'he was not an enemy'

Don Makatile

Don Makatile

Normally when people meet for the first time after nearly 20 years, there's a lot of hugging and kissing and the odd shedding of tears.

Though the hugging did take place, no one cried at the unusual reunion - the book launch of Peter Harris' In A Different Time, the story of the Delmas Four, at Constitution Hill in Johannesburg.

The quartet - Jabu Masina, Ting Ting Masango, Neo Potsane and Joseph Makhura - were sentenced to death by a somewhat reluctant Judge Marius de Klerk on April 27 1989.

Though De Klerk found extenuating circumstances in the conduct of the men during their treason trial, which was enough to spare them the death penalty, it was the finding of his two assessors, a Mr De Kock and a Dr Botha, that finally carried the day.

Among the charges the MK guerillas faced were the much-publicised July 1986 Silverton bombing and the deaths of black police officers Orphan Chapi, carried out by Masina, and David Lukhele, who died with his sister Elizabeth Dludlu after being shot in an AK-47 rifle attack by Potsane.

Though dubbed the Delmas Trial, a small Mpumalanga town which also hosted the more famous Treason Trial of Popo Molefe, Moss Chikane and Terror Lekota, it was moved to Pretoria. The sentencing was to be in a court whose jurisdiction the four had sworn not to respect. The four were, however, released in June 1991 after years on Death Row.

When they met last Thursday with De Klerk, now retired and, as he says, enjoying his coffee in the sun, it was for the first time after the sentencing on that winter's day in 1989.

The first thing De Klerk asked Masina was a tongue-in-cheek quip: "Have you killed any police officers lately?"

Masina now works for NIA, the national intelligence agency.

Says De Klerk: "The judgment were my views. The sentencing was something totally different. Though I was against the death sentence, I was overruled by the two assessors and, as the mouthpiece of the court at the time, I had to pronounce the death sentence."

In the book Harris remembers the judge saying, for his part: "I am therefore of the opinion that these extenuating circumstances are significant enough to render the peremptory imposition of the death sentence improper and that a sentence within the discretion of the court be requested."

In explaining the triumph of the two assessors, De Klerk is again quoted saying: "In respect of questions of fact the finding of a majority, that is to say two members of this court, is binding. In respect of legal questions, the judge alone decides, but this is a factual question, and not a legal one. With a majority of two to one, the court finds that no extenuating circumstances exist and the finding is made in respect of all the charges of murder."

And, understandably, after this, Harris says in the book: "Darkness crushes everything in my head."

De Klerk, 76, says the predominant thought in his head was that his meeting with the men he had sentenced to die would contribute towards the groundswell of reconciliation.

A judge for 15 years, he was only in his second year in the hot seat when the Delmas Four appeared before him.

Masango says they had always wanted to meet with De Klerk as they never regarded him as an enemy: "We've always considered his pronouncements at the trial as historic. It boosted our morale and justified our actions. We've always wanted to meet him and pass on this message."

Masango works as a radio bulletin writer for the SABC.

The event was organised by Jenny Crwys-Williams as part of her book club.