Ugly memories of brave experiment

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TWO YEARS of truth and reconciliation, designed to put decades of apartheid-era brutality to some kind of rest, came to an end yesterday.

As the Truth and Reconciliation Commission turned its attention to a report - in effect an official history of the apartheid years - to be presented to President Nelson Mandela later this year, the political row over the achievements of Archbishop Desmond Tutu's Commission is intensifying.

But for many, the political controversy will never drown the voices of hundreds of victims who told their stories to the TRC; or the voices of perpetrators who murdered and tortured in the state's name.

So many scenes crowd the mind, breathing a terrible life into the bland term "gross human rights abuses". They make a mockery of the view, cherished by former president P W Botha, who defied a subpoena to appear before the Commission, that apartheid was simply "good neighbourliness".

Phila Ndwande, a plastic shopping bag tied round her pelvis, challenged that last year from the grave. "She was brave this one," said a former apartheid security policeman after leading TRC investigators to her body. That young ANC activist had been tortured naked for 10 days. The bag was her attempt to retain some dignity.

Like all the perpetrators of abuses, Phila's killers were offered amnesty in return for full disclosure. For many blacks, including the widow of the murdered leader Steve Biko, that trade-off amounted to a deal with the devil. So harrowing were the stories that even the TRC's ardent supporters sympathise with the Biko view. Even TRC investigators complained that little truth was uncovered in return for indemnity.

If the victims' tears helped damn apartheid, so did the matter-of-fact confessions of the torturers and killers. Few words were as chilling as the body-burning tips offered by Dirk Coetzee, former commander of Vlakplaas, headquarters of the assassination squads, or his tales of police boozing and braaing (barbecuing) while the bodies of black activists roasted beside them.

Equally chilling was the demonstration to the TRC by a police torturer, Captain Jeffrey Benzien, of the "wet bag" method. Who could forget the fleshy Mr Benzien sitting astride his former victim, Tony Yengeni, and placing the bag over his head? Or Mr Benzien's humiliation of Mr Yengeni, now an ANC MP, when he asked what kind of human being could take another to the point of suffocation? Mr Benzien asked Mr Yengeni to recall how effective the method had been, and how quickly he had betrayed his comrades as a result.

The gross revelations never let up. In June, Wouter Basson and other scientists, revealed that South Africa's research centres investigated methods of curbing black fertility and developing bacteria harmful only to blacks.

For many, including TRC chairman, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the greatest frustration was the National Party's refusal to accept responsibility for atrocities. When South Africa's last white president, F W de Klerk, made his party's submission to the Commission, he denied ministers either knew of, or sanctioned, violence. Mavericks were responsible. Archbishop Tutu was on the verge of tears.

One of the TRC's greatest failures was its inability to trace the chain of command to the National Party cabinet. The foot soldiers complain that former ministers have walked away free.

Nothing in South Africa divides absolutely along colour lines. But the TRC hearings were mainly a black affair. Few whites came to listen, despite Archbishop Tutu's pleas that they accept some responsibility for the horrors of the past. Despite all the evidence, right-wing Afrikaners continue to insist that what took place was a war against Communism in which there was no moral difference between the liberation struggle and the apartheid machine.

Yesterday cynics denounced the TRC for increasing racial divisions. Cynicism was a feature from the start. Few, if any, perpetrators came forward because of their consciences. Like Adriaan Flok, the former law and order minister, and the only member of cabinet to apply for amnesty, they had usually been implicated in previous hearings.

The most cynical public manipulation was surely Winnie Madikizela Mandela's refusal to accept any responsibility for the reign of terror in Soweto in the late Eighties conducted by her notorious bodyguards. Despite being implicated in murders, her hearings ended with a sickening, manufactured reconciliation with the mother of a murdered child activist, whom witnesses alleged Mrs Mandela had stabbed.

It was the low-point for the credibility of the TRC and Archbishop Tutu, but without his humour and his belief - despite all the evidence - in the essential goodness of mankind, the TRC might have collapsed.

The TRC has been a brave experiment, and far from perfect but even critics are lost when asked what they would have put in its place. It was part of a huge political compromise. The alternative was war.

Yesterday many were praying that the TRC had created some consensus about the past. It will be vital for South Africa's next stage; the drive to end economic inequality which Thabo Mbeki, president in waiting, insists is crucial for any meaningful long-term reconciliation.