When the truth is too hard to bear

Robert Block in Johannesburg witnesses a nation struggling to come to terms with its grief
At one point yesterday, when a man's humiliation and pain pain filled the East London City hall to bursting point, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the chairman of South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission, simply laid his head on the table in front of him and began to weep uncontrollably.

When he finally stopped crying, he lifted his head, wiped his face and called a recess. It was the second day of commission hearings whose aim is to start a process of healing South Africa after the brutality of apartheid.

If the first day of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission's proceedings on Monday was marked by a swarm of international television cameras and witnesses' composure, then yesterday's hearings were notable for their surprising lack of media presence and for the tears that the testimonies of victims' mothers and wives generated.

Archbishop Tutu broke down at the testimony of Singqokwana Malgas, who served 14 years at the notorious Robben Island prison, where he was often tortured, Asked to detail the tortures, he said: "I was always suffocated by a mask. Then there was the `helicopter training' - they put a broomstick under your knees and then..." The man's face contorted at the memory. and it was more than than the archbishop could bear.

He was not the only one to cry. Witnesses, onlookers, commission gophers and journalists all broke down at one time or another as the widows and mothers of apartheid activists laid bare their personal pain and loss to the world.

Sometimes the tears seemed to be contagious. A witness would start to sob and then a member of the audience would begin to cry. Soon the tears would spread like a bush fire, until it seemed like almost everyone in the room was weeping, wiping their eyes or trying to push a lump back down their throat. One foreign observer was overheard to remark: "This country is so traumatised. If one person is hurt, then so is everybody."

But reliving and relieving the pain of victims is what the Commission is all about. President Nelson Mandela's government of national unity set up the Truth Commission to reveal as much as possible of hitherto hidden abuses during the apartheid era in the hope that by doing so, the nation will be able to heal its conscience.

The first witness to testify was Ncediwe Mfeti, a cousin of Deputy President Thabo Mbeki, and the wife of Phindile Mfeti, a student at the University of Natal, who disappeared in 1987. She told the court how Phindile was placed under house arrest and then banned to the Transkei. She spoke of her last conversation with him while he was at university: he had just bought a new pair of jeans that he was going to take to a tailor for alterations. That was the last she had heard from him. She described how, since his disappearance, she had desperately tried to fit together the pieces of the puzzle of her husband's disappearance.

When asked what she expected from the Commission, she replied that she wanted her husband's body. "Even if he was burned," she said in a whisper. "If only I could get a little bone or ashes that were his."

Toni Mazwai, 83, told the Commission that her son Siphiwe was killed in a 1988 shoot-out with police after he joined the armed wing of President Nelson Mandela's then-banned African National Congress. She cried as she explained that the police had kept the body for so long that it had begun decomposing and was beyond embalming when it was delivered to the undertakers.

Archbishop Tutu had to adjourn the hearings for 15 minutes to allow Nomonde Calata to compose herself. She had collapsed in her chair with a cry of anguish which hushed the packed assembly as she described the moment in 1985 when she first suspected her teacher husband, Fort Calata, had been killed by security police. "Some friends came to my house to tell me I should not be alone at a time like this. I was only 20. I could not deal with it," Mrs Calata said before breaking into uncontrollable sobbing.

Speaking through a Xhosa interpreter, Mrs Calata said that when she viewed the body of her husband: "The dogs had bitten him very severely. I could not believe the dogs had already had their share."

Graeme Simpson, the director of the Centre of the Study of Violence and Reconciliation, said the the outpouring of emotion was a positive thing. "What we are starting to see is a process of catharsis."