South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission winds up this month after listening to the stories of thousands of victims and perpetrators of violence. Was it worth it? Mary Braid reports

Mary Braid
Sunday 14 June 1998 00:02

"SHE WAS BRAVE this one," a brutal foot soldier from the apartheid regime remembered, with perverse admiration, as the body of one of his victims was exhumed. A decade had passed but the plastic shopping bag around Phila Ndwande's pelvis and the bullet hole in her skull echoed the young ANC guerrilla's torment down the years.

Phila died because she refused to sell out her comrades, and become a police agent, although she was tortured, naked, for 10 days. The shopping bag, her killers revealed, was her desperate attempt to retain some dignity.

Two harrowing years of South African truth-seeking have left scores of appalling stories to crowd the mind. The country's Truth and Reconciliation Commission, set up to expose the atrocities of the past and somehow forge a healing way forward, winds up this month amid loud and bitter controversy about what exactly it has achieved.

But even the current, racially charged cacophony cannot drown out the voices of the thousands of victims and perpetrators who testified before the Commission; a tiny fraction of those who suffered and an equally small proportion of those guilty of the most incredible inhumanity, the most brutal murders and tortures, during more than three decades of apartheid.

At times one has wondered how any country could deal with such a past, and move on. The testimony offered in churches and town halls throughout the country was so unrelentingly horrific that one grew numb - eventually hardly flinching at what had previously made one recoil. But almost everyone remembers the moment when a single voice or story broke through the dense, all-pervasive gloom to personalise apartheid all over again.

Phila's story, which emerged last year when her killers applied for amnesty, is among those I will never forget. She is as real as the living witnesses; her voice as compelling as the army of women who wept as they told the Commission about the murders of husbands and sons. Women like Joyce Mthimkulu, from the Eastern Cape, who brandished locks of her son Siphiwo's hair while telling the Commission how it fell out by the handful after he was poisoned by security police. His final months of life were excruciatingly painful; his miserable existence was finally ended by a police bullet.

Sometimes one forgets the names but never the stories or the pitiful requests; like the widow from East London who asked the Commission to make her dead husband whole again by finding the hands which the police had severed from his body.

While Phila's remains were left to do the talking, her killer's voice, like the voices of so many state assassins, left its own indelible imprint. The man who took Commission staff to Phila's unmarked grave in the wilds of KwaZulu-Natal, where she was buried with two male comrades, is one of six white policeman seeking amnesty for her murder and those of nine other activists.

Like all other apartheid-era killers, Phila's murderers were offered indemnity in return for the truth - provided their actions were politically motivated. Phila's grave says so much about the generosity of that offer; in it, there is a mercy that apartheid's killers never showed. Her exhumation offered evidence of their arrogance as well as her courage. For the body of the young mother was covered in cigarette butts and beer-bottle tops, casually flicked there while she was being buried.

So many white, male bullies, made omnipotent by the apartheid state, have stood before the Commission and insisted that they were only doing the dirty work of clean-cut, God-fearing, smart-suited National Party leaders. Former President F W de Klerk and his ANC successor Nelson Mandela - jointly honoured with a Nobel Peace Prize for South Africa's negotiated settlement - deny any responsibility.

After Phila's exhumation, and the exhumation of scores of other bodies, there were demands that De Klerk admit that he knew about the network of "death farms", modelled on the notorious Vlakplaas, north of Pretoria, where state assassins were trained. De Klerk, more interested in trying to save a discredited political party than the truth, maintained that mavericks and bad apples were responsible for torture and murders. But the policemen and their commanders who boozed and braai-ed (barbecued) to while away the hours while they burned the bodies of murdered activists insist the killings were sanctioned by the state.

Some, like Dirk Coetzee, a former Vlakplaas commander, revel in the kind of gratuitous detail that so offends the professional Nationalist politicians who for years defended apartheid at elegant cocktail parties; or who, like P W Botha, still insist that apartheid, or the more euphemistic "separate development", was nothing more than "good neighbourliness".

Coetzee, applying for amnesty for seven murders, seven attempted murders and conspiracy to commit murder, describes the lengths to which security police went in order to keep the white minority in power. "To burn a body to ashes takes about seven hours," he told a TRC hearing which later awarded him amnesty. "It has to be turned frequently so all parts of the body burn away. It [the burning body] smells like a braai."

Although there were separate hearings for victims and perpetrators, inevitably their voices came together; flip sides of the same story. One of the most disturbing moments in the Commission's life came when Captain Jeffrey Benzien, once the Western Cape's most feared police torturer, was asked by a former victim, ANC MP Tony Yengeni, to demonstrate the torture method for which he was infamous. At Yengeni's insistence Benzien was forced to demonstrate on another former victim. While stunned Commissioners watched the victim lay face down, hands locked behind his back, the fleshy, florid-faced Benzien sat astride him and placed a bag over his head. In the old days the bag would have been wet and held tight until the victim was on the point of suffocation.

"What kind of human being does that to another?" Yengeni pressed Benzien. The torturer, who said he was in therapy, said he had asked himself that question many times before.

But the relationship between the tortured and the torturer survived. Benzien inserted the knife one last time and twisted. Did Yengeni remember, he asked, how quickly he had betrayed his comrades after a session with the bag?

NOW THE VOICES of the previously voiceless have been heard. Special hearings have laid bare the complicity in apartheid of the media, business, churches and other institutions. A final report (an official history of the era) will contain recommendations on compensation for victims (unlikely to amount to much), and suggestions on how reconciliation can be taken forward. It will be presented to Nelson Mandela in September.

The TRC was founded on the premise that truth would bring forgiveness and reconciliation. Its hearings have drawn academics from all corners of a world in which gross human-rights abuses are all too common, and mechanisms for dealing with them all too few.

But at home in South Africa, the reputations of the Commission and its chairman, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, are already under attack. Central to this assault is a bid by some whites, even yet, to deny the essential truth of South Africa's past; and thus to shirk the blame and responsibility associated with it. Despite all the months of testimony these people still see no moral difference between the ANC's fight for the liberation of the black majority, and the war waged against it by a repressive white- minority regime backed by all the military might at the state's command.

The Commission, they insist, has been biased against Afrikaners, the descendants of Dutch settlers who founded the National Party and institutionalised apartheid. Although the TRC hearings have shown that English-speaking whites were far from blameless, apartheid's most fervent, numerous and brutal champions were drawn from Afrikanerdom. This, however, has only served to convince Afrikaner right-wingers that the TRC is a witchhunt against them. The Afrikaner writer Rian Malan recently argued in the UK Sunday Telegraph (in an article reprinted in South Africa's Business Day): "Tutu's attempt to heal a divided nation would appear to have failed. The truth commission has left us more divided than ever," and concluded that Mandela and Tutu's Rainbow Nation had turned out to be an advertising gimmick.

Since apartheid thrived on the chasm, in perception and living conditions, between whites and blacks, it would be a miracle, even for the saintly Tutu, if the TRC persuaded an entire nation of one truth. But the entrenchment of old political positions must surely dismay the archbishop who has pleaded with whites to recognise the sins of the past and make atonement. The Malan camp, to the consternation of other Afrikaner commentators, is telling him to go whistle.

Of course, this is all grist to the mill for those blacks who have complained from the start that South African reconciliation pussyfoots around white sensibilities. Black columnists tend to give it to white South Africans straight; most of you supported apartheid, and most, sore at the loss of power, are still racist. Tutu, for whom reconciliation is an intensely spiritual affair, has been diplomatic; practically begging whites to show support by turning up at a hearing.

The trouble is that, four years after their first democratic elections, black and white South Africans still occupy parallel universes. Despite Tutu's exhortations, the TRC remained a largely black affair; few whites attended hearings or watched on television.

For Tutu, public recognition of those who suffered was central to the process. And anyone who heard the stories in backwaters all over South Africa, and witnessed the occasional generous offer of forgiveness to former tormentors, knows how important official acknowledgement of their experiences was to the victims.

For white critics, most of whom never set foot in a hearing, that counts for nothing. For them, black release simply translates as white persecution. And this hostility from whites weakens the TRC's hand with the families of victims who claimed from the start that amnesty put truth, and more particularly political expediency, before justice. A perpetrator granted amnesty cannot be pursued in the civil or criminal courts.

Whereas assaults from the white right wing are predictable, the TRC is also attacked from within. Its own investigators claim that it has only scraped the surface of 34 years of gross human-rights abuses. Investigator Piers Pigou complains that with just 12 investigators, the investigative unit only probed a fraction of the thousands of cases referred. The majority of perpetrators got off scot-free, and many victims' families, robbed of their chance of justice in the courts, were also deprived of the truth they were promised as compensation.

Lack of resources may also be responsible for what some consider to be the TRC's greatest shortcoming - its failure to trace the chain of command in murder and torture all the way up to the Cabinet and President. Foot soldiers have been exposed, but most of the old National Party politicians are still sitting pretty. Only two apartheid-era ministers have applied for amnesty, and even then not for major atrocities. Those who braai- ed while bodies were burning feel they have been deserted by the old regime, but former President F W de Klerk maintains the ludicrous position that he did not know murder and torture were taking place in the state's name. His predecessor, P W Botha, refuses to attend a TRC hearing into the State Security Council to answer questions about minutes which refer to the "elimination" of the enemy.

The TRC had many other faults. Its amnesty process proved tortuously slow. Of the 8,000 applications, few have so far been considered, and even fewer granted. That slowed up other, connected investigations.

A major achievement, however, must be its stimulation of debate about the past in a country where many whites, and some blacks, would prefer to forget. There has been no end of soul-searching about individual, collective and political responsibility.

In Country of My Skull, one of the first in a library of books about the TRC to be published, the Afrikaner poet and journalist Antjie Krog recalls the indignation of white radio listeners over one of her reports. The station was inundated with calls - from English and Afrikaans speakers - berating Krog for connecting police amnesty-seekers with the upstanding white communities on whose behalf they claimed to act. The callers could see no connection. Many perpetrators told hearings that TRC exposure had led to divorce, rejection by their families, and requests from neighbours that they move.

Criticism of the TRC must be judged against one crucial reality: the Commission was caught between the political and spiritual from the start. The TRC - and particularly its amnesty provisions - were part of the political horse-trading that led to South Africa's negotiated settlement. That it was a political as much as a moral invention may be unpalatable to purists but at the time the alternative was war.

Tutu asked for repentance and forgiveness as prerequisites to spiritual renewal. But many perpetrators played a calculated, cynical game; waiting to see if they would be implicated in other hearings, or pursued in the criminal courts, before they went down the amnesty road. Commissioner Yasmin Sooka argues that, if the process is to be meaningful, those who did not apply for amnesty should now be pursued in the courts.

Despite some apocalyptic predictions, it is in fact still too early to determine the Commission's effect; that will only be seen in the long term. But so far blacks have generally proved more supportive of the Commission's general aims. Apart from the chance to tell their stories, they almost all say that they appreciate the TRC's recovery of bodies from secret graves. Phila's father, though he had always hoped that she might still be alive, was overjoyed to have her remains returned for burial. In black culture, if the body is lost so too is the spirit, and the link of the living with their ancestors is damaged. The TRC is likely to recommend to Mandela that the search for bodies continues after the life of the Commission. Around 600 victims are believed still to be buried in secret graves.

When it comes to whites, pessimists talk of increased alienation. The optimists say that many ordinary whites, unlike the columnists who claim to represent them, have come a long way: "It did not happen" has become "I did not know".

The TRC is at pains to point out that the Commission was only the beginning of a long, hard journey. After it goes, it is likely that the emphasis in reconciliation will change. Thabo Mbeki, South Africa's next President, sees reconciliation in socio-economic rather than spiritual terms. Establishing the truth is less important to Mbeki than the fact that whites are rich in South Africa today because of their colour. He argues that blacks and whites will never come together until a more equitable society has been created.

And yet for many, the TRC has been a spiritual journey in itself. "It brought good people together - whatever their colour," says Peter Nkomo, a journalist from Soweto.

At the end of her book, Antjie Krog praises the Commission, despite its failings, for keeping alive "the idea of common humanity", despite a brutalising past and new usurping politics. Krog warns that whites who do not take part in the reconciliation process will become strangers in their own country, then bursts into a poetic apology that must leave Rian Malan cringing. "I am changed forever," she writes. "I want to say `forgive me, forgive me, forgive me. You whom I have wronged, please take me with you.' "

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