1998, Monwabisi Khundulu sat before South Africa's Truth and
Reconciliation Commission, seeking a pardon for the deaths of a white
farm couple a decade earlier. He had killed them, he said, to advance
the black liberation struggle.
The commission - created by President Nelson Mandela to examine South
Africa's apartheid past and grant amnesty to those who could prove their
crimes had political motives - turned him down. Khundulu's crime, it
found, had been motivated not by politics but by malice.
That would have been the end of it. But last month Khundulu walked
President Thabo Mbeki, acting on the recommendation of his political
advisers, granted pardons to Khundulu and 32 other prisoners, saying the
men had been jailed as a direct result of the liberation struggle. Most
of the 33 were affiliated with his ruling African National Congress
party, and many had, like Khundulu, seen their amnesty requests rejected
by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
Mbeki's act of clemency ignited a firestorm and threatened to mar the
work done by the truth commission up to this point. The fallout also
demonstrated how raw South Africa's wounds remain eight years after
Mandela was elected the nation's first black president and established
the truth commission to help the nation move beyond its past.
After the pardons by Mbeki, opposition parties demanded similar
treatment for their own foot soldiers. Conservative white leaders
immediately cited Janus Waluz and Clive Derby-Lewis, who murdered
prominent ANC leader Chris Hani in 1993. The truth commission had denied
their amnesty requests. Black and white leaders alike renewed calls for
a general amnesty for anyone imprisoned for committing a political
Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the Nobel peace laureate who chaired the
truth commission, was furious at Mbeki. He said the pardons threatened
to undermine the work of the commission just as it was about to issue
the final report on its six painstaking years of hearings.
"It would make a mockery of the Truth and Reconciliation
Commission and eviscerate the entire TRC process," Tutu told the
Sunday Independent in Johannesburg.
The commission was empowered to pardon those - black or white - who
fully confessed their apartheid-era crimes and could prove they had been
politically motivated; it rejected 5,500 requests for amnesty while
granting only 1,200 pardons. Its final report will recommend reparations
for 18,000 South Africans who were victims of apartheid.
The Institute for Justice and Reconciliation in Cape Town also
protested Mbeki's move, saying it was unfair to pardon some prisoners
while most victims were still awaiting compensation.
"A pertinent question needs to be asked: Why are perpetrators
who were denied amnesty apparently favored over victims still awaiting
Mbeki's government sought to play down the importance of the pardons,
calling them routine.
All 33 of the men came from Eastern Cape province, whose premier,
Makhenkesi Stofile, had befriended some of them while he himself was
imprisoned during the late 1980s. Stofile recommended their pardons to
the justice ministry.
"These guys were political prisoners," insisted Phila
Ngcumba, Stofile's spokesman. "The premier has no regrets
whatsoever about recommending their pardons."
In one case, a pardon was granted to a man who had killed two
policemen for what the truth commission said was "personal
gain." In another case, Mbeki pardoned 12 men who belonged to an
ANC-affiliated group that burned four members of a rival gang to death
in what the commission called a revenge killing.
"People feel the TRC was fundamentally flawed, and there needs
to be a general amnesty," said Zingisa Mkhabile, the Eastern Cape
chairman of the left-wing Pan Africanist Congress, five of whose members
were pardoned by Mbeki. "It would definitely close a chapter in the
history of this country."
Sentenced to die
But Mbeki's pardon of Khundulu seemed to arouse as much anger in some
circles as it assuaged in others.
Khundulu and his chief accomplice, Nzimeni Danster, were sentenced to
death for the 1987 killings of Matheus and Jeanette Palvie at their farm
outside Cradock. Even by the violent standards of the times, their
deaths were remarkably bloody.
Khundulu, now 43, was first convicted of burglary at the age of 15.
He led a life of crime and drug use in Cradock, a cauldron of
antiapartheid activity in the 1980s.
In 1987, Khundulu, Danster and two teenagers broke into the Palvies'
farmhouse after being told, falsely, that its occupant was a police
reservist who kept a cache of weapons.
According to court documents, they scoured the house, finding only a
.22-caliber rifle. Then they waited, surprising the Palvies when they
returned from shopping. They killed 63-year-old Matheus with hammers in
the bathroom, and attacked Jeanette, 54, in the kitchen after she turned
over the small handgun she carried in her purse.
Khundulu and Danster were arrested the next day in Lingelihle, a poor
black township outside Cradock where they lived two blocks apart. They
had the Palvie's two guns and household goods - clothes, linens, a
camera, some tools and four cigars.
"It was a plain farm attack, an attack on two defenseless old
people," said former police investigator Mark Whale, who remembers
tiptoeing through the bloody Palvie house. "How could you connect
it to a political act?"
According to a psychological profile prepared for his sentencing in
1989, Khundulu said he developed a deep-seated hatred of apartheid, but
was never an ANC activist. A prosecutor's handwritten comment on the
document notes: "Not political crime."
His death sentence was later commuted to life after the new South
African government outlawed capital punishment.
In 1996, Khundulu and Danster filed a claim with the truth commission
saying they had gone to the Palvie farm to look for weapons to help
support the struggle.
Although their statements were inconsistent with previous evidence,
the truth commission in 2000 granted the two amnesty for the killing of
Matheus Palvie. But it said the attack on Jeanette Palvie was
"disproportionate to the objective of stealing weapons" and
The two prisoners then applied for presidential pardons. Mbeki
granted Khundulu's request but refused Danster's, prompting Danster to
complain publicly that the pardon process was a "scandal."
But most people in the poor black areas of the Eastern Cape, where
there is a lingering sense that black rule has brought few changes, did
not appear troubled by Khundulu's release.
When he arrived at his parents' concrete house last month, he was
greeted by a cheering crowd of ANC youth activists. Then he disappeared.
"I was so happy to see him out of prison," said his mother,
Nozamele Khundulu, 78. "I never expected to see him free while I