Interview with Justice Richard Goldstone: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

Law and the Search For Justice; Interview with Justice Richard J. Goldstone, Judge, Constitutional Court of South Africa, Former Chief Prosecutor for the International Tribunals for Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia; by Harry Kreisler, 4/14/97
Photo by S. Beth Atkin

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The Goldstone Commission

At the end of Apartheid when the transition began, a dialog began between the various parties, the blacks, the coloured community, and the white community. The game changed and there was movement toward a new South Africa. And at this moment in your country's history you were named chairperson of the Commission of Inquiry Regarding Public Violence and Intimidation, which came to be known as the Goldstone Commission. Tell us your mandate and what you set out and did.

The mandate was to investigate and to report on the causes of political violence and intimidation which was plaguing the country. Some 20,000 people died in the ten years before the release of Nelson Mandela, and it became even worse after his release and after the un-banning of the liberation organizations, the African National Congress and others. This is the reason that the commission was established as part of a peace accord which was brokered in September 1991. And my four co-commissioners and I were chosen with the concurrence of all the political parties. There was unanimity on the identity, so there was that consultation, without which at that point I wouldn't have become involved. I only agreed to do it, and then reluctantly, because it was a very difficult mandate. But we were given very wide powers, some powers which I'm happy to say are now unconstitutional in our country. But as chairperson of that commission I had the power to order my own staff, my own investigators, to search and seize anywhere in South Africa. Now that's a very extraordinary power in any country. But it became a vitally important power because using those powers we were able to at least lift the veil on some of the third force activity, some of the security force activities, which were still going on in the '90s notwithstanding the negotiation process. But we held 142 public inquiries into specific instances of violence, assassination of Chris Hani, the shooting in Bisho. We also had theme investigations into matters such as the rule that should apply, at that time, with regard to mass marches and demonstrations which were occurring on a daily basis. And later a similar inquiry into ways of reducing the potential for violence and intimidation in the first democratic election in April 1994.

But very importantly, when there would be an incident, a hearing would be convened and people would be able to publicly air their perception of what happened, and then your investigators could go to work.

It was done quickly. In the important cases that I mentioned, within less than a week there was the beginning of a public inquiry with public evidence; the media present, including television. And that clearly helped calm the nation. I think if people know that steps are being taken to investigate and to get the truth and to make the truth public, the tendency for revenge, for taking the law into one's own hands, is reduced considerably.

And the most important revelation came toward the end of the commission. Let's talk a little about what was uncovered. A disaffected policeman came forward and had some things to tell you. What exactly did he tell the commission? I believe you actually were meeting secretly with him? Tell us a little about that.

Well he was terrified for his life, literally, and for good reason. I mean, he was putting himself at tremendous risk. He became disaffected; one of the reasons was one of his colleagues in all probability was murdered by one of the people in his group. It was made to look like a suicide. He was a member of a notorious unit called Volkplass, which committed many, many murders. This has now been proved in the trial against its then leader, Colonel Eugene deKock. But this man, a man called Klopper, came to me and told me some of the things, made revelations with regard to the people involved. These allegations I don't think came as a great surprise to most thinking South African because one knew this sort of thing was happening. What was new was that it was still happening, after the deKlerk policy was put into operation. He gave information which I was able, again by using search and seizure powers and so on, to confirm. And other witnesses then literally broke down under a non-public cross examination. We had, again, wide powers. We didn't have to do everything in public. And we had subpoena powers. And this led to evidence against the most senior members of the police force, the Deputy Commissioner of Police and other senior generals in the police, having been involved during this whole period in third force activities.

Which in essence was the selling of arms and engagement in terrorist acts, working with the various factions that were in society.

Correct.

And the fact that the government would allow this revelation to happen must have been quite a blow for democracy and the future of South Africa.

Oh, undoubtedly. I must say that when I was appointed I'd sat on two previous judicial commissions of inquiry. One into a suicide of the boyfriend of the Mandelas' daughter, and the other was into the shooting by South African police into a crowd of 50,000 marchers. I think the government knew that I wasn't going to be party to a cover-up and that anything I found would be made public, even though it had to be made public, under the law, through the president. But I never had any serious opposition -- probably more because the powers knew that it wouldn't work -- but in fact it was a fairly good, cooperative relationship that I was able to build not only with the government but obviously also with the African National Congress.

Next page: The Truth and Reconciliation Commission

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