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Truth & Consequences in South Africa

October 29, 1998 at 12:00 AM EST
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KWAME HOLMAN: The report handed to President Nelson Mandela today is the culmination of two and a half years of work. The five volume, twenty-seven hundred page document chronicles investigations into atrocities committed during the deadliest years of apartheid — from 1960 to 1994. In that era of white minority rule, 220 mostly black political activists were assassinated by state-sponsored death squads.

The government detained 75,000 civilians without charges and swept up 3.5 million people from their homes at gunpoint. Participants on both sides of the conflict — and ordinary civilians alike — were tortured and killed. Apartheid ended in 1994 with South Africa’s first free, multi-racial elections, which made Nelson Mandela president and produced a black majority government.

One of the government’s early initiatives was to force both blacks and whites to confront their nation’s violent past. In 1995, the government created the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to undertake a wide-ranging investigation of apartheid-era atrocities. It was headed by the Nobel Laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu. The commission offered all perpetrators of violence a chance to repent — and brought them face to face with victims or their families.

One case received worldwide attention — the amnesty petition of five former police officers who admitted to the 1977 beating death of Steven Biko. Biko was one of South Africa’s most influential black leaders. The reconciliation panel still is considering the amnesty plea. In all, the panel took more than 20,000 statements and received some 7,000 applications for amnesty. The report called apartheid “a crime against humanity” and said the white government was the primary perpetrator of gross violations of human rights.

The panel criticized such white-dominated institutions as Christian churches — the media — businesses — and the courts for their role in sustaining apartheid. The report also criticized the African National Congress, saying the political and military group created by Mandela and others to fight apartheid had itself “perpetrated gross violations of human rights in that the distinction between civilian and military targets was blurred.”

Singled out for individual criticism were former South African President P.W. Botha, as well as the former wife of Nelson Mandela, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, whose United Football Club was blamed for killings and torture of dissidents. Even before the report’s release, both the ANC and South Africa’s last apartheid-era president, F.W. De Klerk, went to court to block parts of the report from being published. References to De Klerk were deleted from today’s report, but a court will decide later whether they eventually will be published. This morning Archbishop Desmond Tutu warned that criticism of the commission’s work would not obscure the past.

ARCHBISHOP DESMOND TUTU: Many will be upset by this report. Some have sought to discredit it pre-emptively. Even if they were to succeed, what is that to the point? Those are not inventions by the commission, that is what the perpetrators, themselves, told us.

KWAME HOLMAN: President Mandela said while the report would not produce immediate reconciliation, it will help South Africa to move on.

PRESIDENT NELSON MANDELA: If the pain has often been unbearable and the revelations shocking to all of us, it is because they, indeed, bring us the beginnings of a common understanding of what happened and a steady restoration of the nation’s humanity.

KWAME HOLMAN: But Mandela’s vice president and likely heir, Thabo Mbeki, criticized the commission report, calling it wrong and misguided.

PHIL PONCE: Joining us now are Franklin Sonn, South Africa’s ambassador to the United States; Richard Mkhondo, Washington Correspondent for the Independent Newspapers of South Africa; and Cliff Matheson, editor of Juluka, a newsletter on South African affairs. And welcome all. Mr. Ambassador, for people who have not been following this process as closely as you have, please explain why this report is important.

FRANKLIN SONN, Ambassador, South Africa: Well, the report is important because it tries to deal with the past in a creative and in a constructive way. And this is important in the way that it’s another final end of apartheid that puts us on the way to both a non-racial, democratic country at peace with itself.

PHIL PONCE: And, Mr. Ambassador, by that, do you mean that it attempts to what – lay blame or assign blame, or identify who did what?

FRANKLIN SONN: This is a very important question. One must remember that the report’s intention was never recriminatory. It wasn’t intended to punish people primarily. It was intended to be what the report says it is. It’s an attempt to heal, an attempt to reconcile the nation by dealing openly and transparently with the past.

PHIL PONCE: But in dealing with the past, there is an attempt clearly to establish responsibility for what happened in the past.

FRANKLIN SONN: Well, naturally, if you deal with the past, there will be people that will have to take the blame of it. Apartheid was perpetrated by the previous regime, by the government. And for that reason, it is actually just quite unfair to try and equate the deeds that were perpetrated by the apartheid regime that was called by the United Nations “a crime against humanity,” and also by the reformed world – Council of Reform Churches as a heresy to equate that with the actions of those that fought in defense of the people against which this crime was committed.

PHIL PONCE: So you’re saying that the report – as Kwame stated in his report – the report assigns primary responsibility for the former government, while still acknowledging that even on the part of the ANC, there were some abuses as well?

FRANKLIN SONN: Well, certainly there is always the contingent of a just war. There was a crime committed against people and there was resistance to it, and in that process people got hurt. That’s understandable. But to equate the two is just wrong and misguided.

PHIL PONCE: Cliff, how do you see the importance of this report?

CLIFF MATHESON, Editor: Well, I think this is the true start of what might be reconciliation. I think time will tell. We need to go through a few generations to get on the beginning process. I don’t think we’ve healed that much right now. We’ve now got the report. We can see who was wrong; who was right, and now we can get on with healing.

PHIL PONCE: Rich, from a personal standpoint, does this – why is this report important to you?

RICH MKHONDO, Independent Newspapers, South Africa: Well, there are quite a number of issues that we have to remember. The first one is the intention of the Truth Commission. It was to establish as much as possible the truth of what happened in the past, as much as possible. It’s not possible to establish as fuller the truth as we can, because, for example, there are many people who didn’t testify; there are many people who were forced to testify; and there are many people who lied.

For me, it’s very important, because it confirms some of the things that I witnessed as a journalist. It confirms some of the suspicions that we had about some of the disappearances of some of our friends, some of our colleagues and so on. I have a lot of friends who died, who were killed mysteriously. And now I know. And I have family members who didn’t know where their loved ones were.

And through the commission people came and said, I know, I’m the one who buried so and so; I can go and point the space where the – the spot where the person is buried. And then the Truth Commission people went there and exhumed the bodies, and the people are given decent funerals. That’s quite important, but you know, there will always be finger pointing, and that’s healthy for our country.

RICH MKHONDO: There should be a point – I think the most important thing to remember here is now we know. Now we know. It’s quite important to emphasize that. Now we know what happened. You know, during the bad days of apartheid, there were many people, particularly white South Africans, who lived in Cloud Kukula. They just didn’t want to know what was going on in the townships. When we wrote to tell them -

PHIL PONCE: They purposely sort of ignored or avoided the realization.

RICH MKHONDO: Exactly. And when the elections came, they voted to keep the apartheid government in power. They denied exactly what was happening. Now they should know what happened.

FRANKLIN SONN: And it’s also impossible to go to healing without knowing the past, because the past is a funny thing. It comes up at the most awkward moments, when you least expect it, and then he disrupts the process of healing and reconciliation. But a very important point also to mention is that our government never expected this to be an easy process, never expected that the outcome would be pleasant. It was a painful process to start off with, and it, therefore, took enormous courage for us as nation to face our past in the manner that it did. But, Richard, it’s out now, and now we can start with the healing process.

PHIL PONCE: On the first part of the – the first part of the title of the Commission is Truth and presumably that’s what this is about. But you raised a question of reconciliation. Is this – is this helping people come together, or is it exposing some divisions?

FRANKLIN SONN: Well, we are a very deeply divided society, and part of the effort is, in fact, to use truth in order to bring us together, and I – it is my contention and also the contention of the government that it’s impossible to do reconciliation and bring it together effectively without respect for the truth, and respect for the truth being a revelation of the truth.

PHIL PONCE: Is this bringing out some divisions, Cliff?

CLIFF MATHESON: I think it certainly has exposed the divisions, but I think we need time. We need lots of time. We need a new generation to come up through the ranks, and with time, I think – and understanding of what happened – I think a lot of healing can take place. However, there are lots of people – and this goes on Rich’s point – that didn’t get a chance to go on the – to be heard. There are some people right here in Washington, a couple of black South Africans, that were threatened with their lives if they testified. The Commission could not give them any protection. Hopefully, with time, they will be able to go back to South Africa and not be killed.

PHIL PONCE: Rich, just a basic point of information, the Commission was not – was not a court of law. What powers exactly did it have?

RICH MKHONDO: Well, it had quite a number of powers, including to subpoena witnesses – take witnesses to court. You know that former President P. W. Botha is still facing charges of actually refusing to testify. Now -

PHIL PONCE: But if you’re named in the report, for example, does this mean you’re going to go to prison? What does it mean?

RICH MKHONDO: Oh, quite a number of things. One of them is the fact that it recommends that those who didn’t apply for amnesty should be probably prosecuted, including Former President F.W. DeKlerk. That’s the reason why he challenged them. The other point, it actually I think suggests some kind of reparations for the victims. Actually, the reparations have already started. Some people have been given money for the sufferings of the past. But the most important point that I wanted to make is that this is not the first Commission. There were quite a number of them, including the Chilean one, the Argentinean. The most famous one is the Nuremberg Trials. We’re still talking about it today.

FRANKLIN SONN: Because that was retribution.

RICH MKHONDO: Exactly. Now, we’re still going to be talking about the South African Truth Commission for many years to come. In my view, talking about reconciliation, it is actually helping us and the process of our country. But it’s up to all South Africans. It’s not up to the government. It’s not up to the former – the former government. It’s not up to President Mandela. It’s up to the people of South Africa to reconcile with the past and move on.

FRANKLIN SONN: But it’s important that in this process that government takes the lead and the government says to the world that anything that we might have been guilty of, we did give the right to an independent commission to look at that, but to remember the perspective that we were faced with a crime against humanity, and we were in defense against that not only for ourselves but for our people, and in that process we were not the instigator of the violence. But don’t focus on that; focus on the importance that we as a government are willing to bring everything in the open with a specific purpose of bringing healing in our nation and that emphasis must not be lost sight of.

PHIL PONCE: Cliff, the report is out, so what now, in your opinion?

CLIFF MATHESON: Well, what does concern me is that there were certain rules that were set up for the Commission. One of them was that you had to tell all, and there were several other criteria. And if you didn’t, you might be subject to prosecution in a proper criminal court. There may be thousands of court cases spun off in the aftermath of the Commission. It’ll be interesting to see how that is handled.

FRANKLIN SONN: But reportedly, what will happen to the report technically, the report is now in the hands of the president. The president will study the report, and once he’s done that, he will present it to parliament.

Parliament will then review the report and the point that was made, a committee will be set up, for example, for compensation to the victims, which will be – come from a presidential fund, and there will be appeals to the world to participate in contributing to that presidential fund, so that a modicum – not entirely – but a modicum of compensation could be paid to mothers and parents, who have lost their children and wives who have lost their husbands.

PHIL PONCE: Rich, in the very little time we have left, is there a perception at this point that the truth is by and large known at this point?

RICH MKHONDO: For those who want to know the truth, yes. For those who don’t want to know the truth, no. There are people who are still not going to want to know the truth, and there are many of them. And it’s not only we South Africans. Even here – even in either country – if you want to close your eyes and ears and don’t want to know what happened, surely you can, but now we know, as I said.

FRANKLIN SONN: I agree, people are uncomfortable. Everybody is uncomfortable with the past. Everybody is uncomfortable with the truth.

PHIL PONCE: And with that, gentlemen, I thank you all very much.