Justin Cartwright

When the best defence is no defence

This remarkable book is the account by their lawyer of the trial, imprisonment and sentencing to death in the late Eighties of a group of young men who came to be known as the Delmas Four.

Text settings

A Just Defiance

Peter Harris

Portobello, pp. 128, £

This remarkable book is the account by their lawyer of the trial, imprisonment and sentencing to death in the late Eighties of a group of young men who came to be known as the Delmas Four. It is also a wonderfully vivid and at times alarming account of the inner workings both of ANC ‘operations units’ and of the police, who used torture, murder and intimidation without compunction in the fight to save South Africa from what they saw as a communist threat. As South Africans in general drew closer to some sort of détente between the ANC and the nationalist government, neither the ANC on the one hand nor the security police on the other were prepared to hold back. It was as if this was the last hurrah for their deepest fears and hopes for the country.

The young Peter Harris took the apparently hopeless case of these four men who had been seized after a number of murders and assassinations, and had absolutely no defence. He was a practised human rights lawyer and had made many trips to courts where highly prejudiced Afrikaner judges sat in judgment over people who regarded themselves as soldiers in a just war. Many of them had been forced by appalling torture to confess.

Harris recounts his conversations with the four; strangely, throughout the whole apartheid era there was some acknowledgment of judicial process, and lawyers (often funded by various international foundations) were able to meet with the clients, even though their clients had been beaten and tortured. Some never had the option of a lawyer because the security police killed them out of hand or tortured them to death before the legal process had begun. So Harris recounts not only the fate of his clients, but also tells us about the activities of the security police and the sinister covert operations like Vlakplaas that were set up to murder and torture opponents of the regime. All this was going on as efforts were being made by the government to find a way of releasing Nelson Mandela from jail without precipitating a revolution, at a time when the much mythologised communist threat was receding.

When Harris met his new clients Jabu Masina, Ting Ting Masango, Neo Potsane and Joseph Makhura in maximum security it was apparent that they had no defence at all. They had murdered a number of collaborators on ANC orders and they had exploded a bomb which had killed innocent passers-by; the police had everything they needed for a successful prosecution which would almost certainly end with the death sentence.

Harris outlined the possible tactics for the defence, and the four young men opted for no defence, in favour of a statement that they did not recognise the court, being soldiers fighting a just war against an illegitimate government. Harris pointed out that this would make it impossible to enter any pleas in mitigation, or discuss the torture they had suffered, but the four men stuck to this tactic, despite the misgivings of their relatives.

Harris intersperses his narrative with accounts of one of Pretoria’s bomb-makers, who made explosives big enough to blow up buildings and small enough to blow off a hand. It is a thrillerish technique, ratcheting up the tension throughout, on the principle of the gun on the mantelpiece in the first act.

Anyway, Harris, at the request of his clients, visited the ANC in exile in Lusaka, and Chris Hani approved the tactic, but added that they should do whatever they thought best. Harris was faced with the problem of how to defend his clients without actually being allowed to speak in court. When, many months later, the trial started in Delmas, a small town about 20 miles from Johannesburg, the security police were taking no chances; they put in place road blocks, the court house was surrounded by police and the court itself had policemen in the two front rows, both to intimidate the accused and to support the prosecutors, who were a particularly unpleasant pair of aficionados of maximum punishment.

But a strange thing happened: the Afrikaner judge, a Mr Justice De Klerk, felt that the accused should have a voice, although there was no precedent for such a thing in law when no plea had been entered. He also intervened frequently to ask about torture and abuse. Harris’s hopes of his clients’ avoiding the death penalty were raised. He suggested to the judge that the relatives might give evidence in mitigation. This too was run past senior ANC members, some of whom had recently been released from Robben Island.

It so happened that Die Vrye Weekblad, founded by two courageous Afrikaner journalists, Max du Preez and Jacques Paauw, had been investigating all sorts of abuses by the government and its covert police agencies for some time. One of the nastiest places was Vlakplaas, where suspects were tortured and sometimes killed with the help of ‘Askaris’, ANC soldiers who had been turned. It was an utter hell-hole, as du Preez and Paauw were beginning to discover. So this evidence could be alluded to in the questioning of the police by the families’ lawyers, briefed by Harris.

Judge de Klerk clearly understood the implications of this devastating line of questioning. In the end he ruled that if he were alone he would not impose the death penalty: the men’s intentions should be judged by the standards of the community from which they came. But because the two assessors (basically Afrikaner placemen) were not in agreement, the death penalty would be mandatory.

I won’t spoil the story by telling what came next, but suffice it to say that all four men are alive and enjoying some status in the new South Africa.

Harris has made this book far more than an account of a trial; it unlocks the connection, through this trial, between the government and the torturers, and the subsequent attempts of the police and the government at whitewash as the day of settlement drew near.

One of their misguided efforts was to try first to disown as a criminal and then to assassinate one Dirk Coetzee, a ruthless and effective policeman, head of the notorious assassination units. He contacted Vrye Weekblad to tell his side of the story, and was finally spirited away to Lusaka by the ANC.

Harris, with his close associate Bheki Mlangeni, became involved in preparing Coetzee to testify against the government. It was crucial evidence, because nobody knew more about covert operations than this strange, intelligent man with a chilling coldness and a very short fuse. If Coetzee’s evidence were credible, the police would be utterly discredited, virtually every major trial would be seen to have involved torture, and all assassinations of the regime’s opponents would be exposed. So while the ANC were protecting him and briefing him, the security forces were planning to kill him — hence the bomb, which is one of the strands of the story. It doesn’t end well, although it is not giving too much away to say that the bomb kills the wrong person.

A Just Defiance has been a huge success in South Africa. While reading at times like a well-written thriller, its significance is to reveal apartheid to have been far more brutal, ruthless and self-serving even than we had suspected. It is a very important book, as South Africa increasingly comes to grips with its past, and I found it virtually impossible to put down.