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Otakar Hulec
(Czech Republic)

ASSUMPTIONS, RESULTS AND REVERBERATIONS OF THE
TRUTH AND RECONCILIATION COMMISSION IN SOUTH AFRICA

 

1.Introduction

In the southern part of the globe, a government, in which one race chosen by God subdued another, collapsed in the early 90s without any bloodshed.

Modern South African history has been know for its efforts to enforce thorough racial segregation and for its violent army and police clashes with various political and civil organisations of black South Africans who endeavoured to achieve equality with the whites. Political organisations, that had been banned altogether and that consisted (not only but) mostly of black activists, were involved in underground activities against that countrys government, military and police structures. Certainly, some black militant circles had not only fought to overthrow the rule of the whites, but to also drive them into the sea (Davenport: 388; Thompson: 211).

In 1994, the first non-racial parliamentary elections took place in the country and were won by the African National Congress (ANC) headed by Nelson Mandela, a long-term political prisoner. It was mainly through his doing that the political situation in the country did not acutely lead to a bloodthirsty retaliation. On the contrary, it was the idea of cooperation and peaceful coexistence of all races that won the victory, by thoroughly applying democratic principles and the policies of the Charter of Human Rights.

 

2. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission

There were endless numbers of traumas of the previous centuries and particularly the past several decades marked by inequality, oppression and mutual bloodshed. The new South Africa had decided to come to terms with the cruel past without violence and therefore created the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC).

As the Commissions title itself indicates, a break with the past was not to be undertaken. All the wrongdoings, i.e. political murders, long-term imprisonment and the pursuing of political opponents were to be clarified. Light was also to be shed on all the bloodthirsty acts aimed against the promoters of apartheid and/or traitors and informers from the ranks of Africans.

Only after having heard the complete and in the majority truthful testimonies on the committed crimes could there follow an act of amnesty, rehabilitation or, at least, a partial indemnification for the victims, and could judgement be delivered as to whether a crime had been committed by someone independent of ones political convictions or upon the instructions of the top politicians.

Thus, the Commissions main task was to thoroughly unveil the dark side of the South Africa past and to point to the attempts to obstruct the prevention of even greater hatred and also a breakout of massive and uncontrollable retaliation.

According to a 1995 ruling that helped create the Commission, it was to focus on the period starting March 1, 1960, a month marking the bloody events in the Johannesburg suburb Sharpeville, until May 10, 1994, the day that Nelson Mandela was elected president of the republic.

Justice Minister Dullah Omar explained the importance of such an act in the following words: The Commission is a necessary exercise to enable South Africans to come to terms with their past on a morally accepted basis and to advance the cause of reconciliation (Background inf. TRC:1)

Appointed to head the Commission was Archbishop Desmond Tutu, an uncompromising fighter against apartheid and at a man devoted to democracy and non-violence and to mutual understanding between peoples. For his activities Tutu was awarded the Nobel Peace Price as early as 1984. Prior to the start of the Commissions work, Tutu proclaimed, inter alia: Only by revisiting the trauma of the past can people look to a better future but with the truth comes pain and a reminder that reconciliation may still be a distant goal in the new South Africa (Barrow 1989: 3).

In South Africa, there are various views concerning the evaluation of the TRCs work with respect to its way of coming to terms with the past. It is up to each individual to make up his or her own mind on the basis of his or her lifelong experiences and information. Personally, I think that the establishment and work of the TRC was one of the best solutions. It should be possible to compare the South African way with adequate ones in Central end/or East European countries after the collapse of communist rule. But it is no time to do it here. (See: Skalnk (ed.) 1999 and Coetzee, Hulec, Ustinova 1998)

 

3.What mission and main problems are associated with this Commission?

The TRC did not have the right to condemn the various crimes committed in the apartheid or post-apartheid past but only to cast light on them. It did have the right to grant an amnesty and provide partial compensation.

The commissions and subcommissions members were lawyers, judges, priests and well known personalities of all colours, both men or women.

By July 31, 1998, when the four-year activities of the TRC have had officially come to an end, more than twenty five thousand people had come up with their testimonies, more than seven thousand of whom requested the granting of an amnesty. Of those claimants, some four and a half thousand were turned down due to their improper requests and only one hundred and twenty-five of the some remaining three and a half thousand were granted an amnesty, some of whom just partially. Such an amnesty concerned political/criminal proceedings and the terminating ongoing procedures.

Since the Commission has not managed to close all the inquiries and requests, it will continue its unfinished work untill probably the end of this year.

A Register of Reconciliation has been drawn up, whereas everyone who has expressed the wish to admit his or her personal guilt in public is given the opportunity to express his or her views in writing to the address of the Commission. The author of the respective program and TRC member, Mrs. Mary Burton, justified the drawing up the above list as follows: The register has been established in response to a deep wish for reconciliation in the hearts of many South Africans people who did not perhaps commit gross violations of human rights but nevertheless wish to indicate their regret for failures in the past to do all they could have done to prevent such violations, people who want to demonstrate in some symbolic way their commitment to a new kind of future in which human rights abuses will not take place (Register:1). Every single declaration of which several thousand were received (mostly from whites) have been made publicly accessible, published in the press and in the media in general and completely compiled in the website set up by the TRC. It is remarkable to note that less ten of them were anonymous.

Various views have been heard within South African society as to whether the Commission has or has not been successful and whether it has or has not fulfilled its goals or even stirred up conflicts in the country even more.

Before we try to summarize this evaluation, let us describe the Commissions work in greater detail with the help of several concrete cases, enabling to draw ones own conclusions.

In 1997, without any hearing, the TRC gave amnesty to 37 of the highest representatives of the ANC including their current President Thabo Mbeki and Joe Modise, the new governments Minister. This act was justified according to a paragraph of a respective ruling. In other words, the respective category enabling the possible granting of an amnesty includes every single crime committed within the political struggle between the previous political and national organisations of apartheid and their opponents from the ranks of the liberation movement (a Law on the Proclamation of National Unity and Reconciliation of the year 1995, 20, point 2).

Nothing comparable happend for the leaders of former apartheid state.

The proceedings conducted against Mandelas ex-wife Winnie attracted great attention (Levy 1988; Russel 1998). She had been accused of maltreating and murdering Stompie Seipei, a young ANC activist, an apparent traitor and South African Secret Service collaborator. This murder occured in the 1980s in her home and in her presence. This case enden without the granting of an amnesty. The summoned perpetrator had denied all the accusations the way she had done as early as in 1991 before the court that had sentenced her to six years imprisonment. Having appealed this case, her verdict was altered to a fine imposed upon her amounting to 50 thousand Rand (some $ 8300). The TRC heard a number of witnesses and then proclaimed that Winnie Madikizela-Mandela had lied again and could not want to cast any light on this serious case. In brief, she had not fulfilled the basic purpose in whose name she had been called to appear before the Commission. On the contrary. The pleading guilt both of Winnie and her bodyguards could be judged as a part of the fight against apartheid and therefore be pardonned.

Many ANC and Pan-African movement activists were pardonned even though in the 80s they had punished and murdered (mainly by necklacing) various apparent traitors from within their own ranks.

These particular cases had occurred prior to the year 1990 and before the abolishment of apartheid. Soon afterwards, there began a difficult but hopeful cooperation between the previously banned political opposition parties and the White government. The preparation of the first general and non-racial elections did not happen without tension which also affected the black parties themselves, especially the relation between the ANC and the Zulu Inkatha Freedom Party.

Lately, the TRC has dealt with those cases including the many violent acts committed particularly during that preparatory period, both by blacks and whites.

General Nico Prinsloo, member of the Afrikaner Weerstandsbeweging (AWB), testified, among others, to the violence aimed at enforcing the creation of a Volkstaat an independent Afrikaans state. Twenty people were killed in a bomb attack and many others were injured. The TRC was particularly interested in who had ordered the attack and had directed it. Other Afrikaaner participants also testified to this terrorist act and they even gave the names of those responsible for it. The courts had already previously condemned several of the offenders guilty of this crime, the perpetrators and organisers of which were currently not being granted an amnesty by the Commission since it did not consider these testimonies to be complete and truthful. Therefore, the verdicts were not abolished (Amnesty Decisions: No. 1004/96).

However, the case of C.J.Lottering was of a differnt nature. This man had shot a black taxi driver only to prove that he was ready to fulfill every single order that he was called upon to fulfill by the leaders of the extremist Order of Death, a white organisation of which he was a member. Mr. Lottering was sentenced on charges of murder, theft and his subsequent escape from confinement. The TRC amnestied him only for his escape from prison. The corresponding number of years in detention was thus shortened respectively.

Until now, the ratio of the total number of amnestied persons has amounted to one white person versus three blacks.

In 1993, I must mention the amnesty of three black youngsters who had stoned to death the American scholarship student Amy Biehl in the black township of Gugulethu near Cape Town caused a great stir. Amy was on her way to the township by car at a time when various young people in a highly excited state were on their way home following a stormy meeting of the Pan-African Student Union whose participants were chanting what was a very popular slogan: One settler, one bullet. Two out of four killers were university students. Everyone of them had been amnestied because in the Commissions view their act had been perpetrated due the spirit of the times and had therefore been under the direct influence of the corresponding agitation of their political organisation (Amnesty hearing Holger:1-2). Consequently they were released from prison.

The dead girls parents also attended the Commissions proceedings. They did not agree with the act committed by the black students but they declared that they understood the situation in the Republic of South Africa. They even established a foundation in the USA bearing the girls name whose purpose is to help educate young South Africans so as to prevent other similar cases from occuring (Amnesty Decisions: No.3734/97). I believe that this case is a nice show-piece of the understanding of whites (Europeans or Americans) to African main problems of these days.

In 1996, former President de Klerk also stood before the TRC. On his behalf and on that of his ministers representing the last apartheid government, de Klerk apologised for the pain and wrongdoing that certain fellow citizens had suffered under the previous National Party policies (Barrow: 1989). The hearings of these top figurews were aimed at obtaining admissions from those bearing personal responsibility for acts of violence committed during police raids and for the consequent loss of health and lives of their political opponents, before 1990 and during the tense pre-election period.

Certain high ranking ANC representatives were also summoned together with its armed forces Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK). They were to explain, for instance, the deaths of many of their comrades in the training camps of Zambia or in Angola that were due to rough handling of their subordinates and to the settling of personal accounts.

The TRC then began dealing with the various acts of horror ordered, among others, by the white general Johan Van der Merwe and aimed at innocent victims including women and children the sole reason being to spread fear among South Africas black society prior to the non-racial election. This general had been previously properly sentenced whereupon the Commission had refused to give him an amnesty on the grounds that this was a politically motivated act but a far too cruel one (Shilowa 1998:1).

In that same year, three black men received amnesty as members of the Azanian Peoples Liberation Army (APLA), a part of the militant political party Azanian Peoples Organization (AZAPO) even though they caused the deaths of three whites and a black person in a terrorist attack in December 1993 on the coffee-house Heidelberg Tavern in the Western Cape, and I do not mention many serious injuries of other people. The survivors and relatives of those who died did not agree with the Commissions decision, but the Commission gave the following explanation: Even though this attack was rejectable and although the coffe-house had both white and black guests ... the attackers were quite clearly acting on behalf of APLA, a publicly known political organisation and liberation movement which was engaged in political struggle against the State at that time... We also hold that the applicants did not act for personal gain or out of personal malice, ill-will or spite directed against the deceased and the victims (WOZA:July 17, 1998:1-3.). The panel which made the decision included Mr. Justice Hassen Mall, Mr. Justice Andrew Wilson and Advocate Ntsiki Sandi. The survivors and relatives of those who died were compensated with reparations by the Committee on Reparations and Rehabilitation.

One of the last cases dealt with by the TRC right before the official termination of its work was that of P.W. Botha who was duly summoned. Mr. Botha had held the post of President in the 70s and 80s and was made responsible for many of the wrongdoings committed against various black organisations and their members. Although the former President had submitted his opinion to the TRC in the form of several hundred pages, he refused to appear in person. Therefore, the TRC turned him over to the court who subjected him to a 10 000 Rand ($ 1660) fine in June, 1998 or to a one-year prison term for his refusal to testify before the Commission. Among others, such a verdict amounts to half the maximum possible punishment (Gilmore 1998:1).

 

4.Reverberations on the TRCs work

With this case, the decision of the court helped split the white and black parts of South African society into his supporters and critics. Stormy discussions took place in the press, on TV and the internet as to whether such a punishment was just or insufficient.

The black part of the population was mostly satisfied that their long-time enemies had confessed to their cruelties. Having consecutively studied the public repercussions and with regard to my personal experiences with several particular cases in South Africa, it appears that only a small percentage of black inhabitants with radical leanings who had suffered losses and cruelties within a large family, consider the establishment and decisions of the respective Commision to be needless.

Most of the proceedings in the presence of relatives or survivors took place on a reasonable but psychologically tense level. It is not easy to come to terms with the traumas brought by life during the authoritarian era although most people considered such a step to be more profitable as soon as all the truths about the evils are no longer kept a secret.

In this respect, the case in mind was symptomatic concerning the proceedings against the torturing to death of Steve Biko in 1977, a well-known South African student, poet and activist involved in the Black Consciousness Movement. Various things were known about his death nevertheless, only the testimonies of the participating witnesses and even of the offenders helped cast light on all the circumstances.

Many white South Africans consider the efforts of the TRC to be manipulated and unseeemly. Most of them point out that this Commission has been unfair to the whites and that it had patronised the ANCs exponents as well as other elements of black political organisations for having protected black diversionists. One of the latest statistics showed that perhaps just 18 % of the whole population had welcomed the TRCs effort. Thus, stormy disagreements seemed to appear on the horizon, yet further statistics showed that the opposite was true. It actually depends on how the questions are put forward. (Thomasson 1998)

Those who considered the establishing of the TRC to be an aberrant act mostly point out that the degree of mutual malice had fomented even more in spite of the proclaimed emotional relaxation.

To this day, some black South African radicals are convinced that an apology does not suffice and that all of those who were guilty in the past should be punished, that is, the representatives of the State, army, police and extremist white organisations.

The South African Institute of Race Relations published at June 1999 a book The Truth About the Truth Commission. It criticizes the work of TRC. SAIRR chief executive John Kane-Berman states in a foreword inter alia: The Commission was required to tell the truth in full. Instead it told some of the truth, but far from all of the truth... The TRC approach was selective rather than comprehensive.

The Final Report of TRC was finished and handed to President Mandela at the end of October 1998 (TRC Final Report:1998). It seems, it contains many views opposing each other. It was published in 5 volumes on more than 3 500 pages and to remind its wage it is 8 kilograms in full.

The main conclusions of that Report are:

1. Both sides of political rivals, apartheid regime and national movements, are guilty of gross human rights violations.

2. The Report includes a list of some 200 people and organisations that are axpected to be accused of gross human rights abuses. They are to be contested in court.

3. The members of the TRC are sure that their work was the best way to achieve lasting peace in South Africa for the future. In Archbishop Tutus words ...just by telling of the story people have experienced catharsis and healing. You need something to go beyond the spiral, to break through. You need forgiveness. (Perella 1998).

There were first serious responses of disapproval:

Ad 1: It is interesting that both, representants of former apartheid governments and heads of national movements, were strongly against this conclusion. They were also against the publication of the TRC Final Report. Former Presidents P.W. Botha and F.de Klerk brought the case to the court. ANC and IFP were prepared to do the same. In this connection, M.G. Buthelezi characterized the whole TRC as an institution that may best be described as a circus. (WOZA: October 30, 1998). Some journalists reported on a conflict between President N. Mandela and his deputy T. Mbeki. The President accepted the Final Report it spite of its flaws. Both said, that ...war against apartheid could no be compared with similar violations by the apartheid state. (Infossek News: November 1, 1998). But T. Mbeki backed an unsuccesful last minute court challenge to prevent the publication of the document. Perhaps political analyst David Welsch was rigt to say that ...while there were differences of opinion between Mandela and Mbeki over the partys objections to the Report, it was a storm in a tea cup. (op. cit.).

Some comments ad 2 are very interesting. Archbishop D. Tutu reacted to the

voices asking not to put some people or organisations to court in future: We have not removed it permanently. It is going to be contested in court. That is how strongly we feel. (Infoseek News: October 28, 1998). There were calls, not only from some ANC and IFP members but also from the white political parties, for a general amnesty for all human rights violators. President N. Mandela strictly rejected it: Only individual amnesty appeals would be considered. (The Times and the Sunday Times: December 7, 1998). We hear in his words the voice of true democracy, so needed not only for South Africa of these days.

And as to the feelings of TRC members (ad 3) to find the way from so dishonest past. There were also opposing opinions. Some we have already mentioned. I am sure we can find the right conclusions in the same sentence which the leader od the Democratic Party, Peter Leon, wrote: Commission told no more than the truth. (WOZA: November 10, 1998).

The truth was the main target od TRCs effort. People, whites in particular, had expected that TRC would whitewash the ANC, wrote political analyst D. Welsh (Russell 1998:2). What more can we ask from such a commission? If Justice Minister Dullah Omar was mentioned regarding the founding of the TRC, I should like to remind us of his words when the TRC finished its work: The TRCs investigations were done in the national interest. We must establish accountability ... for the future. We must establish the rule of law. (op.cit:1).

On the other side, the TRCs work and its Final Report didnt satisfy strongly the South African Trade Union (SATU). Archie Palane, head of the National Union of Mineworkers, openly said: Reconciliation cannot be a paper apology. It must be seen to be happening. It was his reaction to the Chamber of Mines, which declined to comment officially on the Final Report. The Chamber was strongly against recommendations of the TRC to create a special tax to help black workers who were discriminated in the past. Willie Breytenbach, a political scientist at Stellenbosh University is against this effort. It could open a Pandoras Box of legal claims and clearly the industry would be unwilling to issue an apology that could draw lawsuits. (Schuettler 1998:1) On the contrary to this recommendation, Archbishop Winston Njongonkulu Ndungane of Cape Town said at August 1999: There should be a one-off reparations tax. (Woza.co.za /reuters/ aug99/apartheidtax4htm)

I hope that the work of TRC had and will help to bring real reconciliation to South Africa and that recommendation to continue with court cases will not stop on the eve of 21st century as has happend in the Czech Republic.

 

References

Amnesty Decisions (http://www.truth.org.za)

Background information to the TRC (http://www.truth.org.za)

Barrow, Greg. 1998, Africa coming to terms with the past (http://www.bbc.news.africa, 31.6.)

Coetzee, Jan and Hulec, O. and Ustinova, Mara. The Price of Resistence. Fragments of the Experiences of Survivors of Longterm Political Imprisonment in South Africa, the Former Czechoslovakia and Russia. Archv orientln 66(1):55-69

Davenport, T.R.H. 1991, South Africa. A Modern History. London: Macmillan

Gilmore, Inigo. 1998, Hope and Fear Reflections of a Democrat. Pretoria

Holder, Jensen. 1989, South Africas thruths are horific, not healing (http://www.nandotimes.com, 1.9.)

Infoseek News (http://www.infoseek.co.za)

Jeffery, Anthea. 1999, The Truth About Truth Commission. Pretoria: SAIRR (see also http://woza.co.za/forum2/Jul99/trc28.htm)

Levy, Tony. 1998, Commentary (http://www.woza.co.za, 3.11.)

Perella, Dominic. 1998, The Associated Press, November 5 (http://www.nandotimes.com)

Register of Reconciliation (http://www.truth.org.za)

Russel, Clyde. 1998, Commentary (http://www.woza.co.za, 9.11.)

Schuettler, Darren. 1998, Infoseek News (http:// www.infoseek.co.za, 10.11.)

Shilowa, Sam. 1998, Van der Merwe lied (http:// www.woza.co.za, 23.5.)

Skalnk, Peter (Ed.). 1999, Transition to Democracy. Czech Republic and South Africa Compared, Prague, Set Out The Times and The Sunday Times, Johannesburg

Thomasson, Emma. 1989, Reuters, Cape Town (http:// www.woza.co.za, 31.7.)

Thompson, Leonard. 1990, A History of South Africa, New Haven and London: Yale University

TRC Final Report (http://www.truth.org.za/final/index/htm)

WOZA (http://woza.co.za)

 

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