True Confessions


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…

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