He deserved the death penalty but received forgiveness

‘On Christmas Eve 1996, a specialist hit squad of the Afrikaner Weerstandsbewegining (AWB) shattered the post-1994 peaceful transition to a democracy with theirpowerful bombs.

The bombs ripped through the Shoprite shopping centre in Worcester in the Western Cape, which was packed with last-minute shoppers. The squad of right-wing fanatics – who were all members of the notorious Israel Vision religious sect – were Koper Myburgh, Cliff Barnard, Jan “Voetbol” van der Westhuizen and Stefaans Coetzee. They planted one of the bombs in the shop’s huge Christmas tree for maximum human suffering and maximum deaths. Mercifully, two of the bombs did not go off.

But as the dust and debris settled on the bloody scene, bodies were strewn all over, with four people dead and 67 injured. Three children and one adult died in the blasts and another two victims died later from their injuries. The youngest in the bomber squad was Stefaans Coetzee, who had just turned 17. Coetzee, who grew up in an orphanage in Winburg in the Free State, was not born a right-wing fanatic. He did not start his life believing that people of colour were “mud people”, as propagated by members of the Israel Vision cult.

He was inducted into the doctrine of the Israel Vision by the same man who saved him from the orphanage ,and whom he regarded as his father. This man, Jan “Voetbol” van der Westhuizen, took him under his wing and taught him how to build and plant bombs. Apart from the Worcester massacre, Coetzee also assisted in blowing up power lines near Beaufort West in the Karoo and the bomb attack on the De Doorns train tunnel. “I always regarded Jan as my father and never questioned anything he taught me,” Coetzee told people close to him.

Today, Coetzee says he is a changed man; he’s not bitter, and believes his wasted youth behind bars was part of his healing process – a process kicked off by three major life-changing events since 2009. One of these was his introduction to Eugene de Kock, who would in time become a fatherly figure to him as well. Coetzee was still a hardened racist and right-wing fanatic when he met De Kock – the former commander of the notorious Vlakplaas unit of the police from the Apartheid days – in Pretoria Central prison.

De Kock convinced Coetzee three years ago to turn his back on the ideology of the Israel Vision and to start a new life. De Kock recently told the Daily Maverick he went out of his way to open up at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) hearings, and he believes that the Worcester Bombers, as they are known, should do the same and show real remorse for their deeds before they can be considered for pardon.

He shared the cell block with the Worcester Bombers in Pretoria Central for the past few years and managed to convince Coetzee to strive for change. De Kock managed to convince him, after months of talking and counselling, to turn his back on the doctrine of the Israel Vision sect. Another major influence in Coetzee’s decision to turn his life around was meeting one of his victims. The ageing Olga Macingwane was still limping from the damage done by Coetzee’s 1996 bomb when she walked towards him that morning just before Christmas, ready to face him.

She had been paying for groceries when the first bomb went off. "I was so scared to come here, especially at this time of year [Christmas],” she said of her meeting with Coetzee in 2009. “I didn't expect a special day like this." She told him: “Stefaans, when I see you, I see my sister’s son in you, and I cannot hate you. Come here, my boy, I forgive you; I have heard what you said, and I forgive you. Let him go free.” And then in February 2011, two Imams, who were at the receiving end of the wrath of right-wing bombers who attacked mosques in the run-up to the 1994 elections, paid him a visit in jail and suggested he should embark on a mission of reconciliation working with the youth of South Africa once he was released from jail.

Coetzee has since described his life as a teenage terrorist to a trusted friend who assisted him in finding peace in his life and helping him in draft his pleas for reconciliation with his victims. The woman, who asked not to be named, visits Coetzee every weekend in jail. She is also the go-between liaising with him and The Restitution Foundation, which started the reconciliation project in collaboration with social justice movement Khulumani. Coetzee, with a boyish look and shy smile on his face, says he does not believe that his 16 years in jail were a waste of his time. “Unlike other teenagers, I had to write my matric exams behind bars.

I never had a matric farewell and no 21st birthday party, but my time here allowed me to make peace with myself and to prepare me for the reconciliatory path I would like to take when I am a free man one day.” A request to the jail authorities in 2011, to allow Coetzee to be transferred to the Western Cape to attend a gathering of victims in Worcester on National Reconciliation Day, was turned down; somebody else read out his message begging forgiveness: “Dear victims, since early childhood I battled to find my space in the sun.

Life threw me with many lemons and at the time of the bombing, I projected what I believed was right, into a deed impacting the lives of many innocent people, the community, my family and myself. I will only be able to comprehend the full impact on the day I will be able to face you in person. “In prison I requested a Bible and timeously searched out the truth. The truth started to fill my veins with oxygen and awaken my zeal for a new beginning by opening my heart in 2006 to participate in programs such as Khulisa, Mind Power and Restorative Justice.

Embracing the truth of God’s Word, as well as the genuine care of people, [has] contributed to my sincere remorse, crying out for forgiveness and accepting Jesus Christ as my Saviour in 2007. Soon thereafter a desire was born in my heart to personally meet the victims whom I have wronged. This dream was fulfilled in 2009 when Olga Macingwane visited me in prison. I did not expect her to forgive me, but the love in her heart imparted grace and forgiveness which resulted in freedom beyond understanding.

During the years I have learnt that happiness is created from within. There comes a time to let go of hurt by crushing the lemons thrown to me and to make lemonade from it”. Many of the survivors of the bomb attacks in 1996 returned to the same spot in 2011 to listen to Coetzee’s testimony.

This unusual gesture was met with applause and while his friend read out the apology, it was met with a heavy silence and quite a few tears from the people. This historic event on the road to reconciliation in South Africa was the culmination of a two-year restitution project aimed at healing the town’s Apartheid wounds.

Since the 2011 meeting, the community-based Worcester Restitution Project has gained widespread support. This was the start of the reconciliation project in collaboration with social justice movement Khulumani.

In November 2011, the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation (IJR) bestowed its 11th annual Reconciliation Award on Olga Macingwane in Cape Town for her continued commitment to community reconciliation since she travelled to Pretoria in 2009 to face one of her perpetrators in order to tell him she forgave him. Receiving this prestigious award, Macingwane said: "When Stefaans was created by God I was not there, when I was created Stefaans wasn't there. I said to Stefaans, ‘I will pray for you to come out of Pretoria prison so that we can work together in order to change this SA.

Maybe God elected me and you to use for a better South Africa.’" This tiny woman’s belief in “live and let live” had been such a huge inspiration for the other victims that it was announced on Monday during this year’s National Reconciliation Day remembrance in the Worcester town hall that a “Peace train” with all 67 victims on board would leave for Pretoria early next year to meet with Coetzee in jail. “We requested permission from correctional services for Coetzee to be transferred to Worcester for Monday’s day of remembrance, but that was not possible,” said Dr Deon Snyman of the Restitution Foundation. “We then decided to put the victims on a peace train to go [and] meet with Coetzee in Pretoria.

Snyman and Dr Marjorie Jobson, national director of the Khulumani support group for the victims of crime, are the driving force behind this initiative. “We don’t want to force anybody to forgive Stefaans, but they will now have the opportunity to meet one of their perpetrators and decide for themselves,” said Snyman. “We want the victims to come to terms with the trauma they had to endure.” ‘ Coetzee was released on parole in July 2015.

In May 2016 he ran the Comrades Marathon for the victims of the 1996 bombing – see http://www.news24.com/SouthAfrica/News/my-pain-cant-compare-to-pain-of-my-victims-worcester-bomber-20160531

Source: https://www.dailymaverick.co.za/article/2012-12-20-meet-the-youngest-worcester-bomber-now-a-poster-boy-for-reconciliation/#.

WLQSIH_l_UI http://www.timeslive.co.za/sundaytimes/2011/07/03/Stefaans-Coetzee-is-the-face-of-restorative-justice1 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IsfZhLfUEZY


Washing feet in act of forgiveness

Adriaan Vlok was Minister of Law and Order in South Africa from 1986 to 1991, in the final years of the apartheid era. Facing increasingly intense opposition and political unrest in this period, the South African government – through the State Security Council of which Vlok was a member – planned and implemented drastic repressive measures, including hit squads, carrying out bombings and assassination of anti-apartheid activists.

His position as minister became especially controversial after 1990 during the negotiations to end apartheid, with the African National Congress insisting on his dismissal. President FW de Klerk responded by moving him to a less controversial post as Minister of Correctional Services in July 1991. In 1993–1994 he was the last chairman of the minister's council of the House of Assembly, the white chamber of parliament. In 1999, Vlok was granted amnesty by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) – the sole cabinet minister to have admitted committing crimes, including the bombing of the headquarters of the South African Council of Churches at Khotso House, and the COSATU trade union headquarters.

In mid-2006, Vlok came forward with public apologies for a number of acts that he had not disclosed to the TRC, and for which he could therefore be prosecuted. In a dramatic gesture, he washed the feet of Frank Chikane who, as secretary-general of the South African Council of Churches, had been targeted by Vlok for assassination. Subsequently, he washed the feet of the ten widows and mothers of the "Mamelodi 10", a group of anti-apartheid activists who had been lured to their death by a police informant.

He said he had become a born again Christian prior to his public apologies for his actions as Minister of Law and Order and cites this as the cause of his change of heart about his role in apartheid and his need to seek forgiveness. President Thabo Mbeki commented on the event: “I was deeply moved that an elderly Afrikaner, with Adriaan Vlok’s history and pedigree, could speak as he did and break with his past in the manner he has.

What his words and actions said to me was that our society, which includes those who matured under circumstances very different from today’s, is gradually growing out of its traumatic past...the gesture was from a committed Christian, who said that if Jesus Christ could do it, he could also.” On 17 August 2007, the High Court in Pretoria handed him a suspended ten-year sentence for his role in the 1989 plot to kill Frank Chikane.

In 2014 he publicly called for more apartheid era perpetrators to come forward and apologise for their actions. As of 2015 he started and runs a child feeding charity named the Feed a Child initiative. (Source https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Adriaan_Vlok and http://www.joymag.co.za/article.php?id=90 )

Reconciliation in its purist form

Amy Biehl was a white American graduate who came to South Africa during its transition to democracy as a Fulbright scholar in 1993. As she drove a friend home to the township of Gugulethu, outside Cape Town, on August 25, 1993, a black mob pulled her from the car and stabbed and stoned her to death.

The attack on the car driven by her was one of many incidents of general lawlessness on the N1 Freeway that afternoon. Bands of toyi-toying black youths threw stones at delivery vehicles and cars driven by white people.

Four people were convicted of killing her. In 1998, all were pardoned by South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission when they stated that their actions had been politically motivated. Biehl's family supported the release of the men. Her father shook their hands, stating, “The most important vehicle of reconciliation is open and honest dialogue... we are here to reconcile a human life [that] was taken without an opportunity for dialogue.

When we are finished with this process we must move forward with linked arms.” In 1994, Biehl's parents, Linda and Peter, founded the Amy Biehl Foundation Trust to develop and empower youth in the townships, in order to discourage further violence. Two of the men who had been convicted of her murder worked for the foundation as part of its programs. (Source https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Amy_Biehl ) While Amy Biehl found herself in the wrong place at the wrong time, the gift of her life has been the ongoing inspiration this young individual continues to provide across the world.

The story and the subsequent brave journey undertaken by Amy's parents and those who took her life continues to inspire and serve as an example of what can be accomplished, even in the face of great tragedy, when anger and rage do not drive human interaction – see article by Marianne Tham https://www.dailymaverick.co.za/article/2015-07-29-amy-biehl-and-her-killers-gift-to-south-africa-the-enduring-power-of-restorative-justice/#.WLBE83_l_UI

King Moshoeshoe the Great

King Moshoeshoe founded the Basotho nation with remnants of refugees from other clans during the Lifaqane wars some two hundred years ago.The Lifaqane (or mfecane in Zulu) is an African expression which means something like "the crushing" or "scattering".

It describes a period of widespread chaos and disturbance in southern Africa during the period between 1815 and about 1840 (www.sahistoryonline.org.za). Moshoeshoe was known for his outstanding diplomacy, tolerance, generosity and compassion. According to historians of the time he learned all this from his mentor, chief Mohlomi, another prominent figure in Basotho history because of his unparalleled wisdom during his time.

He had taught Moshoeshoe to; ‘deal justly with all, especially the poor; to love peace more than war and never kill anyone accused of witchcraft’. His leadership and his actions in dealing with conflict, violence and harm have been hailed as an example of how traditional Basotho justice specifically, and traditional African justice generally, is restorative. (Qhubu N “The Development of Restorative Justice in Lesotho” unpublished paper presented at the Association of Law Reform Agencies for Eastern and Southern Africa Conference, Cape Town 14-17 March 2005).

The story is told of King Moshoeshoe that the upheavals of the Lifaqane drove some people to cannibalism. A group of cannibals, who lived in the area of Thaba Bosiu, a mountain fortress that Moshoeshoe eventually secured, captured his grandfather Peete, killed and ate him. ‘One can hardly imagine the terror this incident must have caused among the people trudging through the dark in dispersed groups. When Moshoeshoe’s followers tracked down the leader of the cannibals, Rakotsoane, and those who ate Peete, everybody expected the king to order their killing – especially in light of the decisive role the old man had played in his grandson’s development.

But Moshoeshoe did something unexpected and extraordinary. He pointed out that the bodies of the cannibals now contained the body of his grandfather, and that to kill them would be to dishonour Peete’s grave. He therefore requested that the traditional funeral and grave rites be performed on them, which involved the contents of cattle intestines being smeared on their bodies. He then gave them cattle, ordered them to stop eating people, and allowed them to live near the royal household.

This was unheard of. What was especially disarming was the logic behind Moshoeshoe’s decision: killing them would simply make him part of the larger killing sprees of Shaka, Manthatise and Mzilikazi that were devastating the area. Emphasizing the cannibals’ digestive connectedness to Peete, and through the grandfather to himself as king, he opened up the possibility of change.

Through rituals, cattle and a safeguarded home, the cannibals could change their habits and earn their place back in the realm of humanity from which their behaviour of devouring fellow human beings had expelled them’. (Antjie Krog, Begging to be black, 2009, p26)