WE WERE STANDING ON HOLY GROUND
THE SOUTH AFRICAN TRUTH AND RECONCILIATION COMMISSION AS FORUM OF RECONCILIATION

 
discussion paper
©1999, Stéphane Leman-Langlois
Reconciling the Painful Past Symposium, February 1999
 

1: Introduction

The concept of reconciliation within the TRC and South Africa at large is at the same time crucial and completely amorphous. Sometimes in the TRC's work reconciliation is not only an essential objective, but is routinely presented as a non-problematic, recognizable reality. Other times, the concept is not only undefined, but actually presented as undefinable. In this paper I want to explore the ways in which such an important symbol takes a place within the TRC project/discourse, transforms the logic, but with no apparent effect or direct link to the corresponding practices. In plain language, how is it possible to claim that you are doing something, satisfy people that you are really doing it, all without actually doing it, by your own measure.

The idea that identifying "true" reconciliation is a matter of finding the proper operational definition is one that sustains most of the discussion on reconciliation in the TRC Report. It is a rather typical search for real concepts that the TRC has also conducted on "truth," for instance. Its research department has come up with four concepts of truth: 1) "factual," or "forensic truth;" 2) "personal, narrative truth" (the truth as one sees it); 3) "healing, restorative truth" (acknowledgement). The last one is "social truth" and said to be the main goal for the Commission. It is also the one which, as we will see, is the most problematic in our topic of reconciliation. "Social truth" is a set of historical elements agreed on by people after discussion and negotiation, the building of a common history, or a "publicly sanctioned history" as one commissioner put it. The Report says the TRC provided "an environment in which all possible views could be considered and weighed, one against the other" (1, 5: par. 41).

"Reconciliation" was given the same treatment, but the result is different. According to the Report, there are also four kinds of reconciliation: 1) "coming to terms with the painful truth;" 2) "between victims and perpetrators;" 3) "at the community level;" 4) "national reconciliation." Right off, one can see that these are levels of reconciliation, not definitions: personal, inter-personal, community, nation. The second thing that can be seen is how close those aspects are to the definitions of "truth."

In this talk I want to show that since 1) the TRC has no explicit, dedicated mechanism for reconciliation; 2) there is no connection between the technical requirements of the amnesty process and the stated elements of reconciliation and 3) the TRC does not provide a clear definition of the reconciliation it is to further, the result is that reconciliation is in the end an ethereal, mystical, ghostly concept that lies outside the TRC's capacity, turning it into a justificatory goal that cannot be evaluated.

Organization of the TRC
Before going further I think I must clarify the basics about the TRC, the way that politicians thought they could achieve reconciliation and find truth. The TRC is split into three independent sub-committees, the Reparations and Rehabilitation Committee (RRC), in charge of devising ways to repair the damage done to victims of gross human rights violations, meant to counterbalance the granting of amnesty and civil indemnity to wrongdoers. Second, the Amnesty Committee (AC), best known for its controversial nature, is charged with the task of deciding who should be granted amnesty for crimes committed in the apartheid era. It judges applications on the basis of 1) whether full disclosure has been made, including the names of accomplices, the details of the offence, the reasons why it was committed; 2) if the acts were perpetrated in furtherance of a political goal, whether pro or anti-apartheid; 3) whether the acts were proportional to those goals. Third and last, the Human Rights Committee (HRC), chaired by the Chairperson of the TRC, Archbishop Tutu, has collected the testimonies of over 21 000 victims of gross human rights violations and held "special hearings" to gather information on the circumstances that led to crimes in the past.

The analysis in this paper is based on transcripts of the case hearings and video. Additional documentary evidence was gathered at the South African Library, the TRC, political parties, the media, and publications of various sources. This data include Parliament and Senate debates; oral and written submissions made to the Standing Committee on Justice, which held hearings on the proposed TRC bill in early 1995; the decisions of the three TRC committees, along with transcripts of hearings or notes taken during hearings; finally of course the Interim Report and the final Report of the Commission. It also rests on a number of interviews conducted with politicians, jurists, TRC staff and commissioners, NGO staff, journalists and academics.

 

2. Truth and reconciliation

Immediately, the title of the commission presents what can be assumed to be two important elements of its work, a mission statement of sorts. I mention this not to introduce some semantic analysis of the TRC or its founding act, but to point out that at the outset the TRC was to be named, simply, the "Truth Commission," with no mention of reconciliation. It was during the political process of creating the law that the word "reconciliation" was added.

However, the TRC has, right from the start, taken this title not simply as a political marketing ploy, but as an integral part of its mission. But the problems start right here. At the beginning of the Report, the writers (the TRC's Research Department) assure us that "the overarching task assigned to the Commission by Parliament was the promotion of national unity and reconciliation" (1, 5: par. 10). Then, in the closing chapter, we are also told that "with its short lifespan and limited mandate and resources, it was obviously impossible for the Commission to reconcile the nation" (5, 9: par. 2). Considering the levels of reconciliation above, one can see how these two statements are not necessarily contradictory in the TRC framework. Reconciliation can be both the mission of the TRC, and obviously impossible. But for now, note that reconciliation of the nation, in this last quote, is still stated as an objective state of affairs that could be produced with adequate resources.

Simply by looking at the title, we can immediately see that truth can be either a specific goal of the Commission or a parameter of its operation. The TRC itself has solved the problem by ignoring the question: its motto is "truth: the road to reconciliation." This means that truth is a prerequisite to reconciliation, but the relationship between the two remains unclear. Early on, many adversaries could have summed up their opposition to a truth commission with the motto, "to forget, the road to reconciliation" and in fact this case was made repeatedly by members of the National Party and the Inkhata Freedom Party that truth is in fact the road to revenge; in all logic, it is certainly an equally important prerequisite to it.

If reconciliation is a parameter of operation for the TRC, then one could easily argue that truth-gathering could endanger it if it crossed some theoretical/imaginary limits. These limits of course remain entirely dependent on the speaker's attitude towards the TRC and her or his understanding of South African history, of human nature, etc. In fact, many have suggested that reconciliation has already occurred in South Africa, from the moment the parties to the conflict decided to sit at a negotiation table that was 1991 with the first CODESA meeting (Convention for a Democratic South Africa). In this case the TRC's mission should be to respect it by avoiding accusations.

If reconciliation is made into a goal of the TRC, which seems to be the dominant position, then one would expect it to become a measurement of its success as well. That of course is impractical, for many reasons that fall into two categories: 1) reconciliation is also said to be dependent on things that lay outside of the TRC's mandate and powers, for instance the process of land redistribution, employment equity, etc. 2) the fact that reconciliation remains undefined.

For instance, a recent survey showed that 82% of South Africans are convinced that the TRC has worsened race relations in South Africa (SAPA, 27.08.98). But such surveys in fact are near meaningless, precisely because no-one has properly defined reconciliation or its connexion to "race relations." Are better "race relations" or "reconciliation" something each respondent feels, thinks others must or probably feel, feel towards whom, what is that feeling, etc., etc. The goal of this paper is not to try to elucidate this question. My point of departure is that answers to each of these questions are inherently subjective and in all probability defy generalization. Rather, I want to explore the ways in which this subjective experience or evaluation is elevated to the status of objective reality, and what cultural, political, social uses it can serve. In this particular case, as we will see, it serves to redefine the elements of the institutional process and to deflect or disable evaluations of its success. In that sense, when he commented on this survey, Chairperson Tutu said: "real reconciliation involves exposing falsehoods and confronting people with the truth. That is a divisive thing the truth hurts" (SAPA, 27.08.98). Truth, the divisive road to reconciliation.
 

3. The case of the confused Englishman

The case I will analyse here is not representative in the sense of being the average case. Rather, it is illustrative of how the amnesty hearing, the only venue where perpetrators and victims appear together, is not entirely compatible with the political demands made on and accepted by the TRC in regards to reconciliation. To do this, I will look at three ways in which reality clashes with the enthusiastic language of national unity. The other advantage of this particular example is that it is a famous case in South Africa and has generated copious amounts of reflection. It is also a case that shows how in fact individual, inter-personal, group and national reconciliation are not as separate as they appear to be.

One question arises right away: how can he do that without a definition of reconciliation himself? I think this will be clear in what follows. In short, it is not the true meaning of reconciliation that I'm after, but the discursive use of the word. My theoretical question is, how does this concept fit in the general discourse of the TRC, and more broadly, is reconciliation a new figuration of criminal justice?

Clive Derby-Lewis was a founding member of the ultra-right Conservative Party. This political formation was virulently opposed to majority rule and opposed the new constitution and the elections. During the transitional negotiations, he convinced a recent Polish immigrant named Janusz Walus to assassinate popular Communist Party leader Chris Hani. Walus says he wanted to avoid the establishment of Polish-style communism in South Africa. Hani was on a "hit list" of important people promoting majority rule in South Africa drawn by Derby-Lewis and his wife (they both deny her participation though), and his rationale was that killing one or some of them might derail the transition process, cause chaos and open a window of opportunity for the right wing to seize control of the country. In fact, it nearly did. In April 1993 Walus followed Hani back to his home from the supermarket and shot him four times with a silenced pistol furnished by Derby-Lewis. He was caught a few hours later. The murder triggered widespread demonstrations and threatened to suspend the political negotiations.

i. Forgiving politics
The Amnesty Committee does not require that the applicant feel shame, remorse, or even recognize that his or her actions were wrong in any way. In the case of Derby-Lewis, it goes a bit further: he says, "I do not expect the Hani family to forgive me but to understand there was nothing personal in the attack. If anything, it is an indication of the importance of the man... If he'd been an ordinary member of the SACP he would still be alive today." Derby-Lewis in fact does not want forgiveness; forgiveness would imply that a wrong was done, when in fact the murder, besides being high praise for the important status Hani had achieved in South African politics, constituted an attempt to save the country from communism. Now, one can easily overanalyse a passage like this one, and we cannot ignore the multiple factors at play behind it. But as I mentioned before, my aim here is not to try to "get into the head" of individuals, but to identify problems in the discourse and the solutions used to patch them up. The first of such problems is contained in the statement above: it is obvious that at a certain level, asking for forgiveness is the opposite of showing a political motive. For Derby-Lewis, a political motive is something someone is proud of, and shouldn't have to justify, or certainly feel ashamed of. Towards the end of his cross examination the question was touched again:

CHAIRPERSON: Well, Mr Bizos, the Act does not require an applicant to apologise for what he did. He is required to make a full disclosure of what he did.

MR BIZOS [representing the Hani family]: I am not unmindful. The question was not for these purposes, but in order to test his sincerity on the supposed apologies to Mrs Hani, Mr Chairman. It is not only, I am not asking as a question of law. I am asking as to whether this person that is before you has ever expressed regret for killing a person who could have made a valuable contribution to the political life of this country or not.

MR DERBY-LEWIS: Mr Chairman, no. How can I ever apologise for an act of war. War is war. I have not heard the ANC apologising, the perpetrators of these deeds for apologising for killing people in pubs and blowing them up in Wimpy Bars [fast food restaurants]. I have heard no apologies for that, Mr Chairman. Those people are just as important as Mr Hani was (transcript, Pretoria 2, day 7).

Reconciliation without forgiveness, under this vision, is reminiscing about how terrible the "war" was in fact, how terrible war is in effect, evacuating the victim's version of events for the benefit of a generic, sterilized "war," which is completely contrary to the rest of the TRC discourse about victims.

ii. Forgiving mistaken beliefs.
One way out of this problem would be to accept that while held in good faith at the time, one's beliefs and the resulting political motivation were mistaken, not well thought-out or were missing key intellectual or logical elements. This would allow both rejection of the actions and "justified" political motivation at the same time. But Derby-Lewis says: "As a Christian, my first duty is to the Almighty God before everything else. We were fighting against communism and communism is the vehicle of the Antichrist." Also, the Hani family representatives had to make sure Derby-Lewis was not taking the open door:

MR BIZOS: Does it follow that you do not accept a united South Africa with a common citizenship if you are a believer in separate development?

MR DERBY-LEWIS: Mr Chairman, I do not believe that a united South Africa is the solution for what is a problem which was resolved elsewhere in the world through separate development (Ibid).

In addition, Derby-Lewis refers to himself as a "racialist" instead of "racist." According to him the distinction is that while the typical racist is a person who hates other races, a racialist is one who "loves his own people."

Now in the New South Africa both the "fighting communism" and the racism or racialism are considered mistaken in the sense that they are rejected by the current political dispensation, but it is accepted that they did exist before. The TRC and the government fully accept the idea that wrong beliefs were held at the time, and that in some way transforms criminal responsibility into something different. The TRC final Report mentions right at the beginning that "there are those who sincerely believed differently and those too, who were blinded by their fear of a communist "total onslaught" (1, 4: par. 1). What it doesn't mention is what to do with those who still believe that. The idea that Derby-Lewis was confused, that he did not understand the objectives of the ANC and the liberation movement, and thought that Chris Hani was an envoy of the Antichrist, doesn't work either. Not only does he refuse the possibility that they were mistaken at the time, he still holds and promotes those beliefs today. This raises the possibility that, were he granted amnesty, he could rejoin the Conservative Party and start his "struggle" again. In fact he says that the reason he would not go to war against the government is that he is old and has already wasted too much time in prison. Ironically, his political ideas, and his ties to the party, are exactly the main requisites for his amnesty application according to the founding act. The stronger the political motivation, the farther the reconciliation.

iii. Forgiveness as social necessity.
The last conception of forgiveness and reconciliation I will explore is that of political reconciliation. The TRC itself often directs criticisms of its work to the fact that the law it operates under is the result of political negotiations. This compromise is said to have been the prerequisite to the current democratic dispensation, and the avoidance of a civil war. This is disputable, but I want to explore it a bit more at face value.

Compromise, negotiation, both imply that a consensus on some basic facts and ideas about the situation of those at the table; for the TRC this translate into the assumption that if one digs deep enough a common thread of history will be found, that individual nightmares are all the same. Figure 2 shows one of a series of posters hung on the walls at TRC functions. Expressions such as "our nightmares" and "our children," as well as the idea that "our stories" are "the truth," clearly call to a sense of community that is, like the consensus on ideas and facts, utterly absent in this application, as in many others. Of course, re-conciliation also implies that this consensus existed before, was broken, and needs to be restored, which is obviously not the case. An entirely new mode of relation is necessary.

On the other hand, as Chairperson Tutu said in an HRC hearing,

it is a democracy we are trying to build and many of us are believers, and believers say that it is possible for all kinds of people, all of us, to change and be different. That is why we are talking about reconciliation. You don't get reconciled with someone you agree with. You get reconciled with someone with whom you disagree. [...] We would not have a Commission if there was reconciliation already (Report, 5, 9: par. 112).

There is much to analyse in this quote note, again, the idea that the TRC is there to effect reconciliation, but that it is reconciliation with those whom the government has decided you should reconcile. Second, we are back to the problem of the relation of truth to reconciliation. The implication is that truth will create consensus, agreement, and so reconciliation; that "non-reconciliation" stems from ignorance. I want to conclude on this.

 

Conclusion: standing on holy ground

Remember the four levels of reconciliation? Let us take them one by one. First, personal reconciliation, "accepting the painful truth." Obviously the TRC can help with that, if it can produce the painful truth. Acceptation, however, cannot be artificially effected. Second and third, interpersonal and group reconciliation: in the words of the Report, "although it was not part of the Commission's mandate to effect reconciliation between victims, communities and perpetrators, there were a number of significant instances where the Commission directly facilitated the beginning of this complex process" (5, 9: par. 62). Fourth, we have seen the TRC admitting that national reconciliation was beyond its reach. So what is that reconciliation the TRC is supposed to produce, or directly facilitate?

Let me refer to my title, which must be quite puzzling at this point. It comes from a quote of Chairperson Tutu, commenting on the very HRC hearing the quote about disagreement and reconciliation is taken from:

when that white army officer asked for forgiveness they did not rush to strangle or assault him. Unbelievably they applauded. Yes, this is a crazy country. I said at that point, let us keep silent because we were in the presence of something special, something holy. Many times I have felt we should take our shoes off because we were standing on holy ground (Archbishop Press Club Speech, 29.10.97).

My contention is that "reconciliation" exists in the TRC in two distinct forms. The first one, the technical, legal reconciliation, as we have seen mostly lies outside the capabilities of the TRC, as it itself admits. In other words, it makes measuring the success of the TRC at reconciliation impossible, or rather, inappropriate since outside of the TRC mandate from the start.

Paradoxically, reconciliation in its second form lies at the heart of the TRC, it is one of its main justifications, in the hortatory language used to promote it and encourage all to come forward and participate. This second form is the undefined, unnamed, largely religious reconciliation (but also "medical/therapeutic" for the secular) that occurs supernaturally when one stands on holy ground. What is hoped here is that the very setting of the Commission will produce reconciliation, by virtue of it being possible, and deserved by the "rainbow children of God." It is the unspoken hope that the Derby-Lewises will suddenly rise from their seats, a tear in their eye, crying "how could I have been so wrong!" Unspoken in the sense that no-one is making a case for it, but all the "stories of reconciliation" quoted in the Report involve such events.

In this sense the TRC project is the twin of the New South Africa's national project, stuck between the imperatives of politics and the dictates of reality. It is the "restoration" of an idealized human condition in which enemies recognize their wrongs and come together in brotherly and sisterly love. After all, by putting both truth and reconciliation in the same system you can make it appear as if both can happen right away, with a simple confession.

Paradoxically, the place where the TRC does the least for reconciliation is the confrontational, adversarial amnesty hearing. Paradoxically, because as we have seen, that is the only place where both come together. But more importantly, that is where reconciliation would be most concrete, most measurable. But of course, it is also where, in the end, it matters least: if victims and perpetrators die of old age never reconciled, the country at large won't suffer a bit more.