Vlakplaas: 2 June 1999 (drive-by shooting)
Jo Ractliffe

Vlakplaas was a farm west of Pretoria and the headquarters of C1, one of the apartheid government's state security or 'counterinsurgency' units - later simply referred to as Vlakplaas. Acquired by the South African Police (SAP) in 1980, it was first used to accommodate askaris - former anti-apartheid activists, who were coerced into working for the state. Later, under the command of Captain Eugene de Kock - nicknamed 'Prime Evil' - Vlakplaas effectively functioned as a covert hit squad, devising and implementing a range of activities from theft and harassment to bombings, torture and murder.

The workings of Vlakplaas came to light in 1989, after a confession by former operative and death row prisoner, Almond Nofomela. This prompted co-founder and former commander, Dirk Coetzee, to expose the unit in an interview with the Vrye Weekblad, a local weekly newspaper. Nofomela, Coetzee and de Kock later testified at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). Nofomela and Coetzee were granted amnesty in 1997; in 1999 de Kock was granted amnesty for a number of murders and illegal acts, but not for six murders and other lesser crimes and is currently serving four life sentences (212 years) in prison. During his testimony at the TRC, former president, F W de Klerk repeatedly claimed that neither he nor the government knew about or sanctioned the work of Vlakplaas and other 'death squad' units in the state security apparatus.

I went to Vlakplaas in 1999 with the intention of making a work for the exhibition, Truth Veils, which was to accompany a conference on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission at Wits University. My first visit to the farm undid me. I was utterly unprepared for what I saw - or rather, didn't see - that the 'Vlakplaas' I was looking for was not to be found. Vlakplaas was nothing but a farmhouse, set alongside the Hennops River and surrounded by a country landscape. There was nothing to see; nothing of the horror Vlakplaas had activated in the South African imagination. What struck me was less the fact of that place and its terrible workings, than it was the absolute banality of its fašade - a place so steeped in violence, but without material manifestation.

I went back and shot it with my Holga camera, in one continuous strip of black and white film on the day of the country's second democratic elections - so to mark something of its significance in relation to the shift to democracy.