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Special Report

Reconciling a divided land; Truth Commission seeks new paradigm for South Africa;

By Ben Bradlee Jr., Globe Staff

The Boston Globe – November 8, 1998, Sunday, City Edition

CAPE TOWN – Peter stole a bicycle from John.

Time passed. Peter said, “Let’s talk about reconciliation.”

But John replied: “I need the bike back first.”

The Rev. Mxolisi Mpambani, pastor of St. Michael’s church in the nearby township of Guguletu, told that “short story” earlier this year at a symposium here on the prospects for reconciliation in South Africa.

It remains a parable for the times, as the country digests the seminal 3,500–page report released 10 days ago by the government–appointed Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Most blacks are demanding restoration of their dignity and compensation for their suffering before they agree to reconcile with whites.

Capping a 2 1/2–year investigation, the commission called the racial caste system of apartheid “a crime against humanity,” but also condemned the ruling African National Congress for killings, torture, and other excesses in its long fight to topple the former white minority regime.

The panel’s findings were excoriated from both ends of the political spectrum, with former President F.W. de Klerk calling the report a “simplistic, orthodox revolutionary” rendering of a complex history, and ANC leader Thabo Mbeki, the heir apparent to President Nelson Mandela, labeling it “wrong and misguided.”

If those statements represent the bookends of political rhetoric, many observers have concluded that the commission must have gotten the story about right. Moreover, complaints that painful truths uncovered by the panel had actually exacerbated race relations, or that it had failed to achieve reconciliation, seemed to ignore the basic tenet that truth is a necessary precursor to healing. And the commission was expected to promote reconciliation, not achieve it.

But it’s apparent there is still a long way to go in forging social comity in this country, since no serious dialogue is occurring between blacks and whites, no search for common ground.

South Africa has long played a disproportionately large role in world affairs because it has been a leading player in one of the century’s most vexing problems: race. No other country had such an extreme form of institutionalized racism as did South Africa from 1948 to 1994. So the country’s efforts to come to terms with its past through the work of the Truth Commission is significant not just to South Africans, but to the world.

“I really do think that what’s happening in South Africa is an object lesson that all of us can learn from,” said James Gilligan, an instructor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and author of the book “Violence: Reflections on a National Epidemic,” published last year.

“I was struck by all the controversy surrounding the final report – de Klerk and the ANC saying the TRC’s efforts were a failure. I see the exact opposite. It’s because of that that it’s a success,” said Gilligan. “What it means is that people are arguing verbally rather than taking up arms and shooting each other… So many people thought there would be a bloodbath there. What’s miraculous is that has not happened.”

Gilligan added that “state secrets make a society sick.” It was imperative, then, that the Truth Commission undertake its investigation of apartheid to let South Africa face the future with a clear knowledge of its past.

“We’ve learned to look at each other’s eyes here,” said Albie Sachs, a noted anti–apartheid activist who lost his right arm in 1988 when his car was bombed by security forces; he now serves as a justice on the Constitutional Court. “Otherwise you can’t get a country. We’re not South Africa yet. We’re becoming South Africa.”

All–race elections bring changes great, small

Four–and–a–half years after historic all–race elections brought Mandela and his ANC to power, South African life is undeniably different. There are the obvious things, like the presidential mansion in Pretoria. It was called Libertas when the whites governed. Today it’s called Mahlamba’nlopfu, which in Shangan, now one of the country’s 11 official languages, means “dawn of a new era.”

Parliament is considering dropping Afrikaans as the country’s second language, since it is mostly vilified as the tongue of the former “oppressors.” English will be the main language for official business. Plans then call for a politically–correct rotation of the other 10 languages for one month each.

Today, “transformation” is the watchword across South Africa as the new government seeks literally to transform the country’s institutions from closed apartheid structures to open organizations serving the black majority. Blacks, at least, feel they now have more of a stake in their own country. Before the elections, for example, 80 percent of residents in Soweto, the township outside Johannesburg, refused to pay their electric bills. Now up to 70 percent pay.

In 1994, when Mandela’s government assumed power, it promised to quickly improve the lives of the black masses by building one million new houses in five years and bringing clean water to every South African by 2001. But progress on those fronts has been slow.

The government has brought water to 2.7 million people of the 14 million who had no service in 1994; of 6 million houses which did not have electricity then, officials estimate that 70 percent will be wired by the end of next year. But it had built less than one–fourth of promised houses by the end of last year. Most schools are overcrowded, lack sufficient textbooks, and have poor sanitation. Unemployment, meanwhile, stands at 38 percent.

But crime is perhaps the country’s most pressing problem. South Africa remains one of the most violent societies in the world, with a murder rate eight times higher than that of the United States. Rape has risen 18 percent since 1994, assault by 7 percent, and robbery by 68 percent, according to the South African Police Service. Vast sections of Johannesburg are considered unsafe “no go” areas by whites.

At times the country seems held together mainly by the sheer force and dominance of the Mandela mystique. There is a pervasive view that only Mandela and his enormous reservoir of good will have protected the country from simmering discontent at the slow pace of change, and that without him, tension might have reached a full boil.

So the task for the lesser–known technocrat, Mbeki, is considerable. He and the ANC face the challenge of all successful revolutionaries: to assume the banal responsibilities of governing – and deliver.

Racial tensioncontinues to grow

Many think South Africa is more racially tense now than it has been at any time since the 1994 elections. That sense of polarization will probably increase in the coming months as the rhetoric grows more pointed leading up to the next general elections, expected in the spring.

“The level of alienation in this society is so deep, we can never address all of that,” said Charles Villa–Vicencio, a professor of religion and society at the University of Cape Town who presided over the writing of the Truth Commission’s final report. “We can agree to coexist. Perhaps once we get that right, we can think of reconciliation.”

For now, blacks and whites seem to be talking past each other.

“The recurring and deeply felt refrain [ among blacks] is that whites… and others ’previously advantaged’ have failed abjectly to treat reconciliation as a two–way street, and have failed to understand what is meant by transformation of the society,” wrote Shaun Johnson, editorial director of the Independent Newsapers chain, last December. “They are seen to want nothing but to get on with their lives… This is taken to be shockingly ungrateful, unrepentant, arrogant and – the warning note is shrill – unacceptable behavior.”

Increasingly alienated whites, meanwhile, feel that transformation, far from behind schedule, is already running amok. They cite the crime wave, the declining value of the rand, and “declining standards” in the workplace.

There is a growing conviction, wrote Johnson, that being white is a “new Mark of Cain, a historical reversal of what blackness used to mean, and certainly not what whites understood by the rainbow motif. Many whites believe the only politics being offered to them is the politics of prostration, and people who believe they have no alternatives are likely to lash out defensively or lapse into selfish cynicism rather than participate in the search for solutions.”

Blacks seem to be increasingly impatient with the rhetoric of reconciliation, and are demanding that their economic lot be improved. “Saying sorry is not enough,” said Rev. Mpambani. “Perpetrators must take responsibility and do something for the victims. Like pay for their schooling or otherwise financially support them.”

Indeed, Mandela himself has made it clear that the revolution in South Africa did not end with the 1994 elections, and that there can be no reconciliation without transformation. Other black leaders make the point more bluntly.

In a speech to the National Assembly in May, Mbeki said “South Africa is a country of two nations. One of these nations is white, relatively prosperous… The second and larger nation of South Africa is black and poor… And neither are we becoming one nation. Consequently, the objective of national reconciliation is not being realized.”

“The longer this situation persists… the more entrenched will be the conviction that the concept of nation–building is a mere mirage, and that no basis exists, or will ever exist, to enable national reconciliation to take place. I am convinced that we are faced with the danger of a mounting rage to which we must respond seriously.”

Addressing white businessmen in February, Mandela’s former wife, Winnie Madikizela–Mandela, warned that a “second revolution” was sweeping the country. “The truth and reality in South Africa today is no longer European or white, but African and more often black,” she said. “Unless the African is placed at the center of transformation and the national agenda, our country will not be stable or productive.”

In its final report, the Truth Commission agreed, declaring: “The huge and widening gap between the rich and the poor is a disturbing legacy of the past, which has not been reduced by the democratic process. It is morally reprehensible, politically dangerous, and economically unsound to allow this to continue.”

Even Desmond Tutu, the conciliatory archbishop who chaired the commission, marvels at the patience blacks have shown. “They still get up from their shanty settlements,” Tutu said in a speech to South African journalists last year. “They go to work for white people in affluent suburbs, and at night they return to the squalor of their homes, their unlit streets, no running water, no clinics, no schools, no decent homes.”

“They actually go back to all that,” he continued, “and they don’t say ’to hell with it,’ and go on a rampage in the largely white pockets of comfort and affluence. And all some whites do is moan about this and that, really about their loss of power.”

Among whites, what needs to be purged is any lingering feeling that apartheid was a well–meaning policy that supported the greater good of all groups under “separate development” – any sense it was a noble idea which foundered only in its implementation, according to Kader Asmal, Louise Asmal, and Ronald Roberts, authors of “Reconciliation Through Truth: A Reckoning of Apartheid’s Criminal Governance.” “Such views are a final desecration of those who fell victim to apartheid’s willful violence,” they write.

White far right warilykeeps tabs on developments

Watching developments ominously on the white far right are men like Pieter Johan Verster, former commander of the euphemistically–named Civil Cooperation Bureau, a secretive unit of the former regime’s Special Forces which carried out operations against enemies of the apartheid state. Verster was called before the Truth Commission at a closed hearing and made statements that some commissioners considered seditious.

“I am sitting here as an officer of the former South African Defense Force, a commanding officer in charge of sensitive operations, and I have a real problem with the approach that there was supposed to have been a negotiated settlement between the former government and the ANC,” Verster said, according to a transcript of the hearing given to the Globe.

“There are thousands of people who feel exactly the same way as I do. That is the current view of moderate people who have never seen any signs of real negotiations which have addressed the needs of soldiers and people who acted in a covert way in the past.”

On the center–right is Constand Viljoen, former head of the South African Defense Force from 1980 to 1985 and now head of the Freedom Front party, which has nine seats in parliament. Viljoen, who has worked quietly with Mandela and the ANC to keep a lid on the far right, is nonetheless extremely critical of the direction toward which the country is moving, especially the effort to eliminate Afrikaans as an official language.

“This is not in line with reconciling and protecting the rights of minorities,” Viljoen said. “We are a very important white tub in Africa, and we want to remain in Africa. But there is very little hope right now.”

According to Tony Leon, leader of the liberal Democratic Party, “99 pecent of whites in South Africa have ’truth fatigue,’ and would like to just get on with it.”

The Truth Commission’s Villa–Vicencio dismissed the complaints of most whites as those of “spoiled brats” coming late to the realization that it is time to share the wealth. But he said it is important to devise ways to make whites feel more invested in the new South Africa.

“Society is infinitely better now, but the weakness is whites feel they don’t have any obvious role to play in the creation of that new society,” Villa–Vicencio said. “We have to make whites feel that they can join in the building of the new nation. When I was helping in the struggle, I was a comrade. Now I’m a white male. That’s disappointing.”

Being called a white male, in the now–universal parlance of affirmative action, may trouble Villa–Vicencio and others, but it is reality.

“We all know we’re going through a period where we have to redress past imbalances, and the sooner we do it, the better,” said Colin Eglin, a longtime member of parliament and senior figure in the Democratic party who helped draft the new constitution. “But the scale of what’s going on here is incredible. Most majorities set a goal of integrating minorities at a level of 15 to 17 percent. Here the minorities have handed over power to the majority, and now the majority is seeking to integrate 65 percent of the people into existing institutions.”

While most whites seem opposed or indifferent to the work of the Truth Commission, a small number are striking the kind of conciliatory tone the commission and the black majority have sought.

Brian and Joyce Williams of Johannesburg were two of a few hundred whites who wrote the Truth Commission to ask for forgiveness. “We both in our respective ways grew up as privileged people without ever seriously wondering why ’white’ was so privileged and millions of our fellow darker–skinned South Africans were born without the same privileges,” they wrote. “We wish to apologize to the nation and to the commission for being so blind, deaf, and dumb, and to thank you for bringing about our liberation to be true South Africans.”

But Professor Mahmood Mamdami, head of the African studies department at the University of Cape Town, said such sentiments are rare, and that the commission focused too much attention on the extremes of the apartheid conflict rather than on the vast number of ordinary white “beneficiaries” of the system.

“The TRC has looked at apartheid through the lens of political activism on the one hand and state agents on the other, excluding the vast middle,” said Mamdami at the reconciliation symposium here in March. “What was distinctive about apartheid was the link between the perpetrators and the beneficiaries. The TRC’s challenge was to get the beneficiaries to join the victims in outrage at the perpetrators, or at least to get beneficiaries to see their own social responsibility. But they have failed in this. Most beneficiaries are still unaware they were beneficiaries.”

The commission has been criticized on other fronts, most notably for being too slow in ensuring that victims of human rights abuses receive reparations. The panel has also been chastised by those who argue that granting amnesty to the perpetrators of some of apartheid’s worst atrocities is too high a price to pay for the truth.

But the commission also has had some spectacular successes in bringing closure to crimes most had long since despaired of solving, and in giving cathartic voice to thousands of victims of apartheid, empowered for the first time to tell their stories in a series of public hearings, before the country and the world.

“The TRC has touched the lives of the majority of the people in South Africa, because the history of this period was more than blurred – it was falsified,” said George Bizos, a lawyer who has represented Nelson Mandela and other anti–apartheid leaders. “Torture and murder were decreed by the security forces. Were it not for the TRC, the apologists for apartheid would contend that there is no evidence to substantiate that. After all, even the evidence given at Nuremberg did not prevent some Germans from denying the atrocities.”

In its final report, the Truth Commission made a series of recommendations to promote reconciliation in South Africa. They include: asking apartheid’s beneficiaries to contribute to the alleviation of poverty, possibly through a “wealth tax”; introducing community policing to cut crime; prosecuting, where appropriate, those who the commission found to have committed human rights violations; and establishing clinics and services to help heal victims and perpetrators. It also called for a “reconciliation summit” to take place at the end of next year.

Countless obstacles to genuine reconciliation in South Africa remain. But many observers here are cautiously optimistic that the work of the commission wilžanc0000l jolt the country into creating a new paradigm for itself.

“We’re dealing with a pathology here that other countries haven’t had to deal with,” said Kader Asmal, an ANC cabinet minster and one of the authors of “Reconciling Through Truth.” “But if we get it right, it’s of epochal importance. It’s a new culture we’re developing here.”

Added John Battersby, editor of the Sunday Independent newspaper: “I think it will take 10 to 15 years to integrate this process. People are far too close to it now, both black and white. The real challenge here is, can you build a nation out of incredibly diverse people? The Truth Commission is key to creating this sense of commonality.”

Globe Johannesburg correspondent Kurt Shillinger contributed to this article.

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