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Evidence of Government Assassinations Resurrects Painful Memories : S. Africa: People like Mbulelo Goniwe are survivors of a war. They lived through years of death threats and sleepless waits for overdue spouses, relatives and friends.

August 02, 1992|MICHAEL A. HILTZIK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

PORT ELIZABETH, South Africa--Mbulelo Goniwe thought he had witnessed the worst the South African security police could do. He lived through years of police harassment as a political activist and saw the mutilated, burned bodies of his uncle and friends in 1985 after their apparent abduction and murder by government agents.

But he says he has never been so frightened as after what he calls the "revelations"--the publication this past spring of a document apparently containing the official order for military officers to have "removed from society" three local anti-apartheid leaders: his uncle Matthew Goniwe, his associate Fort Calata--and himself. The document was dated two weeks before Matthew Goniwe and Calata disappeared.

"When I saw Matthew's and Fort's mutilated bodies that day, I cried," Goniwe recalled one day recently from his desk at the African National Congress' Port Elizabeth headquarters. "But when I saw that what happened to Matthew was something that was also waiting for me, I got very frightened. Since then, I haven't been able to sleep."

People like Mbulelo Goniwe are survivors of a war. They lived through years of death threats and sleepless midnight waits for overdue spouses, relatives and friends. Many were left with fatherless children, no means of support and lonely quests to persuade skeptical and hostile South Africans that the survivors' friends and family members had been assassinated.

There are dozens of unsolved deaths among anti-apartheid activists; journalist Jacques Pauw, author of a book detailing the activities of one notorious police hit squad, estimates that as many as 230 activists may have been assassinated by government security forces between 1974 and 1991.

Today documentation of the killings is beginning to emerge. But interviews with friends and relatives of Goniwe, Calata and other slain activists suggest that they are confronting the increasing evidence of a government assassination campaign with mixed feelings. Some are relieved at a second chance to prove government complicity in these deaths. Others are uneasy about reopening the old cases.

But all are in a unique position to assess the relevance of the disclosures to today's South Africa. To many of them, the copies of assassination orders and confessions by hired state killers, which lately have filled the pages of the country's liberal press, give an insight into the mentality that may be at work now, when the government has been accused of fanning black factional tensions for its own ends.

"They've moved from killing individuals to killing masses," said Nyame Goniwe, the widow of Matthew Goniwe.

Not all the survivors of slain human rights figures are political activists themselves. But many agree with the aims of a resurgent campaign to unearth the extent of state killings before the imposition of a general amnesty for political violence, which government negotiators have proposed at constitutional talks.

"We must expose as much as possible so people understand what happened," said Margaret Friedman, the girlfriend of David Webster, a sociologist and human rights worker gunned down in front of their Johannesburg home in May, 1989. His killing has been linked to the Civil Cooperation Bureau, a shadowy military unit unknown before the first investigation into his death.

"I don't think there can be a general amnesty without a full investigation," Friedman said. "There are too many things in the closet."

Mbulelo Goniwe added: "We're not looking for prosecution of individuals. You want proof--who did it, on whose instructions."

The Webster and Goniwe killings are the most prominent among suspected assassination cases today, in part because new inquests have been announced for both.

They are also linked by the personalities of their victims. Webster and Goniwe were both engaged not in violent revolt, but in consciousness-raising--in Goniwe's case, of the black tenants whose opposition to a rent increase he organized, and in Webster's case, of students and academics he brought into human rights groups.

They would be especially valuable in South Africa today, when two years of progress toward a multiracial constitutional accord has stalled over mounting uneasiness about the government's past and present behavior and its evaporating moral authority.

"Matthew was a man of many talents, educated, disciplined, morally upright," recalled Nyame Goniwe. "He was very down to earth, very accessible."

He was also staunchly nonviolent. When an angry mob once threatened to disturb a political trial taking place in Port Elizabeth, the local police summoned Goniwe from the courtroom, where he was a spectator, to calm the crowd.

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