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Eugene Alexander de KOCK






A.K.A.: "Prime Evil"
Classification: Murderer
Characteristics: Policeman - Former assassin for the apartheid government
Number of victims: 6 +
Date of murders: 1970's - 1980's
Date of birth: 1949
Victims profile: Black anti-apartheid activists
Method of murder: Shooting - Bombs
Location: South Africa
Status: Sentenced to 212 years for crimes against humanity on 1996

Eugene de Kock is a former assassin for the apartheid government in South Africa. Dubbed "Prime Evil" by the media, he was the commander of the Vlakplaas unit of the South African Police counter insurgency group, well known for executing dozens of anti-apartheid activists.

De Kock first became prominent during his testimony in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, during which he made multiple revelations relating to ANC deaths.

De Kock has been interviewed a number of times by Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela, who ended up releasing a book, A Human Being Died That Night, about her interviews with De Kock, her time on the TRC, and what causes a moral person to become a killer.

Prime evil

Nick-named "prime evil", Eugene de Kock was sentenced to 212 years in jail for his part in crimes against humanity. He is still in prison.


In a local radio interview in July 2007, de Kock claimed that former president FW de Klerk had hands "soaked in blood" and had ordered political killings and other crimes during the anti-apartheid conflict. This was in response to de Klerk's recent statements that he had a "clear conscience" regarding his time in office.


I forgave apartheid's chief killer

February 21, 2004

Nicknamed "Prime Evil", Eugene de Kock has the blood of countless black South Africans on his hands. Now a psychologist from the townships says he should be pardoned. She tells Rory Carroll why.

When the apartheid assassin known as "Prime Evil" was sentenced to 212 years for crimes against humanity, the black South Africans outside Pretoria's supreme court cheered and danced. Never again would Eugene de Kock walk the streets.

That big blank face with the thick spectacles would stay caged until the day he died. That was 1996, and De Kock is still inside the grey world of C-Max, the maximum security section of Pretoria's central prison, his body in orange overalls, his feet chained to a metal stool bolted to the floor when visitors come.

But in one sense De Kock is out. Out and roaming the mind of South Africa with awkward questions about the nature of evil and forgiveness, courtesy of a black woman who decided to look into the monster's heart and found a human being worthy of a pardon and freedom. Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela, a psychologist at the University of Cape Town, has published a remarkable book about her conversations with De Kock.

Titled A Human Being Died That Night: A South African Story of Forgiveness, it has been dubbed by some as "Interviews with a Vampire". In fact it is a nuanced and clinical scrutiny of how and why an apparently ordinary man became murderer-in-chief for a brutal regime.

It dwells on his atrocities - the torture, the ambushes, the executions, the exultation in inflicting suffering - and yet concludes that Prime Evil deserves to be forgiven.

"Yes, if the authorities asked my opinion I would say Eugene de Kock should be pardoned," says Gobodo-Madikizela, sunk in an armchair at her office in Cape Town.

"He has been visited by the widows of some of his victims. He is an example of how dialogue can happen."

A series of interviews in C-Max totalling 46 hours convinced her that the commanding officer of state-sanctioned death squads was genuinely remorseful about his career and a changed man. A bestseller in the US and South Africa, the book has been widely praised, with South Africa's Nobel laureate for literature, J. M. Coetzee, hailing a "coolly intelligent analysis of how the conscience gets to be numbed".

Afrikaans-language newspapers welcomed the book as a brave contribution to understanding the past and shaping the future. The near-universal plaudits have puzzled the author as her conclusion that De Kock should be freed could be expected to be controversial.

"In a way it worries me that the reaction has been so positive," she says. At book fairs and readings she has been asked why she focuses on the perpetrator rather than the victim, but otherwise she has not been challenged.

That she is black and grew up in a township probably disarmed some critics. At the age of five, she cowered behind her mother's garden hedge while army trucks "like huge monsters" chased people through the township. Just as important is her evident sincerity: she did not set out to empathise with De Kock, it just happened. It also helps that Archbishop Desmond Tutu liked the book, and that reconciliation has been South Africa's leitmotif for the past decade.

Gobodo-Madikizela's first visit to C-Max reads like something from Silence of the Lambs. The warders gave her a chair with wheels and demonstrated how she could whiz backwards if De Kock, replete with Hannibal Lector garb, made a lunge. Instead he stood up, leg-chains clanking, extended his hand, smiled and in a thick Afrikaans accent said: "It's a pleasure to meet you."

De Kock grew up in a conservative Afrikaner family as white minority rule was entering crisis. Besieged by opponents inside and outside the country, the government had the blessing of the Dutch Reformed Church when it hit back.

De Kock led the army's counter-insurgency unit, Koevoet, in Namibia, a dirty war fought in the bush, which left few prisoners. When riots worsened in South Africa he was brought home in the 1980s to head Vlakplaas, a farm where the security services interrogated suspects and refined their killing techniques - letter bombs, booby trapped headphones and vehicles, poison - which claimed the lives of countless civilians and liberation fighters.

It was his own men who nicknamed him Prime Evil. "Bad he was, but mad he wasn't, not at all. He had a sense of drivenness. He was looked up to by the entire country as a fixer, he was the kingpin in the machinery of destruction," says Gobodo-Madikizela.

In 1995, a year after democratic elections brought the African National Congress to power, he went on trial and a horrified public learnt all the gory details. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission granted him an amnesty for some crimes in return for testimony, but that did not affect the court's prison sentence and De Kock, it was assumed, was gone for good.

Gobodo-Madikizela is an unlikely champion for his liberty. Chic and trim in tweed trousers and an orange blouse and scarf, her accent has the neutrality of years abroad. Born in the impoverished township of Langa, outside Cape Town, she witnessed daily police brutality and discrimination but she managed to get a clinical psychology degree and study in the US.

After serving with Archbishop Tutu on the human rights violations committee of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, she was inspired by victims' stories to write a book about vengeance and forgiveness. Intrigued by De Kock's request to meet and apologise to the widows of some men he murdered, and by the widows' decisions to forgive him, she started visiting C-Max in 1997.

What unfolded in the grey interview room could make a great play, the white man exploring his psyche with a member of a race he tried so hard to oppress. Did he ever kill one of her friends or relatives, he asked, and seemed relieved when she said no.

De Kock broke down when he recalled meeting the widows. "I wish I could do more than (say) I'm sorry. I wish there was a way of bringing their bodies back alive. I wish I could say, 'Here are your husbands'."

The psychologist touched his trembling hand, a reflex that troubled her. "He's got blood all over and for me to be drawn like that . . . it made me question my sense of empathy."

Waking up in bed the following day, she was unable to lift her right forearm as if, she says, her body was grounding it for having engaged in a prohibited act. Friends warned her that De Kock might try to manipulate her, or play mind games, and her fears deepened when De Kock subsequently said the hand she touched was his trigger hand. Did he tell her that to reclaim some of his old power to instil dread?

"I had touched his leprosy, and he seemed to be telling me that, even though I did not realise it at the time, I was from now on infected with the memory of having embraced into my heart the hand that had killed, maimed and blown up lives."

But she decided that the side of De Kock she had touched was the one that had not been allowed to triumph over the side that made him a killer, a glimpse of what might have been. So the interviews continued, fuelled by De Kock's apparent desire to understand and atone for what he had done.

"What struck me was this little boy's frightened face." He was a desperate soul seeking to affirm to himself that he still belonged to the human universe, she said.

De Kock's father, it turned out, drank heavily and abused his mother. As a child he was ridiculed for stuttering, leaving feelings of shame and aggression, which he learnt to relieve through his own violence, says Gobodo-Madikizela, adding that that is only a fragment of the explanation.

If abuse corrupts a hitherto innocent person's psyche and predisposes them to evil, do they deserve sympathy? Or should they be condemned for not exercising free will to suppress evil impulses? Or both? Which is worse, she asks: Nazis such as Adolf Eichmann who commit evil acts not thinking they are evil, or De Kock committing acts that he knows are evil? The latter, she suggests, has a more normal moral compass, albeit one that is ignored.

And what, she asks, of the black mobs who placed burning tyres around people's necks - the sadistic necklace murders? And of the communities that allowed them to do it? Gobodo-Madikizela recalls being caught up with a jubilant crowd in 1990 celebrating the capture of a police captain, a suspected apartheid agent, who was subsequently mutilated and killed.

The line between good and evil is thinner than we think, she says, which is one of the reasons forgiveness is so valuable. Rather than overlooking a wrong, it rises above it and can empower the victim. "Just at the moment the perpetrator begins to show remorse . . . the victim becomes the gatekeeper to what the outcast desires - re-admission into the human community."

Forgiveness can sometimes humiliate the victim, she says, citing Winnie Madikizela-Mandela hugging the mother of a 14-year-old boy she denied killing, but in the right circumstances it eases victims' resentment and pain.

Having pardoned several apartheid-era killers, she believes President Thabo Mbeki should also pardon De Kock. The irony is that Gobodo-Madikizela cannot forgive Mbeki for his foot-dragging on the HIV/Aids pandemic, which kills 600 South Africans daily.

One of the many critics who say the President's controversial views on the causes and treatment of the disease have cost countless lives, she is careful not to compare him with De Kock, but notes that traumas during apartheid and exile left some ANC leaders "psychologically incomplete".

Silence from Mbeki makes it difficult for women to leave partners infected with HIV, says Gobodo-Madikizela, who defied her family's wishes by leaving a husband who had AIDS. Her book is dedicated to a younger sister, Sesi, who did not dare leave her own husband and died from the disease. It is the only time in the interview that Gobodo-Madikizela looks angry. "For a leader to lead young people on this path is unforgivable."


The voice of 'Prime Evil'

BBC News

Wednesday, October 28, 1998

Greg Barrow in Johannesburg looks at the role played in the hearings of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission by a shadowy figure from the apartheid era known as "prime evil".

When you find yourself standing in a gentleman's toilets and someone comes up behind you, it can be quite unnerving.

When you turn round and see that the individual is a mass murderer serving a 212-year prison sentence, it is downright terrifying.

But that is what happened during an adjournment at a Truth and Reconciliation Commission amnesty hearing in Pretoria in July.

Joker in the pack

Eugene de Kock, a former police colonel and apartheid arch-assassin had come to relieve himself, during a break in his testimony.

In the deck of cards which makes up the apartheid era government and its henchmen, Eugene de Kock is the joker in the pack.

I watched him as he washed his hands at the toilet sink. A meticulous man, he soaped his arms right up to the elbows, scrubbing every inch of skin before fastidiously drying himself and returning to the hearing.

De Kock's victims say he took the same painstaking care as commander of the notorious Vlakplaas government hit squad during the apartheid era.

First he would kill his target. Then he would incinerate, burn, or even blow up the remains so that no scrap of evidence was left.

An unlikely villain

In the South African media, Eugene De Kock has been described as a mass killer, a psychopath known to the public as "Prime Evil".

He's an unlikely villain. With his carefully combed hair and thick glasses, he looks more like a librarian than a ruthless assassin.

And in the post-apartheid era of truth and reconciliation he has also become something of a hero, a man of integrity in a community of denial.

Truth and reconciliation has been hard to come by in South Africa. Only one former apartheid cabinet minister has sought amnesty for his role in the political crimes of the last white government.

Every other minister has dodged the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and passed off the crimes of the apartheid era as the work of a few rotten apples.

De Kock is one of the foul fruits grown from the tree of apartheid. When he admitted to his crimes in front of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission he was applauded by a black audience.

They were commending him for his honesty, and his willingness to identify senior politicians on whose orders he carried out his dirty work.

Sleepless nights

De Kock disputes the label of psychopath, arguing that he never took pleasure in killing his victims. It was a job he said, and he was acting under orders from the very top.

Eugene De Kock is on a crusade to finger his old bosses who let him fall for his crimes once he had outgrown his usefulness as an apartheid killing machine.

He still gives them sleepless nights with his clarity and vision in recalling that dark era when a white government was prepared to cling to power by any means necessary.

The flaw within the Truth and Reconciliation Commission may be that such brutal honesty will not be put to good use.

When Archbishop Desmond Tutu opened the first hearing of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in April 1996, he set out its charter - to expose the truth about South Africa's dark past, and lay to rest the ghosts of that eraso they could never return to haunt the nation.

Justice was being exchanged for reconciliation, there was to be no Nuremberg trial in post-apartheid South Africa.

Truth when it comes is painful to everyone concerned - only the incredible moral leadership of Archbishop Tutu, and his comrade, President Nelson Mandela seems to have held the whole exercise together.

As a human personification of the power of forgiveness, these two men alone have shown the lead in promoting reconciliation.

Some South Africans have found it within themselves to follow the example of Tutu and Mandela - but human frailty and the desire for revenge has left many others frustrated that the Truth and Reconciliation Commission may have stolen their right to punish the perpetrators of the crimes of apartheid.

A colleague of mine commented that South Africa needs to invent a new word before it can come to terms with its past. That word is "concile".

"How can we be reconciled," he said, "if we have never in our history been conciled".

Stretching all the way back to the arrival of Dutch settlers in the 17th Century, through the Boer War, and on to the foundation of the new republic, South Africa has always been a country in which whites have been at loggerheads with blacks.

'A huge lie'

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission chose only the last three decades of the apartheid era for its frame of reference.

It's a small period of South African history in which an awful lot of crimes were committed under the name of apartheid.

But almost two and a half years on from the first investigative hearing, this Commission of Truth has been left with a huge lie: that it was not the apartheid leaders who were responsible for the heinous crimes of that era, but the foot soldiers like Eugene De Kock.

The ministers who guided and co-ordinated the evil strategy of apartheid have used the Truth Commission like a Catholic confession box.

They have taken their pew and spoken softly only of the crimes they want to confess - and the Commission has absolved them of their sins, blessing them as they leave to forget about that awful past.


A Human Being Died That Night: Prime Evil and Forgiveness

“He spoke with a heavy Afrikaans accent: ‘It’s a pleasure to meet you.’ I knew the face; I had seen it in the newspapers, and at public hearings during his first appearance before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, but this was the closest I had ever been to Eugene de Kock. As he smiled shyly, perhaps politely, rising to greet me, I saw a flicker of boyishness, of uncertainty. At the same time, my mind registered ‘Prime Evil,’ the name that marked him as the surest evidence of all that had happened under apartheid. De Kock had not just given apartheid’s murderous evil a name. He had become that evil. The embodiment of evil stood there politely smiling at me” (A Human Being Died That Night, 6; emphasis in original).

When South African psychologist Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela formally met Eugene de Kock for the first time in late 1997, her thoughts above largely capture the sentiments of black South Africans who had suffered under decades of apartheid rule.

As a covert police operative, de Kock was responsible for masterminding countless operations to murder anti-apartheid activists, remaining anonymous even as he “had been at the center of the chaos, the blood, the bodies, and the killing, directing it” (18).

Now, Gobodo-Madikizela stood inside the heavy-security “C-Max” section of Pretoria Central Prison, where de Kock was serving a double life sentence for human rights crimes. Yet during a hearing of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC)—the country’s revolutionary justice model designed to provide a voice to both perpetrators and victims of apartheid—two widows whose husbands died during one of de Kock’s bombing operations personally offered their forgiveness to Prime Evil.

Gobodo-Madikizela finds this “extraordinary,” and consequently asks the central question of A Human Being Died That Night: “Was evil intrinsic to de Kock, and forgiveness therefore wasted upon him?” (15).

Relying on a series of interviews she conducts with de Kock in C-Max, along with psychological and cultural analysis, Gobodo-Madikizela finds a basis for the possibility of forgiving an extraordinary criminal. Her personal turning point occurs after she briefly touches de Kock’s left hand as a gesture of consolation during one of their discussions.

Several weeks later, de Kock requests to speak to her during break in a TRC hearing, and after they greet each other, he confesses “with an expression that seemed to reflect genuine amazement that” she had touched his “trigger hand” (39). She wrestles with the loaded meaning of this comment, but later realized that it represents evidence of de Kock’s remorse as he contemplates his actions. Gobodo-Madikizela demonstrates that he isn’t always completely honest or forthcoming about the particulars of his operations, but she contends that he was clearly “struggling with his past,” trying to make sense of what happened (44). As she writes:

“It gave me a sense of hope that he was in some emotional pain about what he had done. And the grace-filled gestures of forgiveness I had witnessed from people who lived with psychological scars as daily reminders of their trauma gave me even greater hope. In wrestling with my empathy, somehow I found solace in these gestures of forgiveness by victims. They validated my own feelings of empathy toward de Kock” (44-45).

It is also important to remember what Gobodo-Madikizela identifies as the “structural and systemic crimes” of which de Kock took part (61), and that he does not bear sole responsibility for his role in enforcing apartheid. Indeed, as brutal as his actions were, they were merely part of a larger sociopolitical atmosphere that had consistently dehumanized black South African citizens for decades. Even those that should have or could have done more to speak in protest against the status quo often refused to do so.

The Afrikaans (or Dutch Reformed) Church was the spiritual home for nearly all apartheid politicians, and church leaders officially condoned the killing of state enemies, with “state enemies” consistently meaning anti-apartheid supporters. This certainly isn’t ground for excusing de Kock’s actions, and though he is (and remains) willing to document the complicity of his colleagues and superiors, he doesn’t exonerate himself. Nevertheless, his evil is, to an extent, an outgrowth of an environment where those in power believed that God was on their side, and “interpreted all religious objections to the war as inconsistent with spiritual conviction” (72).

Bearing these facts in mind, Gobodo-Madikizela argues that forgiving a perpetrator who is guilty of human rights violations is nonetheless difficult, and dependent upon not only an acknowledgement of wrongdoing and remorse, but also the ability of victims to transcend their anger and sadness while continuing to live with the trauma of what has occurred.

She makes it clear that black South African citizens are still coping with the atrocities of the apartheid era, and that victims whom remain angry or resentful about losing a friend or loved one aren’t necessarily “ ‘holding on’ ” to anger out of spite, but instead “what seems to be the only connection to the one who is no longer present” (96).

For those who do forgive, their action represents both an effort to let go of their anger and being open “toward a new path of healing”; for one of the aforementioned widows, forgiving de Kock allowed her to (in her words) “ ‘mourn properly’ ” for her dead husband as a means of letting him go (97).

On another level, Gobodo-Madikizela writes that forgiveness is about “human connectedness” (127), and Eugene de Kock is no different. It’s certainly difficult enough –at least in my case—to simply not hold grudges about everyday matters; overcoming crimes against humanity can seem altogether impossible. But de Kock is a human being just as we are, and he reminds us that the line between good and evil is a very thin one indeed. To forgive someone like him is to recognize the evil in our own lives, and to embrace the possibility of hope and justice in response.



MO: Policeman who murdered black antiapartheid activists.

DISPOSITION: 212 years for six murders and 83 lesser counts, 1996.

Michael Newton - An Encyclopedia of Modern Serial Killers


Eugene Alexander de Kock



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