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Truth commission heard victims, confronted perpetrators

By Beth Kowal

South Africa began healing from apartheid through one person’s story at a time, the former Methodist bishop of Johannesburg told people gathered in Spokane for the recent Faith in Action Dialogue, sponsored by The Fig Tree.

Joanne Coleman-Campbell and Peter Storey

The Rev. Peter Storey affirmed the power of stories to wake people up, people like those retired Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu spoke of when he said, “The person hardest to wake up is the one pretending to be asleep.”

In 1994, South Africa awoke to its first democratic election, which Peter calls South Africa’s “day of grace.” He spent that day in the Soweto Township where people were “rising up to greet their freedom in immense joy.”

Questions of how to deal with the country’s past still cast a shadow. 

The question remained: “In freedom today, how are we going to deal with what we did to each other under 40 years of apartheid—the brutality, atrocities, violence and crimes?”

Two sides held fast to their positions. 

One side said “prosecute and punish,” while the other side said “forgive and forget.”  Each view had its objectors.  Many who advocated forgiving and forgetting were in the former regime. 

Who should be prosecuted for the atrocities? Where in the chain of command would it stop—the former president, generals, colonels, civil servants or youth?  Did the country want a trial like the one for Nazi war criminals at Nuremberg, Germany?  Would they use resources of a poor nation to hunt for people and seek retribution?

How could a country tell a woman whose husband and son were murdered for speaking English rather than Afrikaans to “forgive and forget”?

Peter and others asked a different question: “Is it possible to both remember and forgive?”

To find resolution to apartheid crimes, the government formed a Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC).

Peter had met former President Nelson Mandela during years he was a chaplain at Robben Island Prison and Nelson was a prisoner.  As President, Nelson asked him to help select commissioners to hear victims’ stories, to listen to persecutors plead for amnesty and to grant reparations to groups of people. 

The entire country was able to hear victims and perpetrators share their stories in public courtrooms and on the radio. Anybody was eligible to apply to serve as a Truth Commissioner. 

After reviewing thousands of applications and hearing testimonies, the selection committee chose 26 people for the commission.  Most found it hard to process the horror stories told by both victims and persecutors, Peter said.

The TRC created three committees to structure the two-year process: 1) the Gross Human Rights Violations Committee to hear the victims’ stories; 2) the Amnesty Committee to hear amnesty appeals from human rights violators, and 3) the Rehabilitation and Reparations Committee to find ways for communities to restore justice and relationships. 

“The victims were heroes, having endured emotional pain and physical torture.” Peter said.  “More than 20,000 victims and families came forward to express their anger, grieve over lost lives and unleash caged-in memories. 

“The nation would recognize their pain and hold reverence for their suffering,” he said.  “The most painful thing for a victim had been to be told, ‘Nobody will hear you scream.’  Through TRC hearings, the whole world heard their screams.”

Commissioners traveled to townships to listen to the stories of the people.  They had khulumani—Zulu for “Speak Out!”—groups to help people tell their painful experiences, he said.

Victims found freedom in their individual and collective voices.  A  television reporter, talking to a man who had lost his legs in the political struggle, asked the victim, “How do you feel?” The victim replied, “It feels good today. South Africa cried my tears today.”

 “It is healing to tell one’s story,” Peter affirmed.

After the Gross Human Rights Violations Committee heard one torturous story after another for six months, the Amnesty Committee allowed perpetrators to plead for amnesty. Until the last week, few perpetrators came forward.  The week before the amnesty application deadline, more than 7,500 came forward.

Perpetrators had to meet four conditions to receive amnesty: 

1) They had to make a full disclosure of details, how many people they killed, the method of torture or death, and when the crimes happened.

2) They had to take full responsibility as individual “moral beings”—not hiding behind a military or political group—and had to face the families of those they hurt. There was no umbrella amnesty. 

3) They each had to have had a political motive for their actions. 

4) The committee had to discern the proportional level of the punishment to the action or crime the person was charged with doing.   For example, was the victim being tortured or shot for handing out papers, for protesting or for throwing grenades at people?

Even with these conditions, the commissioners had a difficult time discerning who should have amnesty.

“It was hard for me to stay and listen. Sometimes I struggled with wanting to see the criminals punished,” Peter said.

One by one, perpetrators confessed grave stories of violence, abuse and hate-filled crimes.

“The TRC was the first time in history those on the winning side were held accountable for atrocities.  The victims of the liberators—the winning side—were included.  Clearly, human suffering knows no party or race,” Peter said.

“That was a giant step in moral accountability,” he said.  “Restorative justice represented a break with the past.”

Peter gave an example of the potential for healing achieved with confessions. 

“A young policeman who had killed several people went to the home village of his victims and confessed to them directly.”

He told the families, “I can never make up for what I did.”

One after another, family members shared how they felt about him and his acts. At the end of the day, the village leader said to the man, “We will speak again.”

“That meant there was hope,” Peter said.  “Sometimes there has been forgiveness.  For some, it will take time.  Some need to know more.  Some were set free from nightmares and thoughts about perpetrators.

“It may be possible to remember and forgive,” he pointed out.

The final group, the Reparations Committee, struggled to award reparations. 

“How do we say, ‘I’m sorry’?” Peter asked.

While that committee has funded some village memorials and community projects, he said that reparations were often weak, because not all has been or ever can be restored.

South Africans and other citizens of the world ask, “Did the TRC succeed or fail?” 

 “The TRC did not fail,” Peter said.  “It did everything it could.  It is now up to South Africans, white and black.  We do not have time for resentment. The perpetrators are not being hunted down and killed in revenge. The victims are moving towards healing.

“We are not arguing about what did or did not happen.  We understand that apartheid was not a good policy that went wrong.  It was evil,” he said.  “We also learned that telling of and listening to pain is therapeutic.

“Humans are fallible and many prefer amnesia,” Peter said, “but I have seen enough to know that God can do something with fallible human beings.”


The Fig Tree - Copyright © November 2005