Shaky S. Africa revisits the asylum Hearings: South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission revealed the murderous craziness of the apartheid era. It also revealed the elusive, if not impossible, nature of its twin goals.

Sun Journal

December 06, 1997|By Gilbert A. Lewthwaite | Gilbert A. Lewthwaite,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa -- If this country's Truth and Reconciliation Commission could live up to its name, it would be the perfect model of how a nation can come to terms with an appalling past.

But much of the truth of who did what to whom during the years of apartheid is proving hard to come by, and reconciliation between the victims and their persecutors, between the those who implemented the system and those who overthrew it, is still far from being achieved.

Just how difficult it is to establish the truth was demonstrated over the past two weeks at the hearings into the violence surrounding Winnie Madikizela-Mandela and her Mandela United Football club.

The central case involved the beating and murder of 14-year-old Stompie Seipei after he was accused of being a police informer. A confessed murderer is in prison, but a witness now says he saw Madikizela-Mandela herself stab the boy, and several witnesses say they lied in earlier court appearances to give the former wife of this country's president an alibi.

Clouding the issue are an apparent police intelligence campaign to discredit Madikizela-Mandela in whatever way possible, and the revelation from the country's police chief that the convicted killer of Stompie was, in fact, a police agent himself -- an assertion the killer denies.

Such contradictions illustrate the difficulty of the commission's mission to set the record straight while keeping emotions in check. There was so much bloodshed, so much of which to be ashamed, and such a legacy of hatred that it is astounding that the transition from white minority to black majority rule has been so peaceful, even if real racial reconciliation is proving elusive.

In trying to exorcise the devils in South Africa's recent past, the commission has sought not only to expose the evils of torturers, assassins and brutes, but also the acquiescence, if not complicity, of politicians, judges, businessmen, journalists and even clergymen.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the testimony of those who killed, tortured and maimed has been more compelling, if horrifying, than the evasions and half-truths of some of the more intelligent witnesses, many of whom grew rich on the suffering of others.

Former state President P. W. Botha, one of the era's leaders, has refused to appear at all before the commission, and has been threatened with jail for contempt.

"Take me to court if you want to charge me. I don't appear in circuses," said the formidable 82-year-old politician. "I did not authorize murders," he said in an interview in the Afrikaans-language newspaper Rapport. "I will not ask forgiveness for fighting the Marxist revolutionary onslaught."

Botha said the commission was "tearing Afrikaners apart," a reference to the widespread conviction among Afrikaners that they are being singled out for condemnation without offsetting attention being paid to the terrorist activities of the "freedom fighters" of the now-ruling African National Congress.

So much for political reconciliation.

After a panel of business executives presented the commission with accounts, ranging from remorseful to righteous, of their varying roles during the apartheid era, Sam Shilowa, boss of the Congress of South African Trade Unions, accused them of "lying through their teeth." He called on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission "not to accept these lies or pleas of innocence by the business community."

The Black Management Forum was no gentler. It said that businesses' claims not to have profited from apartheid should be "treated with contempt."

The newspaper Business Day said the acknowledgments of past wrongs and expressions of regret from some board rooms were "a necessary condition for reconciliation." It continued: "But they are not a sufficient condition -- at best they are a step toward it. The scars of the past run deep. Eliminating that historical legacy will probably take generations."

So much for reconciliation in the workplace.

Last month it was the turn of the clergy to bare souls. And before the church leaders took the stand they were told by Bongani Finca, a member of the commission: "Up until now what we have heard from the people of this country has been a denial of the truth. We have heard people either say, 'We did not know,' or that these are exaggerations. Until we are able to convince each other that we acknowledge the sins that have happened, to wish for reconciliation is a waste of time."

The message from the churches had a familiar ring: They opposed apartheid but did not do enough to end it.

The Anglican Church of the Province of South Africa acknowledged: "There were occasions when, through the silence of its leadership or its parishes, or their actions in acquiescing with the apartheid laws where they believed it to be in the interests of the church, deep wrong was done to those who bore the brunt of the onslaught of apartheid."

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