In an achievement that has inspired the admiration of the world, South Africans confront the brutal legacy of apartheid in FACING THE TRUTH WITH BILL MOYERS, premiering March 30, 1999, on PBS at 9pm. (Check local listings.)
outh Africans are on a truth-telling mission. As part of the negotiated settlement that led to the end of apartheid and the election of Nelson Mandela as president, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was established by the South African Government to investigate the crimes committed between 1960 and 1994 during the fight against apartheid. Hailed worldwide as a model for airing gross violations of human rights without resorting to Nuremburg-style trials, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was seen by many in South Africa as a means of healing the wounds of history. "We needed to acknowledge that we had a horrendous past," said the TRC chairman, Desmond Tutu. "We needed to look the beast in the eye, so that the past wouldn't hold us hostage anymore."
After more than two years of hearings, the Commission published findings compiled from the testimony of more than 21,000 victims. Amnesty hearings continue for those who perpetrated the atrocities. Even Archbishop Tutu -- the 1984 winner of the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts to end racial segregation in his native land -- says that after so much cruelty, healing will be difficult. "Don't look for somebody else to be the one who is going to do the reconciliation," he urged his fellow South Africans. "Each South African is going to have to say, 'What is the contribution I am going to be making to what will be a national project?'"
For the moment, in the aftermath of the hearings, South Africans are living in an echo chamber of horrors, having listened week after week to a soundtrack of human tragedy. The stories that emerge from the hearings are a litany of detentions, abductions, beatings, burnings, torture, rape, and murder. One by one, in some of the most powerful and cathartic television footage ever broadcast, the victims of apartheid and their families look perpetrators in the eye and ask them to admit and regret their actions. For some victims, it is the first time to confront their torturers in the daylight, face to face. For others, whose family members disappeared and were never heard from again, it is the opportunity finally to know the truth about how their loved ones died, and to ask the most commonly heard question during the hearings: "May we have the bones back?"
As the Commission moved toward its conclusion, journalist Bill Moyers and producer-director Gail Pellett went among the people of South Africa to report on a nation in the throes of trying to understand the "unspeakable evils" of the past. Their stunning stories -- told by blacks and whites, victims and perpetrators, the unrepentant and the merciful -- are at the heart of the documentary, FACING THE TRUTH WITH BILL MOYERS, premiering Tuesday, March 30, 1999, from 9-11pm (ET) on PBS. (Check local listings.)
"Millions of Americans were caught up in the struggle to end apartheid," according to Moyers. "Through direct action supporting the struggle for democracy, through efforts to persuade corporations, universities, and foundations to disinvest in the racist South African regime, and through intervention by politicians from Robert Kennedy to Andrew Young to Jesse Helms and Patrick Buchanan, the United States and South Africa became deeply entangled in the second half of the 20th century. There were moments during our filming in South Africa when I thought I was staring into a mirror image of our own nation. America is still wrestling with its own heritage of discrimination and injustice. We thought that by looking at South Africa's attempt to move beyond a racially divided society -- to reconcile and forgive the past -- we might learn something for our own future."
Drawing on South African Broadcasting's national telecasts of the TRC hearings and on a score of interviews conducted for the documentary, FACING THE TRUTH recounts some of the most dramatic moments and confrontations that occurred during the Commission sessions. Among the interviews Moyers conducts are those with former security agents who have applied for amnesty for atrocities they claim were authorized by superiors. They are not on trial, but they have been offered amnesty on the condition that they tell the truth. "Making the truth public is a form of justice," Archbishop Tutu tells Moyers. "This is a moral universe and you've got to take account of the fact that truth and lies and goodness and evil are things that matter."
Leaving the hearings, Moyers and Pellett seek out victims or survivors of several notorious incidents, including the cases of famous activists such as "The Pebco Three" and "The Cradock Four" who were brutalized, murdered, and whose bodies were torched.
Moyers speaks with Joyce Mtimkulu, whose son Siphiwo was imprisoned, tortured, and poisoned by the government. Siphiwo sued the state for abuse and attempted murder after he was released from prison in the early 1980s. Then he disappeared. Only now is his family learning the details of his horrific death.
Reviewing the case of the victims known as the Nietverdient ("Not Deserving" in Afrikaans), Moyers meets with Maria Ntuli, whose son Jeremiah disappeared in 1986. He was one of 10 young men kidnapped and put into a van filled with explosives which was then pushed over a cliff. When confronted by Ntuli over the loss of her son, Brigadier Jack Cronje, leader of the infamous death squads that operated around Pretoria, replies that he believed he was doing his duty in committing preventive assassination. "I thought I was doing the right thing," he says.
Cronje's response underscores the many difficult issues surrounding the Commission's activities. To gain amnesty under the Commission, the perpetrators must also prove they were acting in the name of the government, that they were following orders. But is justice served when there is no punishment? Is forgiveness a higher form of justice, or simply a political necessity? What will it mean for South Africa's future if murderers go free?
The second half of the program focuses on the complex emotional and philosophical reactions to the work of the Commission and the course that South Africa has taken in trying to put apartheid behind it.
As he explores the dimensions of public opinion, Moyers meets with Albie Sachs, a justice on South Africa's new constitutional court. A white anti-apartheid activist who was permanently crippled in a car bomb attack, Sachs is a reminder that state violence was not directed solely at blacks, but also at many others who opposed the racist regime. Despite his suffering, Sachs has no desire for revenge. For him, the important thing is that the tyranny has ended and the truth is out. "No one can say it never happened now," he tells Moyers. "It's on the record."
For some people, however, public truth-telling is simply not enough. They want retribution. The family of the martyr Steve Biko opposes amnesty and seeks punishment for the suspected perpetrators. While these amnesty applicants admit they interrogated and mistreated Biko, none will take responsibility for his death. The Biko family filed a legal challenge to the Commission's power to grant amnesty, but it was rejected by the constitutional court.
The St. James Church Massacre of 1993 tells another story: that of counterterrorism by blacks. When three guerilla fighters with APLA, the military wing of the Pan-African Congress, testify before the Commission in a bid for amnesty, the tables are suddenly turned. Now it is a member of the former white minority who is demanding to know the details of his wife's murder.
Finally, Moyers turns his attention to the South Africa that is reinventing itself socially, politically, and economically. He listens to the candid opinions of white college students at the elite University of Stellenbosch. Sheltered from the violent acts taking place not far from their homes, these young people had very little knowledge or understanding of the barbarism practiced by their nation. Today, these "children of apartheid" wrestle with feelings of fear and resentment in the face of affirmative action designed to correct past wrongs.
The possibilities of reconciliation in the new South Africa are evident in the case of Mcusta Jack, a black businessman in Port Elizabeth. A former anti-apartheid leader, he now employs several white men, including a former government intelligence operative.
Still, as the Moyers team discovers in a visit to the black township of Alexandria and townships in Cape Town and Port Elizabeth, segregation and injustice have left a powerful legacy. Apartheid was not only a police state, it was also a systematic distribution of wealth to the white minority. Today whites still control four-fifths of the farms, 90 percent of the capital, and 95 percent of industry. A de facto racial segregation lingers as most of the poor blacks find themselves confined to slums.
In the end, it is people like Don Mattera who point to a continued quest for a joint society. A poet and journalist who travels the country to motivate students with a vision of the new South Africa, Mattera tells Moyers of the imperative for social justice. "Sorry is not just a word," he says, "It's a deed. It's an act. Contrition is not, 'Bless me Father for I have sinned.' Contrition is, 'I have taken from thee, therefore I give thee back. I have hurt thee, therefore, I help to heal your pain.'"
FACING THE TRUTH WITH BILL MOYERS is produced by Public Affairs Television, Inc., and is presented on PBS by Thirteen/WNET in New York. Executive producers: Judith Davidson Moyers and Judy Doctoroff O'Neill; producer/director: Gail Pellett; editor: Vanessa Procopio; director of photography: Robert Shepard; associate producer: Mandy Jacobson; director of special projects: Deborah Rubenstein.