Revealing is Healing
Her mother, Ruth First, was assassinated by a parcel bomb sent by the South African security forces. Her father, Joe Slovo, helped create the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. And the commission let her mothers assassin go free. Gillian Slovo confronts the contradictions.
Political violence, third force murders, slaughter on the trains: all these were everyday occurrences in the four years between 1990 (the release of Nelson Mandela and the unbanning of the African National Congress) and 1994 (South Africa's first democratic election).
More people were killed in political violence in those four years, than in the previous thirty. It looked as if the country might be destroyed. With fears of a right-wing revolt, possibly backed by the might of the South African army, what was at stake was whether the new South Africa would ever be born.
My father was part of the ANC team negotiating with the apartheid regime. Month after month, he sat with his fellows on the outskirts of Pretoria in Kempton Park, trying to carve out a deal that would bring peace. In doing this, my father and his comrades had to wrestle with something unexpected.
While right was on their side, might still rested firmly in the hands of their former enemies. The ANC could not impose its peace: it would only ever come about if they managed to persuade the ruling National Party (NP) to give up the reins of power voluntarily.
The sticking point was clear. The apartheid government said, yes, we know that the end has come. We are prepared to have one person, one vote elections and to give up our absolute power.
But only if you guarantee that our politicians, our policemen and our army officers will never be put on trial.
Without the means of wresting power from the government, the ANC had to agree to this, and as a result the idea of the TRC was born. The NP wanted a blanket amnesty, with a list of their people to be given immunity from any future prosecution without question. The ANC refused this. The final compromise was that amnesty would be granted only to individuals, and only after individual application.
This was the nature of South Africa's agreement: the transfer of power without a previous settling of historic rights and wrongs. Out of a need to end bloodshed and to find a way forward, came political transformation of power without social transformation. As my father used to say, the day after the first democratic election (and thus after the inevitable change of government) South Africa would still be the same country it had been the day before.
Part of the longing for justice that had always fuelled the liberation movement had to be given up for it to achieve success. And yet, within the agreement to do this lay the seeds of another idea: that a political compromise could nevertheless be turned into a project for peace, truth and its own special form of justice. Alongside the amnesty provision, the ANC insisted on two more: that the TRC must organise hearings that would allow people to speak of what had been done to them, and that it would also help settle the issue of reparation for past wrongs. Here lay the paradoxical role of the TRC it was a commission set up to draw a line under the past, to expose the truth about past illegalities without throwing the weight of the law against them, and to offer compensation without revenge.
The ANC, now the architect of compromise, had been girding themselves to explain why they had given up the right of the South African people to justice. Before it came to that, however, they themselves were offered a different interpretation of their concessions. What they had done, it was suggested, was exchange retributive justice (or legal punishment) for restorative justice: a justice that would direct attention to the needs and participation of the victims and, in that way, help repair the damage done. My father put it this way: "The best revenge that I can think of for those men who murdered my wife, is that they be made to live in peace in a system that they had fought so brutally against."
There was a slogan that characterised the way the ANC dealt with pain and loss during the blood-filled 1980s: 'Don't Mourn, Mobilise'. It was a slogan born out of the political necessity to morally re-arm the people in the face of the onslaught launched by the apartheid state; but it was also a product of a political culture that was far more comfortable with global certainties than it was with personal pain. And now this same movement, the ANC, was opting to exchange its favoured slogan for one that seemed to encapsulate an almost diametrically opposing sentiment. The defiant rallying cry, 'Don't Mourn, Mobilise', was succeeded by a new slogan, 'Revealing is Healing', which was spread on banners and hung around the public halls that housed most of the victims' hearings of the TRC.
These hearings were shot through with accounts of what had happened to individuals and with lamentations of pain and suffering. People hadn't come to mobilise. They had come to tell their stories. They had come to mourn. To be heard. To put their truths on record.
There lies the irony that the wonder of the TRC and the thing for which it is best known, resides not in its original purpose to provide amnesties but in its by-product, the victims' hearings where ordinary people came to speak of what they had endured, almost like a massed and, at the same time, an individual singing of the blues. It was out of these, not the amnesty hearings, that the five-volume TRC report came (the addendum on the amnesty hearings is still pending) a report, which is at one and the same time a wondrous account of a mesmerising process, and a rewriting of a nation's history.
But what of that other aspect of the TRC the one that gave it birth the granting of amnesties?
Application for amnesty for gross human rights violations including murder and torture was voluntary.
The threat that hung over those who did not apply was that they might face future prosecution. By no means everyone who would have qualified for amnesty applied. In the main, on the ex-apartheid government's side, those who put in an application did so either because they were in prison and wanted to get out, or because they thought that somebody else might implicate them and open up the possibility that they might be charged, or and I would estimate that this applied to only a small minority of applicants because this is what they thought they ought to do.
Herein lies a further twist. In practice it was the henchmen rather than the politicians, the junior police rather than their commanders, who ended up jumping through the TRC amnesty hoops.
Although the TRC was set up to keep the politicians of old and their state employees from jails, most of them, including their leader, F.W. de Klerk, did not apply for amnesty. When some did give evidence at victims' hearings, the world was met by the sorry sight of ex-police chiefs and senior politicians using absurd semantic argument to insist that orders contained in words and phrases such as 'eliminate', 'neutralise', or 'remove permanently from society' did not, and had never meant, 'kill'.
This surely could not have been the message that the ANC wanted to give to the world that only those small fry, the ones who got caught, or whose friends got caught and subsequently betrayed them, would be made to answer for their actions? Of course it wasn't but this contradiction shows how an exercise borne out of political necessity turned out to be both more and less than it had promised.
What of those words then – Truth and Reconciliation – written into the Commission's name?
One of the requirements for amnesty was that applicants give full disclosure of their actions, i.e. that they tell the truth. I am in no doubt that some of the truth, perhaps in its most basic outline, was indeed told. Yet what was meant to be a fundamental requirement for anyone wishing to get amnesty from the TRC was full disclosure of the whole truth.
Behind this phrase, it seems to me, lies the dubious assumption that murderers and torturers can know the truth. And that, if they do, they will risk their sense of their own worth, their reputations and their contact with those they love, by telling it. I am reminded of one particular exchange between a torturer and his victim. "What kind of human being," the victim asked, "can you be, to have knowingly caused another human being so much pain?" The torturer's reply (in what must have been one of his most honest statements, untouched by fabrication or omission) was that he had asked himself that same question, that he'd gone to a psychologist to ask it too, because he didn't know the answer.
There, it seems, lies the whole truth: that the whole truth cannot be faced. And therefore it cannot be told.
As for reconciliation well, here is another area of contention: possibly the most fiercely contested and least understood.
It has often been said that the repentance of perpetrators was never a requirement of an amnesty. Neither was forgiveness a formal necessity. Instead, the argument ran like this: the reconciliation sought by the Commission was not one between named individuals, but rather an attempt to involve the whole of society in its task of coming to terms with a terrible past. Yet the fact that the TRC was born under the presidency of Nelson Mandela, who made forgiveness his byword, and that it was headed by Desmond Tutu, the head of a church that has confession, repentance and absolution at its core, means that forgiveness has always been the TRC's stalking horse.
One of the hearing's most distasteful features was the occasions when the victims were encouraged to forgive those who caused them such great pain. This was a political compromise being turned into a forced embrace of old enemies, in which it is always the victims, who have already given up their right to legal redress, who are asked to make the greatest sacrifice.
The TRC, its advocates would argue, is only one facet of this process. For no mere Commission, however miraculous, could possibly reverse the inequalities, injustices and atrocities committed by a relatively small group of people against a whole nation. Only a redress of these inequalities that provides social justice, they say, can ever really repair the past.
In this, they are of course right. But it is unfortunate that the issue of reparations for victims, another of the TRC's responsibilities, has to date been its most singular failure.
The TRC process, especially its victims' hearings, did undoubtedly bring a sense of relief, at least, to some of its participants: a kind of closure. People were given the chance to be heard in public. They spoke of the years they had borne their pain and their grief in isolation and silence, and of the need to let their country know what it was they and their loved ones had endured.
But what of those other South Africans the vast majority of the white community who, although they might not have been actively involved and even if many deny it, were witness to what happened, benefited from it, and who were, in that way, complicit? Did they also now take part in this grand project of reconciliation?
I am reminded of a moment in 1997 when I was in South Africa to talk about my family memoir. The ANC government was in its third year and the TRC in full voice. I encountered a large cross section of the white community, including readers, commentators and journalists.
What struck me most about those meetings was a feeling that was articulated most clearly by an Afrikaner journalist, a woman of roughly my age, who said: "I know it must have been hard for you to be your parents' daughter. I know that there are many costs to be paid by the child of heroes. But imagine how it feels to be me: to have to look at my parents, and to ask of them how could you? How could you have witnessed all this and said nothing. How could you have let it happen?"
Here is an indication of the extent of the TRC's success that it set itself the task of facing what had happened and, through the media (when they began the hearings were broadcast live on radio), tried to make sure that the people of South Africa listened. Not everybody did. There were those who told me of driving with the radio on, and of being so affected by what they heard that they had to stop their cars and vomit. But there were also those who turned off their radios, and their televisions, and spoke of other things.
And yet even for them, I do not doubt that the drip, drip of the TRC was powerful: the fact that Apartheid's thin veneer of civilisation was gradually being peeled away, could not be completely ignored.
History was made by the TRC not just that a nation participated in this exercise but also literally because one of the aims of the TRC was to re-write the history of South Africa so that future generations could never say, as some have managed to do about the holocaust: oh, no it didn't really happen.
But this project for the settling of a country's history became, simultaneously, a battle for history.
Many of the former state employees, ex-torturers and murderers who applied for amnesty were legally represented by a small group of highly-motivated lawyers. Their chosen role was to secure amnesties for their clients, and also to get on record a version of history that can be crudely summarised as: that what happened in South Africa was a war, that bad things unfortunately happen in wars, and that both sides were guilty.
No mention here of the vastly unequal motives; of the fact that their side's main objective was to keep in place a system of legal inequality and oppression while the ANC were fighting for justice. At the same time, ANC politicians, busy with the difficult task of trying to transform the country, had less energy to spend setting the record state. And so the moral victors of the South African struggle failed to fight this last battle with the same intensity as the vanquished.
Political compromise was bound up in the TRC and nowhere was it more evident than in the amnesty hearings. The panel of judges, separate from and independent of the Truth Commissioners, were supposed to be politically balanced. But when history is being contested, what is it that constitutes balance?
This question hit me most starkly when I sat in on the amnesty application by the men who had murdered my mother. Evidence was being heard as to what happened in a particular part of Angola in the mid 1980s when one of the amnesty judges interrupted to ask: "Remind me: at that time in Angola, what were we doing?" That 'we' ran through me like a shock wave because of course, at that time there was no 'we'.
There were two sides; the South African army busy bombing and invading Angola, and the Angolans along with the Cubans and the ANC, who were trying to defend their country. Yet this judge had shown himself to be still bound up in that old 'we'.
How did the TRC hearing in which I participated affect me? Personally, if anything, it increased my feelings of hatred. Beforehand, I felt what happened to my mother was purely political. But after observing Ruth's killers' amnesty application I came to see that it was also personal: that they were murderers and that they were motivated by personal hatred as all murderers are. But, although they didn't tell the truth, I did discover this truth. And I believe that the truth, however painful, needs to be faced for healing to begin. The reconciliation that I experienced was with what happened, not with the perpetrators.
This is the important thing about a TRC: it helps a whole society reconcile itself to its past, without ignoring or denying it.
Any nation emerging from dictatorship has to overcome such emotional not just political barriers. This is something countries such as Afghanistan and Iraq will have to face in the future, alongside all the problems caused by external intervention. The process will be a human one, not just a matter of economics or institution building. For civil peace if not justice to come about, the crimes and violence of the past have to be confronted.
I end with my father's point, that what happened in South Africa was a transformation in political office and political officers without a corresponding transformation in the balance of resources. This compromise was made possible as a result of the belief that peace and the end to political killings was more important than the purity of any victory. From this was born the TRC: a Commission that was passionately contradictory, mixing shortcomings with its own, not inconsiderable, triumphs.
This is an edited version of an article first published on the website www.openDemocracy.net
Pictures courtesy of Madelaine Georgette, Studio Georgette: www.studiogeorgette.com .