South Africa begins laying ghosts to rest

Robert Block Johannesburg
Monday 15 April 1996 23:02 BST

South Africa's official journey into its past, to try to heal the wounds of its conscience and come to terms with the brutality of its history, began yesterday amid a media circus in a crowded city hall in East London, in the Eastern Cape.

Journalists from around the world, a few prominent South Africans and many ordinary citizens packed the ornate colonial building for the historic event. They came to hear three women and one man - all of them victims of apartheid - bare their pain at the first public session of South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

After lighting a candle as both a symbol of peace and to remember those who died in the struggle against apartheid, the body's chairman, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, reminded everyone why they were there.

"We are charged to unearth the truth about our dark past; to lay the ghosts of that past so that they will not return to haunt us; and that we will thereby contribute to the healing of a traumatised and wounded people - for all of us in South Africa are wounded people - and in this manner to promote national unity and reconciliation."

It was the only attempt at eloquence on a day which really belonged to the first people to testify. Each seemed to have been chosen not only to represent a section of society which had suffered during apartheid but also to show the Commission's impartiality. There was the widow of a man killed in police custody, and two women whose loved ones disappeared after being arrested. And finally, there was a white man who was crippled in an attack by black anti-apartheid guerrillas.

However, the first testimony seemed to make the biggest impact, both on the people in East London and on those throughout the country, watching or listening to the live broadcasts.

Nohle Mohapi was calm, as she talked about the death in detention of her husband Mapetla in 1976, the year student riots swept the country. Police said he had hanged himself in his cell with his jeans.

But Mrs Mohapi's testimony did not begin with her husband's detention or even her own bouts of torture. It was full of the minutiae of life lived under repression. "I was full of hate when my husband died," she said. "I hated anyone who was a policeman. I hated them for the oppression. Now I want to share the difficult times."

Graeme Simpson, the director of the Johannesburg-based Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation, commented that Mrs Mohapi's testimony was the best endorsement the Commission could have hoped for. She showed how the Commission gave victims a chance to not only tell their tale but also to restore their dignity.

Technically, the Commission has two years to exhume the truth of 30 years of apartheid. But that yesterday's hearing took place at all is something of a miracle. A bomb scare forced a brief recess in the middle of Mrs Mohapi's testimony. It was a stark reminder of the depth of hatred many South Africans feel towards the Commission's attempts to steer a course through white demands for amnesia about the past and black demands for justice.

The idea of a truth commission has been dogged by criticism since its very inception at negotiations to end apartheid three years ago. Afrikaners feared it masked a witch-hunt against whites. Apartheid victims believed it sacrificed justice for reconciliation. Black liberation soldiers bristled at the idea that their excess would be equated with crimes committed by former government hit-men.

Even more dangerous than a bomb scare to the continued proceedings are two court cases being brought today.

One case is being brought by families of prominent apartheid victims, including the widow of Steve Biko. They claim the commission's ability to grant indemnity to all perpetrators of human rights abuses who fully confess their misdeeds violates their internationally recognised right to seek redress through the courts. The other case is being brought by perpetrators of human rights abuses who do not want their names divulged in hearing proceedings.

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