La vengeance est un plat qui se mange froid – revenge is a dish best served cold.
It’s a widespread expression with British, French, and Afghanistani claiming its roots. It was used by Don Corleone in The Godfather in 1969 and by Khan Noonien Singh in Star Trek II, The Wrath of Khan in 1982.
There are two separate dramas playing themselves out in our country at this moment and both are driven by thirst for revenge.
First, the case of Robert McBride. Born 6 July 50 years ago to a Wentworth, Durban family, he went on to become a member of uMkhonto we Sizwe. On 14 June 1986 at age 22, he led the MK team that bombed the Why Not restaurant and Magoo’s Bar in Durban. The attack killed three women and injured 69 people.
McBride was captured and convicted for the crime. He was sentenced to death, but was reprieved while on death row. He was released in 1992 because his actions were deemed to be politically motivated. He was granted amnesty for his actions by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission after the ANC confirmed that they had ordered the bombing.
Second, the case of Wouter Basson, born 3 July 63 years ago. (I don’t know where and to whom.) In 1981 at age 30, when working as personal physician to state president PW Botha, the Surgeon-General hired Basson to work for and form 7 Medical Battalion Group, a specialist unit of the South African Military Health Services. Basson’s job was to collect information about other countries' chemical and biological warfare capabilities under the name Project Coast.
Basson subsequently became the head project officer working on the apartheid government’s chemical and biological weapons capability. He recruited about 200 researchers from around the world and received annual funds equivalent to $10 million.
When FW de Klerk became president in 1990, he ordered the production of the chemicals to be stopped and the lethal agents destroyed.
In 1996, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission began to investigate Project Coast.
Basson appeared before the TRC on 31 July 1998 and gave evidence for 12 hours but refused to seek amnesty. The Commission determined that Basson had been the primary decision maker in Project Coast and should be put on trial.
The trial began on 4 October 1999 in Pretoria. Basson faced 67 charges, including drug possession, drug trafficking, fraud and embezzlement of R36 million, 229 murders and conspiracy to murder and theft.
The state called 153 witnesses. Basson called only one – himself. His testimony lasted 40 days. On 22 April 2002, 30 months after the trial began, the judge dismissed all the remaining charges against Basson and granted him amnesty.
The state appealed the judgment due to legal inaccuracies, but the Supreme Court of Appeal refused to order a retrial in 2003.
Fast forward to today where both men find themselves on trial yet again.
First, the case of McBride. His name has been put forward by police minister Nathi Mthethwa to head the Independent Police Investigative Directorate. The Magoo’s Bar bombing is now once again in the public eye, being hailed as the main reason why McBride is unsuitable to hold office. Opposition parties and most mainstream media are calling for McBride to not be appointed.
Second, the case of Basson. After the State failed to prove its case in the highest courts of the land, it went after Basson through the back door. The Health Professions Council of SA, a statutory body, charged Basson with misconduct for acting unethically by providing disorientating substances for cross-border kidnappings, and making cyanide capsules available for distribution to operatives for use in committing suicide. That hearing has gone on for the past six years. They will deliver their findings on 18 December.
Which brings me back to my opening point: The core idea is a wise one. When one embarks on revenge, do so with a clear head, not one clouded by emotion.
I find the actions of both McBride and Basson during the apartheid era to be unconscionable. Innocent people died as a result of their actions.
The fact that McBride was on my team – the team of the majority of this country – does not make me less uncomfortable with those deaths.
The fact that both men are now free is no justice for the families of those who died.
But both men acted during a time of war, and both men were part of a chain of command. I do not agree with the defence that “I was only following orders”, but the fact is that in 1994, we went to the polls drawing a line in the sand.
We committed to putting the past behind us. Both men, by that commitment, are free citizens.
It is the prerogative of the minister of police to put forward the name of McBride as head of the IPID, distasteful though that may be to many of us. It is the prerogative of Wouter Basson to practise as a cardiologist to patients who are happy to trust to his skill, distasteful though that may be to many of us.
The millions upon millions spent persecuting McBride and Basson would have been put to better use benefiting their victims. The millions upon millions spent upon lawyers in the Marikana inquiry would have been put to better use benefiting the victims.
We are not learning.