Seeking truth about apartheid crimes

Hennie van Vuuren.

“Without real truth, it is impossible for us to reach justice.” These were the thoughts of Hennie van Vuuren, author of Apartheid, Guns and Money at a book launch in Gardens earlier this month.

The Woodstock resident said that the book took five years to complete and involved researching archives in several countries.

He added that the book was a product of a collective effort. “I was fortunate enough to work with a great team of researchers, who worked tirelessly piecing together the many tiny facts that we picked up along the way. For all of these stories that we were able to tell, there were as many, if not more, real dead ends. You could pick up a trail of something but the nature of this work, with secrecy provisions, makes it very hard to bring finality to all the stories.”

In an interview with the Atlantic Sun, the Southern Mail’s sister newspaper, Mr Van Vuuren said that the team was based at Community House in Salt River while he had an association with the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation (IJR) in Gardens.

“The activist space was a very inspiring space and also meant that we could draw on the support from other organisations.”

He said that the team worked closely with the South African History Archives (SAHA), who placed the access to information requests.

“Most of the government departments in South Africa, their first response was to deny us access to information. It was SAHA’s tenacity to keep pushing over the last five years to get those documents.”

He said the team also worked with pro bono human rights lawyers. The team sifted through 25 archives in eight different countries all together. Most of the archives were, however, in South Africa.

He said that there were a few reasons why current government departments were reluctant to release apartheid era documents.

“The first one is that the struggle that we face is not dissimilar to the struggle that many local communities face in the struggle to get access to information.

“We need to hold our government to account for that. The second obstacle is that there are departments that are very worried about releasing certain documents because they are connected to powerful private sector interests.Other instances touch on the international story.”

Mr Van Vuuren said that the work that Apartheid, Guns and Money focuses on is the international network that aided and abetted apartheid. “It prolonged apartheid rule, gave it life and profited from it. Although we got so much more information than I ever thought we would from public archives, there is no doubt there is material that is deemed far too sensitive.

“Apartheid was a crime against humanity, all the people of South Africa deserve to know what happened and why it happened and who the networks are that supported the regime.”

The book has had three launches so far, in Salt River, Khayelitsha and Gardens.

Mr Van Vuuren said he is hoping to take the book to many more communities across Cape Town and the country.

He said they were hoping that many more South Africans would be engaging with the book.

“It’s been incredibly encouraging to see the amount of interest we have had. Both at launch events, people buying and sharing the book. The fact that people share it between one another reflects the fact that we have a public that wants to know our past. Want to know about the way the powerful operated in our country in the past and how it extends to the present. We’re an inquisitive and exciting democracy in many ways and we shouldn’t underestimate that. The exciting part has been the kind of questions and interest we’ve experienced at all of these launch events. They are not only interested but deeply concerned with the issues of economic crimes and the crimes of the powerful.”

He said they see the crimes of the powerful as one narrative.

Mr Van Vuuren said that they’ve had no responses from the South African government or any governments that are mentioned in the book. Some of these include China, France and the UK.

“We haven’t had any response from the corporate sector, including those who we have evidence that funded the national sector. Every assertion we make in the book needs to be based on facts. All of the claims we make are based on documents or the interviews we did.

“We cannot underestimate the kind of pressure that ordinary whistle-blowers are placed under. Both within government and the private sector. There are many of these brave women and men who we celebrate too little. It’s imperative as citizens that we show solidarity.

“The more research we did about the arms companies that were involved in providing weapons to the apartheid regime, we found in significant instances, the same companies, some who had changed their names, involved in alleged corruption in the post-apartheid arms deal.”

He said one of the French companies had been responsible for not adhering to the sanctions.

“These companies were involved in extending a lifeline to apartheid. They helped to breathe oxygen into the system of white minority rule. By extension, what they were doing in a democratic South Africa, was to fuel the process that has led to internal fights within the governing party. Much of the fight that we have right now isn’t only about the Guptas, this is the latest iteration of a far bigger pattern of network linked to the arms deal.”

He said that this type of work was important as he believed in the future of the country. “It is our responsibility as citizens to do the work that supports democratic process.”

He said work would continue with SAHA and lawyers to gain access to documents that remain classified.

Open Secrets, an independent non-profit promoting private sector accountability for economic crime and related human violations in Southern Africa, is also looking to hold the actors to account for their actions.

Following the release of the book Right2Know released a statement demanding the release of apartheid-era secrets. “Apartheid, Guns and Money is a vital reminder that today’s crisis of corruption and state capture is rooted in history. The international banks, middlemen and lobbyists who facilitated corrupt deals and sanctions-busting under apartheid have stayed in business, and in many cases have played a role in corrupting our democratic politics today. Several of the companies and individuals implicated in the post-94 arms deal were secret trading partners of the apartheid military regime.”