Mhambi has been redeployed.

Saturday, December 08, 2007

Of reputations and truth

This week Eugene de Kock took umbrage at a passage in Christi van Westhuizen's book, White power - the rise and fall of the National party.

He briefly succeeded in halting sales of the book, and Zebra press, its publishers have agreed to remove the offending section, and republish.

The problematic passage reads.

"Another example would be Eugene de Kock, braaing and drinking for hours next to a corpse that they had set on fire."

De Kock claims that this is untrue and tarnishes his reputation.

In the book, Christi attributes the allegation to ex Nationalist minister Leon Wessels.

I myself have heard this claim on BBC Radio 2 in 2004. The BBC journalist’s guide to Vlakplaas made the claim.

Christi has remained defiant and is fighting the case in court. Her argument all turns on whether De Kock could indeed have a reputation.

Can a killer have a reputation?

"Media lawyer Dario Milo, acting for Van der Westhuizen, said the case involved fundamental issues of media law.

In particular whether De Kock could have been awarded an order given that his reputation is already tarnished.

Faizel Ismail, acting for Van der Westhuizen, said in sentencing De Kock to two life sentences plus 212 years imprisonment Justice Willie van der Merwe at the time called him a cold-blooded, calculating, multiple murderer who tortured his victims callously and without compassion."

And according to press reports she won her action on Friday, although the judge declined to give reasons for his decision until next year. By that time the book would have been sold many times over during the Christmas season. Mhambi wonders whether he needs time to think of some?

Van der Westhuizen said afterwards that the ruling was a victory for freedom of expression, specifically where people like Eugene de Kock was seeking to silence her on a section of South Africa's history during which human rights abuses occurred.

The ones terrorist is the others liberation soldier

In a fractured society like South Africa reputations are fractured. During the 80's the courts saw their way open to give damages to an individual, who had been 'besmirched' by being called a communist. It would not provide remedies for those who had been accused of being apartheid ideologues. The opposite court verdicts would probably be true today.

Jacob Zuma's behaviour towards women and utterances about homosexuals would render him unelectable in many countries, yet it would seem the vast majority of South Africans want him President.

Our health minister is according to some reports a petty thief. On the one hand that she is not litigating to protect her reputation indicates that the courts might find against her on the grounds that the allegation is true and in the public interest.

On the other hand that she has not been fired indicates that the ANC does not see her reputation as being so damaged as to be an electoral liability.

Crook honor, Soldier honor

In this fractured landscape De Kock has to some a sterling reputation. Names are like brands. And brands are built on reputation. Eugene de Kock's name was used by more than one black Koevoet member as name for their children. That is a pretty strong endorsement.

De Kock was held in extremely high esteem.

It's no secret that Koevoet - created by De Kock - was one of the mainstay's of the previous governments counter insurgency war against SWAPO in Namibia. No unit had a higher kill rate. Neither is it a secret that Vlakplaas, who he came to command had been geared up to fulfill a similar role internally, if more clandestinely.

Eugene no doubt will claim that he was a soldier at war. That his job was to kill, a job he was decorated for. And unlike Tony Montana in the Scarface flick's twisted and bemusing sense of gangster honour, Eugene's reputation was officially backed by a one section of our society, the Police and the Nationalist Government.

But even in our divided society one could argue that Eugene's reputation had been compromised by his actions as head of the Vlakplaas Unit. Particularly those times late in his career where he was not acting within a political ambit and orders. One of these ordinary criminal events for personal gain in the winter of 1992 was indeed the only one he went down for.

What about Truth?

So De Kock's reputation is damaged, even within his own moral universe. But is that the point?

Whether a damaged reputation makes one fair game for further allegations seems odd, if not unjust.

When an allegation is made that damages a person’s reputation there is - if I am not mistaken - two crucial aspects that have to be considered.

One is that the allegation must be of such a nature that indeed it must be damaging to a persons reputation. And I would argue that this is one such case. Not because De Kock is identified again as a killer, he is now a sick and bizarre one.

The second is that the allegation must have been untrue. If an allegation is true, it can be made in the public interest regardless of how damaging it could be. This case is clearly in the public interest.

Mhambi finds it peculiar that Christi – a respected journalist - does not attempt to prove the allegation true. Afterall in such a fractured society, its all the more important we try and stick to truth as closely as possible. The court record of De Kock’s case, as well as his and other Vlakplaas member’s amnesty applications are public records. Does the truth not lie there?

She instead acknowledges that this passage is hearsay.

Is Van der Westhuizen saying that it’s ok to repeat a claim about an incident, as if it is true, if this has not been established? Especially when the claim is made by individuals - like Police minister Leon Wessels - that are trying to dilute their responsibility for apartheid crimes?

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