Richard Goldstone damaged SA, not just Israel

Anthea Jeffery says the judge has behaved in a partisan fashion before

Judge Richard Goldstone's recent report on conflict in the Gaza strip adjoining Israel has been severely criticised by many, including the chief rabbi of South Africa, Rabbi Warren Goldstein, and Mr Benjamin Pogrund, a South African born journalist and author now living in Israel. However, neither Messrs Goldstein and Pogrund, nor a host of other commentators seem to realise that key Goldstone reports on political violence in South Africa are as fatally flawed as the Gaza report which has drawn such widespread condemnation.In his critique of Judge Richard Goldstone's recent report on conflict between Israel and Hamas in the Gaza strip, Rabbi Warren Goldstein notes that ‘law is a very powerful weapon to give respectability' to political agendas. The underlying objective of the United Nations (UN) as regards Gaza was to delegitimise Israel and build up Hamas, says Goldstein.  Whether wittingly or otherwise, the Goldstone report promoted that agenda by:

- accepting the untested allegations of Hamas officials as established fact,

- ignoring relevant testimony about Israeli self-defence and efforts to limit casualties,

- overlooking the declared aim of Hamas to destroy Israel, and

then rushing to impute the worst of actions and intentions to Israel. As Goldstein writes: ‘[The report] looks like law, but it is not. It is just politics.'

Benjamin Pogrund, an author and former journalist for the Rand Daily Mail, is also sharply critical of Goldstone's report on Gaza. He criticises Goldstone for having accepted a biased investigative mandate from the UN, for retaining on his commission of inquiry a person who had already proclaimed Israel guilty of war crimes in Gaza, and for condemning Israel alone rather than providing ‘a fair presentation of the mix of history, religion, culture, and politics making up...a complex situation'. Pogrund contrasts these failings with the excellent job Goldstone supposedly did in South Africa in ‘revealing horrendous details about murder squads set up and funded by the former [National Party]   government'.

What few commentators seem to realise, however, is that the Goldstone report on Gaza is reminiscent of what the Goldstone commission did in South Africa in the early 1990s. The commission was chaired by Goldstone and mandated to probe the upsurge in political killings that began with political liberalisation in 1990 and cost the lives of 15 000 people, mostly black civilians, between then and the April 1994 election.

The African National Congress (ANC) had a motive to engage in political violence in the early 1990s, for its declared strategy was to take part in constitutional negotiations while persisting with the people's war it had begun in 1984. It also had the means to launch attacks, for early on in the talks it had used its professed commitment to peace to attain the legal return of at least 13 000 Umkhonto we Sizwe combatants, whom it then refused to demobilise or disarm. The ANC was also the only organisation to benefit from the violence, achieving this through a major propaganda campaign which blamed the killings on the police and the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP), supposedly acting together as a sinister Third Force. This campaign soon had great impact on public perceptions, helping to build sympathy for the ANC and loathing for the IFP, its principal rival.

The Goldstone commission's wide powers of investigation should have enabled it to cut through propaganda to ascertain the truth. Instead, in a manner reminiscent of the Gaza report, Goldstone's most important report on violence in KwaZulu/Natal:

- accepted the untested allegations of the ANC as established fact;

- ignored relevant evidence about the role of Umkhonto in violence; and

- overlooked the ANC's declared ‘dual strategy' of talking peace while waging war.

When Goldstone conducted this inquiry in late 1992, KwaZulu/Natal was the epicentre of ANC/IFP conflict and the bulk of political killings were happening there. Proper investigation and a balanced report by Goldstone could have done much to reveal the truth and help put an end to conflict. In this instance, Goldstone also had particularly comprehensive testimony before him, for the ANC, the IFP, and the police had all made submissions to him as to the course and causes of the conflict.

Both the police and the IFP submissions gave details of Umkhonto's role in violence and its use of the Transkei as a base for launching attacks on the IFP in neighbouring parts of KwaZulu/Natal. The police testified, moreover, that the ANC was ‘waging an aggressive war' on the IFP ‘by military means' in the region, while the IFP was ‘disadvantaged in its resistance to the ANC's onslaught [because it] lacked the quantity and sophistication of the weaponry available to the ANC'. 

However, instead of probing these submissions and providing reasoned arguments for rejecting or supporting them, Goldstone seemed simply to ignore them. He also made no comment on the information given him about the targeted killing of some 240 IFP leaders since the ANC/IFP conflict began. Instead, Goldstone seemed willing to accept at face value ANC statements that it was no longer involved in violence. In addition, Goldstone's recommendations were either naive (that Child Welfare should help promote political tolerance) or else implicitly endorsed the ANC's perspective and singled out the IFP for blame.

On the crucial issue of the Third Force, Goldstone initially stood firm in the face of ANC pressure. In April 1992 he said there was ‘no evidence' of a Third Force in the form of a ‘sinister and secret organisation orchestrating violence on a wide front'. Instead, he identified ‘the primary cause' of violence as ‘the political battle between supporters of the ANC and the IFP'.

Two years later, however, when the ANC stood on the cusp of victory, Goldstone issued a flawed report which implicated both IFP officials and three senior police generals in Third-Force violence. This report, released a month before the April 1994 election, was particularly useful in further discrediting both the IFP and the state president, F W de Klerk.

The ‘evidence' behind Goldstone's report was weak, for the report was based primarily on the allegations of a minor Vlakplaas operative, Chappies Klopper, an accomplice in alleged wrongdoing whose evidence should have been treated with particular caution. In addition, when Klopper's allegations were later put to the test (in the trial of former Vlakplaas commander Colonel Eugene de Kock), major weaknesses in his testimony - which should have been apparent to Goldstone - were revealed.

Two former policemen, both part of Goldstone's special investigating team at the time of the 1994 report, told the court that Klopper had been given some R90 000 soon after he had testified to Goldstone. Though they could not explain why this payment had been made ‘secretly and in the dark', the trial judge commented that ‘the logical conclusion' was that Klopper had been paid to talk. The court also described Klopper as a mendacious witness who had ‘an exceptional gift to lie and to deceive'. 

The bulk of Klopper's allegations - which Goldstone seemed to accept at face value - have never been substantiated. But Goldstone nevertheless implied their truth, while suggesting that the IFP officials and police generals in question were intent on ‘destabilisation' and ‘aborting the election'. This provided particularly powerful grist to the ANC propaganda mill, which used it to the full at this critical juncture.

As in the case of the Gaza report, Goldstone seemed willing to use his judicial office to give credibility to unsubstantiated allegations which endorsed the perspective of one party to conflict and undermined its opponent. Whether he intended to benefit the ANC is largely immaterial, for he must have foreseen that this would be the outcome of his flawed reports.

Goldstone's failings on the Gaza dispute have been widely criticised, undermining the credibility of his report and limiting the damage it might otherwise have done. But Goldstone's failings on political violence in South Africa, though similar in many ways, have never been acknowledged. Instead, they have long helped the ANC conceal its role in violence and attain a moral stature that is richly undeserved.

- Dr Anthea Jeffery. Jeffery is Head of Special Research at the South African Institute of Race Relations and author of People's War: New Light on the Struggle for South Africa, recently published by Jonathan Ball Publishers.

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