Airing apartheid's filthy linen Honesty: All the terrible misdeeds of South African apartheid are being publicly exposed by Archbishop Desmond Tutu's truth commission in hopes of achieving a national reconciliation.

Sun Journal

December 17, 1996|By Gilbert A. Lewthwaite | Gilbert A. Lewthwaite,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa -- Horror by horror, confession by confession, Archbishop Desmond Tutu is painstakingly compiling the horrific record of apartheid, seeking to enable the new South Africa to lay to rest its bloody, shameful and segregated past.

As chairman of the nation's Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the 65-year-old cleric and 1984 Nobel Peace Prize laureate is etching in the details of one of the most inhuman systems ever imposed by man. It is a job that sometimes reduces him to tears.

Police assassins, anti-apartheid terrorists, torture victims, a wife whose husband was "necklaced" in front of her with a gasoline-filled car tire, mothers who found their sons in the morgue -- one by one, they have added their voices to the chorus of national expiation.

Taking a break from gathering their testimony, Tutu, in the white-collared purple shirt of an Anglican bishop, opens an interview with a prayer. But he moves quickly from piety to plumb the depths of apartheid's depravity and the impact it has had on both victim and perpetrator:

"What would you do," Tutu asks, "if you were a mother and you sat there and you heard that your son had been put into a minibus, plied with alcohol, and then, on the border between your country and a foreign country, had some stuff injected into him, and the minibus was then packed with explosives and your son was blown to smithereens?"

"One is shattered in many ways by the revelations, but on the other side you are almost exhilarated by how most people have responded to the truth," he says. "But I have quite seriously wondered how much truth we can tolerate."

Then he adds: "It is important to know who did what, why, and so on. Part of it is that it's going to come out. You keep it in, and it's going to explode somewhere along the way. Do it now, do it openly so you can handle it.

"This is the horror that was apartheid. And those who supported the system must know what they supported. Those who claimed they did not know cannot very well say so now. They know.

"Perhaps most important is [to be able to say], 'Hey, this is the inhumanity we experienced. This is the price we paid,' so it never happens again.

"Just look at the horror of it and see what power can do in corrupting good people, because many, if not all, of the people who supported apartheid are Christians. They went to church every Sunday, and most of the ministers told them that what they were doing had God's sanction, and you have to say 'It happened. It could happen again.' "

"The other thing we have to keep saying to our people is that when someone commits acts as atrocious as this, our temptation is to dismiss them and say, 'They were beasts, they were demons.' We have to relate to our people. 'No, they carried out demonic, bestial acts but they remain human beings. And none of us knows how they would have reacted had they been subjected to the same conditions as these persons.' There is always the possibility of change.

"Those who committed the most ghastly [crimes] have the capacity to be different. They have the capacity to be saved. If you become deterministic and say, 'Once a perpetrator of evil, always a perpetrator of evil,' then let us shut up shop."

The archbishop shows no signs of doing that. He believes the commission is working, not least because testimony that understandably might inflame violence is being accepted with striking passivity by the majority victims of apartheid.

"In one of our hearings, people were brought by bus from an outlying town, and, you know, on that bus you had people who had been victimized and people who were the perpetrators. All those people traveled on the same bus, continue to live in the same township. It's actually quite a miracle."

"Here we are not seeking to do to you what you did to us," he says. "We are stretching out the hand of friendship. You are lucky that we don't want revenge.

"There could be people who say, 'Why don't we kick whites out of all those wonderful houses they are living in because they have had all these unfair advantages all these years?' We say,'No, no, no. Hold your horses. We want to have a new kind of relationship.' There is a price you have to pay for this."

Nevertheless, does he feel it is right for the whites to continue to enjoy the ill-gotten gains of apartheid, while most blacks continue to be deprived of good homes and jobs?

"They are the ones who have to ask that question," he says. "They are the ones who ought to be saying, 'We benefited from an unjust system, what can we do to show that we have contrition?' I would much prefer challenging them, than seeking to be prescriptive."

His answer is typical of the restraint being shown by the new black leadership. Two years ago South Africa was "on the brink of the most awful catastrophe," he says. Then came a negotiated settlement, an agreement under which oppressed and oppressors agreed to live together in peace, with one offering the other amnesty in return for honesty.

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