Imagine, if you will, that a commission is established to investigate the history of U.S. government and military aggression against Native-Americans. It takes the testimony of victims about murder, rape, and torture committed against them and their relatives and ancestors. It traces the pattern of forced relocations, broken treaties, and the destruction of Native-American cultures, then recommends bringing certain politicians, policemen, and military officers to trial. Or imagine that a group is charged with investigating the history of slavery in the U.S. Of course, it would never happen here–primarily because the disenfranchised remain shut out of our political system. But something very similar to this scenario has been happening for the last three years in South Africa, where a black majority finally controls the political process.
On Oct. 29, South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) released a 3,500 page, five volume report on apartheid-era human rights abuses, the culmination of over two years of testimony from victims of both the apartheid-era government and groups that fought against apartheid from 1960 to 1993. It immediately sparked controversy between South African political parties and individual politicians eager to point fingers at one another; yet, it has also brought an enormous outpouring of grief and anger from black victims, and guilt and apologies from many white people finally forced to confront the crimes of the whites-only rule of apartheid.
Predictably, there was almost no mention of the TRC’s report here in the U.S. press. U.S. coverage of the report focused largely on fighting within the ANC to have the report blocked at the last minute. These same articles often ignored the successful effort of apartheid’s last president, F.W. de Klerk, to have his name excised from the report. Likewise, the Western press happily rehashed the charges of murder and torture brought against members of Winnie Mandikizela-Mandela’s soccer club, and called for her to be tried for gross human rights abuses, while ignoring that former President P.W. Botha, who presided over the worst years of apartheid-era abuses during the 1980s, has never testified before the TRC. In fact, the TRC took Botha to court for contempt; he was later fined $5,600 and given a one year suspended sentence. He continues to live comfortably in retirement in a sea-side community and refuses to answer to charges that he personally ordered bombings, assassinations, and the pursuit of chemical and biological warfare against the black population of South Africa (in spite of the fact that both the former minister of police, Adriaan Vlok, and the former head of the notorious Vlakplass death squad, Eugene de Kock–also known as apartheid’s top assassin–have said that they took orders directly from Botha).
Other big-wigs remain unmolested, too, especially people very high up in the military and police under the former apartheid government. For example, former police commissioner, General Van Dar Merwe, has never come before the commission and still lives in his mansion in north Pretoria, while men directly under his command are in prison. This problem points to a major flaw of the TRC: it can gather evidence, but has no enforcement powers. The TRC uses a “carrot” approach to its mission, without an effective “stick” to back it up; it can grant amnesty to those who voluntarily come forward to admit guilt or testify to their crimes and the crimes of colleagues, although amnesty is not guaranteed (so far 7,000 people have asked for amnesty, but only 125 have received it, while over 4,500 have been rejected–which means they can be prosecuted later for their crimes). But the TRC itself has no specific judicial role–it can’t serve as a court, pass sentence, or impose jail time on those who are not granted amnesty or, more importantly, those who refuse to testify.
The TRC has also been criticized for a terrible double standard: victims who come forward to testify and tell their stories also give up their right to prosecute their tormentors later in court. The TRC has taken testimony from over 21,000 people, most of whom were victims of government repression. The only satisfaction victims receive is the knowledge that their complaints will be heard, and a tiny compensation payment of $345, which is paid only after they’ve been “judged” by the commission to be victims of political aggression.
Others critics have pointed to the limited time period for the investigation (1960 to 1993), arguing that white supremacy in South Africa became institutionalized well over 100 years ago. 1960 was chosen as a starting point because that’s the year when the African National Congress (ANC) began its armed struggle against the apartheid government.
These criticisms are valid and may lead to more strife down the road, but the TRC has nevertheless filled an important and historic role–one that’s been unrivaled anywhere else in the world, except perhaps for the Nuremberg trials after World War II, and current efforts (as yet unsuccessful) to bring Bosnian and Rwandan war criminals to justice.
While ANC leaders, Zulu nationalists, and former apartheid-era politicians squabble over whose crime is really the worst, many ordinary South Africans–including whites–have expressed genuine grief, anger, dismay, and real contrition over the brutalities of the former government. Two years of daily testimony about rape, murder, dismemberment, inhuman tortures, the loss of family members, the destruction of homes, the assassination of political dissident in exile, and many other crimes has combined with mountains of testimony from perpetrators among the ranks of police, military, intelligence agents, covert death squads, former cabinet ministers, and the media to show the real nature of this historical atrocity. The evidence is overwhelming and there’s no escaping its obvious conclusion: the violence was institutional–ingrained in the system–and everyone who supported the government or who simply chose to be apathetic and not fight against it also supported that violence.
This can be seen in the sweeping conclusions of the report itself, which gives findings on nearly every aspect of the apartheid regime. On religion: South African Christianity “promoted the ideology of apartheid in a range of different ways that included Biblical and theological teaching.” On the court system: “The judiciary and the magistracy as well as the … legal profession were locked into an overwhelmingly passive mindset…” On business: “The business sector failed … to take responsibility for its involvement in state security initiatives … specifically designed to sustain apartheid rule.” On the English language media: it “often adopted a policy of appeasement toward the state, ensuring a large measure of self-censorship.” On the Afrikaans language media: “with rare exceptions chose to provide direct support for apartheid and the activities of the security forces, many of which led directly to gross violations of human rights.” If only we could subject our own institutions to the same scrutiny.
The report delves deeply into the specifics of police beatings, soldiers shooting at peaceful demonstrators, suspects jailed for months without trial, civilians killed by the ANC, the black-on-black violence of the Inkatha Freedom Party, and the words and actions of apartheid’s main participants on all sides. It also includes bits and pieces about foreign governments assisting the apartheid government. It’s an unrivaled historical archive of information; and it’s just the sort of collective memory that the Western media regularly shuns.
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s report can be viewed and downloaded from the TRC’s homepage at: www.truth.org.za. Their home page also contains reports from the TRC’s Amnesty Committee, Human Rights Committee, and transcripts of public debates, as well as South African media coverage of the commission’s work. To order a print copy of the five volume report, contact: Bonita Solomons, Juta & Company Ltd., 011-27-21-797-5111 (phone), or 011-27-21-761-5861 (fax) and refer to ISBN number 0620230789. The print copy costs 750 rand (about $130 U.S.), plus postage and handling.