ADRIAN VLOK, viagra THE AGEING FORMER MINISTER OF LAW AND ORDER, patient HAS BEEN IN THE SPOTLIGHT FOLLOWING HIS RITUALISTIC APOLOGY TO REVEREND FRANK CHIKANE. Once one of the most hated men in South Africa, he now just wants his apparent change of political consciousness to be understood. He spoke to Helen Grange this week.
He was despised by millions in the late 1980s, the height of his power.
The name “Adriaan Vlok”, like that of then Defence Minister Magnus Malan and ex-president PW Botha, became synonymous with the most callous face of apartheid.
There seemed to be no end to the calculated, often surprisingly malicious, police and military attacks on anti-apartheid activists, and they were laid mostly at the door of these three men.
Yet for years they and the rest of PW’s cabinet brazened it out, arrogantly defying the whole world in their determination to entrench their racist ideology.
Today, Adriaan Vlok is barely recognisable as the old Minister of Law and Order.
Almost obsequious in his demeanor, he’s charming and unerringly polite, his still sharp blue eyes searching for a friendly reception in everyone he meets.
One year short of his 70th birthday, this once feared politician has re-emerged from a reviled era with a startling – many say absurd – gesture; washing the feet of Rev Frank Chikane, victim of one of his police force’s more inventive plots to kill.
The act has been received with deep suspicion and derision, yet Vlok remains absolutely convinced of the validity and sincerity of his actions, done solely in the name and duty of his Christian faith.
“I actually feel very uncomfortable about the publicity,” he says coyly. “It was a deeply personal thing for me, you know.”
For a week the symbolic cleansing ritual has dominated the media, making news as far as the US and the UK. The story resonates on many levels, historic reconciliation, personal atonement, the power of forgiveness, extraordinary biblical ritual.
But for the ageing Vlok, apparently, it hasn’t been a pleasant business at all.
Lack of media context to his decision has robbed it of meaning, and critics have been venomous and derisory.
In the face of it all, he seems for the most part perplexed. Occasionally, however, the old Law and Order Minister is back, with the retort: “My critics have no idea of the inner spiritual journey that I undertook to get to this point!”
On July 28, 1994, Corrie Vlok put a gun to her head and pulled the trigger. It was three months after South Africa’s historic transition to democracy and her husband had just retired.
Vlok was looking forward to quietly slipping away from public life and settling them both at the coast, content in the belief that he’d “done his job”.
“But the Lord stopped me in my tracks,” he says. “I asked myself ‘why, after all these years struggling together, has this happened?’”
Corrie had indeed been a loyal and supportive wife, often rallying support for the mothers of troopies across the border. But in truth she was battling clinical depression.
“She’d struggled with it for 20 years,” Vlok reveals.
Strangely, he turns to euphemism for further elucidation.
“It was difficult for her to be guarded day and night,” he says, then adds, eliminating her from the picture: “I had threats from both the left and the rightwing in those years. One night we were asleep in our Cape Town home when I got a call at 2.20am. The person said it was the Cape Town city morgue and there was a body there connected to our number. Our son was at boarding school at the time and he also had to be guarded everywhere he went. I got such a shock when that happened.”
At the same time Cornelia died, the Truth and Reconcilliation Commission (TRC) had started its amnesty proceedings, and the grieving Vlok – while his former colleagues turned their back on the process, took his sudden widowhood as a signal from God that it was time for an internal inventory.
He applied for amnesty for his part in the bombing of Cosatu House and Khotso House in Johannesburg, as well as a series of blasts at cinemas where the film Cry Freedom was being shown in the 1980s.
“I used the Bible as a guideline,” he says. “Many of my old colleagues advised me not to apply, told me I had just done my job. But I had started on that road, and once you do, God just draws you closer and closer …”
These bombings belie the extent of Vlok’s reign of terror at the time, however.
His ministry was responsible for the detention of an estimated 30 000 people, with as many as 15 000 being held at one time during the declaration of the state of emergency in 1985.
It was Vlok who in 1988 announced the restriction of 17 extra-parliamentary organisations and at the end of 1989, sensational allegations emerged about police hit squads, which had possibly murdered more than 100 political activists.
Vlok, who was also responsible for administering the controversial national security management system (NSMS), was almost certainly in the loop concerning many atrocious human rights crimes, although he has said a lot went on – in lower police ranks – without him knowing about it.
And although his gesture to Rev Chikane has been linked to Chikane’s clothes being laced with poison in the 80s, Vlok has admitted no direct knowledge of the incident.
He has yet to answer for a host of these crimes, and still today avoids any indicting detail about the role he played.
Judiciously, perhaps, as the Government has set out new guidelines for amnesty applications and there is good reason to believe Vlok may have to go through the process again – with the possibility of prosecutions should guilt be assertained, his appeal for Rev Chikane’s forgiveness notwithstanding.
Vlok’s apparent change of political consciousness dovetails neatly with the turning tide during the early 1990s, and he accompanied FW de Klerk through the pre-transitional phase as Minister of Correctional Services.
Yet despite the profound ideological implications of his career, and questions around his personal political transition, Vlok still regards it as a “job I did”, explaining: “I was raised believing in Apartheid. The church ministers were preaching it. I was part of that system and I didn’t question it.”
At most, he offers. “I believed in the proposed Government of National Unity. I still think it’s a pity it never worked out.” TO HERE
With the moral support of his second wife Antoinette, who he met two years after Cornelia’s death, Vlok emerged from the TRC’s amnesty hearings a free man, and had a far clearer idea of the impact of his decisions on the activists he spent years oppressing.
He’d had direct contact with mothers, sisters, wives who’d lost loved ones.
Nonetheless, he quietly moved on with his life and had no intention of taking further steps to rectify past wrongs.
Until he was contacted two years ago by a group of 10 women from Mamelodi who’d lost their loved ones in the struggle, and asked to come and speak to them.
“I told their representative Bridget Hess it was too dangerous for me to go to Mamelodi, because they hated me, but I went, and I saw their anger,” he recalls.
The women wanted to meet one of the perpetrators and Vlok arranged a meeting via General Johann van der Merwe, the previous Commissioner of Police. But van der Merwe was cold, he says. “It wasn’t a good meeting.”
Then on July 3 this year, Vlok saw a column by Pretoria pastor Stephan Joubert in Beeld newspaper referring to the ritual of foot washing as a metaphor for freeing oneself from pain.
Vlok had been thinking about Reverend Chikane, whom he’d known since the TRC hearings, and he came immediately to mind again when he read the piece. “But it was the first time I’d ever thought about washing anyone’s feet,” he says.
On July 18, Vlok bought a little biblical book called “Saam met Petrus op pad”, wherein again the author discusses feet washing, which in the Bible symbolises the abandonment of pride, egoism, selfishness and any perception of superiority over another.
“The Lord was showing me clear indicators of what I should do,” Vlok reasons, the triumphant smile of a reborn Christian panning his face.
It wasn’t easy getting hold of the Reverend Chikane however. Vlok had been trying for weeks, leaving messages with the minister’s personal assistant.
On July 31, Vlok again phoned Chikane’s office and asked if he could come and see him. That morning he’d heard his usual service on Radio RSG by Rev Willie Goosen, whose sermon was from John 13, verse 14 and 15, which deals with the feet washing ritual, and he decided to go out to Macro and buy a plastic basin and two fresh towels.
He got a Bible and wrote in it: “I have sinned against the Lord and you. Please forgive me”.
The next day, at exactly 4.05pm, Thandi called. “How fast can you get here?” she said. “I will keep the reverend here until 5pm for you.”
Vlok jumped in his car and drove like the wind. “I got there in an hour from my house in Centurion to the Union buildings, in the rain,” he says.
Once in Chikane’s office, though, with his basin and towels secreted in his bag, Vlok wasn’t at all sure he was going to go through with his resolution.
“The atmosphere wasn’t good. He was rushed for his next appointment,” says Vlok. “He also had his assistant Lofiso there, and I felt uncomfortable. I was sitting there thinking: ‘Am I going to do this? Will people say I’m a fool?”
But he bit back his pride, gave Chikane the Bible and read the inscription out loud. To the puzzled reverend, he then declared his intention.
“You want to wash my feet?” Chikane said. “Yes,” Vlok replied.
“He looked amazed. It was a defining moment for me. We discussed it a little more and I told him I want to be cleansed. I took out my basin and towels, poured in some water went over to him. ‘You came prepared!’ Chikane remarked.”
The reverend took off his shoes and socks and Vlok sprinked water over his feet, then dried them with his towel. Chikane took hold of Vlok’s hand and prayed for him.
In the days that followed, Vlok heard nothing, and he was happy to let the event pass unrecorded by history.
But the overwhelmed Chikane couldn’t keep it in, and decided to tell his congregation about Vlok’s extraordinary gesture.
Since then, Vlok has attended Chikane’s church, tearfully making peace with members of the congregation.
A rash of publicity has ensued, and the old Minister says he’s overwhelmed with messages from all over the world on his phone.
“I have no administration anymore. I’m 12 years retired, so it’s all a bit confusing,” he says.
But beyond the sensation, how deeply did Vlok think his actions through?
Again he turns to Christian teaching, this time knitting his eyebrows over an earnest philosophical gaze: “You know, it was tricky talking about Apartheid and I thought a lot about it, about what the root sin was. I concluded it was a lack of love. Love thy neighbour as you would love yourself, Jesus said. We didn’t do that. We loved ourselves more. We felt ourselves to be more superior. And many people, still today, haven’t understood the meaning of this.”
He seems genuinely convicted to this revelation, and it was largely to this end that he washed Rev Chikane’s feet, he confides.
But is he going to go further, in the brittle world of the here and now, to repair the substantial damage done?
He says he continues to help the Mamelodi mothers in whatever way he can, but can “only do what is in my means”.
“It is in my nature to help people. I helped many in my constituency when I was in government. I don’t have money to spare, but I do support a family and I will help to find a person a job. I will go and buy them a loaf of bread. I will do what I can.”
To the critics who suspect Vlok is a man seeking opportunistic absolution as he faces his dying years, he retorts: “I am no dying man! Look at me!”
He looks at his watch. It’s ten minutes fast, a habit of decades. A red cloth bracelet encircles his wrist, with the letters: W S J D, standing for ‘Wat sal Jesus doen?’
It’s a reminder to act in Christian conscience every moment of the day.
If Vlok is as healthy as he seems, he’ll hopefully have ample time to prove the merit of these words, and simultaneously act out the meaning of his foot washing ritual. – Heartlines Features.
By Helen Grange