The following is an analysis of FW de Klerk’s recollections of the “Cradock Four” incident.

First, it is important to understand how security matters were dealt with by the PW Botha government. Arising from his view that South Africa was facing a “total onslaught”, President Botha established a National Security Management System to oversee and coordinate the government’s responses to the revolutionary threat. The State Security Council oversaw the work of 12 Joint Management Committees which, in turn managed sub-committees and 486 mini-centres throughout the country – all of which gave the security forces a dominant influence in the government of the country.

FW de Klerk was strongly opposed to the role accorded to the security forces in what he regarded as matters that should be the responsibility of civilian departments. He was not a permanent member of the SSC – and was never part of President Botha’s securocrat inner circle.

Secondly, as he attested on many occasions, there was never any discussion of extra-judicial actions – such as the killing of opponents – at any of the government meetings that he attended – including meetings of the cabinet and the state security council. It is now evident that such actions were carried out by elements in the security forces – but that they occurred outside formal government structures on a strictly “need to know” basis. They were never discussed with civilian ministers and departments – or even with the great majority of those involved in the security forces.

The reason for this secrecy was the knowledge that extrajudicial acts – especially murder – would have been unacceptable to most members of the cabinet and SSC – and particularly to the non-security members. As FW de Klerk told the TRC on 21 August 1996:

“Allow me to use the tragic Goniwe case as an example to illustrate what I am trying to get across when I state the limitations on me and my colleagues to supply all the answers to unanswered questions: If I or the previous government had known what had happened and who had committed the crime , the perpetrator(s) would have been tried and – if found guilty – sentenced.”

The fact that extra-judicial actions were not discussed at cabinet and SSC meetings is clear from the absence of any references to such matters in the minutes of their meetings. The one exception was the very ambiguous statement at the SSC meeting of 19 March 1984 by Barend du Plessis, then Minister of Education and Training, that “in Cradock there are two former teachers who are acting as agitators. It would be good if they could be removed”. In a statement on 28 May 1999, Mr Du Plessis made the following points in response to an article in the Mail and Guardian about the Cradock Four:

  • “I never suggested that Mr Goniwe or anybody else for that matter, be killed.
  • In the light of events in Cradock at the beginning of 1984, which adversely affected education in the local schools, I accepted the Department’s proposal that Mr Goniwe be appointed to another school.
  • However, it soon became clear to the Department of Education and Training that it would be in the overall best interest that Mr Goniwe be reappointed to a school back in Cradock.
  • After my appointment as Minister of Finance in August 1984 my successor and his Deputy Minister, Mr Sam de Beer, actively pursued Mr Goniwe’s return to Cradock. They considered appointing him as Headmaster of one of the Cradock schools. However, they met with strong resistance from security quarters. While still exerting themselves to this end, Mr Goniwe was killed in June, the following year – in 1985.
  • In his recently published book, Adv Bisos (who played a key role in the TRC and amnesty process involved in the Goniwe killings), acknowledges the efforts of the then Deputy Minister of Education and Training, Mr Sam de Beer, to secure Mr Goniwe’s return to Cradock.
  • The simple and obvious fact is that my role in the appointment of Mr Goniwe to another school early in 1984 had nothing whatsoever to do with his killing more than a year later – particularly in view of my successor’s efforts to reappoint him to a school back in Cradock.” 


On the same day, FW de Klerk issued a statement in which he said that “after 15 years, neither Barend du Plessis, who was then the minister responsible for black education, nor I can remember whether the word ‘remove’ was ever used in the Security Council discussion on this matter.

“What we can remember is a perfectly legitimate decision to reemploy or redeploy Mr Goniwe and the other teacher to another teaching post, away from Cradock – which at that time was a hotbed of revolution.”

Mr Goniwe was subsequently offered a post in Graaff-Reinet.

“Later, in September, 1984, the then deputy minister responsible for black education, Mr Sam de Beer, actually wanted to bring Mr Goniwe back to Cradock and appoint him as headmaster at one of the local schools, because he had been impressed by his qualities as a man and a teacher. He was still pursuing these efforts in June 1985 when Mr Goniwe was murdered, as has since been revealed, by elements within the security forces.”

When FW de Klerk became president in September 1989, he took decisive steps to normalise the role of the security forces and to get to the root of persistent media allegations regarding the illegal activities of elements within the security forces:
¥ he called together the senior officers of the Police and SADF and ordered them to limit themselves strictly to their statutory roles;
¥ he dismantled the National Security Management System;
¥ he appointed the Harms and Goldstone Commissions – and gave Judge Goldstone all the support that he needed to carry out his investigations into the instigation of violence;
¥ following the Inkathagate revelations, he instructed the Kahn Commission to terminate any questionable secret projects; and
¥ in November 1992, he appointed General Pierre Steyn to investigate Judge Goldstone’s allegations regarding the CCB. He took draconian action after Steyn reported on continuing aberrations within Military Intelligence.

Most importantly, for the purposes of this matter, FW de Klerk ordered a second inquest into the deaths of the Cradock Four in response to revelations in the New Nation newspaper regarding their murders. The second inquest, conducted by Judge Neville Zietsman, began on 29 March 1993 and reached a verdict 18 months later that the security forces were responsible for their deaths – although no individual was held responsible.

The Cradock Four were among the tragic victims of brutal political violence that killed more than 23 000 people between 1960 and 1994 during the revolutionary struggle against apartheid and white domination. FW de Klerk dedicated his presidency to dismantling apartheid and to negotiating a new constitution in which all South Africans would enjoy all the fundamental rights and freedoms promised by the Bill of Rights.