TWICE a week, an elderly white man drives a battered pick-up truck to deliver free food around a township where few would guess that he was once a much-feared figure in South Africa’s apartheid regime.
Adriaan Vlok, the former law and order minister, oversaw brutal police policies that suppressed public anger against racist white-minority rule, which was eventually overthrown with Nelson Mandela’s election in 1994.
Now a 77-year-old widower, Vlok seeks redemption from his past by opening his house as a refuge for the vulnerable and distributing food to poor black families.
In the late 1980s, he was responsible for covert bombing operations that targeted church buildings and trade union headquarters, and he even tried to kill an anti-apartheid priest by poisoning his underwear.
“It was our job to make people fear us, because… they were fighting and coming for us,” Vlok told AFP as he prepared his next food delivery.
“We had the emergency regulations to lock up people without taking them to court, so people were afraid of the police. I believed that apartheid was right.”
Today Vlok lives in the suburbs of Pretoria in a modest house that he shares with a black man who repairs furniture in the garage, a former convict who killed his own wife, and a white family who was homeless.
Without any escort or protection, he drives a few miles (kilometres) to the township of Olievenhoutbosch with his car loaded with trays of food donated by local supermarkets and bakeries.
There, the man who once sent in the riot police, distributes pies, sandwiches and cake to hungry families, a children’s daycare centre and a disabled charity.
Vlok never served time in prison for his self-confessed crimes, and many black South Africans believe that apartheid leaders evaded real justice while the country’s poor were left to live in tin shacks.
For Vlok, a born-again Christian, it will be a lifetime’s work to try to atone for his sins—and he knows that many of those who suffered do not forgive him.
“I feel ashamed of many things I have done. I was hard, I was heartless towards people, I locked people up,” he said.
“I supported apartheid, I maintained apartheid, therefore I believe I have to say I am sorry.”
In a symbolic act of contrition, in 2006 Vlok washed the feet of Frank Chikane, the priest whom he tried to kill when police operatives rubbed poison into clothes in Chikane’s luggage at Johannesburg airport.
Chikane nearly died in the bizarre assassination attempt, for which Vlok eventually received a ten-year suspended sentence.
His critics dismissed the feet-washing as a stunt that avoided disclosing the scale of police abuse, but Vlok’s sincerity is beyond question for those whom he has helped directly.
“In my youth days, we used to watch the news and everything you heard about this man was negative,” said Rudi Hudson, a former convict who now lives in Vlok’s house.
“There were very few South Africans who didn’t know him because he was so prominent.”
Hudson, a reformed drug addict who was jailed for killing his wife in a botched suicide attempt, first met Vlok during a prison visit.
“We talked a lot about our pasts and how I was in prison and he was free outside,” he said.
“He told me he had done a lot of things that could have put him in prison.
“When I was released, he was one of the first people to come and visit me. I came (to live) here, and he helped me to get back on my feet.”
Vlok, who has two sons living in Australia and a daughter in South Africa, does not charge his lodgers rent, but they chip in money to help pay for bills.
Moses Nemakonde, 32, runs a small upholstery business renovating old sofas and armchairs in a workshop in the garage.
“I told my clients this place is Adriaan Vlok’s. And then that’s when I realised he was the minister of police. But before, I didn’t know anything,” he said with a smile.
Vlok also passes unrecognised through the dirt alleys of Olievenhoutbosch as he unloads his regular deliveries.
For those who rely on the food, the help he provides now is more important than how he once loomed over their lives.
“I was a domestic (cleaner) under apartheid, and I was always afraid of the police,” said Angelina Mamaleki, 74, who now runs a daycare centre for 20 children.
“What happened at that time is all gone.”