Casualties of Truth
In 1967, bored with life on the ship that was taking me to England, I disembarked at Cape Town and spent the following six months hitchhiking around South Africa and neighbouring countries. Taking advantage of being an outsider, I was able to meet and talk frankly about social and political issues with people of all races.
I was opposed to apartheid when I arrived in South Africa, and my travels only strengthened my hostility. Race intruded everywhere, distorting all aspects of people's lives, both public and private. By visiting Africans in their own homes without obtaining official permission, I was actually breaking the law. Those in the West who still spoke of South Africa as part of the 'free world' were degrading the word 'free'.
Even then, South Africa was a brutal and violent society, although the level of conflict was much less than what came later, as the fight against apartheid intensified during the 1970s and 1980s. There was a high level of crime in the black townships, although this was not a matter that particularly troubled most whites, who were largely insulated from its effects. And the National Party regime seemed invincible.
But beginning in the 1980s, the government began to amend some of the worst aspects of apartheid, such as the pass laws which restricted Africans' freedom of movement. The government and other white leaders also began both secret and public contacts with members of the African National Congress, the main anti-apartheid organisation. Yet at the same time, the security forces and their allies were fighting a dirty war against the ANC and other liberation groups.
The eventual creation of a democratic system in which power was peacefully transferred from the National Party to the ANC through the elections of 1994 was a remarkable achievement, one which seemed fanciful only a decade earlier. The ANC gained well over 60 per cent of the popular vote.
Nevertheless, the apartheid years also created a terrible legacy of gross human rights violations. Both the supporters of apartheid and their opponents have innocent blood on their hands. South Africa is still a deeply fractured country, confronted with the problems of massive unemployment and poverty, an appalling rate of crime, and persisting racial bitterness.
In an attempt to come to terms with the past, in 1995 President Mandela established a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, chaired by Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Such commissions have been used, with varying degrees of success, by a number of countries emerging from a period of repression and conflict. They promise to allow past abuses to be acknowledged without a resort to widespread prosecutions of people who retain power in the new system, which might jeopardise the settlement that has brought about the political changes.
The commission offered the possibility of immunity from prosecution to people who had committed serious abuses during the struggle over apartheid, provided that they fully disclosed their misdeeds. This was a compromise between the demands of the former regime for a blanket amnesty, and the reasonable expectations of victims and human rights advocates that people should be punished for their crimes.
Supporters of this compromise argued that without it, the settlement that brought about the end of apartheid could not have occurred. The only alternative would have been continuation of the armed conflict, with the appalling consequences this would have entailed. As one of the key proponents of the commission stated, 'we sacrifice justice for truth so as to consolidate democracy, to close the chapter of the past and to avoid confrontation'.
It is a strong argument. In effect, individual victims were asked to forgo their rights to justice in the belief that this would both help to prevent any further victims from being created, as well as to lay down the basis for a more just society in the future.
But those who expect others to make this kind of trade-off have a great responsibility to do everything possible to bring about its success. If the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was to make a real contribution to the process of transcending the past, its independence would have to be beyond question, and its proceedings would have to conducted with gravitas as well as compassion.
In a 1993 enquiry the ANC set up to investigate damaging allegations about human rights abuses made by a number of its own members, the three commissioners were widely accepted as independent, and included two from outside South Africa. But this time round, too many of the commission's members were ANC sympathisers. And despite Tutu's international stature, he is probably too sanctimonious and theatrical to have chaired the commission.
A few months ago a major survey amongst urban South Africans of all races found widespread doubts about the commission, with over two thirds believing that it would lead to a worsening of race relations. The majority of whites also thought that it had not been fair to all sides, although the majority of Africans thought otherwise.
The commission's report, which was released last week, seems to confound those who believed that it would be biased towards the ANC. As expected, members and supporters of the former regime were indicted for gross violations of human rights. But so were the ANC and other liberation groups, whose crimes included the torture and murder of their own members and the killing of innocent civilians.
However, the response to the report, particularly from the ANC, has been disturbing, suggesting that the government's readiness to 'sacrifice justice for truth' stemmed from an indifference to truth, and a misunderstanding of justice.
The ANC leadership---though not President Mandela---argues that the organisation should not be blamed for any human rights abuses because these occurred while it was involved in a just war. But this fails to recognise a fundamental distinction between a just cause, and acting justly in pursuit of that cause. It is a failure that does not bode well for South Africa's prospects of becoming a peaceful and decent nation.