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This resource is hosted by the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory, but was compiled and authored by Padraig O’Malley. It is the product of almost two decades of research and includes analyses, chronologies, historical documents, and interviews from the apartheid and post-apartheid eras.

Lecture by Padraig O'Malley at the Center of Democracy and Development Umass Boston

9 November 1998

Truth and Reconciliation:

A Truth and Reconciliation Commission aggressively advocated by human rights' proponents and vigorously opposed by the rear-guard of the old order staggers through the parliamentary process, survives the innumerable obstacles put in its path, and is enacted into law amid rancid recriminations that have little to do with coming to terms with the sordid past.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu, chairman of the commission, promises that the commission will promote healing, and hold all sides equally accountable for the human rights' violations they committed during the years of apartheid. The commission, he says, "will open wounds so they can be cleansed and prevented from festering."1

Evenhandedness is elevated to a position of the theological centerpiece of the new orthodoxy. The process seems almost benignly simple: anyone who committed an offence that was an infringement of the human rights of an individual has to come before the commission and confess. If the commissioners are sufficiently convinced that the offence was carried out in keeping with the political mores of the organization to which the confessee belonged, he will be given indemnity from prosecution. The commission will sit for 18 months.

"So that it does not deepen the rifts it has been set up to heal," a leader in Business Day solemnly intones, "[the commission's] proceedings and final report must reflect an understanding of the perspectives and motives of all sides of the dirty war. The legislation gives it power to investigate, in addition to hearing evidence on application, and it must use them evenhandedly to shed light on the crimes of the ANC and its allies as well as those of the forces of apartheid."

"The distasteful reality," it concluded, "is that the committee will have the job of letting assassins and torturers off the hook, as long as their crimes were politically inspired and proportional to the political aim." Thus, "[while] one can understand the desire of apartheid victims for revenge, the larger issue is how to avert future violence." 2

One problem the commission has to deal with is how to treat members of the ANC who were given a blanket temporary immunity from prosecution when they returned to South Africa in the early 1990s to take part in negotiations, and who continue to be beneficiaries of that immunity, and members of the security forces or even the former National Party (NP) government who received no such immunity. (According Dept. of Justice spokesperson Sue de Villiers, the temporary immunity granted to 77 senior members of the ANC has been extended on an annual basis, and will expire one year after the Truth Commission begins its deliberations. At that point, she says that those covered by the immunity legislation will have to apply to the commission for indemnity.3 The matter remains one of extreme contention with President Mandela blunt reminder to all sides that "I am President of this country; I will decide who gets indemnity..."4

The National Party, in particular, are voracious in drawing a distinction between immunity from prosecution, which does not require disclosure of offences committed, and indemnity from prosecution, which does require disclosure.5

Whites have become obsessed with the case of Robert McBride, a former member of Umhonto, who left a bomb in a pub in Durban in 1986 - the Magoo Bar - that exploded, killing three women and injuring dozens - none of whom were remotely connected with the security forces. McBride was arrested, convicted of murder, and sentenced to death. In 1993, McBride was released in accordance with the criteria defining political offences agreed to by the government and the ANC. Today, McBride holds a high position in the Department of Foreign Affairs, is indemnified from other "terrorist-type" activities he may have been engaged in, and has no cause for appearing before the Truth Commission.

Compare McBride's position with that of General Magnus Malan, former Minister of Defence in both PW Botha's government and FW de Klerk's government (until he was reassigned), who together with ten former senior members of the South African Defence Force (SADF) was recently arrested on charges of murder in connection with a massacre that occurred in KwaZulu/Natal in 1987. Where, whites ask, is the evenhandedness in this?

(Malan and his co-defendants, it should be pointed out, want to go to trial so that they can prove their innocence. Putting their case before the truth commission would suggest, they say, that they are guilty of a heinous crime and hold up to derision their repeated avowals of innocence. "In our court case," says General Malan, "my conscience is clear as far as this despicable act is concerned. We are accused and charged with committing a crime, namely that of murder. If there is sufficient evidence, carry on with prosecuting us. No person in this democratic country should be above the law." But, he added, "Where you prosecute the one side for alleged crimes, you are democratically forced to prosecute the other side for alleged crimes."6

His plea for evenhandedness came, nevertheless, with a caveat that carried with it a warning: "However, should any member of the previous State Security Council be charged with these or similar deeds, such action might cause turmoil in South Africa. If you take actions similar to those taken against me, I say: Watch it...."7

In the course of the uproar among whites following Malan's arrest and angry declamations by the families of the victims of the Mc Bride bombing, Mc Bride struck back at his detractors.

I threw away half of what they call the gravy train [he said] because of my love for this job [in the diplomatic corp]. I would like to serve my country and I will not allow some hypocrites to distract me. They can do whatever they like; they can stand on their heads. But remember they are the same people who supported the state of emergency, cross-border raids and everything that went with apartheid. They cannot speak with any moral authority on any issue.8

Moral battle-lines were being drawn. The ANC weighed in with a blistering statement:

The campaign against McBride is insensitive to the lengths that the ANC, in particular, has gone to make reconciliation possible. These actions ignore the very sincere efforts by McBride at personal reconciliation. McBride, at his own initiative, personally contacted victims of the bombing to extend a hand of reconciliation.9

Meanwhile the families of the victims are getting ready to sue McBride, apologies or not merely a partial differential in the calculus of retribution.

So we must ask: Should murder committed by the state in the name of protecting state security, be held to a different standard of justice than murder committed by young comrades fighting in the name of liberation. Morally, is there a difference between the shooting dead on the orders of the state of a named individual whose activities are perceived to be inimical to the survival of the state, no matter how oppressive, and the township necklacings (tyre saturated with petrol, hung around a beaten, defeated and more often than not resigned body; arms pinioned, tyre set ablaze, flames consuming the writhing, disappearing figure, voice howling with the despair of the damned, eyes popping like Corn Flake's Special Seven, fire feeding on cooked flesh and bones that burn you to ashes, to nothingness; a largely incurious gathering of bystanders watching, a diversion in an otherwise pointless day; and the hanging stench a reminder to the community that life is a matter of a box of matches) carried out by youngsters and the so-called "people's courts" they administered with a ruthlessness that matched at times the worst excesses of the state, with the implicit and often explicit sanction of their elders, in the perceived furtherance of the struggle?

Or should we cite the case of the colonel, always sufficiently but not inordinately drunk ( nothing but the finest Hennessey) who forces his captive to drink petrol until the doomed man is bloated as a sow in farrow, then orders his subordinates to shoot the crazed victim in the stomach until he explodes into an ephemeral bulwark of flames, until his body pieces scatter in fragments, who then proceeds to have his underlings carefully collect, package and dynamite, over and over again, these scattered fragments of bone and flesh, the bits of hair, whatever odd pieces of what was once you that are still lying about, until not even a seamless trail of dust could even give witness to your ever having been?

One day killing in the name of liberation, tomorrow in the name of fascism, yet another in the name of nationalism, one more for socialism. We can change the titles of the causes but cannot undo the deaths committed in the names of different ideologies. Dead men can never breathe air.

And so to the disquieting questions that the truth commission must address. How to create parameters for its legal frame of reference? (as stated in the first sentence of the preamble to the legislation, the purpose of the commission is to "provide for the investigation and establishment of as complete a picture as possible of the nature and extent of gross violations of human rights committed between March 1960 and December 1993.")10

How to balance the right of the families of victims of apartheid rule who disappeared to know what happened to their kin with the rights of the families of victims of savagely dispensed township-justice and "people's courts" to know what happened to theirs? How to avoid setting in motion endless cycles of retributive violence?

Should individuals be publicly named for murders they committed or were complicit in, even if disclosure means the certain death of the named individuals as a result of revenge killing? What if current Ministers, in all parties, are implicated in serious crimes? Should they be required to resign? (Which raises the question that goes to the core of the need to ensure transparency so as to assuage the national conscience and the need to maintain national cohesiveness and stability: If the commission uncovers information that could lead to a coup, a right-wing rebellion or the collapse of the government, should it release it? ( Archbishop Tutu would appear to come down on the side of non-transparency in such cases. "The commission," he says, "has the right to determine when it sees fit that some or all of a particular piece of disclosure should not be made generally known to the public.")11

However, his response raises another troubling question: If the purpose of the commission is to lay to rest the ghosts of the past, how can it succeed if some of the ghosts remain ensconced in the attic. And who gets to decide which ghosts have the right to a permanent residence? On this question, Tutu, in the light of his previous statement, appears to contradict himself: "We cannot be facile," he says, "and let bygones be bygones, because they will not be bygones, and will come back to haunt us." True reconciliation is never cheap, for it is based on forgiveness, which is costly. Forgiveness, in turn, depends on repentance, which has to be based on an acknowledgment of what was done wrong.12

Should people who killed randomly i.e who planted a bomb in a crowed market place where it was sure to kill on explosion be treated differently than members of "hit squads" who killed specifically targeted individuals? Should state officials who helped to organize "hit squads" or who ordered underlings to "permanently remove" someone from society be held to a higher level of accountability, since they were suborning laws that they had sworn to uphold, than members of the MK who did not acknowledge the legitimacy of the state and who resorted to violence as a remedy of last resort?

("There is no moral equivalence between the actions of the apartheid security forces and those of the ANC guerrillas," says Minister of Justice Dullah Omar.

Apartheid [he says] has been a crime against humanity in the same way Nazi crimes were crimes against humanity. People who fought for freedom in our country, who fought form democracy, were participating in a noble struggle.

Indeed, General Malan immediately responded, "[The Minister of Justice's statement] that there was no moral equivalence between the actions of the security forces and those of the ANC terrorists is absolutely correct, as the security forces had never necklaced people in the streets, before international TV cameras, and the victims' families." 13 ).

( In their war to make the country ungovernable, the ANC committed, according to police reports, 1,548 "terrorist" acts in 14 years, in which 158 people of all races died, and 1,564 were injured. Citing these figures, Die Burger, felt compelled to report that "those who were lucky enough to survive give accounts that would bring tears to the eyes of anyone with any humanity."14 In reality, if these are in fact the official police statistics for the period, they indicate how putative the so-called armed struggle was; the meager dividends ridicule the myth of a national uprising. Was this it, the whole armed struggle? The razzmatazz of revolution? Was this the great and widely-promulgated response of the people to centuries of oppression and the denial of their humanity at every level of social interaction? Whither the comrades and cadres? In what great enterprise were they enjoined? And against whom?

In response to the ANC charge that the security forces had acted in criminal ways in the carrying out of their duties, General Malan responded haughtily that "the South African Defence Forces cannot be held responsible should any other individual or group trained by them decide to commit a crime."15

Mandela, true to whom he is, added the closing injunctive. "I am not" he said," prepared to defend anybody."

We are a government that has established a culture of transparency in this country, and anybody, no matter what position you hold, who is found to have committed a crime which is not covered by the parameters we set to define what a political offender is, must be brought to the courts and prosecuted. He must be accountable for what he did.

Without disclosure, how do you create an environment conducive to and encourage reconciliation? Blacks are called on to forgive whites for the sins of apartheid. But how can you forgive, if you do not know what it is that you are forgiving? Should the families of people who simply disappeared have the right to know who was responsible for their disappearance, who ordered the necessary action, who approved it and why, who carried out the order, and what happened to the body?. And why should whites be allowed to erase the past, unaware, or with the pretense of being unaware, of what was going on around them in their racist claim that all men are not created equal? Heads will certainly roll, and not just National Party heads; the ANC will come in for its fair share of decapitations.

The ANC has to answer for the torture of its own people in the Quatro camps in Angola. The ANC's own investigations recommended that the perpetrators of these actions should never again hold public office.

Perhaps as a precursor of things to come, General Johan van der Merwe, the former Commissioner of the South African Police (SAP) warned Parliament's Justice Committee that members of the security forces would protect themselves using "documentary and other evidence collected during their period of service, if their political leaders did not accept responsibility for the system that led to the conflict."16

Questioned on this statement, he further elaborated: "Every person should realize that if the leaders and commanders are not prepared to accept collective responsibility for a system within which the individual operated, obviously the individual will have to protect himself in whatever way is available to him." 17

But the proliferation of words obscures meaning. Repentance is hard to find, admissions of wrongdoing wanting, and reconciliation, much praised in the abstract, and much tempered in practice.

End Notes

9 November 1998

1 Sowetan 12/1/95

2 Business Day, 12/1/95

3 Business Day, 11/28/95

4 The Citizen, 11/27/95

5 ibid

6 The Citizen, 11/30/95

7 The Citizen, 11/29/95

8 The Sunday Independent, 11/26/95

9 The Citizen, 11/26/95

10 The Sunday Independent, 11/26/95

11 Business Day, 12/1/95

12 The Citizen, 12/1/95

13 The Citizen, 11/30/95

14 Cape Times, 3/31/95

15 The Citizen, 11/29/95

16 The Citizen, 2/8/95

17 ibid

This resource is hosted by the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory, but was compiled and authored by Padraig O’Malley. Return to the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory site.