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A Different Kind of Justice:

Truth and Reconciliation in South Africa

by Peter Storey

New World Outlook: July - August, 1999.

[This article is excerpted from The Christian Century, Sept. 10-17, 1997, by permission of the Editors.]

The community hall in the dusty township is packed. Most of the people are local Black residents, with a small sprinkling of Whites from the nearby town. On the platform, under South Africa's new flag and a banner proclaiming "Healing Through Truth," the multiracial panel of truth commissioners is listening respectfully.

Facing them, a Black woman speaks of her first-born son who resisted the apartheid regime in the uprising of 1985. She describes his birth and how he was named and speaks proudly of his performance at school. Then she tells of the night the security police smashed down the door and dragged him away and about how an anonymous policeman sent for her some days later to come to the mortuary. In horrifying detail, she describes the bruised and almost unrecognizable corpse, riddled with 19 bullet wounds, that had been her son.

The remembrance overwhelms her and affects both panel and audience. Some weep quietly while she struggles with her grief. "I do not know if I can forgive," she says. "I must know who did this to my son. When I see the face of the one who killed him, and he tells me why, then perhaps I can forgive."

Arraigned before the judges in another place are three Afrikaners--ex-security police whose vicious rule once ran throughout apartheid South Africa. One of them reads from a prepared text: "We blindfolded them and took them to a stone quarry outside the town. We hung Subject Number 1 upside down from a tree branch and lit a fire under him. When his hair burned he screamed a lot, then told us everything. The others also confessed. After that, we shot them. Our report said they had resisted arrest."

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Nobel Laureate Bishop Desmond Tutu addresses a UN Hearing in 1985 on South Africa's apartheid policies. Twelve years later, he was to head the new government's Truth and Reconciliation Commission. (UN Photo 167296/Yutaka Nagata)

In the front row are the families of "Subjects 1, 2, and 3." They are learning for the first time how their sons and brothers died. That night the nation also watches and listens to the report on national television.

Hearings like these have been held across the length and breadth of South Africa. The nation's Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) has attracted interest around the world. Its attempt to uncover and deal with a brutal past goes further than any similar exercise in history. Furthermore, the TRC's hearings seem to reach beyond the limitations of secular law, exploring new potentials for forgiveness and national reconciliation. Nowhere else has secular legislation produced such an unsecular and almost scriptural understanding of what it takes to heal a nation.

The Truth Commission's Birth

The birth of the TRC was something of a miracle. By 1990, when then South African President F. W. de Klerk announced negotiations with Nelson Mandela and the African National Congress (ANC), small groups of South Africans-- nongovernmental organizations, religious leaders, and human-rights lawyers--had already begun to address the problem of the nation's past. They said there could be no new, united South Africa without a commonly acknowledged history and that this required honestly facing and dealing with the brutal oppression of the apartheid years.

The temptation for the privileged class in South Africa was to believe De Klerk's claim that apartheid was a well-intentioned policy that had failed rather than an intrinsically evil program that had succeeded only too tragically. The majority of Whites refused to acknowledge the systemic nature of the torture, maiming, and assassinations to which individuals had been subjected for more than 30 years by the secret police. In the words of Archbishop Desmond Tutu: "It's very difficult to wake up someone who is pretending to be asleep."

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Leading a delegation from the South African Council of Churches, Anglican Bishop (now Archbishop) Desmond Tutu talks with a police officer in an unsuccessful attempt to speak to South Africa's then-president P. W. Botha about violence during the apartheid regime. (Religious News Service Photo)

A further complication was that the political agreement hammered out at the constitutional talks had to be a delicate balance between victory and compromise. Apartheid may have been defeated, but its minions still dominated the police, army, and civil service. Success in the constitutional negotiations depended to a large degree on making a deal with the previous regime. Nuremberg-type trials were not an option if the country was to reach democratic elections without a coup or chaos.

Any successful attempt to address the past would need to both acknowledge the suffering of apartheid's victims and lead to national reconciliation. It had to steer a delicate course between those who cried "prosecute and punish" and those who demanded "forgive and forget." Negotiators created a process that evokes biblical reconciliation, a process that proceeds according to this rubric: "It is necessary to both remember and judge--and forgive."

Selecting the truth commissioners was a challenge. They had to be people of proven integrity and capable of impartiality, with a track record of commitment to human rights and the inner strength to cope with the emotional strain of the job. A balance of race, gender, region, and vocational or professional background was also crucial.

Some 600 nominations were received from the public. A short list of 25 was laid before President Nelson Mandela, who consulted his bipartisan cabinet and made the final cut of 18. He appointed Archbishop Tutu as chair.

Unique TRC Features

The TRC has a number of unique features. First, it gives priority to victims rather than perpetrators. The Gross Human Rights Violations Committee hears the stories of victims across the land. Father Michael Lapsley, half-blinded and maimed by a security police parcel bomb, says that this committee must ensure that people's suffering is "heard, recognized, and reverenced by the nation."

Scores of hearings have been held in city halls and rural community centers. The commission honors the victims by going to them rather than calling them to a central venue. Victims have been empowered by Khulumani ("speak-out") groups of fellow victims and have been assisted by hundreds of volunteer statement-takers.

A second unique factor in the work of the TRC is that victims of all sides of the struggle participate. The TRC designers were determined that history would not be sanitized by the victorious side, and so those who suffered at the hands of the liberation forces are also invited to share their experiences. A story of secret police torture may be followed by a White farmer's story of how his wife and children were killed by an ANC landmine or by an account of abuses and torture in one of the liberation movement's training camps. These stories send the important message that a morally justified struggle does not justify indiscriminate killing and deliberate brutality.

The Amnesty Committee, consisting of Supreme Court judges and lawyers, hears pleas for amnesty. The requirements for amnesty are clear. Only individuals-- not groups--may apply. There must be full disclosure. The abuses must have been perpetrated to further a political aim. And the principle of "proportionality" must apply. If, for instance, a group of young activists was assassinated by the security police, was it for merely distributing antigovernment pamphlets or for organizing armed resistance? The first case would fail the test of proportionality; the second case might not.

If amnesty is granted, the slate is wiped clean. If not, then disclosures before the commission are not to be used in any subsequent court prosecution. Evidence would have to be independently sought by the attorney general. If the perpetrators didn't come forward by the cut-off date in May 1997, they would live the rest of their lives in fear of being hunted down or fingered by the evidence of a former colleague. As the May 1997 deadline loomed, 8000 applications flooded in.

A further unique feature of both the Gross Human Rights Violations Committee and the Amnesty Committee is that all their hearings are public. This means that perpetrators have to face the individiuals they tortured or the families of those they killed.

Knowing the Truth

A third committee--on Reparations and Rehabilitation--has received less publicity. South Africa's battered economy cannot afford large cash payouts to victims. Other methods of reparation must be fashioned. Thus far, victims' requests have been remarkably modest. Most of all, the bereaved want the return and proper burial of their relatives' remains, or a memorial in their village, or a small scholarship for orphaned children. All agree that the most important thing is to know the truth.

Only time will determine the effectiveness of the TRC process. Its stated aims are to produce a record of the violations of the past and make recommendations to prevent them from ever happening again; to acknowledge the suffering of the victims and assist in their rehabilitation; to offer amnesty to past perpetrators; and to facilitate healing and reconciliation for the nation.

Certainly, South Africans are coming nearer to a common view of the recent past. When the emotional victims' hearings began, angry denial was the order of the day. But the cumulative effect of hundreds of accounts of horror and human pain has changed this mood. The sheer volume of similar experiences from every corner of the country, rather than accuracy of detail, has proved the veracity of the stories. What has emerged is a horrific picture of deliberate state terrorism.

Victims do seem to have been helped by telling their stories. Many have said that they now feel able to move forward with their lives. Most important has been the "reverencing" of their suffering. "Today," said an old Black man, "the nation cried my tears with me."

Amnesty, Not Impunity

The issue of amnesty has been more controversial. Some victims' families challenged (unsuccessfully) these provisions in South Africa's highest court. The new constitution guarantees due process and justice for all. Amnesty, they say, denies them that justice. Nevertheless, distasteful as it may be to envisage these brutal state assassins at liberty, most victims seem determined not to become obsessed by their previous tormentors. People are coming to see that even with amnesty, their tormentors are judged--that there is a difference between impunity, implying escape from accountability, and amnesty, which carries profound inward and social consequences.

Some have decried the absence of repentance in many amnesty applications. Apart from the fact that this is a further damning judgment on the distorted morality of these perpetrators, the legislation doesn't require repentance, only the truth. If it did, it would devalue those moments when apparently genuine repentance is volunteered. In one case, a police officer who masterminded the butchering of a number of families in an attack on a rural village faced his victims: "I can never undo what I have done," he said. "I have no right to ask your forgiveness, but I ask that you will allow me to spend my life helping you to rebuild your village and put your lives together." In such moments, anger at the unrepentant is superseded by a glimpse of something more. Out of the horrors of the past, the TRC makes space for grace, and the potential for newness in South Africa shines through.

A Deeper Healing

This potentiality is undoubtedly aided by the person who is chair, Desmond Tutu. He has wept with the victims and marked every moment of repentance and forgiveness with awe. Where a jurist would have been logical, he has not hesitated to be theological. He has sensed when to lead audience members in a hymn to help a victim recover composure and when to call them all to prayer. While some secularists have criticized the God-language he has used, Tutu knows that the nation is seeking a deeper healing than mere law can provide.

Rather than denying justice, the TRC process may be exploring justice in a larger, more magnanimous form--what Charles Villa-Vicencio calls restorative justice as opposed to retributive justice. Perhaps this unique exercise points beyond conventional retribution into a realm where justice and mercy coalesce. It is an area more consistent with Calvary than the courtroom. It is the place where the guilty discover the pain of forgiveness because the innocent are willing to bear the greater pain of forgiving.

Perhaps other nations with wounded histories may find in South Africa a model for hope. As the international community comes to recognize that there is no peace without confronting the hurts of history and without the healing of national and ethnic memories, one nation's attempt to do so may inspire ways in which God could bring newness in these lands too.

Photo of the author.Peter Storey is past president of the Methodist Church of South Africa and of the South African Council of Churches. He was a member of the selection committee for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

Text and photographs copyright 1999 by New World Outlook: The Mission Magazine of The United Methodist Church. Used by Permission. Visit New World Outlook Online at http://gbgm-umc.org/nwo/.

For reprint permission, contact New World Outlook by E-mail at nwo@gbgm-umc.org.

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