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Peter Harris PDF Print E-mail

Peter Harris was born in Durban and grew up in the Eastern Cape. He was educated at Michaelhouse, Rhodes and Warwick University. He practised law for 15 years at Cheadle, Thompson & Haysom and in the early 1990s was seconded to the National Peace Accord, after which he headed the Monitoring Directorate of the Independent Electoral Commission for the 1994 election. He returned to law and did international consulting for the UN as an election operations expert in Mexico, Haiti and other places. He then was appointed Director of Programmes at the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance in Stockholm for two years. Back in South Africa he co-founded the Resolve Group Management Consultancy.

His book, In a different time, won the 2009 Sunday Times Alan Paton award for non-fiction, and the 2009 Bookseller’s Choice Award.

To be found at:


In a different time.

The cross-examination of Coetzee goes on for three days.

Coetzee’s grilling by Maritz, the judge, McNally and Roberts is intense. At one point Les Roberts fastens on a letter Coetzee wrote to his family hoping that he’d be appointed chief investigator in our ‘Nuremberg Trials’. The security police had intercepted the letter which details the thoughts of a lonely man grappling with his isolation and new reality.

In Lusaka, he’d often said that if he could only get back to South Africa and have a team to help him, he would find out who was responsible for bombing various buildings and murdering resistance activists. ‘I could do it in days,’ he would say. ‘I know how they operate, I know how they think, I know where they go to rest after the hits and I know who to go to for the evidence.’ I believed him. I’d never met anyone like him before, and certainly no policeman with his record and expertise had ever been available to us. He was totally convincing.

But this is a different situation. Here he is taunted.

‘You see yourself as the chief investigator in what you call South Africa’s own Nuremberg Trial,’ says Roberts, a quiet man who has found confidence in London.

‘I said that could happen in the future if the truth doesn’t come out at this stage,’ retorts Coetzee.

‘And at the end of this Nuremberg procedure which you think is a possibility, after you have flushed everybody out, are you going to turn yourself in so that you can be prosecuted along with the rest?’ asks Roberts sarcastically.

‘That’s right,’ says Coetzee. ‘Accused number one.’ Roberts smiles. ‘That makes about as much sense as if at the original Nuremberg, they’d made Rudolf Hess the chief investigator.’

Mocking laughter from the policemen and their lawyers. Harms joins in. Coetzee bows his head, humiliated and confused. It’s a disaster, but Coetzee doesn’t give up. At one point, I think he is going to step out of the witness box, curse Harms foully and walk out to vanish into the ANC.

To his credit, he doesn’t. That he sticks to his story, does not break down and keeps on repeating it, irritates Harms intensely. Eventually the judge loses control and responds loudly, ‘That’s a lot of crap.’ There is silence and then everyone laughs. Even Coetzee smiles ruefully and shakes his head at the judge’s conduct. From the studied way he looks at Harms, I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s imagining how he’d spend the time with the learned judge if they were alone in a remote place.

During the break at the end of the session, Victoria Brittain of the Guardian and a journalist from The Times approach me, intrigued by the judge’s behaviour. ‘So tell me,’ says Victoria, ‘is it common practice for South African judges to swear at witnesses and tell them they are talking “crap”?’

‘No,’ I say, ‘I think this is a first for all of us.’

Her question makes me realise once more that the commission is a farce. Here we are trading insults in an art deco cinema beneath Trafalgar Square. How can you take it seriously when even the actions of the judge
are beyond the pale? I am furious. I think of the sacrifices people have made and of the work that has been done to reveal the atrocities. For what? For this circus? Selfishly, I consider how much useless work I have put into this. And yet below the farce are deadly serious circumstances: a police force that is out of control. What will they do when they see Coetzee regarded as a lunatic with deranged fantasies? What will they be capable of when they feel vindicated?

I should have walked out of this commission a long time ago. In truth, I’m furious at Harms, at myself for participating and for having had hopes, again.



In a Different Time. 2008. Umuzi.

Birth. Random House Struik

A Just Defiance. 2011. Portobello Books.

Author's other published work includes: Democracy and Deep-Rooted Conflict: options for negotiators (ed), International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, 1998.