This is an adaptation of an essay that I wrote for a college class on South African whiteness in the post-apartheid era.

In June 1989, Adriaan van Straaten and his brothers broke into a property owned by Terblanche Transport with the intent of stealing a truck in order to prove the incompetence of the black night watchmen on duty, thus striking a blow against the increasingly concessionary Nationalist government. Something went wrong with the operation, however: two watchmen were stabbed and killed, and the brothers were only able to move the truck a few hundred meters before the brakes failed. They were later arrested individually in Pretoria, charged with murder and robbery, and sentenced to upwards of 13 years of prison time. The van Straaten brothers’ application for amnesty before the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission in September of 1996 raises questions that haunt investigations such as the TRC from their inception to closure. Is the social conditioning that creates racial hatred acceptable as a political motive? How can lines of responsibility be drawn to account for society’s persuasive influence over individual ideology? At what point is the individual more responsible for his or her actions than the state?

Adriaan van Straaten and his brothers trace their racial ideology back to their father, a member of the right-wing Ossewa Brandwag who died when Adriaan was ten. Adriaan’s father taught him that “black people should be subjects and slaves” (Truth and Reconciliation Commission 217), and the political ideology of the van Straaten brothers reflected this initial introduction to race relations. Adriaan also notes that he grew up in a milieu of racial violence: “There were patrol vehicles who took people away off the streets who did not obey the curfew, they simply took them away, beat them up, and this is the kind of context in which I grew up.” (216). Afrikaners like Adriaan observed this violence and propagated it on their own. Despite the fact that he “never knew what he wanted or what the reasons were for all the various meaningless fights” (218), Adriaan instinctively acted on the violence he had been taught by his father and the police and effectively recreated the situations he had been exposed to as a child:

Many of the places where I went, such as shops, shopping centres or malls, cafés, if there were black people, then we simply followed this tradition and also beat people up. I never knew what the reasons for this was, this was simply the way things were, we grew up in this way and this is how things went. (217)

This was the institutionalization of violence on the societal level, one that went beyond the jackboots of the South African security police’s Vlakplaas death squads or the Defence Forces' secret invasion of Angola to suppress communism in southern Africa. More effective than using the state as an organ to generate violence was instilling fear in the minds of could-be revolutionaries through entirely arbitrary persecution. Far from encouraging subjects to react in turn, this method of applying violence has the effect of delegitimizing its use in the minds of the native population. Frantz Fanon comments that “there are some individuals who are convinced of the ineffectiveness of violent methods…because in the innermost recesses of their brains the settler's tanks and aeroplanes occupy a huge place...They are beaten from the start” (50). More than the display of military or legal force, the social institutionalization of violence established the racial nature of the relationship of power and served to constantly reinforce the values that supported a white- and Afrikaner-dominated society.

The simple legal rectification of apartheid was therefore only the first step in restoring equality to all South Africans. The societal trends that defined the apartheid state had to be reversed in order to redefine South African relationships, and the Truth Commission was partly an attempt by the new government to assume responsibility for the crimes of the past. In doing so, white South Africans who request amnesty are effectively relieving themselves of guilt, but at the same time they are aiding the reformation of their country as one that acknowledges the social trends in place. This is the value that the Truth Commission provides to South Africa: by admitting the institutional mistakes of the past and washing clean the hands of all South Africans, the Commission allows the country to move forward in redefining crucial relationships of power.

The alleged motive for the van Straatens’ crimes, the affirmative-action hiring of “incompetent” black watchmen, brings up a more troubling question about responsibility. While the state can be seen as responsible for inculcating some of the values that led the van Straatens to resort to violence, how did they choose the outlet for expressing their outrage and sense of powerlessness? Adriaan seems to place the blame squarely on a Robbie Coetzee, a member of the militant Afrikaner Weerstandsbeweging (AWB) who encouraged him to "start an underground cell of some kind which would then allow me to… do things which would in some way help to overthrow government" (222). Noteworthy in the dynamic of this relationship is that none of the van Straaten brothers was a member of the AWB, although both Adriaan and his brother Willem considered themselves "supporters" (243). Their crimes, therefore, are the most distilled form of the troubles between blacks and whites in the apartheid era. These men did not join an organization on the basis of agreement with its principles, and then commit acts of questionable morality on its behalf and under orders, as both blacks and whites did during the struggle against apartheid—indeed, Adriaan remarks that he refused to obtain explosives or assault a petrol depot because these acts were “against [his] principles” and because he “was not a member of the particular organisation or any other organisation at that time” (221). Rather, the van Straaten brothers involved themselves in the conflict in the way that they did because they approved of the particular action that they undertook. In this sense, the AWB itself was not so much a galvanizing force against the anti-apartheid activists and the Nationalist government as an outlet for the sentiments of right-wing Afrikaners who felt that they “were simply left in the cold” (226), in the same way that Adriaan saw his crimes as acts that “gave expression to these principles and the hatred we felt” (229).

One of the most insidious characteristics of the apartheid state was its ability to blur, if not destroy completely, the lines between racially motivated (“hate”) crimes and political acts of violence. As such, one of the Amnesty Commission’s main duties was to separate these two types of crimes, as many of the applications for amnesty involved cross-racial incidents. The creation of a distinction between these two categories was difficult enough for the fine legal and philosophical minds that ran the Truth Commission; the convicts who applied for amnesty were little able to know whether their applications even merited submission. Advocate Mokotedi Mpshe struggled to define the difference to Adriaan, stating that “the fact that it arose from pure racial hatred…that once again shows that it had nothing to do with politics” (232). Adriaan freely admitted this, but insisted that his crime was still political:

MR VAN STRAATEN: Well, as I understand politics, it was the way I was raised, and in my experience the various races were pitted against each other and these were the consequences. (232)

At stake is the critical question of how much responsibility the apartheid regime should take for the van Straaten brothers’ crimes. If the state truly made the distinction between the criminal act of killing a black man and the political act of killing a legitimate enemy as muddy as the van Straaten brothers saw it to be, it is difficult to imagine them being held legally responsible. Understanding this mindset leads one to turn a dark corner in the search for moral responsibility, and it is for this reason that the Commission so vehemently resisted the van Straatens’ position:

CHAIRMAN: Are you saying to us that you don't distinguish between murder committed through political objectives or motivation, on the one hand, and murder committed as the result of pure racial hatred, you don't distinguish between the two, is that what you are saying to us?

MR VAN STRAATEN: That is correct, Mr Chair.

CHAIRMAN: Are you serious? (237)

The definition of the anti-apartheid movement as “political struggle” and not “race war” was a key platform of the African National Congress (ANC), and the acceptance of an amnesty application such as the van Straatens’ would compromise that position. At the same time, however, the position fails to acknowledge the part of the state in creating the atmosphere that saw the van Straatens see blacks as legitimate enemies. After all, mandatory military service saw young South African men sent to fight native independence fighters and black Cuban guerrillas in Angola. As Willem points out, “At that time most of the enemy were black.” (263) Adriaan, even more explicit, states that “I went to the army, I was taught that our enemies were black people” (230). The job of distinguishing between enemies was too difficult for the van Straatens, and it had horrific consequences for their targets and for numerous other South Africans victimized by the racial violence that a manufactured climate of fear inevitably produced.

The van Straatens’ crimes can be seen as emblematic of the conditions that led to both the creation and the fall of the apartheid regime. The “pure racial hatred” that Adriaan talks about was a defining part of his identity as an Afrikaner, as was the belief that “I should live in my own area and they should live in their own areas” (243). These feelings and beliefs helped to form the foundation for the apartheid state. The racialization of just about everything was its consequence, and the institutionalization of social violence supported it throughout the 20th century. Its downfall, too, lay in the logical extremes to which apartheid ideology was carried and the inability of its most loyal ideologues to continue using violence as the sole legitimizer of their authority. The redefinition of South Africa as a non-racialism|non-racial country] made the Afrikaner nationalist struggle essentially invalid, and adherents like the van Straatens were among those who suffered the consequences. The demonstration of their ideological obsolescence was among the key purposes of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and the van Straaten brothers were refused amnesty.

Works Cited

Fanon, Frantz. The Wretched of the Earth. 1961.

Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Amnesty Hearings 09. - 13. September Potchefstroom.