15 October 1998

South Africa: TRC's road to healing

Johannesburg — The TRC's report to President Nelson Mandela in a fortnight will mark another milestone in South Africa's liberation from apartheid, writes JOE MDHLELA

How can we measure the success of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC)? This question is once again pertinent on the eve of the presentation of the TRC's final report to President Nelson Mandela this month.

To get an idea of how painful the process was, some point to the tears shed by chairman Archbishop Desmond Tutu at several hearings.

The tears of Tutu - and the rest of the nation - were certainly one result of the TRC's attempts during the past three years to unravel in minutest detail the atrocities and human right abuses perpetrated under apartheid.

This road to reconciliation was the route chosen by the African National Congress-led Government because it strongly believed that South Africans needed to tell their stories of pain and suffering.

Although these stories were painful, it was argued, they would in the end evoke a sense of contrition on the part of wrongdoers, which in turn would lead to healing.

On the other hand, some argued that the perpetrators of evil should face the full might of the law and that the architects of apartheid should be hounded in the same way Nazi torturers were tracked down.

Chilling accounts While the Government was reluctant to go the retribution route, the TRC nevertheless achieved a lot by placing under public scrutiny the gross human violations of the apartheid past.

The episodes of how security police bosses at Vlakplaas entertained themselves with a braaivleis while blowing up their captives were among the chilling accounts brought to the fore by the TRC.

The TRC also heard former security policeman Lieutenant-Colonel Adriaan van Niekerk confess to the torture and killing of former Mamelodi civic leader Stanza Bopape.

The hearings also unearthed the destruction of buildings belonging to the Congress of Trade Unions of South Africa and the South African Council of Churches in Johannesburg.

No doubt the TRC also helped to implicate characters such as former president PW Botha in the torture and murder of apartheid opponents.

Botha, in turn, rejected the allegations and even defied a subpoena calling him to testify before the TRC. He flatly denied that the National Party regime had ever sanctioned any actions against its opponents.

But the evidence of various former apartheid operatives, including convicted mass murderer Eugene de Kock, pointed to the role of top National Party leaders in most atrocities against apartheid opponents.

Equally, the TRC brought into focus the tactics of the liberation movement to weaken the apartheid structures, particularly those against the so-called black "puppet leaders" used by the regime to bolster its discredited system.

The testimony of the liberation movement made it possible for the world to gain an in-depth understanding of why its underground structures operated the way they did.

At the heart of their activities was the desire to bring down the apartheid regime, if only to give black people the franchise denied them by successive apartheid governments since 1948.

But there can be no question that the liberation movement was badly hurt in the course of the TRC hearings.

In her testimony to the TRC last year, ANC Women's League president Winnie Madikizela-Mandela denied any involvement in the death of 14- year-old activist Stompie Seipei.

However, during a two-week TRC hearing witness after witness claimed that she played a part in Sepei's death and that she used the notorious Mandela United Football Club to commit some of the most dastardly abuses, including kidnapping and torture.

Nicodemus Sono claimed before the TRC that his son Lolo, who went missing without a trace in the late 1980s, was kidnapped by Madikizela- Mandela and certain members of her football club.

As this evidence was led, the tears began to well and many women, particularly Seipei's mother, Joyce Seipei, wept uncontrollably.

As if that was not enough, one of Madikizela-Mandela's bodyguards, jailed killer Jerry Richardson, claimed that she worked "hand in hand" with the security police between 1986 and 1989.

Last week acting TRC chairman Dumisa Ntsebeza indicated that the commission's report may have negative effects on at least 200 individuals, believed to include Madikizela-Mandela and Inkatha Freedom Party president Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi.

Already there also appears to be disagreement between the ANC and the TRC on the commission's approach to the human rights abuses committed by the organisation during the struggle and violations by the apartheid regime against its opponents.

The ANC believes its abuses should be treated differently since they were motivated by the prevailing situation in which black people were oppressed, while the apartheid regime's violations were based on an unjust ideology bent on maintaining the status quo.

And so, as Tutu prepares to hand over the report to Mandela within the next two weeks, there is likely to be varied views on the effectiveness of the TRC in addressing human rights abuses.

As to whether total healing has occurred as a result of these hearings, the matter remains within the realm of subjectivity.

But it is indisputable that the process has helped many victims come to terms with their past, and it developed a deeper appreciation of how divisive the Frankenstein monster called apartheid was.

Copyright © 1998 The Sowetan. All rights reserved. Distributed by AllAfrica Global Media (allAfrica.com). To contact the copyright holder directly for corrections — or for permission to republish or make other authorized use of this material, click here.

AllAfrica publishes around 2,000 reports a day from more than 130 news organizations and over 200 other institutions and individuals, representing a diversity of positions on every topic. We publish news and views ranging from vigorous opponents of governments to government publications and spokespersons. Publishers named above each report are responsible for their own content, which AllAfrica does not have the legal right to edit or correct.

Articles and commentaries that identify allAfrica.com as the publisher are produced or commissioned by AllAfrica. To address comments or complaints, please Contact us.