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Apartheid-Era Rulers Plead 'Not Guilty' in Murder Trial

By Dele Olojede
DURBAN, South Africa

Some of this country's most powerful former white rulers were formally charged with murder Monday, beginning a process of accounting for the sins of apartheid that for the first time goes beyond mere foot soldiers to the very top of white power.

Former Defense Minister Magnus Malan and an array of retired army generals were charged with masterminding the January 1987 massacre of 13 blacks, including several preschool children, as they slept in their home in a township near this Indian Ocean coastal city. The murders, prosecutors contend, were part of a plan to prolong white minority rule.

Among the 20 people allegedly responsible for a "sorry sight of crumpled bodies" were former army chief Kat Liebenberg and Tiene Groenewald, the former head of military intelligence - graying men with wisps of carefully trimmed mustache who sat in silence as the first witnesses began recreating the night when the killers surrounded the little house in kwaMakhutha and shot everything to pieces.

Their not-guilty pleas served as the opening bell for a case that has become part of a process of baring state-sponsored criminal activity that served the ideology of white supremacy. Next month, a Truth Commission will begin taking confessions from those who, like Malan, allegedly committed apartheid-era atrocities. In exchange for full disclosure of their crimes, those who come forward will be rewarded with a state pardon.

"This prosecution will cast a shaft of judicial light into a corner of our history which has hitherto been dark and secret," chief prosecutor Tim McNally said in his opening arguments Monday. "It is a process of truth and justice."

Among those in the dock was M.Z. Khumalo, one of the closest confidants of Zulu Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi, who allegedly served as clandestine liaison between the Zulu leader and South Africa's white rulers. Khumalo has also purportedly been involved in several secret collaborations that link Buthelezi, the most prominent black opponent of President Nelson Mandela, to apartheid authorities.

Buthelezi's name features prominently in the more than 300-page indictment. Though not formally indicted, the Zulu leader allegedly initiated secret meetings in 1986 with apartheid authorities to provide him with 200 paramilitary operatives to help neutralize the African National Congress.

The project, code-named "Operation Marion," was illegally authorized by Malan, defense minister in the cabinet of former President P.W. Botha, prosecutors said. Some of the trainees, allegedly selected by Buthelezi's aides, eventually showed up at House No. 1866 in kwaMakhutha township on the night of Jan. 21, 1987, and opened fire on 13 people.

The house belonged to the Ntuli family, a member of which was an anti-apartheid activist. The Ntulis were hosting a prayer meeting, and their home was full. Among those who died were five of the six children of Ernest and Faith Thusini, who lived in a little outbuilding in the back.

"The sorry sight of crumpled bodies and evidence of some 153 spent AK-47 cartridge cases at the scene project a scenario of indiscriminate firing at all of the occupants of the premises, irrespective of age or gender," McNally said.

Buthelezi's Inkatha party has condemned the trial as a sham, and about 100 of his supporters demonstrated at the courthouse Monday, before police dispersed them with water canons after the demonstration got a bit rowdy.

This is a political case," said Velaphi Ndlovu, an Inkatha member of South Africa's Parliament who has been observing the legal proceedings. "They have no evidence whatsoever and they can't indict the leader."

Prosecutors have denied local newspaper reports alleging that they decided not to indict Buthelezi for political, rather than legal, reasons. Buthelezi is seen as the leader of Zulu traditionalists, who fervently oppose the ruling African National Congress and in whose province more than 10,000 people have died in political violence in the past decade.

McNally said he did not plan to call Buthelezi as a state witness, although he left the door slightly open to that possibility. The trial is expected to last several months.