20 years’ imprisonment.  From prison, Nieuwoudt finally applied to the TRC for amnesty for a series of killings, including the abduction and killing of Siphiwo and Topsy Madaka (together with Generals Erasmus and van Rensburg, and Col. du Plessis). Finally, in the Amnesty Committee hearings inSeptember 1997, after years of cover-up and denial, they admitted something like the truth of the events – essentially confirming what Siphiwo’s mother and comrades had been saying all along. Nieuwoudt, with van Rensburg and du Plessis, abducted Siphiwo and Topsy Madaka on the evening of 14th April 1982. They took them out of Port Elizabeth to the old Post Chalmers police station in the Cradock area, where, the following evening, Nieuwoudt fed Siphiwo and Madaka sleeping tablets in coffee. When they passed out, the police took the bodies outside; van Rensburg shot Siphiwo and Nieuwoudt shot Madaka. They doused the bodies with petrol, and burned them over an open fire for about six hours overnight; next morning, they threw what was left of the bodies into the Fish River. They left Madaka’s car at Tella Bridge, to create the impression that the two of them had fled into Leostho. 
The Amnesty Committee ruled that the Mtimkhulu-Madaka killing met their main criteria for amnesty:
- The act committed was one with the necessary “political objective”; and
- Nieuwoudt, Erasmus, van Rensburg and du Plessis were deemed to have, as required, made “full disclosure” of their role in the killing.
Accordingly, the AC granted them amnesty for this killing.  The Motherwell Bombing, however, for which Nieuwoudt had been convicted, was held not to satisfy the criterion of a ‘political objective’ – so Nieuwoudt was refused amnesty for that offence, and had to serve his 20-year sentence. 
After the TRC
There is a bizarre postscript to this story of Siphiwo Mtimkhulu, Gideon Nieuwoudt and Joyce Mtimkhulu. While in prison, Nieuwoudt claimed to have had a religious conversion, and to have become repentant about his atrocities. He now wanted to apologise to the Mtimkhulu family, and ask their forgiveness. He approached the film-maker Mark Kaplan, who was making a documentary on the Mtimkhulu case, to set up a meeting with the family. Kaplan was allowed to film it, and the entire episode is captured on his film Between Joyce and Remembrance. 
Joyce Mtimkhulu had mentioned to the HRV Committee one less-heroic aspect of Siphiwo:
I can say he was a bit naughty because he bore children [to two young women, neither of whom he married] before he could reach that stage, he was still very young at the time. … Those children are here amongst us. I always sympathise with them when I see them, Aluta [a girl, whose name means ‘The Struggle’] and Sikhumbuzo [a boy, whose name means ‘Remembrance’] are those children. He left them whilst they were very young.….
When Nieuwoudt visited the Mtimkhulus in the late-1990s, Sikhumbuzo was with them, now a teenager. Nieuwoudt presented himself to the Mtimkhulu parents as now completely repentant for what he had done, and asked their forgiveness. They refused to accept the apology and forgive him, stating – perfectly understandably – that it came much too late. For all those years after Siphiwo’s disappearance, Nieuwoudt had not only denied having any hand in his death, but had used every means to cover it up and prevent any full investigation. It was unacceptable for him to expect forgiveness now, after his very belated conversion and repentance.
Nieuwoudt continued to urge his case for an apology and forgiveness; the parents continued to refuse. Suddenly – and this is captured with suitable drama on the film – Sikhumbuzo, who had been quietly listening to this, grabbed a heavy vase and hit Nieuwoudt over the head, fracturing his skull. Nieuwoudt sat there, clutching his bleeding head, continuing to plead the genuineness of his repentance and his right to forgiveness. As a result of this assault, Sikhumbuzo was expelled from his school, but friends of his father found him a job and a bursary to complete his education.
Let me briefly suggest how this story might be analysed to throw light on issues of Truth and Reconciliation in South Africa:
A major argument in favour of the TRC was that it helped to uncover the truth of many killings and disappearances during the apartheid period. As Desmond Tutuput it, under the amnesty system:
Freedom was granted in exchange for truth. We have, through these means, been able to uncover much of what happened in the past. We know now what happened to Steve Biko, the PEBCO Three, to the Cradock Four. … We have been able to exhume the remains of about fifty activists who were abducted, killed and buried secretly. 
This fits the case of Siphiwo Mtimkhulu. His mother had been pressing for many years to find out just what had happened to Siphiwo; and, though she was not able to recover his body or bones, the application for amnesty for Siphiwo’s death, of Nieuwoudt and his colleagues, had at least enabled her to achieve some degree of closure in the case.
André du Toit has taken this point further, arguing that the essence of the TRC lies in the conception of truth as acknowledgement informing the victims’ hearings of the TRC… the point is precisely that representatives of the state and civil society should take public responsibility for the restoration of the human and civic dignity of victims whose suffering at the hands of the state or political agents had so long been denied – that is the political significance of truth as acknowledgement. 
Again, the Mtimkhulu case fits this idea. For so many years, Joyce Mtimkhulu had been trying to get some open enquiry into Siphiwo’s disappearance; the police and other authorities had refused her requests and insisted on suggesting that he was alive and had left the country, and that no hard evidence implicated Nieuwoudt or other security police in his disappearance. For years, they had routinely lied and covered up – even to the point where Nieuwoudt took legal action in 1996, after the TRC had begun operations, to try to prevent his name being mentioned. For Joyce Mtimkhulu, belatedly, the TRC did offer her two forms of truth asacknowledgment: first, she was able to tell her story at the HRV Committee and receive a sympathetic hearing and acceptance; and secondly, the testimony of Nieuwoudt and his colleagues to the Amnesty Committee finally provided corroboration by the perpetrators of what they had done to Siphiwo. That Nieuwoudt should then, in addition, declare that he wanted to apologise and be forgiven for Siphiwo’s murder, took the acknowledgment further – but it also took it into the thornier and more complex area of individual ‘reconciliation’.
Desmond Tutu, as Chair of the TRC, was a strong supporter of the granting ofamnesty – not just as a necessary evil to get a political settlement and as an incentive for perpetrators to tell the truth – but as a positive good in itself. Tutu interpreted ‘reconciliation’ in a purely Christian way, with a heavy emphasis on forgiveness; significantly, he entitled his book about the TRC, ‘No Future withoutForgiveness’.  Of the perpetrators with whom the TRC had to deal, he wrote that they remain children of God with the capacity to repent, to be able to change. If that were not true, we should, as a Commission, have had to shut up shop, since we were operating on the premise that people could change, could recognise and acknowledge the error of their ways and so experience contrition, or at the very least remorse, and would at some point be constrained to confess their dreadful conduct and ask for forgiveness. If, however, they were dismissed as being monsters then they could not by definition engage in a process that was so deeply personal as that of forgiveness and reconciliation. 
Nothing in the TRC statute  required such perpetrators to express contrition or remorse in order to get amnesty, nor obliged victims or their families to extend forgiveness to the perpetrators who had confessed. However, Tutu announced, at the opening of the HRVC hearings: “Forgiveness will follow confession and healing will happen, and so contribute to national unity and reconciliation.”  Tutu frequently suggested that the normal procedure in the TRC was that “most [amnesty] applicants have expressed remorse and asked for forgiveness from their victims”, and that most victims “would be moved to respond to an apology by forgiving the culprit”.  He did his best to turn the public hearings of the HRVC into Christian rituals, beginning with the lighting of candles, prayers and hymn-singing.  One of the acutest critics of the TRC, Richard Wilson, has called this approach the ‘religious-redemptive’ paradigm, and described how some of the HRVC hearings became “like a born-again Christian revivalist meeting”, complete with ‘miracles’ 
Tutu also said: “Amnesty is not meant for nice people. It is intended for perpetrators.”  Nieuwoudt fitted this Tutu ‘religious-redemptive’ model: he had been granted amnesty for the killing of Siphiwo, he had got religion, and he had apologised and sought forgiveness from the parents. Presumably, Tutu would have said that Nieuwoudt had changed and genuinely repented, and that the Mtimkhulus should have freely forgiven him. Nieuwoudt did not escape scot-free from his crimes; he continued to serve his sentence for the Motherwell killings. He re-applied for amnesty for this killing, and the case was heard; he was waiting for the outcome of this re-application – though the expectation in the media was that it would also fail – when he died of lung cancer in August 2005. 
Would justice, or any higher purpose, have been served if Nieuwoudt had received amnesty for all of his killings, and escaped scot-free? I freely confess to feeling some sense of vicarious pleasure that he was at least required to serve prison time for one of the killings, and that Siphiwo’s son could exact some form of physical retaliation for what Nieuwoudt had done to his father. Fracturing Nieuwoudt’s skull was a very crude way of dealing with the complex realities of a society in transition; and certainly did not resolve all the difficulties involved in the complex issue of national reconciliation. But perhaps there are times when such crude physical action offers more emotional satisfaction to the victim’s family than that rather arid abstract idea of ‘reconciliation’. As Joyce Mtimkhulu said to film-maker Mark Kaplan: “I have no idea of what reconciliation is.” And it remains an idea which is frequently invoked, but still not very clearly defined or understood.
 The testimonies quoted and cited in this paper, from the hearings of the Human Rights Violations Committee (HRVC) and Amnesty Committee (AC), are accessible from the TRC website: http://www.doj.gov.za.
 There is no consistency in the spelling of the surname of Siphiwo and his parents – in the TRC and related documents, it is interchangeably spelled: “Mtimkulu”, “Mtimkhulu”, and “Mthimkhulu”. In this paper, it is spelled “Mtimkhulu” (the commonest spelling used in the TRC materials) throughout.
 HRVC hearing, Port Elizabeth 26 June 1996, testimony of Monde Mditshwa; AC hearing (Gerrit Nicholas Erasmus, Nicholas Janse van Rensburg, Hermanus Barend du Plessis & Gideon Johannes Nieuwoudt), Port Elizabeth 22-25 Sept. 1997.
 Amnesty decision AC/2000/034 (2000), on applications of Gideon Nieuwoudt, Nicholas van Rensburg, Hermanus du Plessis and Gerrit Erasmus, for the killing of Siphiwo Mtimkhulu and Topsy Madaka; Amnesty hearing, Port Elizabeth 25 Sept. 1997, case 3820/96,, (Gideon Nieuwoudt).- address by Mr Nyoka, representing the Mtimkhulu and Madaka families.
 See Jacques Pauw, Into the Heart of Darkness. Confessions of Apartheid’s Assassins(Jonathan Ball Publishers: Johannesburg, 1997), p.18; and the detailed discussion of this meaning for “eliminate” in the testiony of Eramus, van Rensburg, du Plessis and Nieuwoudt to their AC hearing, Port Elizabeth 22-25 Sept. 1997.
 Jacques Pauw, In the Heart of the Whore. The Story of Apartheid’s Death Squads (Southern Book Publishers: Halfway House, South Africa, 1991); Pauw, Into the Heart, Chap. 5; Mark Sanders ‘Remembering Apartheid’, Diacritics, vol. 32,, nos.3-4 (2002), pp. 60-80.
 Pauw Heart of the Whore; Deputy-Minister of Law and Order Gert Myburgh’s announcement in Parliament, 10 Mar. 1993, found at: http://www.anc.org.za/anc/newsbrief/1993/news9303.11.
 TRC Report, Vol. 1, chap. 7, paras. 25-76; Vol. 5, chap. 1, para. 27. The TRC agreed to hold a hearing into the Mtimkhulu-Madaka disappearance in which the witnesses would not be allowed to name Nieuwoudt as perpetator; Nieuwoudt then agreed to withdraw his Supreme Court application (Cape Times 23 May, Busioness Day 24 May 1996).
 TRC Report, Vol. 3, chap. 2, para. 301; Amnesty decision AC/99/0345 (Cape Town 10 Dec. 1999), on applications of Eugene de Kock, Daniel Snyman, Nicolas Janse van Rensburg, Gerhardus Lotz, Jacobus Kok, Wybrand du Toit, Nicolaas Vermeulen, Marthinus Ras and Gideon Nieuwoudt, for the Motherwell Bombing, killing Warrant Officer Mbalala Mgoduka, Sergeant Amos Faku, Sergeant Desmond Mapipa and Xolile Sakati, alias Charles Jack, an askari (‘turned’ guerrilla); Pauw, Into the Heart, p.2.
 Amnesty decision AC/2000/034 (2000), on applications of Gideon Nieuwoudt, Nicholas van Rensburg, Hermanus du Plessis and Gerrit Erasmus, for the abduction and killing of Siphiwo Mtimkhulu and Topsy Madaka.
 Amnesty decision AC/99/0345 (Cape Town 10 Dec. 1999). Eugene de Kock, who had been commander of Vlakplaas and involved in the Motherwell killing, testified to the AC that the real reason for the killing was that three of the ‘Motherwell Four’ had been involved in a fraudulent scheme in which they intercepted cheques meant for trade union organisations and used them for their own private gain. The police were being pressured to charge the three, who were trying to protect themselves by threatening to expose other illegal Security Police activities, including the truth about the abduction and killing of Matthew Goniwe and the other members of the ‘Cradock Four’. De Kock claimed that Nieuwoudt and his colleagues decided to kill them to prevent this exposure. The AC believed de Kock, and disbelieved Nieuwoudt, on this point, and refused amnesty for the murders.
 André du Toit, ‘The Moral Foundations of the South African TRC: Truth as Acknowledgment and Justice as Recognition’, in Robert I. Rotberg & Dennis Thompson (eds.), Truth v. Justice. The Morality of Truth Commissions (Princeton University Press: Princeton, New Jersey, 2000), chap. VI, pp. 122-140, at p.135. See also his Reconciliation and Social Justice – Justice and Truth as Acknowledgement (Sam Nolotshungu Memorial Lecture, No. 4: HSRC Publishers: Pretoria, 1998).
 For some critical views on this, see: Alex Boraine, A Country Unmasked. Inside South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (Oxford University Press: Oxford, 2000), pp.265-8; A. Krog, ‘The Truth and Reconciliation Commission – A National Ritual?, Missionalia,vol. 26, No. 1 (April 1998), pp. 5-16.
 Mail & Guardian, 20 August 2005.
Also in London Grip:
David Philips on The Freedom Charter