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A ruthless defender of apartheid now seeks forgiveness

February 17, 2016 at 6:30 PM EDT
In South Africa, thousands were killed and tens of thousands were detained under the watch of former apartheid-era government official Adriaan Vlok. Once seen by some as the regime’s “face of evil,” Vlok is now seeking redemption by reaching out to the people he helped to oppress. Special correspondent Martin Seemungal reports.

GWEN IFILL: A generation has passed since South Africa ended apartheid. And while the country has made progress towards reconciling years of state-sanctioned, violent oppression, the reckoning continues.

At the same time, there have been smaller, individual efforts to do penance.

Tonight, special correspondent Martin Seemungal brings us the story of a man who was once the very symbol of apartheid, as he tries to make amends.

MARTIN SEEMUNGAL: It is an unusual scene in South Africa, a white man in his late ’70s in a black township delivering free food to the needy.

But it’s not just what the man is doing. It’s who the man is or, who he was. His name is Adriaan Vlok, and he was a cabinet minister during the harshest years of apartheid, known as a ruthless defender of white minority rule over the black majority.

MONDLI MAKHANYA, Writer, “City Press”: Adriaan Vlok was the manifestation of the evil that the apartheid regime was. And he was the worst of the worst.

MARTIN SEEMUNGAL: Mondli Makhanya was an anti-apartheid activist then. Today, he is an outspoken editorial writer for a Johannesburg newspaper.

MONDLI MAKHANYA: From the mid-1980s, I would venture to say, other than President P.W. Botha at the time, he was the most evil man in South Africa, and he was the face of the evil of the apartheid regime.

MARTIN SEEMUNGAL: As minister of law and order, Vlok was responsible for the police, the shock troops in the war against black activists fighting apartheid. A bloody, violent fight, thousands were killed. Tens of thousands were detained, locked up without trial, all under the watch of Adriaan Vlok.

ADRIAAN VLOK, Former Law and Order Minister, South Africa: Hello.

MARTIN SEEMUNGAL: Three decades later now, in the black township of Olievenhoutbosch, Vlok passes unrecognized as he does his rounds.

Vlok visits this township every week, delivering food donated by local supermarkets to three day care centers and a charity for the disabled. He is reaching out to the people he once helped oppress to atone for what he calls the sin of apartheid.

Vlok has always been a devout Christian, but in the early years, he believed in white superiority. His transformation began after the fall of apartheid and the first all-race elections. Over a period of about 10 years, he began to rethink and ultimately repent.

ADRIAAN VLOK: I told about my sins. I submitted to the Lord and said, Lord, I have sinned. Here I am. Please forgive me.

I am not offering any excuses. I cannot offer an excuse that this and this were the reason why I did that. I am — I am guilty. I am sorry. Will you please forgive me?

MARTIN SEEMUNGAL: So, his mission today is about redemption. It’s about reconciliation.

Forty-three-year-old Dinah Sekese runs the disabled center Vlok is helping. As an 18-year-old, she joined the protests against the apartheid regime. She knew who he was.

DINAH SEKESE, Volunteer/Relief Worker: I know the man was — that Adriaan Vlok, for me, was a bad man.

MARTIN SEEMUNGAL: In the several years she has worked with Vlok, she never showed him the scars from the rubber bullets fired by his police in 1986, but, on this day, she did. She told him it happened during a march on a police station.

DINAH SEKESE: Stones go…

ADRIAAN VLOK: From behind you.

DINAH SEKESE: … over me. And I was like — and then I hear pop, pop, pop, pop, in the front. And almost eight rubber bullets hit me. My arms, or you can see all over, here.

ADRIAAN VLOK: I can’t take away that scar, but I can love her and I can help her.

MARTIN SEEMUNGAL: Painful memories for Dinah, poignantly ironic that Adriaan Vlok is the one offering comfort.

Obviously, they were police under your ultimate command.

ADRIAAN VLOK: Yes. Yes. I feel bad. I didn’t feel good about that. I feel sorry that this has happened. And, as I said, I can’t take away their scars. They are there. They are there as a witness to what we did to these people.

MARTIN SEEMUNGAL: The most infamous case linked to Vlok was the attempt to assassinate Frank Chikane.

Reverend Frank Chikane was a key member of the anti-apartheid leadership. In the late ’80s, the apartheid government saw him as a significant threat.

Did you give the instruction to kill Frank Chikane? Or was that — how did that come about? Who made that decision?

ADRIAAN VLOK: His name was put before me, and I said there is an instruction that you could consider killing him. And I said, do it, so I pass it on.

MARTIN SEEMUNGAL: Vlok says he didn’t know how or when it would be done. In 1989, Chikane’s clothes were laced with poison. He barely survived.

In 2006, Vlok confessed to his involvement in and was given a 10-year suspended sentence. But he wanted to do more, an act to underscore his sincerity. In a private meeting with Chikane, he offered to wash his feet. Vlok admits he was afraid.

ADRIAAN VLOK: I have been a guy in this country who had power. I was a minister. And I am Afrikaans-speaking, and I am a white man. And here I am going to bow down on my knees in front of a black man.

And I stuttered. And I asked him the question, “Will you please allow me to wash your feet?”

And he was taken aback. He said, “But why do you want to do that?”

And then we talk a little bit. I said, “Frank, I believe that I have hurt you through apartheid and through what we did to you and your family.”

He said to me, “OK, you can wash my feet.”

And I cried. And I think Frank cried. And he prayed, and I prayed.

MARTIN SEEMUNGAL: The people who work with Vlok in the township do not doubt his sincerity.

DINAH SEKESE: And they say, can you believe Adriaan Vlok can change? I said, I believe what I saw. What I see is what I believe, and then I am ready to tell that Adriaan Vlok has changed.

MARTIN SEEMUNGAL: And they believe he should be forgiven.

DINAH SEKESE: Here in our country, the only thing that we appreciate is when a person comes out and says, sorry. Can you please forgive me? It’s what we want. And I believe it’s something that builds this peace that we have in this country.

MARTIN SEEMUNGAL: But Mondli Makhanya says there is still enormous bitterness among black South Africans because of the crimes committed by the apartheid regime. Not everyone is willing to forgive so easily.

MONDLI MAKHANYA: Ideally, people like Adriaan Vlok should have gone to prison for a very long time. But it was necessary, in the wisdom of Mandela, that, actually, we make those compromises. But forgiveness comes hard.

ADRIAAN VLOK: I think it is of the utmost importance, because if you are not prepared to forgive and to be reconciled, what is the — what is the alternative? It is hatred, I blame you, they blame me, and we will not find each other.

MARTIN SEEMUNGAL: A scene like this would have been unimaginable 30 years ago, South Africa’s most feared apartheid minister embracing young black children singing the national anthem.

Adriaan Vlok says he will dedicate his remaining years to peace and reconciliation one day at a time.

For the “PBS NewsHour,” I’m Martin Seemungal in Olievenhoutbosch Township near Pretoria, South Africa.

GWEN IFILL: Tomorrow, as part of our yearlong series Race Matters: Solutions, special correspondent Charlayne Hunter-Gault reports on similar reconciliation efforts here at home, in Birmingham, Alabama.