In South Africa, much truth yields little reconciliation Revelations may have harmed race relations

July 30, 1998|By Gilbert A. Lewthwaite | Gilbert A. Lewthwaite,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa -- The Truth and Reconciliation Commission ends its investigation of this nation's apartheid past tomorrow having produced horrifying truths and not much reconciliation.

The picture that emerged is shocking, revealing a system under which violence and wickedness were practically unrestrained.

The TRC commissioners have been confronted with horror, pathos, eloquence, amnesia, evasions and lies. First came the harrowing testimony of the victims. Then, the spine-chilling confessions of the perpetrators.

The commissioners have listened, sometimes in disbelief, other times near to tears, to accounts of absolute inhumanity and incredible fortitude.

They have seen a torturer demonstrate the "wet bag" method of extracting information by suffocation, taken testimony from a white assassin called "Prime Evil," heard a triple murderer beg forgiveness from the families of his victims, and listened to a widower demand, "A killer must be killed."

They have heard the confession of the Anglican Church that its neutrality during the apartheid era was "a major mistake," an acknowledgment from the business community that it could have done more to oppose the system, an admission of collusion from the media, and apologies from five attorneys general for implementing the race-based laws.

But, according to a poll published this week, most South Africans, black, white and of mixed race, believe that the testimony from 2,500 victims and perpetrators of gross human rights violations in the hope of reconciliation has actually worsened race relations here.

The poll published in the respected Business Day this week found that while 60 percent of blacks thought the commission hearings had been fair, almost the same percentage of whites viewed them as unfair.

Many whites are convinced the commission has been racially biased, focusing on the atrocities of government agents without balancing attention to the excesses of anti-apartheid activists.

Reacting to the poll, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the TRC chairman, said in a radio interview here that the races could not be expected immediately to live together "happily ever after" following the ghastly revelations at nationwide hearings.

The commission could not itself bring about national reconciliation, he said, telling his audience: "Don't look for somebody else to be the one who is going to do the reconciliation.

"Each South African is going to have to say, 'What is the contribution I am going to be making to what will be a national project?' "

The poll findings reflect the almost impossible challenge faced by the commission, which was created in 1996. First was to lay the appalling past to rest by establishing as full a picture as possible of the pain of four decades of racial segregation and oppression.

In the process, perpetrators were offered amnesty in return for honesty and victims were offered modest financial reparation -- about $500 -- rather than revenge.

In the clinical setting of public hearing rooms around the country, weeping mothers and wives have learned how their sons and husbands were tortured and killed and their bodies disposed of, sometimes being fed to crocodiles.

Perhaps the most gruesome recollection was of a group of security officers enjoying an evening barbecue and a beer while on another blazing fire beside them the bodies of their victims were being burned.

It was a bizarre and cruel time when a baby's murder could be rationalized with the assertion that "a snake gives birth to a snake." It was a time when a political assassin could say, "There was nothing personal in the attack. If anything, it is an indication of the importance of the man."

At one of the TRC's most dramatic hearings, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, former wife of President Nelson Mandela, sat impassively for days as witness after witness placed her at the center of a web of torture and murder in the township of Soweto before she grudgingly bowed to an emotional appeal by Tutu to apologize for, if not admit to, the violence that swirled around her.

"Things went horribly wrong," she finally conceded.

Appropriately enough, the commission's last witness this week was perhaps its most chilling -- Wouter Basson, chief of the apartheid-era chemical weapons program. His projects included

efforts to produce a bacteria that would target only blacks, to develop a drug that would render black women infertile, and to poison Nelson Mandela before he was released from prison.

In his laboratories, scientists worked on snake venom injections, carcinogenic agents and the production of poison-laced clothes, all to be used in the service of the apartheid state.

"Many of the revelations have been far more gruesome than anyone could imagine," said John Allen, spokesman for the TRC. "It's no surprise that people are more angry after the commission than before it."

The result -- reconciliation, the creation of what Mandela likes to call "the rainbow nation" -- becomes more of a challenge than ever.

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