Five years ago, following the end of apartheid and the beginning of a new country, South Africans embarked on a journey of dealing with its past in a way that empowered its future. South Africans undertook an extraordinary experiment by establishing a Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), chaired by Archbishop Desmond Tutu, to face the truth of the past (CT, "How Much Truth Can We Take?" Feb. 9, 1998). People around the world have watched its proceedings carefully, hoping to discover a process whereby people could begin to heal the open, festering wounds of the past. Last October, the TRC delivered its final report to President Nelson Mandela. Though the TRC will continue to hold amnesty hearings for perpetrators who have come forward, its primary work has been completed.
"Facing the Truth with Bill Moyers" is a two-hour PBS program that looks at how South Africa is dealing with the brutal legacy of apartheid through its Truth and Reconciliation Commission. It airs March 30. Look for local listings.
What did it accomplish? Did it succeed in finding out the truth? Did the TRC's offer of amnesty, linking for the first time the aim of reconciliation with the work of a truth commission, make a significant difference? Has the work of the TRC helped to shape the emergence of a new South Africa?
During the week of March 30, people will be offered an opportunity to reflect on these questions by watching a compelling two-hour PBS special on the work of the TRC, entitled Facing the Truth with Bill Moyers. The show is difficult to watch, because we are confronted with painful testimonies of apartheid's destructiveness, graphic examples that detail the techniques of torture and killing, pictures of rooms where tortures and murders were carried out. The show tests the level of how much truth we can take. One cannot help wondering how Tutu, the TRC commissioners, and the people who actually lived through apartheid have been able to sustain themselves through the days, weeks, months, even years of the hearings. Yet they have shown themselves capable of continuing their extraordinary commitment to discovering and naming the truth, and doing so in the hope of reconciliation rather than vengeance. Though it is not always easy to watch, Facing the Truth is a riveting account that should be required watching for pastors and laypeople alike.
What have we done?
As the closing credits roll at the end of this poignant and powerful documentary, in the background emerges a haunting song: "What Have We Done?" The Truth and Reconciliation Commission has been a focal process for enabling the people of South Africa to make peace with their past. Talking to Moyers, Desmond Tutu describes the purpose of the TRC as he reflects on the perpetrators from both sides of the apartheid struggle: "We're not seeking to humiliate them, we're not seeking to belittle them, we're not even seeking to prosecute them. We're just saying that this is a moral universe, and you've got to take account of the fact that truth and lies and goodness and evil are things that matter, and we've got to acknowledge them." If we live in a moral universe, then we cannot evade or avoid the past. Tutu observes that the sheer act of making the truth public is a form of justice.
Indeed, much truth has been uncovered and made public through the TRC hearings. There have been extraordinary confessions by perpetrators, many of them in the presence of victims and/or their families. As one mother comments, "If it was not for the Truth Commission, even today, I should not have known what happened to my son."
Even when the details of horrifying sin have been unbearably painful, making the truth known has had an extraordinary effect. Perpetrators such as police squad member Paul Van Vuuren, known as "the electrician" for his techniques of torture, describes what he and others have had to confront in coming to terms with what they did: "The impact on [families] is traumatic. They are looking at you through new eyes. You are a totally different person to them now." Simply making the truth known changes people.
Albie Sachs is a white South African who resisted apartheid, and who lost an arm and suffered other injuries when an Afrikaner's bomb went off in his car. He is now a judge in the new South Africa. He notes, "The TRC has made a huge contribution. What has been so extraordinary is very deep emotions have come out, and no one can deny the horrors of the past. Maybe one of the worst things about horrors is denial, that they didn't even happen, yet people know that they happened. … No one can say it never happened."
It has been a difficult but crucial process, and it has included the task of confronting the horrors of the past committed by the African National Congress and its sympathizers. Clearly, the burden of the past lies much heavier with Afrikaners; there has been absolutely no presumption of a moral equilibrium between white South Africans on the one hand and black and colored South Africans on the other. Even so, it has been important to acknowledge the truth of what some black South Africans did in the course of their resistance to apartheid. Moyers examines the black South African "counterterrorist" perpetrators of the Saint James Church massacre of 1993, where the tables were turned. In this case, the TRC listened to a white South African demanding from black perpetrators the details of his wife's murder.
Because of the terrifying details that have been uncovered, people have developed powerful dramatic resources and ritual actions to deal with the unleashed passions and pain. Moyers engages in conversation with theater groups who are giving dramatic focus and voice to the more formal proceedings of the TRC. One play is entitled Speak So That I May Speak. In many of these dramas, conflicted witnesses and emotions are allowed to emerge and engage issues without easy resolution.
In other contexts, priests have gone with families of victims to the site of a horrific crime—for example, the place where several teenagers were blown up in a bus—to offer a ritual cleansing of the ground and to begin the process of healing the wounds of their memories.
In many ways, the TRC's work has been extraordinarily successful. Truth has been told, deep emotions have been identified, closure to many unanswered questions has been achieved. Yet, not surprisingly, there have been frustrations and dissatisfaction with both the design of the TRC and with its results.
First, people have been frustrated that not all of the truth has been told. The mother of a murder victim says, "What made me real angry was that [the perpetrators] didn't tell us the real truth. … They are still hiding something." Steven Biko's son is convinced that the people who murdered his father are not telling the truth. Hence, he objects to people being absolved who are not deserving of absolution. (The commission has subsequently denied amnesty to the four former policemen accused of killing Biko.)
More ominously, former President De Klerk's symbolically important testimony rang hollow as he apologized in general but distanced himself from any concrete knowledge of the work of the security forces. Max Du Preez, a journalist who has been covering the work of the TRC, tells Moyers: "I think that one of the biggest disappointments of this whole process was when people like F. W. De Klerk, the former state President, stood there and said, 'I acknowledge now that these things happened, but I did not know at the time, and I certainly did not order it.' And that's not true. … I personally told him about the police death squads in 1989."
Perhaps the greatest disappointment was P. W. Botha's refusal to acknowledge either the process of the TRC or, more important, his own reign of terror. This is particularly important since the TRC process has discovered that approximately 80 percent of all the cases of human rights violations and amnesty cases came between 1984 and 1990, the years Botha was president.
Even when the truth has been told, it has been difficult to link the truth with reconciliation. The promise of amnesty has uncovered the truth in powerful ways. And, to be sure, there have been extraordinary scenes of confession, forgiveness, and reconciliation between perpetrators and victims. Yet there have also been many stories where reconciliation has proven difficult if not impossible.
The aim of reconciliation has been complicated in part by perpetrators who have acknowledged the truth of what they did without expressing any remorse or repentance. As one white South African describes it, "How can I apologize for an act of war? War is war."
Moreover, some of the victims—including those who consider themselves Christians and people who are grateful for the TRC's discovery of the truth of what happened to their loved ones—still desire punishment, retributive justice, and perhaps even vengeance. Other victims find it difficult, if not impossible, to forgive because too much of their identity died as they were being tortured. As one woman puts it, "How can I forgive? … I am a woman in body, but inside I'm dead."
Yet other victims who are committed to the prospect of forgiveness nonetheless fear that reconciliation may not be possible. The white South African Christian whose wife was murdered in the Saint James Church massacre stated on television that very night that there would be "no bitterness, no revenge, but an offer of forgiveness." Yet, in the wake of encountering the perpetrators during the TRC hearings, he observes that he could understand the perpetrators' feelings of suicide, and asks: "how on earth are we going to be reconciled?"
It may be that there are some stories, some deeds so awful that the perpetrators will not be able in this life to acknowledge fully what they did, that the victims will not be able in this life to experience a full healing of their memories, that all of us will not be able to bind up the wounds fully through forgiveness and reconciliation. As one black South African woman, who suffered tremendously during apartheid, notes: "I often find myself back in the dungeons of solitary confinement, ready to take away my life." Perhaps there are some wounds that simply are not likely to heal in this life, absent some extraordinary miracle from God for which they and we pray.
"What have we done?" the song hauntingly asks. Even with the TRC's limitations, South Africans have done something extraordinary by expecting and hoping for so much: they have risked a commitment to restorative rather than retributive justice; they have allowed and even required that as much truth be told as possible; and they have offered forgiveness in the hope that restorative justice provides a vision of reconciliation, and of a future that is not bound by the destructiveness of the past.
What will we do?
All of this suggests, however, that "what will we do?" is now at least as crucial a question for South Africans as they continue to uncover what they have done. For the great and dangerous temptation that they face, particularly with the submission of the final report of the TRC, is to believe that they can now put the past behind them and develop a moral amnesia. The real test of the work of the TRC lies not in the final report, or even in the process of the hearings, but in how South Africa continues to grapple with the legacies of its past.
There are some powerful signs of hope for the future of South Africa: the election of Nelson Mandela, the powerful cross-cultural credibility of people like Desmond Tutu and Albie Sachs, and less well-known stories of reconciliation and hope. For example, Moyers tells of a black South African entrepreneur who has hired a former enemy—a white government officer—to work with him in his new company.
At the same time, however, there are also signs of deepening cynicism and despair, signs that Moyers notes and addresses: cycles of vicious poverty, of violent crime, of racism; a lack of willingness to engage in concrete gestures of repentance; a fear that the next generation of South Africans will not be willing to shoulder the burdens of struggling to come to terms with the past for the sake of a new, and renewed, future for all South Africans.
We in the United States have some experience with failing to grapple with the legacies of our past and their implications for our struggle to give birth to a new, and renewed, future. From those struggles, we have learned four lessons pertaining to the situation in South Africa.
1. Confession, forgiveness, and healing take time. Even as the TRC formally ends its hearings, there are many stories that will need to continue to be told—and perpetrators and victims will continue to need to uncover new complexities to the stories that have already been told. Unless we continue to cultivate communities capable of truthful memory without wallowing in the past, we will fail to bear witness to God's redeeming forgiveness. A black South African woman notes to Moyers, "The TRC, what it is doing, is tearing the bandages off of the wounds that have rotted. So we needed to clean those wounds." Cleaning those wounds will continue to take time, a long time. The TRC's work, including its final report, is but the beginning of the process.
2. The possibility of a new future requires grappling with the continuing problems of racism and poverty. Racist attitudes, habits, and practices will not disappear overnight. People need to maintain an ongoing vigilance in the midst of a struggle to unlearn entrenched ways of life and to learn new ones. Politicized racism is difficult to overcome. Further, and closely related, pervasive poverty—particularly among black South Africans—continues to create cycles of despair. As the journalist Max Du Preez observes, "It doesn't matter what the TRC achieves if we cannot snap out of our cycles of poverty in this country; if we cannot close these huge gaps, we will not have reconciliation, we will not have peace." The rapid acceleration of capitalism in South Africa, coupled with the lack of a strong civic culture, suggests that poverty will intensify—unless Christians and others offer a concerted witness to fighting racism and poverty.
3. Dealing with racism and poverty, as well as the legacies of the past, requires a willingness to recognize that God's forgiveness—particularly as embodied in interhuman relations—ought to induce remorse and concrete acts of repentance. A black South African poet, Don Mattera, is speaking to groups about the importance of building a brighter future. Yet he worries that "white people still suffer from forgetfulness," and goes on to note: "Sorry is not just a word. It's a deed. It's an act. Contrition is not, 'Bless me Father for I have sinned.' Contrition is, 'I have taken from thee; therefore, I give thee back. I have hurt thee; therefore, I help to heal your pain.' "
4. Careful attention needs to be paid to the formation and education of the next generation of South Africans—not the architects and victims of apartheid, but their children and grandchildren. Moyers interviews a group of white college students from the University of Stellenbosch who worry about issues of affirmative action, collective responsibility, and the potential for backlash. But the most ominous comment comes from a student who observes, "We ought to leave the past alone." As South Africa struggles to deal with rapid economic and cultural change, its future will be significantly determined by the developing habits, attitudes, and practices of the children and grandchildren of the perpetrators and victims of the past. Can we find resources, particularly within the Christian tradition, for narrating what it means to accept collective responsibility without collective guilt? And to do so in ways that bear witness to the work of God in the world?
South Africa's experiment with truth and reconciliation is entering a new phase. It is not yet clear whether the church in South Africa will continue to have the will to bear witness to the extraordinary conjunction of confession, truth, reconciliation, and restorative justice that has been inaugurated. As Desmond Tutu has noted, an emphasis on restorative rather than retributive justice is both powerful and subject to potential abuse. Restorative justice ought never be separated from the hard work of truthfulness, forgiveness, and repentance by which people can, over time, discover the miracle of reconciliation. Unsurprisingly, South Africa is filled with contrasting visions and conflicted voices.
But as Tutu rightly observes, "There is no future without forgiveness." Such a vision of a future shaped by the struggle for forgiveness—so powerfully embodied by Tutu, his fellow TRC commissioners, and countless other South Africans—provides a clear and powerful sense of hope amidst the struggles, fears, and daunting tasks that face them—and us.
L. Gregory Jones is dean of the Duke University Divinity School, Durham, North Carolina.
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