Volume 10 Number 1
Can the Truth Heal South Africa?
01 February 1997
Gerald Pillay assesses one country's bold-and controversial-bid to come to terms with its past.
One Saturday six years ago, James Barton was gravely injured, with 42 other people, in a bomb blast near a Pretoria taxi rank.
The taxi rank is used mainly by black commuters to the city. Barton, in race-divided South Africa, is a 'coloured' man. 'Because I was of lighter complexion, the crowd turned on me assuming that I had planted the bomb,' he said. They almost stoned him to death. It has now been revealed that a police unit planned the blast.
Barton's story captures something of the ambiguity of life in South Africa. This fledgling democracy, which is emerging out of an era of bizarre social engineering based on race, has countless stories of the cruelty human beings are capable of inflicting on each other.
These stories are being told throughout South Africa to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission established by an Act of the new democratically elected parliament. The Commission is headed by former Anglican Archbishop and Peace Prize laureate Desmond Tutu and has the monumental task of seeking out the truth about the many human rights violations of the past, as a step towards healing the divided country.
Establishing the truth is difficult. Much of the evidence is now irrecoverable. The Commission's effectiveness depends almost entirely on the culprits being willing to reveal the truth and on the victims having the courage to relive their ordeals and point out who their persecutors were.
The Commission's mandate is four-fold:
* to provide as complete a picture as possible of the gross violations of human rights
* to restore victims' civil dignity by providing an opportunity for them to tell their stories and by advising on assistance
* to consider granting amnesty to the perpetrators of crimes for political reasons who disclose their deeds fully to the Commission
and to advise on redress and reparation for victims.
The Commission has not been without its detractors. The right wing believed that it would become a witch hunt, while others on the left saw its work as a circumnavigation of the due process of the law. A black authoress claimed that the Commission would gloss over the crimes of whites against blacks. The oppression of blacks has always been 'common knowledge', she said.
The families of slain Steve Biko, Griffith and Victoria Mxenge, and Florence and Fabian Ribeiro have argued that the law which established the Commission took away their right to criminal and civil redress against the murderers and was therefore unconstitutional.
The Commission was a result of the joint negotiations between the key political parties in the period leading up to the first elections in 1994. The previous white government agreed to it because they were concerned that there could be a cycle of revenge against whites. Its task would be to facilitate a more orderly process towards healing the racial divide between the newly empowered and the white South Africans.
But what good is it, some ask, to go through this long and expensive process when it will make little difference to ordinary people who still remain poor? How will it help those who have little chance of escaping economic circumstances which have been created over a long period of time? The question has been raised whether the Commission's aim of bringing about reconciliation is achievable.
In a certain sense 'reconciliation' is the wrong word to use in the context of healing the South African past. It assumes that there was a time when South African society was at peace with itself, that apartheid then divided it into opposing factions and that now, with the demise of apartheid, there is a need to reconcile these factions. This assumption is quite false and casts little light on the real crisis this country faces.
Long before Europeans colonized South Africa in the 17th century, the area was divided into tribal entities. For example, the Nguni peoples who settled on the eastern seaboard had little to do with the Sotho and much less to do with the Khoisan at the Cape.
Within a hundred years of the Dutch colonization of the Cape in 1652 white settlers went further away from the Cape to establish themselves on African soil. They created, after a while, a new cultural identity and language. With the arrival of the British, who took over the Cape at the end of the 18th century, the stage was set for more than a hundred years of white tribal conflict leading to the Anglo-Boer war at the end of the 19th century. By then two British colonies and two Boer Republics had been founded and the indigenous tribes subjugated.
In 1910, the two white factions made a tenuous peace by uniting the four colonies into the Union of South Africa. Hence the South Africa we have today is a very recent colonial creation.
In the formation of the Union no mention was even made of the presence of any black South Africans in the country. The first attempts at a black national political movement came soon afterwards, but only had modest results until the 1950s. By then apartheid was at its most virulent and the traditional divisions among black South Africans were legally entrenched.
In its most subtle form, the apartheid ideology argued that each historic grouping of black South Africans should be given 'self-determination' in its own area and control over its own affairs. What in fact took place was a systematic ordering of these divisions so that there was no possibility of social conciliation between them. Individual friendships notwithstanding, people as groups, tribes, cultures and races had little opportunity to know each other. Over 200 laws and bye-laws ensured that.
We have never been a nation. It is only now, for the first time, that we have a chance to become one nation and one people - a process which in every other culture has taken several hundred years to achieve. A democratic constitution and a Bill of Rights are necessary, but cannot by themselves create a unified nation. This is the basis on which the Truth and Reconciliation Commission must be judged.
For all its inadequacies, the Commission is the new government's most important attempt to address what is nothing short of the spiritual destiny of the nation. Technocrats tend to believe that this task can be resolved by a stronger economy, greater productivity, more efficient armies and police, better policies and more effective cross-cultural training - but this is shortsighted. The Commission has already uncovered a vicious spiral of violence at the heart of South African society which threatens to implode the miracle of the new democracy.
The stories before the Commission have been harrowing and the details too gross to publish. People have related all the gory details of their treatment by the police - in and out of prison.
A violent uprising in Duncan Village in 1985, for example, led to the police sealing off the black township and going on a shooting spree which killed 23 people. Mothers asked after their sons who were taken by the police for questioning and never seen again. Their bodies were sometimes found battered or mutilated by roadsides or in remote fields.
The Commission had hoped that the perpetrators of these crimes would volunteer information in exchange for amnesty, but this has not been the case. The majority of the first 2,000 amnesty applications have been from people already convicted and in prison.
However, the work of the Commission has been greatly advanced by people like Joe Mamasela, a cruel and wilful killer, who was in service to the special police units. The revelations of Mamasela and some others have shocked the country. We were told of the cold-blooded killings of those who were seen as a threat to the apartheid state; of the legacy of dirty tricks which the press described as 'lurid, horrifying and pervasive'; of people like Eugene de Kock, Gideon Nieuwoudt and Dirk Coetsee who headed the special units and masterminded the killings; and of places like Vlakplaas, where they did their cruel deeds. A reporter wrote of Vlakplaas: 'Padding an expense account was as commonplace as folding a man around a stick of explosives and blowing him to smithereens. When the killings and mayhem were over, the boys trooped off to have a braai (barbecue), get drunk and receive a medal from their ministers.'
Stories of the excesses in camps of the African National Congress (ANC) and others who fought the so called 'war of liberation' have also been revealed. Thirty- four people were executed in ANC camps. One man told of his mother's murder at the hands of the revolutionary 'courts' because she was wrongly accused of being an informer. 'Necklacing' - placing a tyre around someone's neck and then dousing them with petrol before setting light to the tyre - was a popular way to execute those whom these kangaroo courts found guilty.
Debilitating and depressing as these stories have been, their publication in the media has in itself proved a release. For many of the victims the process has proved a catharsis; a beginning, one hopes, of a healing process which will take a long time. The public hearings have meant that it is now impossible to dismiss the past and wash one's hands of responsibility.
A key question now is to what extent individuals and groups are responsible for these crimes against humanity. Commander Eugene de Kock has come to be known as 'Prime Evil' for his part in the brutal killings of dissidents. But, as Philip Van Niekerk, a political commentator, has perceptively pointed out, de Kock only confessed in court 'to show that the system in which he operated was so contaminated, that there was so much blood on so many hands, that it would be unconscionable to single out one individual to be the "Rudolf Hess of Africa", as he once called himself.' When interviewed, de Kock cited the covert activities of western democracies to make the point that 'war without rules' was not unique to South Africa.
Former President de Klerk admitted to the error of apartheid and said that he had prayed with some of his former colleagues for forgiveness for the 'immeasurable pain and suffering' that his government had caused. He acknowledged authorizing 'unconventional counter-strategies' but denied authorizing any of the atrocities. The ANC, on its side, took great pains to justify the armed struggle and not to equate that struggle with the aggression of the apartheid-state to maintain its ideology.
Sometimes during these 'confessions' one got a glimpse of something transcendent taking place, as people from opposing camps came close to laying bare their hearts and 'turning the searchlight inwards'. Then, as they began explaining their actions or qualifying the extent of their complicity, they relapsed into a state of denial.
There were few clearly transparent voices among the politicians. An editorial in a leading paper rightly exhorted the nation to 'learn the lesson de Kock is teaching us'. It was the politicians who demonized even the mildest opposition, who censured the press and who seized control of the state media so as to lie, it said. 'They nurtured de Kock and, when he was exposed, they orphaned him.'
The Afrikaners suffered much under the British and knew well enough the plight of the victim. When they achieved political power, however, they engineered the vicious system of apartheid. There is no guarantee that those of us who have suffered much will inexorably be benevolent when given unrestricted power.
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission cannot do more than establish some of the truth and give pointers towards long-term healing. The work of translating what are often pious platitudes about democracy and reconciliation into conventions of the heart, that will guide our vision and purpose as a nation, is left to this (and the next) generation of South Africans.
There are some pressing challenges.
We must find a way to break out of the spiral of violence which has now surfaced as uncontrollable crime. There is still the perception that the high incidence of armed robbery, rape and murder in South Africa can be explained sociologically by the apartheid past. This explanation may be comforting to the new government but it is simplistic and unhelpful. It patronizes black South Africans and denies them moral strength.
African leaders would achieve much more if they stopped blaming the evils of the past (apartheid's evil is beyond doubt) and began to re-instil dignity, by their own actions and lifestyle. In South Africa the previous white government has left a poor example of honesty and integrity.
The churches and all religious bodies have a vital role to play, as honest brokers in a society divided by suspicion. In the new scramble for power these groups can serve without any self-interest.
The numerous efforts at mediation and conflict resolution are important, but they require a new focus. It costs much less to prevent conflict than to resolve it after it has arisen. We need to focus on developing a 'peace culture' and creating a humane society. The values now enshrined in the constitution have to be written on the 'tablets of the heart'.
The Commission hearings have, in a sense, removed our state of innocence. They have invoked anger and fear as well. It is as if a scab has been removed and the wound reopened.
The most encouraging moments of these hearings thus far have been when ordinary South Africans, with justifiable grounds to be angry and vengeful, have forgiven their adversaries. 'I don't want revenge,' some have said.
A white woman whose brother was murdered during a terrorist attack on his farm said she understood why black South Africans have reason to be angry. 'I have learned to forgive my brother's murderers,' she said.
A black man in a wheelchair told how he was stripped naked and beaten by police interrogators - yet he believed that there was still a chance for peace. His story moved chairman Tutu to tears.
It is these stories that keep hope alive.
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