Reconciliation or Chaos?

Despite a fragile peace and a long public effort to heal the wounds of apartheid, South Africa remains a society of haves and have-nots.

Image: Stuart Cahill/Sipa Press

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The silver spoon makes a delicate tinkling sound as the Rev. Frank Chikane stirs his tea. He slowly brings the gold-rimmed teacup to his lips. His cheeks pucker from the hot drink, and in a studied motion he places the teacup down on its saucer. Then, with an almost eerie calm, as if talking about something that happened to someone else, Chikane tells me about the time the former South African government tried to kill him by lacing his clothes with poison.

“We were traveling [in Namibia] toward the north when I was hit,” he recalls. Chikane became dizzy, his vision blurred, and then he vomited. Soon he could barely breathe. His companions rushed him to a remote mission hospital where some German doctors were working. “For five hours those doctors battled to keep me alive,” he says. He recovered without understanding what had happened to him; doctors and colleagues attributed his near-death experience to exhaustion. A relapse two weeks later would be even more severe. Chikane pauses. “They are not nice stories to talk about,” he says with an incongruous smile. “It just takes you back again and again, which you don’t want to do.”

Chikane is director general in the office of Deputy President Thabo Mbeki, the man who, it is widely assumed, will succeed Nelson Mandela as president of South Africa following the national elections scheduled for June 2. South Africa on the eve of the post-Mandela era is a place where everything has changed and nothing has changed. The black majority has achieved political power, but most blacks remain mired in poverty. The years of apartheid still provoke the rawness of recent memory, thanks in part to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), which continues its grim task of documenting the atrocities committed by the former government long after its original December 1997 deadline for wrapping up business.

No one is more emblematic of South Africa’s dilemma — trying to move forward while still haunted by the long shadows of apartheid — than Mbeki’s top lieutenant. I found Chikane in Tuynhuys, the stately Dutch colonial building in Cape Town that houses the office of the president. To reach Chikane’s office, you pass through bleached white Roman columns into a sitting room adorned with portraits of South Africa’s former leaders. Strijdom, Verwoerd, Vorster — the architects of apartheid peer down solemnly on the interlopers inhabiting this inner sanctum. Chikane, born in 1951, is a short, trim man, meticulously attired when I first meet him in an avocado Dior shirt, pleated black trousers, and polished black leather shoes. He has an easygoing formality about him, exuding at once the poise of power and the warmth of an old friend. He smiles often, and with his whole face. One could mistake his friendly demeanor for that of a man who enjoys hanging out and spinning yarns of the struggle. But Chikane is consumed by his calling. He is perpetually on the run, seemingly racing against a trickling hourglass in his mission to save South Africa. His cherubic face stretches into a taut smile as he gently scolds me for taking his time. It is only with great prodding that he recounts the story of his poisoning at the hands of apartheid’s foot soldiers.

In May 1989, two weeks after he first mysteriously fell ill in Namibia, Chikane left for the United States, along with Archbishop Desmond Tutu, as part of a high-profile church delegation that was to meet with President Bush and congressional leaders to urge them to increase pressure on the apartheid government. Within 24 hours of arriving, Chikane began to feel as though he were going to die. Just as in Namibia, he was felled by vomiting and blurred vision, and had difficulty breathing. Three times he was rushed to the hospital on the brink of death; he lost consciousness for 12 hours and was placed on a ventilator during his most serious attack. It took his baffled American doctors several weeks to discover that a highly toxic pesticide had been placed in his clothing — the same clothing he’d been wearing when struck in Namibia. Despite his having endured five detentions and numerous rounds of torture during the previous decade, this was the closest the apartheid state had come to killing Chikane.

But it’s not his would-be murderers who most trouble him, Chikane tells me. “The damage that apartheid has done [is] beyond one’s imagination,” he says. The most difficult effect to eradicate “is in the economic field, the poverty.” Sadistic cops and haunting memories “you can fix very easily.”

Chikane invites me to join him the following week at his home in Soweto. He and his family occupy a new, two-story home, surrounded by ornately scrolled 12-foot-high security gates, in Diepkloof, a neighborhood once dubbed ” Beirut” for the running street battles with police that used to take place there. His bedroom overlooks the Diepkloof Hostels, drab human warehouses that were a flash point of factional fighting in the early ’90s. Most of his government colleagues, he concedes, have abandoned the townships in favor of the formerly white suburbs; this black middle-class flight is a source of bitter resentment among some Sowetans. He shrugs, “We’ve decided we’re going to stay with the people around here.”

Sitting in a new stuffed chair, Chikane makes light of the fact that he hasn’t had the time to set up the house. “I’ve been too busy,” he confesses sheepishly. Inevitably, our conversation drifts to politics. “We never realized during this whole apartheid struggle — this whole moral fight — how it really worked. This house,” he says, taking in with a sweep of his arm the material kitsch his neighbors can only fantasize about, “has no value.” It was built in Soweto, a place where no one aspires to live. Unable to sell their homes, blacks have no way to obtain loans, and thus no capital to invest in a business. The situation reflects the simple genius of apartheid, a system that carefully and methodically manufactured poverty.

Soweto is an appropriate yardstick by which to measure progress in the new South Africa. I pile into the Chikanes’ government-subsidized BMW to go to church — Chikane’s wife, Kagiso, and their three sons wedged in beside me — and we are soon surrounded by the geography of poverty. Somewhere between 2 million and 4 million people live in Soweto, an acronym for its apartheid moniker, South-Western Township. Corrugated metal shacks are shoehorned in behind brick houses. Open sewers run through the shantytowns. But vibrant life also thrives here, with shebeens (illegal bars) and nightclubs sprinkled throughout the neighborhood, and kids playing noisily on every street. Soweto captures the fundamental contradiction in South Africa today: Blacks have achieved political power, but have little economic clout. And so the poignant emblems of change — blacks running Parliament, squatters moving into their first homes, multiracial classrooms in formerly all-white schools — butt up against the ubiquitous signs of poverty.

The problem of matching reality to expectations has dogged South Africa’s new leaders. The government has taken great leaps in providing housing, health care, and education to those who had none. But measured against the people’s enormous needs and their wild expectations of how life would change once apartheid fell, the government has done almost nothing. Nelson Mandela, a saint, is above blame for his government’s failure to deliver on its promises. Thabo Mbeki, a mere politician, will be given no such leeway.


Paul Erasmus sits opposite me on a lounge chair, his head perpetually enshrouded in a swirling haze of cigarette smoke. The former secret policeman, born in 1956, is dressed in a black leather jacket, navy polyester pants, and a shirt open to midchest. His gut bulges over his belt, and his beard is flecked with gray. After we shake hands, he begins smoking Winfield cigarettes, one after the other.

Erasmus was a member of the dreaded security branch of the South African police. From 1976 to 1993, Erasmus killed, smeared, and harassed enemies of the apartheid state at the urging of his masters. But in 1994, after a dispute with a commanding officer, he became one of the first security operatives to expose the government’s sponsorship of foreign and domestic terrorism during apartheid. In testimony before the Goldstone Commission, convened by Judge Richard Goldstone as part of a national peace accord in 1991 to investigate the violence that beset South Africa, he detailed the inner workings of the former government’s vast security apparatus. In subsequent testimony before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Erasmus revealed, explosively, that former President F.W. de Klerk, while publicly negotiating with Nelson Mandela and the African National Congress (ANC) from 1990 to 1994, was secretly trying to destroy them. Erasmus would know: He ran an international smear campaign against Mandela and his former wife, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, before and during the negotiations, and knew how police were arming black vigilantes as a shadowy “Third Force” that murdered thousands of people in an orgy of township violence preceding the 1994 election. In the new South Africa, betrayal is an ex-cop’s ticket to salvation.

When I first met Erasmus, in late 1996, he had just applied to the TRC for amnesty for 87 acts he had committed as a security cop — among them the attempted stabbing of Desmond Tutu in 1981, the firebombing of St. Mary’s Cathedral in Johannesburg in 1988, and aspects of the assassination attempts against Chikane in 1989. Erasmus’ application is one of more than 7,000 that the TRC has received; it currently has a backlog of 1,500 cases.

The TRC was formed in late 1995, to “[bring] about unity and reconciliation … based on the principle that reconciliation depends on forgiveness and that forgiveness can only take place if gross violations of human rights are fully disclosed.” Its most controversial responsibility was the awarding of amnesty to killers. Amnesty would be denied only if the applicant failed to make a complete disclosure of his or her crimes, if those crimes were not politically motivated, or if the deeds were disproportionate to the political goals. Interestingly, the commission has also heard numerous cases of human rights abuses by erstwhile liberation groups. In a surprising development in March, the TRC rejected a bid by the leadership of the ANC for collective amnesty, leaving Thabo Mbeki and his colleagues open to the unlikely prospect of being sued by victims of guerrilla attacks, or by discontented ANC members who suffered from the sometimes-brutal internal discipline of the liberation movement.

As a member of the security branch, Erasmus was a feared interrogator. His methods of persuasion included burning, choking, beating, drowning, and administering electric shocks. “How could you do these things?” I ask him, as we sit across from each other in the living room of the bed-and-breakfast where I am staying. He stares glumly at me before responding. He first killed a man in 1981 while working with a feared counterinsurgency unit in Namibia. “I think having killed somebody, one crosses a certain line. It makes it easy to do it a second time round,” he says. “Every time you are exposed to something like that, just a little part of you either dies or hardens.”

Erasmus tells me that he put Chikane’s name on a death list, and that he and his partner scouted Chikane’s residence one night to test its security. But he claims it was his partner who returned later to place poison in Chikane’s clothes, and insists he was unaware that the scouting operation would lead to an attempt on Chikane’s life. I had heard this kind of distancing before from former enforcers. I tell Erasmus that I don’t believe him, and that I don’t think the TRC will, either. He seethes for a moment, takes another drag on his cigarette, and coldly stares back at me. Exasperated, he says, “Very rigidly applied in the security branch was the need to know. If you didn’t need to know it, you didn’t know it. You weren’t told. It wasn’t prudent to push someone and demand to know what he had been doing.”

Many of Erasmus’ major revelations have been corroborated by the Goldstone Commission and the TRC. But some of his public confessions are clearly motivated by self-interest — he is trying to sell an autobiography that no one seems to want, and is grasping for a more palatable public persona than that of ex-killer. Erasmus’ caginess is typical of many former security operatives who are now disclosing their past misdeeds to the TRC and the courts. Like them, Erasmus is busy crafting an image of himself as a monster with a conscience.

Nevertheless, I feel a certain guilty sympathy for the vanquished assassin. He was a regular guy who got caught up in a world where morality was turned on its head. His value in the old South Africa was measured in the amount of misery he sowed. He is now shattered by the deeds he committed.

Erasmus tells me that he has survived two assassination attempts by former colleagues, and that his 14-year marriage disintegrated in early 1997. As we stand outside talking late one night, his eyes dart at every movement in the shadows, and he flinches at loud noises. “I’m suffering from post-traumatic stress syndrome — what you Americans would call ‘Vietnam Syndrome,'” he says. “I guess you could say this is the spoils of the conflict.”

Speaking of his desire to play a constructive role in the new South Africa, Erasmus wonders out loud whether he has “wasted his life.” He has contacted many of his former victims to express remorse for what he did. In June 1995, Erasmus called Frank Chikane to apologize for his role in the botched assassination attempt. Chikane astonished the ex-cop by forgiving him.

I later asked Chikane why he had absolved his former tormentor. “It was easy to understand [him],” Chikane replied. “You grow up in an Afrikaner family. You’re made to believe all this stuff, and they take you at 18 years. You become a policeman to deal with these guys who are causing the trouble, and you do it with all your being and your heart, believing that you’re doing the right thing.”

At the same time, Chikane scoffs at the way Erasmus deflects blame. “[Perpetrators] have the tendency of telling the story around other people rather than themselves,” he muses. “Erasmus’ whole story will always end up with somebody else killing, not himself.”

And Erasmus is not alone. Throughout the TRC’s hearings, everyone from government officials to township youths has blamed the worst acts on others, or on society itself, while carefully maintaining his or her own innocence. Former President de Klerk has set the pace, claiming to be ignorant of all the apartheid crimes that occurred during his five-year presidency — a period in which 14,000 people died in political violence.


In the new South Africa, opportunism has become the key to reinventing oneself. Former enemies have become friends, and erstwhile allies now vie against one another for political power. But even within this topsy-turvy reality, Erasmus has taken opportunism to breathtaking new heights, allying himself with his most famous former target, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela. Prior to her own testimony before the TRC in November 1997, she asked Erasmus to appear at a press conference on her behalf. There he declared that his intensive surveillance of her when he was a cop had turned up no evidence that she was involved in the 1989 murder of Stompie Sepei — a 14-year-old activist who was killed in Madikizela-Mandela’s Soweto home. (Many activists accused her of sponsoring a “reign of terror” in that community throughout the 1980s.) Erasmus later reiterated this assertion in testimony before the TRC, but the commission was not persuaded. In a report issued last October, the commissioners found Madikizela-Mandela guilty of “gross violations of human rights.”

Erasmus and Madikizela-Mandela — who remains a member of Parliament and president of the African National Congress Women’s League — continue to be in regular contact. They meet frequently, traveled together on an AIDS fact-finding mission to Kenya last July, and have waged a joint crusade for an untested — and now banned — AIDS treatment program. Madikizela-Mandela’s spokesman, Sipho Zimba, confirms that this unlikely friendship is genuine and says that Madikizela-Mandela does not hold Erasmus’ past against him. “Paul was taking orders — he was not making decisions himself,” Zimba says. Madikizela-Mandela, he adds, is herself “a soldier and she understands that.”

Erasmus is clearly staking much of his hope for a new life on his association with Madikizela-Mandela. But his staunch defense of her has prompted skepticism. The TRC noted in its October report that, of all the major witnesses who testified about Sepei’s murder, Erasmus was alone in insisting that Madikizela-Mandela was not involved in his death and its subsequent cover-up. Erasmus insists that his friendship with her “very much symbolizes what the new South Africa is all about.” But Erasmus’ association with South Africa’s most famous — or infamous — woman seems to provide him with a curious sense of having redeemed himself for his past misdeeds; or perhaps it simply helps keep his name in the news. This, in itself, may be enough for a former strongman who is now drifting to the margins.


With the deep fault lines that divide the society, it is remarkable that South Africa has not boiled over into open warfare. But the absence of war should not be mistaken for reconciliation, which may simply be too much to ask at this early juncture. “Reconciliation” implies mutual acknowledgment of wrongdoing between former antagonists — and that does not exist in South Africa. “Peaceful coexistence” more accurately describes the fragile post-apartheid truce.

Such coexistence cannot be taken for granted. The peace that has reigned in South Africa took root under the persistent prodding of Mandela and Tutu, who have made forgiveness a matter of patriotic duty. As these moral beacons pass from the scene, old animosities may yet resurface.

The gulf between hope and reality, between the haves and the have-nots, is the fuse awaiting a spark in South Africa. Presidential heir apparent Thabo Mbeki knows this, and he also knows that he will not enjoy a long honeymoon in his new job. Mbeki warned in May 1998 that the government’s failure to deliver on its promises was “producing rage among millions of people”; he hinted darkly that the country could “explode.” But absent a strong hand from the government, whites have shown no appetite for willingly doling out the spoils of apartheid’s plunder. And despite Mbeki’s warning, the government has done little to rebalance the skewed scales of wealth. Mandela succeeded against the odds in unifying a deeply fractured society. With his departure from center stage, South Africans are now realizing that their long wait for redemption has just begun.

For Frank Chikane, the acid test for South Africa’s new leaders is how their policies will help his country’s poorest people. As I drive with him and his family through Soweto to church on this brilliant Sunday, I ask him how long he thinks it will be before change trickles down to the neighborhoods of his youth. “I would say generally that there hasn’t been a dramatic change, because you could never have it — you’d need a Marshall Plan with lots of resources from outside,” he replies. “We don’t have that.” So change in South Africa “is going to happen in small portions, which is painful, you know.”

He wheels his luxury car around some deep potholes and pulls up to his modest stucco church. Children swarm the car, smiling and patting the shiny window. He tucks his cell phone into his jacket and reaches for the car door, then pauses and turns to me. “In economic terms, not much has changed. What has changed is that people can be human, can be themselves, can have their rights.”

Adapted from David Goodman’s book Fault Lines: Journeys Into the New South Africa, published this spring by the University of California Press.


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Mother Jones was founded to do things differently in the aftermath of a political crisis: Watergate. We stand for justice and democracy. We reject false equivalence. We go after, and go deep on, stories others don’t. And we’re a nonprofit newsroom because we knew corporations and billionaires would never fund the journalism we do. Our reporting makes a difference in policies and people’s lives changed.

And we need your support like never before to vigorously fight back against the existential threats American democracy and journalism face. We’re running behind our online fundraising targets and urgently need all hands on deck right now. We can’t afford to come up short—we have no cushion; we leave it all on the field.

Please help with a donation today if you can—even just a few bucks helps. Not ready to donate but interested in our work? Sign up for our Daily newsletter to stay well-informed—and see what makes our people-powered, not profit-driven, journalism special.

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