IMAGE: Adriaan Vlok
Kim Ludbrook  /  EPA
Apartheid-era law and order minister Adriaan Vlok appears in the Pretoria High Court on attempted murder charges on Friday.
updated 8/17/2007 5:21:09 AM ET 2007-08-17T09:21:09

An apartheid-era government minister whose name was synonymous with terror pleaded guilty to attempted murder Friday in a 1989 plot to kill a prominent church leader by lacing his clothes with poison.

Former law and order minister Adriaan Vlok, who is now 70 and deeply religious, was composed during his appearance at Pretoria’s High Court. Last year, in a gesture of atonement, he washed the feet of the intended victim of the poison plot, Frank Chikane, then secretary-general of the South African Council of Churches and now a top adviser to President Thabo Mbeki.

Chikane was in court Friday. He nearly died in the assassination attempt, and has said he has forgiven Vlok, though he couldn’t block his prosecution.

Vlok, his former police chief Johannes Van der Merwe and three other police officials, all pleaded guilty to the first count of attempted murder. The second charge of conspiracy was withdrawn.

There has been speculation that the five had made a plea bargain with prosecuting authorities.

Vlok was minister of law and order from 1986-1989, when an estimated 30,000 people were detained.

National debate reignited
His case had boosted hopes that the masterminds of apartheid era crimes will be brought to account but also reignited a national debate whether this should include former black freedom fighters.

IMAGE: ANC protests
Kim Ludbrook  /  EPA
Protesters from the African National Congress ask for reparations for apartheid-era killings outside the Pretoria High Court on Friday, during the trial of former law and order minister Adriaan Vlok.
Torture survivors and family members of people who disappeared or were killed by apartheid security forces demonstrated outside the court room, as did relatives of those who died in bombs planted by the military wing of the black fighters of the African National Congress. The protests highlighted the divisions between the black majority and white minority which still run deep in modern South Africa, 13 years into multiracial democracy.

One demonstrator carried a placard with the face of former President F.W. de Klerk and the caption: “selective memory denialist, Nobel peace laureate?”

De Klerk, who became president in 1989 and shared the Nobel Peace Prize with Nelson Mandela in 1993 for helping usher in black majority rule, insists he knew nothing of any atrocities. He recently said that if there were to be any further prosecutions, former ANC guerrillas as well as members of the white security forces should be targeted.

Vlok appeared before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, set up to help the nation come to terms with its past. He was one of some 1,000 South Africans who were granted amnesty for confessing to various crimes during harrowing two-year hearings. But he never applied for protection from prosecution for the attempt on Chikane’s life.

Although the vast majority of atrocities were committed by white security forces, ANC guerrilla forces waged land mine and bombing campaigns in which innocent civilians died. There also have been accusations of human rights abuses in camps the ANC ran for its fighters in exile.

A group of 37 ANC leaders applied for a blanket amnesty at the start of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings. This was denied on the grounds that they must apply individually, but none have ever faced charges.

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