“I would hope for the world to realize that there is no situation that is devoid of hope. (Desmond Tutu)”
This article is in tribute to a remarkable effort by the thousands of South Africans who told their stories in an attempt to heal and forgive the oppression and sufferings they endured during apartheid. I hope to make my contribution to the process of healing and reconciliation in the nation of South Africa. Certain texts in this article are quoted direct from the victims and narrators of the reconciliation commission.
After centuries of white domination and decades of apartheid, the political leaders of white and black South Africans agreed to negotiate a political settlement after freeing of political prisoners in 1990. The 2 parties agreed to an interim constitution and consequently after 4 years of talks, an election was held on the 27th April 1994. Nelson Mandela was sworn in as the first democratic black president.
However, South Africa had to deal with the wounds of the brutal and violent past. Accountability was a prerequisite for the human rights culture in the new democracy. Parliament came up with a compromise that would review and acknowledge the past and promote reconciliation and amnesty to perpetrators. This gave birth to the truth and reconciliation commission that undertook this great task between the years 1996 and 1998 all over South Africa with the leadership of Archbishop Desmond Tutu as chairman.
To paint a picture of the past so that causes, nature and extent of political violence could be better understood, the commission therefore held special hearings and invited role players on all sides of the conflict to make submissions inclusive of the prisoners, women, children, state security council, military, police, different political parties, media, medical professionals, religious communities
It all begun on the 15th April 1996 in the Eastern Cape, the womb of apartheid resistance over decades. Here in the glare of the world’s media, they stepped where no one had gone before and they spoke the first words in the great telling of a shameful and proud past. There were the wounded and the pained like Nomodo whose husband was killed in presence of her daughter. And then there were those with great loss in their hearts and anger in their veins like Hashe who husband was abducted and killed. They were the brave pioneers of the truth commission, those who led all the others to saw their truths into the patchwork of a ‘new history’.
The stories of torture and abduction, rumors that became reality, they spoke about massacres and wars, about killings of whole families like Nomuso who painfully watched as her whole family was killed and a single child. Those who wept about loved ones who disappeared without a trace. The common thread was that everywhere the extent of the horror was more than anyone had ever suspected. The process was not easy, often the truth was frightening. As the process gained momentum, the victims came face to face with their tormentors and perpetrators and the grim reality of what they did.
Few remained untouched as the floodgates of emotion were wedged open. The synchs called it the crying commission. Often there were white or old allies of the apartheid and scared of the guilt that came with hearing the truth. But then there were those that became a part of the great telling and through that some sought reconciliation. Susan a white settler whose husband had been killed on the farm told the commission, “You have looked into the hearts of the wounded, sometimes broken people, my story and that of my children is small in comparison with so many others for whom our hearts bleed. Our pain is simply a drop in the South African ocean of pain.”
For many, it was simply enough to tell their story to a nation whose time it was to listen. Others wanted to lay their past to rest. Again and again they asked for the remains of those who had disappeared, for some this became a terrible reality, for others bodies were lost forever, dumped into water bodies butknowing this was the beginning of the ending for them.
Even while listening to the most harrowing testimony, people would still laugh, people also sung, gave comfort to others and when there was nothing more to say, they prayed.
After 1888 days of hearings, 1167 applicants were granted amnesty out of 7116 applications.
Brutalities of apartheid were not only confined to cities and big townships but also reached even the smallest village and locations. A central principle guiding the truth commission was that all sides of the conflict be treated fairly and all violations of human rights be treated the same way even if committed by former freedom fighters. The legitimacy of the armed struggle against apartheid was accepted by the truth commission but the point was also made that unjust things could happen in a just war.
In the words of Archbishop Desmond Tutu, ‘’we were looking more to heal than to punish the perpetrators using the principles of Ubuntu which speaks of how our humanity is caught up with one another. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission made a very important contribution to how South Africans are able to live together reasonably harmoniously’’.
Those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it.