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TRC Final Report

Page Number (Original) 201

Paragraph Numbers 1 to 13

Volume 1

Chapter 8

Subsection 1

Volume ONE Chapter EIGHT

The Destruction of Records


1 The story of apartheid is, amongst other things, the story of the systematic elimination of thousands of voices that should have been part of the nation’s memory. The elimination of memory took place through censorship, confiscation of materials, bannings, incarceration, assassination and a range of related actions. Any attempt to reconstruct the past must involve the recovery of this memory – much of it contained in countless documentary records. The tragedy is that the former government deliberately and systematically destroyed a huge body of state records and documentation in an attempt to remove incriminating evidence and thereby sanitise the history of oppressive rule. As this chapter will demonstrate, the urge to destroy gained momentum in the 1980s and widened into a co-ordinated endeavour, sanctioned by the Cabinet and designed to deny the new democratic government access to the secrets of the former state.


2 The focus of the Commission’s enquiry into the destruction of records must be considered within the framework of its need to access documents pertaining to gross human rights violations in the period under review. While an enormous number of records was destroyed, not least as South Africa moved towards democratic rule, many crucial documents survived. These included Cabinet minutes and minutes of the State Security Council. Notable amongst those that could not be traced were the records of the National Security Management System (NSMS), a substructure of the State Security Council.

3 The story of the Commission’s quest to locate these records cannot be fully told in the pages that follow. The correspondence between the Commission’s investigators, researchers and others on the one hand, and nodal points in the various departments of government and security structures on the other, provides a limited insight into some of the difficulties involved in the retrieval process. This correspondence is now in archival custody along with the remainder of the correspondence attached to the retrieval exercise.

4 Extensive requests were made for records in the keeping, especially, of the South African National Defence Force (SANDF), the South African Police Services (SAPS) and the National Intelligence Agency (NIA). These ranged from requests for the personnel files and financial records of the Civil Co-operation Bureau (CCB) and Teen Rewolutionere Inligtings Taakspan (TREWITS) to requests for information on military and police operations inside and outside the country and a range of other activities. There were, for example, investigations into: the East Rand uprisings; train violence; necklace murders; vigilante groups in the Western Cape; the Ama-Afrika movement in Uitenhage and Port Elizabeth; the conflict between the United Democratic Front (UDF) and the Azanian People’s Organisation (AZAPO) or the Azanian Youth Union (AZANYU) in the Eastern Cape; the A-team in Chesterville; the Midlands war, and the conflicts between the African National Congress (ANC) and the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) in KwaZulu-Natal and the ANC and the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC) in exile.

5 While some of this documentation was located and made available, many specific documents were not found. Sometimes this was because the reference numbers of documents identified by Commission staff did not correspond to the index numbers in the inventories of records made available by the SAPS, SANDF, NIA and the South African Secret Service (SASS). In some cases, documents were traced to the inventories of other departments of government although, even where individual files were located, either in hard copy or in electronic form, there were often large gaps. At times, the files contained no more than a single document. Sometimes they were completely empty.

6 The Commission was frequently informed, both by local police station commanders and regional military personnel as well as by nodal (liaison) points in the SANDF and SAPS, that specific documents or whole series of files had been destroyed. At a higher level, for example, General George Meiring is on record as stating that, after the completion of the work of the Kahn Commission of Enquiry into Special Secret Projects, files relating to a number of covert operations were destroyed – providing that no auditing irregularities had been involved. He also said that all files that impacted on the safety of individual persons (which would have included intelligence sources) were destroyed in terms of a 1993 State Security Council (SSC) decision. General Meiring added that Justice van der Walt, who was appointed arbitrator between members of the SANDF and CCB, authorised the disposal of the CCB’s personnel and financial plans.1

7 Although, initially, the quest for files related to particular incidents, it became clear that a more systematic scrutiny of SANDF, SAPS, NIA and SASS files was necessary for purposes of general research and investigation. It also became apparent that the nature and extent of the destruction of documentation for purposes of concealing violations of human rights required further investigation. The Harms and Goldstone commissions of enquiry and the Goniwe inquest had already revealed substantial evidence of this phenomenon and the Currin court case, discussed later in this chapter, indicated that there had been ongoing destruction of documentation. An investigation into the destruction of documents was, in any case, required in terms of the Act.

8 It was initially extremely difficult to obtain access to files in the possession of the SANDF for purposes of systematic research and investigation, due to a number of perceived legal restrictions governing files in the possession of Military Intelligence and other structures within the SANDF. This had a serious impact on the research and investigative work of the Commission which, in turn, significantly affected the outcome of aspects of the findings of the Commission. The Commission also experienced difficulties in initiating an enquiry into the destruction of documentation by the former SADF.

9 The intervention of the chairperson and the vice-chairperson of the Commission, and that of the Minister and Deputy Minister of Defence eventually resulted in some progress. However, the difficulties were only adequately overcome in the later part of 1997, very late in the life of the Commission. This limited the extent to which military documentation could be scrutinised and restricted the enquiry into the destruction of documents by the military, while indicating that there were significant archives which were not adequately examined.

10 On the other hand, the co-operation of the Minister of Safety and Security, the secretariat of the SAPS, the Commissioner of Police and other ranking officials in police structures allowed for a more extensive investigation into records management by the SAPS. Co-operation was also received from the Deputy Minister for Intelligence and the structures of the civilian intelligence services, as well as those who facilitated the enquiry into the records of Correctional Services and the Department of Justice. This ensured a very adequate, though due to time and logistic constraints, necessarily selective enquiry into the record keeping of these departments.

11 The Act specifically required that the Commission “determine what articles have been destroyed by any person in order to conceal violations of human rights or acts associated with a political objective” (section 4(d)). Sections 29 and 32 of the Act gave the Commission wide-ranging powers (to secure, examine and copy articles; to gain entrance to, inspect and search premises; and to seize and remove articles) of vital importance to fulfilling this mandate.

12 This task was both complex and extensive in scope, posing a number of interrelated questions:

a How to determine the motive behind an individual’s destruction of a particular document, especially when the content of the document was unknown and related documents had not been located?

b How could the Commission even determine the existence of a particular record when it had been destroyed, together with all documentation that pointed to its existence?

c How was the Commission to investigate, comprehensively and impartially, the record-keeping practices of private individuals, businesses, non-governmental organisations (NGOs), trade unions, liberation movements, other structures of civil society, political parties, three levels of government and other state structures over more than three decades?

13 Given the constraints imposed by time and resources, such a task was not feasible and more narrowly defined parameters had to be identified. Therefore, the investigation was limited to the destruction of state records for a number of reasons. First, their status as public records accords them a high level of public interest. Second, statutory regulation of record keeping by state structures provides a comprehensive measure against which to judge the management of records, including their authorised and unauthorised destruction. Third, state records constitute by far the largest coherently defined aggregate of records. Fourth, scrutiny of state records offers a high level of insight into the system that gave rise to so many of the gross human rights violations under the spotlight of the Commission. And finally, the destruction of state documentation probably did more to undermine the investigative work of the Commission than any other single factor.

1 In a letter dated 16 June 1997 in response to an enquiry over the signature of the Deputy Chairperson of the Commission.
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