In South Africa, reconciling truth


Flaws: Nine months after the Truth and Reconciliation Commission issued its report, an academic's analysis finds much to criticize.

August 04, 1999|By Gilbert A. Lewthwaite | Gilbert A. Lewthwaite,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa -- By its very name this country's Truth and Reconciliation Commission had two functions: to expose the crimes of the apartheid era and to help bridge the racial divide.

Its 3,500-page report, issued in October, spread the blame for gross violations of human rights across the political spectrum, bringing it plaudits for evenhandedness.

The ruling African National Congress even tried to get a court order suppressing the commission's findings. It was, argued the ANC, unfair for the anti-apartheid movement to be put in the same dock as the perpetrators of the system of white supremacy.

Nobody was spared in the commission's report, which lamented: "All of South Africa -- rural, urban, black, white, men, women and children -- had been caught up in oppression and resistance that left no one with clean hands."

Receiving the report from commission chairman Archbishop Desmond Tutu, then-President Nelson Mandela said: "I accept this report as it is, with all its imperfections."

Nine months later, a South African academic who analyzed the testimony and conclusions in the five volumes of the report has quantified those imperfections.

Anthea Jeffery of the South African Institute of Race Relations can back her criticisms with law degrees from Johannesburg's Witwatersrand and England's Cambridge universities, as well as a doctorate in human rights law from the University of London.

She finds the Truth and Reconciliation Commission's work flawed, incomplete and even sloppy. The commission, she says, accepted evidence that would not stand up in court, stood by testimony not taken under oath and accepted hearsay accounts of atrocities.

"On the commission's own description of its methodology, it would be surprising if even a hundred of its 21,300 victim's statements passed muster as `factual evidence,' " writes Jeffery in her just-published book, "The Truth About the Truth Commission."

The commission, she charges, did not do enough to uphold basic principles of justice, failing to verify evidence or explain the basis of its findings and, too often, taking testimony behind closed doors.

The commission openly acknowledged having to base some of its findings on the balance of probability, but in some cases Jeffery finds that the result conflicts with earlier court decisions taken under the full rigor of the law.

"On occasion, the TRC paid no attention at all to a conflicting judicial ruling," she chides.

She notes that at the time of the report's publication, the commission's amnesty procedure was still proceeding -- as it is now. The amnesty committee is empowered to free convicted criminals in exchange for full disclosure of their crimes, if what they did during the apartheid era was politically motivated.

The commission has received 7,127 amnesty applications. An application can be rejected administratively or can be subject to a public hearing involving testimony and cross-examination. The latter option potentially makes these applications a valuable source of evidence. But only 102 amnesty cases had been heard in public by the time the commission's report came out.

The commission, Jeffery notes disapprovingly, "rejected the popular assumption that there are only two options to be considered when talking about truth -- namely factual, objective information or subjective opinions." It embraced the concepts of "personal or narrative truth," "social or dialogue truth" and "healing and restorative truth."

When it did not have sufficient "factual truth" at its disposal, "it fudged the nature of truth to buttress its conclusions regarding culpability. By implication, it admitted that its `truth' was neither factual nor objective."

The thrust of the commission's investigation, she charges, was also "one-sided." One example: It focused on the government's role in the violence, while playing down ANC leadership of the "people's war" that resulted in 80,500 violent incidents, in which 9,200 people were killed and 18,000 injured, over an eight-year period starting in the early 1980s.

"In particular, it made little attempt to investigate the possible role in the violence of the Politico-Military Council of the ANC," Jeffery writes. "This body, allegedly responsible for implementing the people's war, was supposedly the equivalent in some respects of the former government's State Security Council -- which was investigated at length for its role in violence against the ANC."

She accepts that the commission has yet to publish a final report once all the amnesty cases have been dealt with, but decides:

"There is little reason to believe, however, that the final document will remember the defects in the present one. They go too deep. And the commission has shown little sign of being willing to rectify its methodology -- or to examine the issues it has thus far omitted or downplayed."

Her book has caused a stir here. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission dismisses it as a personal view and declines to dignify it with a response.

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