THE TRUTH AND RECONCILIATION COMMISSION: UTOPIAS AND UNSPOKEN HOPES

discussion paper #1


1. This week Clive Derby-Lewis, once high-ranking member of the Conservative Party and now convicted murderer, testified before of the Truth Commission in an effort to be granted amnesty and be released from detention. In the same afternoon of testimony he tried to convince the Commission that he was telling the truth—because he says it would be illogical to lie and therefore be denied amnesty, and that he was sorry for his actions—by calling on his victim's widow, Mrs. Chris Hani, for a private meeting in which he would express his sincere condolences.

Now if one were to ignore the fact that a good lie would probably improve his chances of getting released, there is in these two statements a basic contradiction that in a way illustrates rather well one of the dilemmas of the Commission. A few days later, Mr. Derby-Lewis assured the Commission that what he did was not only on behalf of the CP (a condition of amnesty), but actually mandated by his religious beliefs regarding how one is to act when faced with no less than the antechrist (as we will see later, it has been an justification for a long time that the deed was not committed for personal gain, and the TRC agrees). For him, the only "shocking" thing about Chris Hani's death is how quickly it came after he ordered it, taking him by surprise. The dilemma is this: what if Mr. Derby-Lewis is "telling the truth" about his motives, and given their nature, is fundamentally opposed to reconciliation and unrepentant?

"Unrepentant" is of course the perfect word, in this atmosphere of flimsily secularized Judeo-Christian logic. Of course repentance, remorse or contrition are not required of amnesty applicants, and in my opinion that is fine; how would one go about measuring someone's remorse? Are better actors or more extraverted wrongdoers more excusable? But read this passage written by Chairperson Tutu in the TRC's newsletter, "Truth Talk":
When you come forward to confess you are guilty, you will lighten the burden of us all. After all, it is better to live in a country which is stable and peaceful that in one which is torn apart by strife because people are angry and wanting revenge.

Here confessions, or telling the truth, lead to peace and stability; they are not simply useful for the historical record: once the truth is told people will lose interest in revenge. Assuming that peace and stability are justifiable goals for everyone, then the TRC has taken upon itself the responsibility of the future success of South African society, which is indeed a very heavy one. At the same time, there are those Derby-Lewises everywhere who are interested in telling the truth only insofar as it may earn them a pardon and indemnity from civil action. They will remain convinced, or worse, publicly maintain that they were fighting against the forces of evil, communism or what have you. There certainly will not be any effort towards reconciliation coming from their side, and this then leaves, as usual, most of the work for the victims. It is difficult to say, then, whether truth leads to reconciliation, or if maybe it should not be the opposite (which would make the pessimist, given the situation, call both impossible in the short and medium term—more on this later).

These are the two first unspoken—or at least rarely stated—hopes about the TRC. First, that wrongdoers will turn around with a heartfelt "gosh, how could I have been so wrong?"; second, that victims and perpetrators, the actual ones as well as those who have lived violent apartheid only by proxy, will fall in each other's arms in a tearful forgiving embrace (maybe physically, but at least in thought). This is only a caricature because it sounds so impossible or naive (unaware of having a microphone trained on her, Mrs Hani once angrily referred to Derby-Lewis during his hearing as a "sick motherfucker"). However, I suggest that this is the image of reconciliation that is projected by the TRC, at least in an ideal form. The hearing rooms the Commission makes use of across the country are invariably decorated by of course the TRC's logo of the floating/flying stylized human forms ("the truth will make you free") but, more interestingly, the much bigger banner stating: "Truth: the Road to Reconciliation" is always present to tell everyone why they are there. It also implies that the TRC is the only hope for peace. This is undoubtedly meant to include in the process not only the victims and the perpetrators, but also in a more diffuse way the much more numerous disenfranchised and beneficiaries of apartheid. While true or even approximate reconciliation might take a few generations—and if the U.S. experience is any indication, quite bit longer than that—the truth can be told right now. In fact in the reverse way, time works against truth most of the time. By equating truth with reconciliation, they both seem to be working in the present, for the current generation.

I do not mean that knowing the truth makes reconciliation difficult because of the appalling nature of the events and general situation; at that level, it can also be said that in an atmosphere of distrust, secrecy and suspicion there can be no real reconciliation or forgiveness. That happens to be the main argument offered by the TRC itself. What I mean is that since apartheid's dispossessed will remain so for years and years, and that the privileged will hold on to the fruits of the past racial divide, reconciliation cannot depend on the appearance of a suddenly egalitarian society—and the TRC is careful to avoid characterizing its work in that way. The class/economic divisions that have survived apartheid's demise practically insure the perpetuation of each group's inherited social position. This is in part why the TRC limits itself to the actions of those who brutally enforced the arbitrary division, ignoring the division itself or its engineers. When the NP appeared before the Commission, both chairperson Tutu and deputy chairperson Boraine chastised ex-president De Klerk for not being candid about the implication of his party or his personal responsibility in human rights violations (for which De Klerk and the NP are suing the TRC as being partial), but certainly not for having created and maintained the broad policies of apartheid that were at the root of the violence—and not only for having been that, but simply because they were fundamentally wrong in themselves regardless of their implementation or consequences. Arguably some in the party can escape the accusation because they were actively responsible for eventually discarding the policies, however late in their careers. But others could be in a different position.

So in the end the truth is the truth about a section of apartheid; about the most visible, bleeding wound, the one documentary films were made about; but all the internal cancers remain, to stay with the medical metaphors (which are quite well liked in the process of "nation healing"). If you live on the Cape Flats today, chances are you will still be there in twenty years time. But instead of being kept there by clubs and teargas, now financial institutions have taken the baton, so to speak, and they are just as efficient in making sure you stay put. For example, in keeping with tradition, in the Kranspoort area a white farmer is trying to remove an entire village from land he bought from the Dutch Reformed Church (an other well known player of the old days; see Mail & Guardian, 22/08/97: 5).

So in this way the TRC's mission is right on target: it truly is in fact the victims and perpetrators of gross human rights abuses who are most likely to be reconciled, who have between them actions that are so clear and concrete that, quite bluntly, they can either reconcile or simply die of old age not having done so. Everyone else, and generations to come will have to live with the more diffuse—and arguably more damaging—aspects of apartheid, the ones that no one can forgive because it would almost seem like forgiving an earthquake for destroying one's house. Both are imprecise forces that seem to have little to do with specific human individuals, and the TRC only reinforces that impression.
To finish with Derby-Lewis, one last thought: we have seen that he is not particularly impressed with reconciliation or forgiveness (unless related to his prison sentence). Of course asking for forgiveness may very well be asking for the moon in this case. But the point is in the asking; whether forgiveness be forthcoming or not, it would be less inappropriately heroic than the repeated justification that all is permitted during "armed struggle" (which is untrue, anyway).

2. But what kind of reconciliation would this be? Of course if one were to define reconciliation as the acceptance that nothing can be done, things start falling nicely into place. Otherwise there is no real reconciliation without pardon, and as Hannah Arendt said, no real pardon in the absence of an alternative: one forgives when one decides to do so, not because that is the only available course of action; otherwise any talk of forgiveness and reconciliation is meaningless. The TRC may refuse an amnesty bid, of course, but not in that framework; it can refuse when certain specific conditions are not met, but if they are, amnesty must be granted because the forgiveness it represents is one institutionalized by the state. The problem here is not that the Commission lacks arbitrary power; it does function in a universalized justice frame of reference, and like cases must be treated alike. The problem is one of "fit" between the functional model and the abstract objectives of forgiveness and reconciliation. Forgiving someone in everyday life means to refrain from or stop blaming them for what they have done. It means one has the capacity for that attitude but refuses to adopt it. With the TRC, forgiving means that, of course, in the best cases, but it cannot differentiate between these cases and others where forgiving is more like a reward given for good behavior i.e. telling the truth.

Here we must go back to what we have said earlier about the truth being told to the Commission: what if the story is appalling? But more importantly, what if it is exclusively justificatory, like Derby-Lewis's coarse, vulgar and anachronistic religious diatribe? Some members of the TRC, rightly or not, fear that some of the amnesty applicants might "continue the struggle" if released. Those that can best justify what they have done immediately appear as the most likely to still think it was, and continues to be right. This is yet a new paradox of the Commission: by insisting that the crimes one is to be pardoned for must have been politically motivated, and now must even have been committed on behalf of a political group, they are more likely to grant amnesty to those who are least contrite, most justificatory in their exposé of their actions and most likely to still benefit from a network of like-minded individuals. The contrast between general and individual reconciliation is clear: arguably, releasing "politically motivated" but unrepentant criminals may well promote national reconciliation, understood as the betterment of the relations between apartheid-defined groups (mostly black-white); but individually, those released are the ones least likely to want to reconcile, most likely to still think they were right, and most likely to try again.