Damning truths which offer the road to reconciliation

Colonel de Kock declared `the person who sticks most in my throat is de Klerk'
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The Independent Culture
READ, IF you can, the report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, chaired by Archbishop Tutu, published in South Africa last week. It is, to use a favourite adjective of the Archbishop, a wonderful document, based as it is on the testimony of 20,000 people who came forward to tell their stories of their nation's terrible past - "a country soaked," as Tutu put it, "in the blood of her children of all races and all political persuasions".

Wonderful? Yes, because of the grace and wisdom with which Tutu conducted the controversial hearings; yes, because of the nobility displayed in some of the evidence; yes, even though the report relentlessly documents harassment, torture and killing, often depicting, in Hannah Arendt's chilling phrase, the "banality of evil".

I say read it because no brief description in Thursday's television or radio news, no newspaper summary on Friday, conveyed the power of the report, its emotional charge, its searching discussion and advocacy of reconciliation. Unfortunately, it is difficult to get hold of a copy. I downloaded and printed sections of it from the Internet (http://www. truth.org.za/). I would like to see the report distributed in Northern Ireland, Bosnia, Kosovo, Chile, in every country where a process of healing following civil war is under way.

It carries forward, in a South African context, the analysis previously done by Holocaust scholars in examining the motives and perspectives of the perpetrators of explosions, shootings, abductions, beatings, killing, torture and death in custody and judicial murder and in trying to explain what caused men (hardly any women were involved, except for Winnie Mandela) to act as they did. The report examines, for instance, how it was that senior persons in authority could deny that they knew what was happening or gave specific instructions, even though their staff claimed to have been acting under orders. The former State President, FW de Klerk, told the commission that "I have never condoned gross violations of human rights... and reject any insinuation that it was ever the policy of my party or government." Here one may sympathise with the convicted killer, Colonel Eugene de Kock, who declared that the person who "sticks most in my throat is de Klerk... he did not have the courage to declare: yes, we at the top levels condoned what was done on our behalf by the security forces; what's more, we instructed that it should be implemented. Or, if we did not actually give instructions, we turned a blind eye. We didn't move heaven and earth to stop the ghastliness. Therefore let the foot soldiers be excused." De Kock showed how orders were usually given in euphemisms. To "take somebody for a drive" meant that the person would be murdered. "Neutralise" or "make a plan with these people" was an order to kill. Security officers were rarely asked openly to blow up a building but "to shake it up a little" or "to put a couple of cracks in the wall".

The single principle upon which the work of the commission has been based is this. There can be no healing without truth. Thus Tutu pleads with his fellow South Africans not to use the report to attack others, but add to it, correct it and share in the process which will lead to national unity through truth and reconciliation. The commission's work, too, was to be based upon a crucial bargain. Those who committed acts of injustice and oppression and violated human rights could be granted an amnesty in return for full disclosure. The applicant must admit responsibility for the act for which amnesty is sought. The application is dealt with in a public hearing; admissions are made in the full glare of publicity. They are a form of public shaming. By this method, freedom is granted in exchange for truth. In countless ways, therefore, the commission has begun a process as yet unfinished.

Where the commission's work is truly ground-breaking, however, is in facilitating reconciliation. Tutu states his own credo: "confession, forgiveness, reconciliation in the lives of nations are not just airy-fairy religious and spiritual things, nebulous and unrealistic. They are the stuff of practical politics." sometimes the very act of telling their horrific stories seems to have given relief to victims and even to some perpetrators. Lukas Baba Sikwepere, who was shot, blinded and tortured, said that "I feel that what has been making me sick all the time is the fact that I couldn't tell my story. But now it feels like I got my sight back by coming here and telling you".

Others have found exoneration as a result of the commission's work. Black people, falsely accused of having been spies or informers, have been able to clear their names. The commission has also located the remains of 50 of those who disappeared and were killed so that they can be given proper funerals.

There have been a lot of apologies, too. The Stellenbosch Presbytery of the Dutch Reformed Church told the commission that "when forced removals were carried out in our town, when people were forced to leave their historic neighbourhoods and had to resettle elsewhere, little or no protest was voiced by the Presbytery. These removals... invariably went hand in hand with severe personal trauma, financial loss and social disruption... we of the Presbytery often were not even aware of this suffering".

Britain wasn't called upon to apologise, although General Constand Viljoen clearly thought that we should have done so. He pointed out that the trauma of the Boer War had never been resolved: "it conditioned the white tribe of Africa, the Afrikaners, to consolidate in a nation around the dangerous sentiments of a collective sense of injustice, discrimination and deprivation... we may have redirected our quarrel with the British to our compatriots in South Africa". Bishop Michael Nuttall said he thought many members of "die Engelse kerk", the Anglican Church, owed an apology to the Afrikaner community for their attitude of moral superiority - "although our chief expression of apology must be to our black membership".

Finally, here is Cynthia Ngewu, whose son was killed by the police, giving evidence. The commission: "Many people in this country would like to see perpetrators going to prison and serving long sentences. What is your view on this?" Ms Ngewu: "I do not agree with this view. We do not want to see people suffer in the same way that we did... and we did not want our families to have suffered. We do not want to return the suffering that was imposed on us.... We would like to see peace in this country."