TOPICS > Politics

Truth or Punishment

January 29, 1997 at 12:00 AM EDT


CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: For more on this story we are joined tonight by Mathatha Tsedu, an International Nieman Foundation fellow at Harvard University and a political editor of South Africa’s largest black daily newspaper, Sowetan, and Rich Mkhondo, the Washington correspondent for Independent Newspapers of South Africa. He’s currently writing his second book look at post-apartheid South Africa. Starting with you, Rich Mkhondo, Biko confessions another step towards healing in South Africa?

RICH MKHONDO, Independent Newspapers: I think so, but as the narrator has said, very controversial. You know, South Africa’s miracle that we all talk about, the basic and the foundation of that miracle is reconciliation and forgiveness, and what is going on at the moment probably people are beginning to understand that that is the basis, and I think it will go a long way towards actually the two, forgiveness and reconciliation. And many other people are going to come forward, I think.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Do you agree with that, Mathatha Tsedu?

MATHATHA TSEDU, Sowetan Newspaper: (Boston) No. I think it is a welcome thing that people are coming forward to admit to the kind of crimes that they committed, but I think it stinks to high heaven to imagine that after that confession these people who committed the most horrendous crimes will then be patted on the shoulder by Bishop Tutu and this commission and be told they are forgiven and they can walk out and just be free people out in the new South Africa.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: What do you think should have happened?

MATHATHA TSEDU: I think they should go to court and stand trial for the crimes that they committed because any reconciliation, any peace, any lasting peace that South Africa might hope for must be peace and reconciliation built on the foundation of justice.

And the kind of amnesties that are being–that have been arranged now between Mandela and DeKlerk push the personal justice aside, and instead, concentrate on trying to pretend that people will accept–people like Nitsiki Biko will accept that her husband has been killed and now Sibec can just go to Tutu and Tutu can listen to him and say, okay, you’ve told me everything that you know, you are okay now; you can go back and be a policeman.

This is one of the most astonishing things that many of those people who are coming forward to confess now to these horrendous crimes where they took people, dragged them, shot them, and then had barbecues as the bodies were burning on another pyre nearby. They are still policemen today in South Africa, in a country that is ruled by Mandela. These kinds of characters are still supposed to be maintaining law and order.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: All right. Rich Mkhondo, is there much support for that position, justice not forgiveness, because that is, after all what Steve Biko’s widow said she wanted–justice not forgiveness–and tried to get the courts to agree to that, but they didn’t?

RICH MKHONDO: Yes, it’s true. There is a lot of support for justice; however, I think the difficulty here is how you arrive at sort of a simple judicial system. It’s all as simple as that. The problem is no one’s hands are clean in South Africa. If that is the case, those–

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: What do you mean by that–no one–you mean–

RICH MKHONDO: I mean that the government of the past was responsible for many atrocities. The present government, some of its members, were responsible for many atrocities.


RICH MKHONDO: That’s right. So you find that if that is going to be the case, it will be an eye for an eye, and South Africa will actually waste a lot of time in trying to bring all–everybody to book. I don’t think it is true that those policemen are going to be granted amnesty. It’s not as simple as that. There is a criteria, a mechanism which they have to go through. And as far as I read what they have said, there are a lot of loopholes, and those loopholes need to be filled. And they still have to actually account for many of the things.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: That is the case, isn’t it, Mr. Tsedu, that the commission has criteria for who gets amnesty and who has to go on trial?

MATHATHA TSEDU: Not really. The situation with the particular section that deals with amnesty is that the perpetrator must come forward and confess. As long as the commission is satisfied that this person has told them the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but, they must grant amnesty.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: But don’t they make a distinction between people who were engaged in just outright criminality and people who were engaged in what they call political acts?

MATHATHA TSEDU: No. That is the only distinction that is there; that the guy who killed Biko is going to come forward and say that that was a political action.

RICH MKHONDO: I think, to put it quite simply, it’s not as simple as that. There is actually a clause that talks about a tribunal, if possible, and there is a possibility that those people will be brought to court. The commission at the moment doesn’t actually have judicial powers; however, it can recommend that the judiciary should take–should take over. In many cases–

MATHATHA TSEDU: That is only where the commission feels that this person has not told them the whole truth. If he comes forward and he tells them what they feel is the whole truth, they have no other option. That is what the section says, they must grant amnesty.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Well, Mr. Tsedu, what about the–there was a big criminal trial of Magnas Malan, who was the defense minister, and several of his ministers, and they were acquitted. Are you prepared to live with the people who feel the way you do and Mrs. Biko be satisfied if you had criminal trials and it ended up the way the Malan trial did?

MATHATHA TSEDU: Well, the Malan trial was a trial at least. I mean, Malan was taken to court and attempt to send him to jail was launched, and it failed for a number of reasons that have been fairly analyzed, part of which was the prosecutor who was in charge of the case was a reluctant prosecutor, and handled the matter in a way that would in the end bring out the kind of outcome that it brought about; that we had.

But the thing here is we have to go back to basics and say that apartheid was declared a crime against humanity by the international community. And the kind of atrocities that we’re talking about here are those that are covered by the Geneva Convention, which says that you cannot grant amnesty for war crimes and crimes against humanity.

Those people have to go through a proper trial, and people have been trying to say that to, to the South African Government; they’ve even challenged the Truth Commission before–once the act was passed, they went to the constitutional court and the court said, no, this must go on because this is–we are dealing here with the political deal between the ANC and DeKlerk.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Right. Well, you know, Rich, the idea behind the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was that without amnesty people wouldn’t come forward, the truth wouldn’t be learned–


CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: –and that there would be no negotiated settlement, the country would go up in flames, in Desmond Tutu’s words.

RICH MKHONDO: Right. If we look back at the first contact between President Mandela and President F.W. DeKlerk and Botha was that before everything could be agreed upon they have to negotiate the way forward, and the Truth Commission was one of them. It took about a year for them to be able to do that.

And I think without promise for a Truth Commission, white South Africans would have revolted, the army would have revolted, so anyway, my feeling is that you don’t win by actually beating up the person. That’s what Mr. Mandela actually tried to do. What he does, he actually promises these people that there will be a Truth Commission; however, the law will still actually take its course in the future.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Mr. Tsedu, you don’t think the law will take its course in the future?

MATHATHA TSEDU: No. I mean, for the people who go before the commission and make their full confessions, there isn’t that possibility. The amnesty clause does not allow that. That is why the clause was challenged before the constitutional accords.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: I mean, would you have gotten the truth of Steve Biko’s death and some of the other truths that have come–confessions that have come out as a result of the commission’s existence without it?

MATHATHA TSEDU: I think the question that you are asking is whether the South African police as an institution has the capacity to dig up the past and find the truth. I think the South African police must have that capacity. If they don’t, then God help the country. What kind of police force do we have there?

RICH MKHONDO: Yeah, but they don’t have the capacity because they have something to hide, and for them to be able to help dig out the dirt, they must be promised something, so the Truth Commission is another way actually of actually getting them to say something, or actually dig out something, and for the fact that these people, it took them almost a year to be able to come out shows that actually guilt was with them; that they have taken a long time to consult with the people and then they had come forward.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Mr. Tsedu, what impact do you think all of this is going to have on the country?

MATHATHA TSEDU: I think that not much is going to change.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: I mean, if people don’t feel they have justice, like Mrs. Biko, will there be–what will be the impact?

MATHATHA TSEDU: They don’t, and it’s not just a feeling that they don’t–they feel they don’t have justice–they don’t have it.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: And the impact is going to be what?

MATHATHA TSEDU: I don’t think there will be any particular appeal presently because people still hope that this country and the new government will someday make up for whatever things they are doing now.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: All right, briefly, let me get a word from you, Rich Mkhondo.

RICH MKHONDO: I think what happened yesterday will actually get many people to come out.


RICH MKHONDO: And this will help in the healing process.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: All right. We have to leave it there. Thank you both for joining us.