Nicknamed “Prime Evil”, Eugene de Kock was the commanding officer a counter-insurgency unit of the South African Police that kidnapped, tortured, and murdered numerous anti-apartheid activists during apartheid era. He was recently granted parole after serving 20 years of his 212 prison sentence.
Pierre de Vos reacts to his release by arguing that it is time to confront the evil of apartheid, not only of De Kock who defended it:
What De Kock did was monstrous – far more monstrous than anything an ordinary beneficiary of apartheid did. Whether he deserves to be granted parole is, therefore, at the very least, debatable. But singling out De Kock as particularly evil is also comforting for those of us who benefited from apartheid and continue to do so because of its lingering effects.
It’s an archetypal example of “Othering”. We pinpoint one wrongdoer (the torturer in the attic) in order to obscure our own complicity in upholding and benefiting from the system in whose name De Kock committed his crimes.
Supporting the prosecution and conviction of De Kock and his continued incarceration, and insisting on depicting him as uniquely evil, allow us to avoid having to confront the fact that the system itself was evil through and through.
It helps us white South Africans who lived through apartheid (or whose parents did) to retain the idea that we were, for the most part, “decent” people – lawyers, accountants, government clerks, railway workers, doctors, school teachers, insurance brokers – who read and discussed the merits of good books and movies with friends, who went to the opera and the symphony concert, who swooned over the yodelling Briels, who cried when that dog was killed in that children’s movie, who treated our servants with condescending kindness. In our own minds we would never, ever deliberately endorse cruelty and violence towards others.
Yet, we benefited from the system whose very raison d’être was to oppress and exploit others and to uphold and defend the sham superiority of whites and what is ironically termed “Western civilisation” – the same “civilisation” that produced Hitler, Stalin, Vietnam and Iraq, and embraced and benefited from slavery and colonial oppression.