The first shock comes in the first hour. Arriving in Cape Town on a bright Monday morning, I drive straight to the offices of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in the center of the city, finding the inconspicuous entrance between Kottler’s Famous Gift Shop and a bistro. In a packed room on the tenth floor of a modern block, senior representatives of the African National Congress are testifying to a panel chaired by Archbishop Tutu, brilliant in archepiscopal purple. Formerly resistance leaders, in exile or underground, now government ministers in smart suits and ties, they are here to answer questions about the ANC’s share in past human rights violations. These include executions in their front-line camps and bombings in which innocent civilians died. They are also asked about their attitude to the “necklacings” (burning someone with a rubber tire round their neck) that Winnie Mandela once famously endorsed. They give lengthy and usually helpful explanations, but the shock is in the political language they speak.

“As Comrade Joe Modise has pointed out…” “A number of objective and subjective factors…” “A message was sent to Comrade Winnie.” “The matter was resolved in a political way.” Another problem was “discussed with the cadres.” In order to “exercise its leading role” the ANC had to “interact with the masses.” For me, whose ears are tuned to communist-ruled Europe, this is the language of the oppressors. Here it is the language of the oppressed—or, at least, of those who during the apartheid years claimed to speak and act for the oppressed, and who, in 1994, substantiated that claim by winning a free election.

I have come here to talk about what the post-communist countries are doing (or not doing) to address their difficult past, and to learn what South Africa is doing about its difficult past, as a step to building a “new South Africa.” What are the echoes, parallels, differences? Finding communists representing the oppressed is a mind-stretching contrast for a start, and one that recurs throughout my stay.

Eating crocodile with Nadine Gordimer, at the amazing Gramadoelas restaurant in the crime-swept center of Johannesburg, I talk to one of her other guests, Mongane Wally Serote, a poet from the “black consciousness” generation of Steve Biko and subsequently a member of the ANC’s “cadres” across the northern border, in what were then called “front-line states.” He tells me that in the second half of 1989, while I watched communism collapse in Central Europe, he was in Moscow, being trained to seize power in South Africa by “armed struggle.” When the Soviet Union disintegrated, he says, “my whole world collapsed.” Back in Europe, I have been writing about the victims of the Stasi and the KGB; here the victims were supported by the Stasi and the KGB.

Yet the two processes of “dealing with the past,” the South African and the East European, were both made possible by the end of the cold war. While communists played an important part in the resistance to apartheid, that resistance was obviously not created by communism, let alone run from Moscow. Yet Afrikaner politicians could either claim or genuinely believe that they were “fighting Russian communism,” as one old-fashioned National Party MP put it to me. “But,” I objected, “the kid who picked up a stone in a poor township was not organized by the KGB.” “How do you know?” he said.

The events of 1989 removed that cause, illusion, or pretext. Still, with hindsight Wally Serote thinks it was probably a good thing the South African change did come after that in the Soviet Union. Since then, he and his comrades have been making up their politics as they go along: a residue of Marxism, a spoonful of Chicago economics, a dash of West European social democracy, and much local spice. Like post-communists everywhere, in fact.

A few faithful still remain. Young Isaac Tshabile sits in his one-room wooden hut in the township of Zwelethemba and proudly declares, “I am a communist.” Outside, a fierce wind draws a curtain of gritty dust from the unmade streets across the tiny huts and ramshackle wooden vegetable stalls. Tall, neatly dressed in a green shirt, black trousers, and black shoes, Isaac is a quietly dignified presence. He was an eleven-year-old schoolboy when he first became involved in protests against the apartheid regime in the mid-1980s. Disconcertingly, he lifts up his lower teeth to show me that they are false: his real ones were knocked out by a police baton. As a “student leader” (but student here means schoolchild) he was conspiratorially recruited into Umkhonto we Sizwe (Spear of the Nation), the armed wing of the ANC, and trained in a secret camp in the Transkei. He smiles: “Then I was a spy.”

He became a communist in—of all years—1989. Some people in Zwelethemba still believe in God, he says, “but others believe in Marx, in dialectical materialism.” A South African Communist Party magazine is the only visible reading matter in his hut. The local CP organization is strong, he assures me—“and we will come back in Russia.” In the meantime, he has got a job in a once purely Afrikaner bank in Worcester, the white town next door that looks as if it has been airlifted from the American Midwest. He thinks Marx would approve of his learning about capitalism from the inside. He hopes that, with a little affirmative action, he will be promoted from messenger boy to bank clerk.


Then Isaac takes me off, leaning into the grit-filled wind, to meet Amos Dyanti. While the television set shows a basketball game—his hut has electricity, unlike many—Dyanti describes to me how he was tortured and nearly killed by the Afrikaner police. He tells the story in the old-fashioned, mission school English that I keep noticing here. “In this manner,” he says, like the hero of a Victorian novel, “I came to Victor Verster prison.” This manner was having his arms and legs twisted round iron bars and electrodes stuck up his anus. Isaac, who has obviously heard the story many times, watches the basketball game.

Dyanti has testified to “the TRC,” as most people call the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. It helped him, he says, to have his suffering acknowledged in that way. But he is a broken man. “I have this trauma down here”—and he points to his stomach, as if the trauma could be pinpointed, like a tumor. The captain who supervised his torture still works at the local police station.


All truth commissions are the product of political negotiation and compromise. The TRC is no exception. In particular, it combines a specific political-legal commitment with a larger historical, moral, and psychological mission. The specific commitment was demanded by the Afrikaner police, security, and military chiefs as their price for allowing the country to go all the way to a relatively peaceful free election. The price was amnesty. A so-called “post-amble” to the interim constitution of 1993, the key document of South Africa’s negotiated revolution, declared: “Amnesty shall be granted in respect of acts, omissions, and offences associated with political objectives and committed in the course of the conflicts of the past.” When the new government of Nelson Mandela came to power in 1994, it was bound by that solemn, constitutional commitment.

At the same time, there was a much broader discussion of how to deal with the past. Exhaustive inquiries were made into the ways other countries had gone about it, from Argentina to Zimbabwe.1 Some members of the ANC originally wanted “Nuremberg trials” of those responsible for apartheid,2 but after the peaceful transition there was an overwhelming political emphasis on the imperative of reconciliation and national unity, led and personified by President Mandela. Any investigation of the past should lead to reconciliation not revenge, reparation not retaliation. The amnesty provision in the Interim Constitution was itself wrapped in this rhetoric, making explicit reference to the African communalist concept of ubuntu, with its implications of “compassion,” “recognizing the humanity of the other,” and what Archbishop Tutu calls “restorative justice.” Nonetheless, the Justice Minister, Dullah Omar, could still have framed a separate amnesty law. Instead, he decided to combine the amnesty and “truth-telling” in one process. This was a key decision.

After more than a year’s detailed debate, a law called the Promotion of National Unity and Reconciliation Act was passed in mid-1995. It charged the commission with six tasks: to establish “as complete a picture as possible of the nature, causes and extent of gross violations of human rights” during the period from March 1, 1960—that is, the time of the Sharpeville massacre—to the end of 1993; to grant amnesty to “persons who make full disclosure of all the relevant facts relating to acts associated with a political objective” in that period; to give victims “an opportunity to relate the violations they suffered”; to take measures of reparation, rehabilitation, and the restoration of “human and civil dignity” to the victims; to report “to the Nation” on its findings; and, finally, to make recommendations aimed at the prevention of such violations of human rights in future. A large and complex order.

Note that instead of the general amnesty that the security and military chiefs originally hoped for, there is only individual amnesty, granted only to those who personally apply for it, only for those past misdeeds of which they make full disclosure, and only where they can demonstrate a “political objective.” This direct linkage of the amnesty-granting and truth-telling functions—“truth for amnesty”—is the most original feature of the South African process.


The commissioners—who according to the act must be “fit and proper persons who are impartial and who do not have a high political profile”—were appointed by President Mandela at the end of 1995, from a list of candidates who had gone through a careful, televised public scrutiny. Besides their incomparable chairperson, Archbishop Tutu, and the Deputy Chair, Alex Boraine, an impressive former Methodist minister and MP, they include lawyers, human rights activists, other churchmen, doctors, and psychologists, with at least one representative of the main colors of the “rainbow nation”: white of British origin, white Afrikaner, black African, Indian, and what as a legacy of the apartheid years is still called “coloured.”

The group first met in December 1995. Modern, downtown offices were rented in four cities, staff and computers were engaged, and the first hearings were held already in the spring of 1996. As the law lays down, there are three main committees: the Amnesty Committee, the Committee on Human Rights Violations, and the Committee on Reparation and Rehabilitation. The commission is to finish the main part of its work at the end of this year, and to submit its final report and recommendations to the President by the end of March 1998.

The extended deadline for amnesty applications expired at midnight on May 10, just before I arrived. That committee now has to work through a pile of more than six thousand applications, deciding in quasi-judicial process whether each individual qualifies. Many of the applicants are convicted criminals. I attended a hearing with a sinister-looking township thug who had killed a completely innocent small girl while he was trying to shoot a local shopkeeper. “I wanted to have a moment with him before I shot him,” he explained at one point. Now he implausibly claimed a political motive. It was all part of ANC-led “self-defense” of the community, you see. “I know about your concern for the community,” said the chairman of the amnesty committee, Judge Hassen Mall, in understandable exasperation.

Anyone who has not applied for amnesty can in theory still be prosecuted—if sufficient evidence becomes available and if the prosecutors have any time to spare from the avalanche of current crimes. Those who have not applied include the top military of the apartheid era, most senior National Party politicians, virtually all members of Chief Buthelezi’s Inkatha Freedom Party (whose Zulu warriors played a very significant part in the particularly brutal political violence in what is now called KwaZulu-Natal), and not a few ordinary ANC members—or retrospective ANC members—involved in “necklacings” or the like. Isaac Tshabile told me that just before the deadline he had got hold of some amnesty application forms. Thinking back to two incidents of very rough justice in Zwelethemba, when a drug dealer and an alleged police informer were stabbed, stoned and burned to death, he had persuaded a police van to drive around the township announcing over a loudspeaker that he would be in the church hall with the amnesty forms on a particular day. He waited there all afternoon. Nobody came.

The committee on human rights violations takes the often harrowing testimony of the victims or their surviving relatives. After months of preliminary research by statement-takers and investigators, a community gathers in a local hall to hear “the truth” about past horrors. Proceedings are complicated by the fact that people can and often do testify in any of South Africa’s eleven official languages. Sympathetic commission staff lend a supporting arm to the blinded youth or a handkerchief to the bereaved mother, whose grief is here publicly re-lived and, it is hoped, thereby relieved. In these sessions the metaphors of “healing”—individual, communal, and national—are uppermost. But at the end of the day, the commission also has to decide whether an individual was or was not a victim.

Only such certified victims and their relatives are eligible for reparation and rehabilitation, the business of the third committee. While this committee can order some immediate support, treatment, or counseling in cases of acute need, its main task is to recommend to the president how reparation should be made. Alex Boraine explains the good intentions behind this procedure: How could they know what kind of reparation victims really wanted until they asked them? Unfortunately, this means that while the amnestied killer immediately walks free, his victim is still waiting. Reparations will be a big and difficult political issue. On the day I arrived, the lead story in the Cape Times was a suggestion made by the ANC, in its submission to the truth commission, that white South Africans should pay a Reparations Tax.

My white liberal interlocutors kept telling me that many victims are only looking for symbolic reparation: a tombstone for a murdered son, perhaps, or some public act of repentance by the policeman responsible. Well, I heard some of that, particularly from better-off ANC activist families. But in the sprawling township of KwaMashu, north of Durban, a local statement-taker told me a different story. He had taken some fifty statements, he said, and in his experience the main motive for people coming forward was simply the hope of material compensation. The poor can’t eat tombstones.


Besides the regular business of the three committees, the commission also holds special hearings. I attended one in Athlone, a coloured township of tidy bungalows that now looks like an ordinary suburb of Cape Town but in 1985 was the scene of violent clashes between stone-throwing youths and the police. On October 15, 1985, an orange transport services truck drove up and down Thornton Road. When stones began to be thrown, armed policemen jumped up from the crates where they had been hiding on the back of the truck and started shooting into the crowd. Two boys, Shaun Magmoed, aged sixteen, and Michael Miranda, aged eleven, were killed, as was a twenty-one-year-old man. What rapidly became known as the “Trojan Horse killings” are now the subject of this special hearing.

In a large, echoing assembly hall rows of schoolgirls in green dresses and white headscarves—there is a strong Muslim presence here—listen to Archbishop Tutu’s warm, ebullient Christian introduction. Later, Shaun Magmoed’s father is led up on stage. He breaks down. Head bowed, he is barely capable of articulate speech, except for one lightning moment. Asked what he thinks of the justice system that acquitted the policemen of unlawful killing, he spits out a single word: “Corrupt!” The mother of Michael Miranda tells how she searched for him through a whole day, until she found him in a mortuary. The interviewing commissioners try to find words of comfort and recognition. The woman in whose house Shaun died tells how the police barged in, looked at the boy on the bloodstained bed, and said, in Afrikaans, “Die vark is dood.” The pig is dead.

Next day it is the turn of the police: fat-faced, mustached, they shift uncomfortably in their suits while the cameras flash and whirl. They have to attend—unlike some other truth commissions, the TRC has the power to subpoena—and you see just how powerful is the public shaming. On the notice board outside, there are some handwritten poems by children at the Islamia College. One reads:

Yes, there are thousands who, like me
Seek justice, truth and closure
These men deserve no amnesty
Just simply: full exposure!

Significantly, the commissioners question the police in English and they reply in Afrikaans, for apartheid was the creature of white Afrikaners.

Thick-set Brigadier Christiaan Loedolf, then a major of the railroad police, explains how he told the men in the crates to exercise caution: those in the crates on the left should not fire to the right, in case they hit their colleagues on the right, and vice versa. Never mind the people on the street. Douw Vermeulen was the police lieutenant in charge of the operation. Head bowed, he plays nervously with a pen and says he thinks he shot Shaun Magmoed but not in the back. “When I shot him he was looking at me.” But Shaun Magmoed was wounded in the back.

Lieutenant-Colonel Salmon Pienaar was the reserve army officer in joint command. In civilian life he is a headmaster. Large, genial, articulate, he repeats the story they all tell: this operation was mounted to arrest stone-throwers, not to kill them. (But a cameraman’s evidence suggests that just 2.5 seconds elapsed between the first stone and the first shot.) It wasn’t an army operation, he insists. It was done by the police, whose methods were quite different. (Actually, the South African Defence Force was responsible for some of the worst atrocities across South Africa’s borders in the front-line states.) At the end of his testimony, Colonel Pienaar’s lawyer asks us to accept, on the basis of today’s evidence, that his client is “an honorable citizen.”

Oh yes, an honorable citizen… Now I am back on familiar ground. This is so like the apologias of Germans after 1945 or Stasi officers today. Talking a version of Dutch, swearing by God and the Dutch Reformed Church, protesting their basic decency and respect for the law, these men always have a line that they did not step across—but someone else did. It was not us, it was the SS, says the old Nazi. It was not me, it was Department 20, says the former Stasi officer. It was not the army, it was the police, says Colonel Pienaar. Yes, I shot him, says police lieutenant Vermeulen, but not in the back.

I recall that the chief architect of apartheid, Hendrik Verwoerd, studied Rassenkunde (race science) at Leipzig in the 1930s. Here was European racist ideology, evil dressed as good, transmuted and imposed on the southern tip of decolonizing Africa. So now, at this other end of the world, I again find myself listening to the desperate contortions of northern European Protestant denial.


From the same Afrikaner mental world, but at a higher level in every sense, comes ex-President F.W. de Klerk. Sitting in the tenth-floor conference room, de Klerk begins his day of testimony for the National Party, following two days of the ANC, with a resounding apology for apartheid. “Apartheid was wrong,” he says, rolling the r with emphasis. He apologizes to “the millions of South Africans” who suffered forced removals, who were arrested under the pass laws, “who over the decades—and indeed, centuries—suffered the indignities and humiliation of racial discrimination.” This “renewed apology,” he says, “is offered in a spirit of true repentance.”

A handsome beginning. But then the questioning, conducted by a lawyer and like a cross-examination, takes him through a whole series of killings, bombings, and examples of torture, mainly from the 1980s, for which the truth commission has found evidence of authorization or knowledge at the highest levels, up to and including cabinet ministers. Much of this evidence is already well known from press reports: about the notorious killing center commanded by the police officer Eugene de Kock at Vlakplaas, for example, or the murder in Maputo of Ruth First, the wife of the communist leader Joe Slovo, at the behest of a man who subsequently joined de Klerk’s Presidential Council. But some comes from the commission’s own investigations and, particularly, from the amnesty applications of senior police officers.

Did de Klerk know about these things? Does he regard them as bona fide or mala fide implementation of guidelines? What, for example, would be a “reasonable interpretation” of a State Security Council instruction in 1986 to organize “a well-trained capacity to effectively wipe out terrorists”? And in the light of all this evidence, how can he possibly maintain, as he has in his written submission, that these were “the criminal actions of a handful of operatives of the security forces of which the [National] Party was not aware and which it could never have condoned”? Or in other words, as Archbishop Tutu more colorfully puts it, “just a few bad eggs.”

De Klerk argues that the country faced “a revolutionary onslaught.” The ANC aimed to make the country ungovernable: “You cannot fight that kind of thing just in the normal way.” The other side did horrible things too. Yes, there were deviations “from what might be described as the Queensberry Rules even for this kind of war.” But “murder and assassination cannot be justified.” And no, no, and again no, he personally neither authorized nor knew about it. If he had, he would not subsequently have established the commission headed by Justice Richard Goldstone to investigate these claims—particularly those about the mysterious “third force,” a still controversial label for secret operations by parts of the military and security apparatus, including, crucially, the direct encouragement of black-on-black violence. “We were not above the law,” he says. He and his colleagues thought of themselves as Christians. Their “whole ethos” was to act “within the framework of the word of the Lord.” They never believed…he gropes for a phrase, says it aloud in Afrikaans… “The end justifies the means?” suggests the Archbishop, in his gravelly voice. Yes, that’s it! They never believed that the end justifies the means.

Afterward, I found that most people present, commissioners, commission staff, academics, and journalists, were indignant. “He’s lying,” said one, bluntly. Two senior ANC politicians marched off up to Adderley Street to denounce him as “a disgraceful coward” and to “reject his apology with contempt.” At a press conference next day, Tutu said he was nearly in tears to hear de Klerk in effect negating his own handsome apology. How could de Klerk say he did not know? Dramatic pause: “I told him.” When I spoke subsequently to the Archbishop, I asked him what de Klerk had said back then, when he told him. Oh, replied the Archbishop, they would always insist we were maligning the police…

De Klerk’s case seems to me exemplary in its complexity. What I heard in that dramatic day of testimony was the voice at once of a lawyer, a party politician, a historical figure, and a struggling human conscience. A lawyer by training, de Klerk was pleading in his own defense against another lawyer, before what looked very much like a court. There had been calls for him to apply for amnesty, as had top ANC figures like the defense minister Joe Modise. Asked by Alex Boraine why he had not done so, he said amnesty was for crimes, these hearings for the acknowledgment of political responsibility.

As a party politician, still the leader of the National Party, he had to think of his voters. With its core Afrikaner electorate feeling beleaguered, their precious, once-dominant Afrikaans language reduced to the same status as isiXhosa or isiZulu, and with the truth commission seen by them as an ANC operation to keep the National Party in the dock until the next election, there would be no votes for de Klerk in cooperating more than was legally necessary. Even as he spoke, one of his key younger associates in the negotiated transition, Roelf Meyer, was trying to break the mold and form a new, genuinely national party. An embattled party leader plays safe, to keep the votes he has.

Then there was the historical figure, the statesman who shared the Nobel Peace Prize with Nelson Mandela. As he kept insisting, he was the man who dismantled the whole system: not just of repression, not just of apartheid, but of white domination altogether. Although de Klerk was too loyal to his predecessor to say this, the man who should really have been testifying here was P.W. Botha, the long-time defense minister, prime minister, then president from 1984 to 1989, nicknamed “the great crocodile,” who now lives quietly in retirement in the appropriately named Wilderness. As the distinguished political commentator R.W. Johnson put it to me: questioning de Klerk about the 1980s was rather like asking Khrushchev to answer for the crimes of Stalinism—while Stalin himself sat quiet in his dacha in Tbilisi.

As for his knowing exactly what was going on, de Klerk insists that he did not know the scale of human rights violations: “I am as shocked as you are.” A senior figure uniquely well placed to judge suggests to me that this may even be true. De Klerk, he says, was like a man who does not want to know that his wife is having an affair: all their friends know about it, everyone else knows, only he doesn’t.3 Except that this affair was an affair of state and the atrocities were not a deviation from but rather a logical extension of the defense of the indefensible.

Finally, though, beneath all these layers, I saw a limited but far from ignoble human being genuinely wrestling with his conscience. Here, in the glare of the camera lights, he had a strange, almost aggressive half-smile on his round, glistening face, as he delivered his serial denials. But a few years hence, on quiet reflection, in private—I should like to talk to him then.


No, the effects of a truth commission are not seen in a day. Perhaps next year, when the all-important final report and recommendations have been submitted, published, read, and implemented, we shall be able to say more. Yet by what criterion is “success” to be judged? Truth? Justice? Reconciliation? Closure? Healing? National unity? Prevention of future abuses? And of course we will never know what would have happened if the truth commission had never been.

In the meantime, there are a few things that can be said about the South African attempt to “deal with the past,” both in relation to the previous experience of other countries and with a view to learning from it. “Truth for amnesty” is at once the most original and the most troublesome feature of the commission’s work. Most people find it hard and some find it impossible to accept that multiple murderers should walk free. The act does require the commission to consider the “proportionality” of an action to the political objective pursued, but it is extraordinarily difficult to know what was “proportional” in an all-out, covert, dirty war. One Brian Mitchell, who personally commanded a notorious massacre of eleven innocent men, women, and children in the community of Trust Feeds, has already been granted amnesty. The commission then arranged for him to revisit the place “seeking reconciliation.” Some found this moving, others found it grotesque. The widow of Steve Biko, whose killers applied for amnesty, joined others in appealing to the Constitutional Court against this procedure. The court found that it is in line with the requirements of the Interim Constitution, and the judges are also privately supportive of doing it through the commission rather than the courts. Richard Goldstone, now a Constitutional Court judge, says: “Making public the truth is itself a form of justice.” Justice with a small j.

Without this procedure we would never know much of the detail about the repression—whether a particular person was killed, who killed him, where the body was buried so it can now be exhumed for decent reburial. To this day we would not have known exactly how Steve Biko died. The surviving documentation is otherwise extremely poor: both because many persecuted black and coloured Africans were not thought to merit the dignity of a file and because a large number of files were systematically shredded and burned by the army, police, and other shadowy security units over the four years of transition.

Important parts of the truth about repression may still be buried for good. While senior police officers have applied for amnesty, the top military have not. Since the failure of the court case against the former defense minister, Magnus Malan—a failure that very authoritative sources attribute to the incompetence or deliberate malice of the white attorney general who formulated the indictment—they probably no longer fear prosecution. Without that stick, the carrot of amnesty is useless.

Another criticism of the amnesty procedure is directed at the great emphasis placed on forgiveness, particularly by Archbishop Tutu. Marius Schoon, who came home one day to find the flesh and bones of his wife and six-year-old daughter spread over the floor by a South African security service bomb, objects bitterly to what he calls “the imposition of a Christian morality of forgiveness.” Alex Boraine told me of a black African woman whose husband was abducted and killed, and who now sat listening to his killer. (The commission is obliged to bring the victim or their next of kin to the amnesty hearing, if they wish to come, and to provide them with legal counsel.) After learning for the first time how her husband had died, she was asked if she could forgive the man who did it. Speaking slowly, in one of the native languages, her message came back through the interpreters: “No government can forgive.” Pause. “No commission can forgive.” Pause. “Only I can forgive.” Pause. “And I am not ready to forgive.”

There are no rules for handling these very emotional encounters. Each commissioner does it in his or her own way. This is Tutu’s way. Described to me by a colleague as “a fervent Anglican”—which sounds, to English ears, like a contradiction in terms—the Archbishop is a devout and passionate Christian. (He starts our private conversation with a prayer.) He believes in forgiveness. But other commissioners do it in other ways. Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela, a smartly dressed black African psychologist, gives tearful victims long and, to my ear, insufferably condescending lectures about “coping with trauma.” The white liberals on the commission go for sober brevity and quiet, understated sympathy. There is no single moral style—in the commission, as in the nation it represents. I prefer the understated sympathy myself, but then I’m a white liberal.

The call for forgiveness also reflects the overall priority given to “reconciliation.” “Truth. The Road to Reconciliation,” says a commission leaflet. Thanking de Klerk for his testimony, the Archbishop said it had contributed to finding the truth but “much more importantly” to reconciliation and “the healing of our nation.” Later I asked him: Why “much more importantly”? For the simple reason, he said, that exposing this painful truth could so easily lead in another direction. Revelations about how the bombs were planted could tear the nation apart almost as badly as bombs themselves. That’s why he keeps harping on the need for reconciliation and ubuntu.

Yet, taken to the extreme, the reconciliation of all with all is a deeply illiberal idea. As Isaiah Berlin has taught us, liberalism means living with unresolvable conflicts of values and goals, and South Africa has those in plenty. Furthermore, the history of past “reconciliations”—between Germans and Poles, for example, or Poles and Jews—reminds us that its timescale is measured not in months but in generations. Here there are more than three hundred years of racial conflict to be worked through. Would it not be more realistic to define a more modest goal: peaceful coexistence, cooperation, tolerance?

Another problem is the accusation of pro-ANC bias. After the sharp criticism of de Klerk, the National Party announced that it was suspending its cooperation with the commission and, unless the Archbishop apologized and Mr. Boraine resigned, would take the commission to court for political bias. As this article goes to press, the commissioners have just rejected these demands and have called for an urgent meeting with de Klerk’s party to resolve the conflict. The Inkatha Freedom Party has all along virtually boycotted the commission’s work on grounds of bias, despite strenuous efforts by the commissioners in KwaZulu-Natal to get them involved. While I was there, an Inkatha Freedom Party member of parliament colorfully denounced the TRC as “a circus presided over by a weeping clown.” So at the time of writing the two main opposition parties, representing between them nearly one third of the votes cast in the 1994 election, no longer recognize the legitimacy of the commission.4

This is a serious blow—even if the charge of bias is quite unjustified. But is it? Clearly, leading members of the ANC are not averse to making party-political capital out of commission proceedings. Unsurprisingly, many commission staff are ANC members or sympathizers and some of them want—to put it crudely—to see the Nats nailed. On the other hand, the commission has tried to be as tough in its questioning of the one side as of the other. The ANC leaders were not allowed the simple defense that because theirs was a just cause it was therefore a Just War. They were asked hard questions. We had the spectacle, for example, of the current deputy-president of South Africa and heir-apparent to Nelson Mandela, Thabo Mbeki, struggling to explain the township liberation chant “Kill the boer, kill the farmer.” That chant, he said, was just a piece of African folk tradition, not a statement of policy or intent…

Yet, at the end of the day, the commission’s report is bound to be harder on the National Party than on the ANC for the simple reason that the National Party was in power, presiding over the apartheid regime, for the whole period under investigation. It would be absurd and wrong to preserve moral neutrality between the jailer and the jailed. This being so, one wonders about the wisdom of the original attempt to create an “impartial” commission. Might it not have been better, like the Enquête Commission of the German parliament, to have some explicit representation of the parties elected to the democratic parliament? Might there not still be a place in the final report for separate statements of the very different historical perspectives of the main parties?

Everyone agrees that the final report will be crucial to the success or failure of the commission. How can the mass of evidence possibly be digested in the few months remaining? Can they produce a historical account of human rights violations that is reasonably comprehensive, nuanced, firm in judgment, yet not immediately rejected by two thirds of the political nation? While the current plan envisages four volumes, they hope to do an abridged, popular version. Can they write a book that ordinary South Africans will actually read? The model cited is the best-selling Nunca Más report of the commission on the disappeared in Argentina, but Nunca Más addressed one specific, well-defined set of abuses, albeit in a wider context. Here the TRC has to give “as complete a picture as possible” of a fiendishly complex landscape of horrors over thirty-three years. It will require the combined genius of a Namier, an Orwell, and a Delacroix to paint it.

Nor will that be the end of the story. Before the “closure” hopefully evoked in the Athlone schoolchild’s poem there will remain the awkward question of whether or not to put on trial some of those who did not apply for amnesty, but whose misdeeds the commission has subsequently uncovered (although the amnesty applications are not themselves admissible evidence in a court of law). And there is the matter of reparations. A member of the reparations committee told me they are currently thinking of recommending substantial financial compensation, perhaps as much as 50,000 Rand (about $11,000) per head—a fortune to a township dweller—for perhaps as many as 20,000 certified victims. That makes one billion Rand (about $222 million).

Who will pay? Who should pay? While the commission concentrates on victims and perpetrators, the number of beneficiaries of apartheid is much larger. “Of course we benefitted from apartheid,” says a courageous, liberal white publisher, “even though we were passionately against it.” In fact, every white South African benefitted from it. This is why the ANC, in proposing a Reparations Tax, invoked the ancient Doctrine of Odious Debt. If I were a member of the white business community, I would be preparing my substantial voluntary contribution now.

As for the most ambitious long-term goals—healing, national unity, prevention of future abuses—these will depend on so much else, on the larger political, social, and economic future of South Africa that I hope to address in a further article.

What the commission is achieving, meanwhile, is a significant gain in knowledge and an even more significant gain in acknowledgment. The distinction between knowledge and acknowledgment is an important one, by now familiar in the growing literature on what might be called “comparative past-beating.”5

The knowledge gained is not, of course, anything like the whole Truth with a capital T. It is rather a body of evidence and confirmed detail about the structure and implementation of repression, the sometimes brutal habits of the resistance to it, and the complex accompanying violence, some of which continues today under slightly different colors. If we ask, “Will the commission’s findings transform the story told in the history books?” the answer is “Probably not.” Journalists on the anti-apartheid Weekly Mail and Guardian wearily remark that they have been reporting for years the stories now being explored by the commission. On the plane back from Cape Town to London I re-read Leonard Thompson’s excellent recent history of South Africa6 and thought to myself: most of what the commission has found is already outlined there. But the detailed findings will fill in many blank spaces and change the contemporary historian’s tentative “it seems that” to a firm “we now know.”

At least as important is the gain in acknowledgment, and this of two kinds. First, there is acknowledgment to the victims. They learn how and why they or their close relatives suffered. This suffering is given a larger meaning in the history of what many people in South Africa call, without any irony, “the Struggle.” What is more, they have a chance to place their own story, their personal history, on the official record. This is oral history on a grand scale. As one scholar has suggested, those who testify are exercising their “right to information” in a novel sense: not just the right to learn information previously kept secret by the state, or its servants, but also the right to inform the state, and a wider public, of your version of events and your interpretation of them.7 The victims may or may not be given symbolic or material reparation as a result. It may or may not help them to be spoon-fed categories like “trauma” in which to define their experience, as Amos Dyanti had clearly been spoon-fed. But this acknowledgment has a value in itself.

Second, there is acknowledgment by those responsible for gross violations of human rights and by their superiors. Fifty historians could write accurate, closely documented accounts of the repression, the atrocities, the third force, and still ordinary white South Africans could deny it. But when their former president is reported in every newspaper and seen on national television saying that he apologizes and repents; that it was terrible; that, even if he did not know about many of the worst atrocities at the time, he is shocked by them now—then it becomes much more difficult to deny. And the fact that this acknowledgment is itself qualified by a denial, that their leader is still visibly struggling to face up to the full measure of his responsibility: this makes it not less but more effective.

The term “Truth Commission” has, as one commissioner remarked to me, a slightly Orwellian ring. In fact, he said, that is one reason they added “and Reconciliation.” When the next such commission is created, somewhere else in the world, after some dictatorship, civil war, or other horrors—and there will be cause again soon enough—its founders may try to learn something from the South African experience, as the South Africans themselves tried to learn from those who had gone before. The catchy, shorthand description “truth commission” is doubtless here to stay. But perhaps in their formal self-description they might call it a Commission for Knowledge and Acknowledgment. That, it seems to me, is what such commissions can realistically hope to achieve.

June 19, 1997

This Issue

July 17, 1997