Podium: We can be God's beacon of hope to all

From the Independent Newspapers Lecture by the former Archbishop of Cape Town, at Trinity College, Dublin
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The Independent Culture
I HAVE in recent times been drawn to a lovely phrase used by St Paul in the Letter to the Galatians. He is speaking about the coming of Christ and all that went before in preparation for this momentous event, and the phrase is, "in the fullness of time" - the incarnation did not happen too soon or too late, but at just the right time, when everything was in place.

And that phrase is apt, to describe what happened in South Africa. Certain things, factors and people had to be in place - the ingredients, the mix, had to be just right for the alchemy to work.

Our country rejected the call for a blanket amnesty, because this would be succumbing to a desire for amnesia, and that would not have helped to heal the pains inflicted by the horrors of the past. Those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it. It comes back nightmarishly. The English and Afrikaners in South Africa are both white, and appear to get on amicably, but everyone knows that is all illusory. Whenever something happens to disturb the calm, then the tension, and anger, and bitterness, certainly in the Afrikaner, come to the surface. The reason is that these two race groups have never faced up to what happened during the Anglo-Boer War, when thousands of Boer women and children were put into concentration camps. Recently, on a trip to the Davos Economic Forum, I drove with a young Afrikaner from Zurich. He told me that whenever his grandmother told him what had happened to her, then he was ready to fight the Anglo- Boer War all over again.

Amnesia was unacceptable also because it really was victimising the victims a second time, by effectively denying that they had suffered a violation of their rights.

Have we had any truth? We wish, obviously, that we could have uncovered much more. But what we have had is a very great deal more than we could have imagined. Now we know what happened to Steve Biko, to the Cradock Four, the Pepco Three. Now we know of the previous government's chemical and biological warfare programme, which I have described as the most diabolical thing that has come before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Some of those who were involved with it have alleged that it had sinister programmes, such as those to reduce the fertility rate of black women, and to find germs that would target only black people, and they were producing anthrax and cholera which they said they would use on people outside South Africa, as if that made it more moral.

It is alleged that they wanted to poison Nelson Mandela, so that his brain would have been affected in prison, and that he would not survive too long after his release. It boggles the mind, and one sighs with relief that they did not succeed. Imagine what would have happened to stability and reconciliation in South Africa.

They were involved in the production of several tons of Mandrax, and one wonders whether the scourge of drug trafficking that has afflicted especially black areas may not, in part, be due to this nefarious programme. In some respects there was a 007 air about it, with various gadgets for poisoning opponents. Even if they had denied most of these allegations, we know one person they did try to poison who lived to tell the tale - Dr Frank Chikane, now Director General in Dr Thabo Mbeki's office.

The question is, how many such attempts were made and how many died? It reminds me so much of the pictures I saw of Dachau, of white-coated German scientists performing experiments on fellow human beings. Yes, we have found enough to paint a coherent picture of the past and the kind of atmosphere that prevailed which made it possible for the ghastly atrocities to take place.

We were trying to find the truth, not for prosecuting, but to try to heal a traumatised people, and in order to ensure that such things would not happen again. We were accused of being soft on Mrs Winnie Mandela, and with Mr PW Botha. But nobody else went through an 11-day grilling such as that of Mrs Mandela and we got her, even if reluctantly, to say "sorry", perhaps for the first time in public. What did people expect us to do to extract information? There was ultimately nothing we could do, short of putting them on the rack and torturing them.

We are going to succeed because God wants us to succeed. God wants to point to us - South Africa is an unlikely example to be held up to the rest of the world. If our case was so hopeless, imagine the hope it can give to others. God will say: they were not smart, they were certainly not virtuous, but look at them now. They used to have a nightmare called apartheid. That has ended. Your problem, too, will be solved.