Issued by: Truth and Reconciliation Commission
Archbishop Desmond Tutu, chairperson of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, has written the following overview to mark the end of the hearings of the Human Rights Violations Committee. Originally written at the request of The Star, Johannesburg, it was then adapted to meet a request from a newspaper in the U.S.
On one point, there is unanimity within South Africa about our Truth and Reconciliation Commission --- just nobody could ignore it. Some have vilified it, others have praised it; none have treated it with indifference.
The Commission hands its main report to President Mandela at the end of October, and the Amnesty Committee will be dealing with outstanding amnesty applications for many months to come, but the hearings of the Human Rights Violations Committee have come t o an end and the pro-active stage of our work is over. What have we achieved?
We wish we could have done more. We wish victims of gross violations of human rights had received some reparations already, we wish more big fish from the previous regime had been more forthcoming -- but I think we can also say, modestly, the TRC has done remarkably well given all the different constraints under which we operated.
Have we uncovered much truth? An unbiased observer would say "Quite definitely, yes." After many post-mortems, judicial enquiries and inquests in the past failed spectacularly to solve the riddles, we now know through our amnesty process what precisely happened to Steve Biko, killed under police interrogation, and to the "Cradock Four", community leaders in Eastern Cape province who were illegally abducted and murdered by police.
We know that the police abducted the "PEBCO Three", other Eastern Cape community leaders, then killed them and spent hours burning their bodies over a fire until they were reduced to ashes which could be thrown into a river. We know what happened to Stanza Bopape, a Pretoria activist who died under interrogation in the notorious John Vorster Square security police headquarters, whose body was then thrown into a crocodile-infested river while police generals staged an elaborate mock escape to cover their tracks. We know these things because the perpetrators have told us in amnesty hearings.
When Adriaan Vlok, the former government's police minister, his generals and his operatives, confessed to bombing Khotso House, headquarters of the South African Council of Churches, and Cosatu House, the offices of the Congress of South African Trade Unions, and planting bombs at cinemas showing "Cry Freedom", the movie about Steve Biko's relationship with a newspaper editor, we learned that Vlok had misled us at the time of the bombings by lying publicly and brazenly. He had blamed Shirley Gunn, an ANC activist who as a result was detained without trial at a time when she had a young baby.
But deception was an integral part of an evil policy such as apartheid. Its high priests had misled us before without compunction when they concealed in 1975 that South African troops were fighting in Angola. They have lied as a matter of course. Or they have adopted very clever hair-splitting sophistry, saying when it emerged they had learned of violations after they happened: "We did not tell the TRC we did not know. We said we did not sanction illegal acts (really urban terrorism) such as bombing Khotso House." Of course, once they did learn about these acts, they did nothing about it. Was doing nothing really condonation?
We have also succeeded in tracing a number of people who disappeared, and have exhumed the remains of those who were abducted, killed and buried secretly, enabling their families to give their loved ones a decent burial. We have also uncovered apartheid's chemical and biological warfare programme and its quite diabolical projects, allegedly including the poisoning of anti-apartheid leaders with untraceable toxins and research into ways of inducing infertility among black women.
From Day One, there have been those in South African society, mostly beneficiaries of apartheid, who have sought to discredit the TRC and have sniped at us, carrying out pre-emptive strikes ahead of our report so that they could say, "What did you expect?" when it condemns the perpetrators of gross violations.
They have also gleefully latched onto the results of an opinion poll suggesting that blacks and whites are more angry with one another after hearing the revelations of the TRC, arguing that this shows the Commission has failed to achieve reconciliation in the 30 months of its work. It surely would have been odd in the extreme had people not been incensed at the atrocities that have been revealed. What did we expect? Surely not that the Bopape family would dance with joy to hear that their son was tortured to death and that his body was fed to crocodiles, all the while police engaging in a macabre cover-up?
What is breathtaking, and those who have used the survey have hardly referred to it, is that it also shows that nearly 80 percent of blacks, the ones who suffered most under apartheid, are ready despite the revelations to work for reconciliation. It is shatteringly those who benefited from apartheid who, according to the survey, don't think reconciliation is possible. We should have been devastated had it been the vast majority of this land who had said, "We have given up on reconciliation. To hell with Mandela and Tutu. We are going on a revenge rampage. We are going to take over those nice houses and let the whites come and live in the shacks, in the squalor without lights, without running water."
I have told my white compatriots that the survey is a wake-up call. They have been let down by most of their leaders, who have made them out to be too mean-spirited to respond to the incredible magnanimity and generosity of the victims. They must this opportunity to show they don't agree with those leaders and to avoid South African degenerating into a Bosnia, a Rwanda or a Northern Ireland. They must help us transform people's lives by improving the quality of life of those who for so long have been the underdogs. Without that transformation, lasting reconciliation will be impossible.
Opinion polls are awful because they refer to faceless, anonymous statistics and speak in generalisations. We have seen through the TRC some extraordinary examples of forgiveness and reconciliation from black and white South Africans and non-South Africans.
A policeman sentenced to death for his role in the massacre of 11 people in the province of kwaZulu/Natal, and now granted amnesty, was received at a meeting in the community where he promised to do what he could to help rebuild it. The mothers of seven youths ambushed and killed by police in Gugulethu, Cape Town, have been incredibly forgiving. We have heard moving appeals for forgiveness for their role in justifying apartheid from parts of the white Dutch Reformed Church.
Mrs Beth Savage, whose body still bears the shrapnel of a guerrilla attack on a civilian target, told us that she wanted to forgive the perpetrators -- and that she hoped they would forgive her! Another white South African whose son was killed in an ANC bomb blast, said -- remarkably -- that he believed his son's death had contributed to the liberation of South Africa. A former Air Force officer, blinded in an ANC car bomb attack on Air Force headquarters in the Pretoria city centre, recently went to the leader of the unit responsible for the blast to shake his hand and pledge to work together to overcome our ghastly past.
And of course we have the extraordinary witness of the Biehl family of California, who have shown remarkable magnanimity towards the killers of their daughter, Amy, who was a Fulbright scholar in Cape Town when she was brutally killed.
I have asked whether there isn't a leader of some stature and some integrity in the white community who won't try to be too smart, who is not trying to see how much he can get away with, but who will say quite simply: "We had a bad policy that had evil consequences. We are sorry. Please forgive us?" and not then qualify it to death. That would help to close the chapter on our horrendous past and enable us to move forward into the future with confidence, absolved, forgiving and forgiven.
Reconciliation is not going to be cheap or easy. The TRC was never meant to achieve, but to promote reconciliation. It is a national project requiring the participation of every single South African. True reconciliation cannot be based on lies, the TRC has helped to lay a firm foundation for true reconciliation -- it has unearthed a great deal of the truth.
The rest is up to each and every one of us.