Was a black man named Robert McBride a terrorist or a liberation fighter when he blew up a South African bar frequented by apartheid navy officers? Was a white man named Dirk Coetzee fighting against communism or for white supremacy when he joined a hit squad set up by the former National Party government? The truth remains a murky and divisive thing in South Africa, despite 30 months of intensive, wrenching investigation of apartheid-era crimes by the country’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Last week, the commission presented its five-volume, eight-kilogram, 3,500-page final report to President Nelson Mandela in Pretoria. In cool, legalistic analysis salted with passionate excerpts from victims’ statements, the report catalogues human rights crimes committed by both sides in the struggle over apartheid between 1960 and 1994. “Accept this report as an indispensible way to healing,” TRC chairman Desmond Tutu told Mandela. Yet the president, whose African National Congress tried to block publication of the document, warned it is “bound to reawaken many of the difficult and troubling emotions that the hearings themselves brought.”
Despite the TRC’s best intentions, South Africans still exhibit racial myopia when they consider human rights crimes committed during the struggle. Whites hate McBride passionately but go blank when asked about Coetzee. Blacks hate Coetzee with a frenzy, while often expressing admiration for McBride. Each race exhibits “a collective sense of suffering, but not of guilt,” said Hugo van der Mer we of the Johannesburg-based Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation. “The TRC hasn’t discussed how to engage people in a self-critical process.”
Yet the report certainly contains much to be self-critical about on both sides. It concludes that former president P. W. Botha ordered the bombing of the South African Council of Churches in Johannesburg in
1988, which injured 23 people. As president from 1978 to 1989, Botha created the covert government agencies that spawned hit squads and the infamous Vlakplaas farm, where political detainees were tortured. The TRC was going to name Botha’s successor, F. W. de Klerk, as an accessory after the fact for knowing about the church bombing and another attack. But at the last minute, the commission used a black square to blot out the finding, already widely reported, to stave off a court challenge by de Klerk that could have stopped the document’s release.
The report holds top apartheid officials, including the ministers of police and law and order, responsible for institutionalizing torture. Yet the TRC did not find a smoking gun with which to pin murder on apartheid leaders. The commission’s frustration is almost palpable when it points to the cabinet’s use of “language in its meetings and recommendations that was highly ambiguous.” Apartheid assassins testified that cabinet terms like “make a plan” were coded orders to kill, but cabinet members denied it.
When it came to the black liberation movements, the TRC distinguished between their “just cause” in fighting apartheid—and their often “unjust means.” The ANC, the report says, failed to prevent the torture and murder of its own members in kangaroo court trials in the movement’s Angola camps in the early 1980s. It also says the ANC recklessly armed young people in its township self-defence units and the party’s youth wing, who then became uncontrollable. As for Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, Mandela’s former wife and still an important ANC figure, the TRC charges her with direct involvement in kidnapping and torture, and complicity in murder and
cover-ups. The ANC leadership, it adds, was ultimately responsible for her activities.
Not surprisingly, the report was quickly rejected by the ANC and other black liberation movements as well as by the white-run National Party and the extreme right wing. On the day of release, the ANC failed in a dawn attempt to get its own court injunction to prevent publication, an action that angered Tutu. “If they thought that because they’re the government we were going to give them special treatment,” he said, “it was a big mistake.” The angry reaction from all sides, commented human rights lawyer Vinodh Jaichand, “is probably an indication that the report is very balanced.”
The commission has yet to finish the tricky job of deciding who gets amnesty in return for confessing their political crimes. Of 7,060 amnesty applications, the TRC has refused 4,570, granted just 125 and will decide the rest by March, 1999, when a sixth volume of the report will be published. The report says primly that “prosecution should be considered” for those who refused amnesty or did not apply. That includes MadikizelaMandela, Botha and various members of the South African Police Service. Prosecutions, however, are up to provincial attorneys general, who are hold-overs from the apartheid regime and have so far seemed reluctant to follow through.
Whether or not the commission achieves its mandate of reconciliation, it has unearthed a great deal of truth. That alone fills Tutu with a gritty kind of hope. “We have looked the beast in the eye,” he said last week, “and we say ‘Never again.’ ”
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