Truth And Reconciliation Commission: `They laughed and lit cigarettes'

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The Independent Online
JUST BEFORE South Africa's first non-racial elections in April 1994 Susan Keane, a 37-year-old provincial parliament candidate for the ANC, was one of seven people killed by a massive car bomb on Johannesburg's Bree street.

Two months ago, her parents sat in a suburban town hall and addressed the group of 11 unkempt, vacant and vaguely grimy looking white right- wingers responsible for their only daughter's death.

Joan, a slim, genteel woman in her sixties, tried to catch their eyes as she told them, "I actually pity you for having to beg for amnesty, and for having to live your life with these crimes on your conscience".

"Our loss is so great that we will never in our few remaining years be able to come to terms with the murder of our daughter," said John, 70, a native of Dublin, reading from a prepared statement.

But, recalls John, their appearance before South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation seemed to make little emotional or intellectual impact on the self-styled "stormtroopers" of the neo-Nazi Afrikaner Resistance Movement (AWB).

"We did expect them to make some gesture of apology but they didn't," he remembers. "They just laughed outside afterwards and lit cigarettes."

To those who have met them, it is clear that the Keanes' lives pretty much stopped the day a piece of shrapnel killed Susan. Since then they have seen her killers captured, tried and sentenced to up to 50 years in prison.

Most are still free on bail, "pending appeal".

All will probably receive indemnity for the pre-election bombing spree when the Truth Commission's amnesty committee has finished its work.

John admits that he and his wife are not happy about that but, "we are used to it now, we expect that" This is a phrase he uses more than once in our conversation, like a kind of mantra.

Joan admits that she feels rather "bitter and twisted". "I feel I've let the President down, and Desmond Tutu, because I cannot forgive. I feel that only God can do that."

John thinks that the commission has done nothing to help him with his own suffering, but that for the country it is a good thing. White South Africans should no longer be able to say they didn't know what was going on, he says.

After Susan died many whites they knew in their adopted home of Durban - many people they called friends - told them they were sorry about Susan but she had asked for it by messing in black politics.

They still get that sometimes, John says."We expect that. We are used to it."

Yesterday a package arrived at the home of John and Joan Keane. It was a signed copy of Nelson Mandela's autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom.

"To John and Joan Keane," wrote Mr Mandela. "Best wishes to a highly respected family whose beloved daughter's name will live beyond the grave." Joan Keane said she was very touched.

"He's the president. He said it all, to be honest with you. What else can you say?"