It was a day never to forget: 31st May 1994. Images of the newly elected president, Nelson Mandela, in Pretoria were flashed on television screens around the world. Millions, in six continents, saw jet fighters pass by, trailing the colours of the new South African flag.
We have been celebrating too soon, one observer commented in the days that followed. It is impossible simply to close the books, to forgive and forget. 'We have to face the past', Archbishop Desmond Tutu is fond of saying. 'Because if you don't face the past, it may return!'
One of the last decisions taken by the multi-party conference, prior to the elections that brought the new South Africa into being, was to establish a Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). This was not a unique experiment. Between 1974 and 1994 there have been 15 truth commissions in the world, among them - Bolivia, Chile, Argentina, San Salvador, Uganda, Chad, Ethiopia, Rwanda, Germany.
The TRC officially commenced its work on 1st February 1996, with three committees: the Human Rights Violation Committee, the Amnesty Committee, and the Reparation and Rehabilitation Committee. The TRC has a fourfold agenda:
To establish as complete a picture as possible of the past. The causes, nature and extent of suffering of human rights violations between 1960 and 1994 have to be established, taking into consideration the following: the circumstances, factors and context of the violations, the perspectives of the victims, as well as the perspectives and motives of the perpetrators.
To facilitate the granting of amnesty. After full disclosure of the relevant facts, and if the deed for which amnesty is required complies with the qualifications of the act (specifically the political nature of the act), amnesty may not be granted.
To establish and to make known the whereabouts of victims, restoring their human and civil dignity, by granting them the opportunity to relate their own accounts of the violations they suffered, and by recommending reparation measures in this respect.
To compile a report, as comprehensive as possible, on the activities and findings of the TRC, with recommendations of measures to prevent future violations of human rights in the country.
From the communal wisdom of previous truth commissions, one expert concluded, three prerequisites for a successful process exist. One: the nation should own the process. Two: the government of the day must have the political will to take the process to its final conclusion. Three: the process must stop! Numbers Two and Three have been taken care of. The South African government has not only promulgated the enabling act, and appointed the Commission, but budgeted for its expenses, and repeatedly affirmed its support for the work of the TRC. And as far as the end of the Commission goes - on 14th December 1997 the doors of the TRC will be closed; the final report must be finished in time for the President to hand to the South African nation, on 1st March 1998.
It is, however, about the first prerequisite that we need to reflect: the nation should own the process. Fortunately, in spite of criticisms - sometimes outright opposition - from many quarters, the South African nation is living up to expectations. The contribution from civil society, from the Christian churches as well as other faith communities, from NGOs, from academic institutions, has been enormous. Many of these institutions have been involved in human rights for decades, in trauma counselling and victim-offender mediation, and had a lot to teach the TRC. Three concerns, however, remain - if the nation truly has to take ownership of the truth and reconciliation process.
1. There is a real need to acknowledge and record the past.
'Why don't we just close the books and get on with life?', many ask. The answer is: 'Yes, the time has come when we should be able to put our past behind us. But you can only close a book once you have opened it properly'. The pain of the past, the history of what had happened to our anguished society, need to be acknowledged and recorded. On an individual level, the experiences of men, women and children - many of them half forgotten by history - need to be remembered. There are those who must be invited to speak, and those who must be challenged to listen.
'Africa is a place of story telling', Ellen Kutzwayo once wrote. 'We need more stories, never mind how painful the exercise might be. This is how we will learn to love one another. Stories help us to understand, to forgive and to see things through someone else's eyes.'
Can we handle the truth, are we ready for the harrowing disclosures made by the victims and the perpetrators? These have long since ceased to be academic questions. With the daily items in the papers, the nightly reports on television, we have learnt how fragile our society is. At the inauguration of the TRC, President Mandela said: 'Looking at the guilt and suffering of the past, one cannot but conclude: in a sense all of us are victims of apartheid, all of us are victims of our past.' If the process to uncover the truth is insensitively handled, the nation may bleed to death. But treated with sensitivity, the process may pave the way for a national catharsis, for a future of peace and harmony in the country.
The truth, as far as is humanly possible, must come out. The victims need it. It is the first step towards reparation and rehabilitation. One of the commissioners of the Chilean truth commission commented on his experience in Latin America. We owe the truth to the victims and their families, he emphasised, 'the truth is at least as important as justice'.
Speaking the truth is one thing, acknowledging it quite another. Many South Africans, who in the past sided with the previous regime, mostly English and Afrikaans speaking whites, are thrown into a deep existential crisis by the TRC revelations. Many react like people who have to undergo a deep traumatic experience - terminal illness, the death of a spouse or a child, the break-up of a marriage, moving from one stage to the other: from outright denial, to anger, to a position of bargaining, to a deep depression, to eventual acceptance and peace. It is at this stage that a person's faith, and the support given to him or her by the churches, become of utmost importance, guiding people along the way, helping them to deal with their anxieties and fears, to the point where they experience that the truth eventually does set us free.
2. There is a real need for forgiveness and reconciliation.
Uncovering the past, learning about the different contexts within which people operated, trying to understand the motives of all the role players, provide for only one leg of the TRC. The other is that of reconciliation. For in the long run, after the walls of history have been brought down, we need to face one another: perpetrator and victim, white and black, young and old.
Forgiveness and reconciliation can never be obtained in a cheap and superficial way. True, there are the cynics (realists, they would call themselves!) who warn against high expectations, who contend that if you can teach people just to tolerate one another, you have to be content.
Others do have high hopes. The majority of South Africans profess to be Christians, confessing that we are able to forgive, reconcile and accept one another as Christ has accepted us. Drawing from the deepest sources of their beliefs, members of other faith communities, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, in a similar way encourage their fellow believers to reach out and work for reconciliation.
During the last months of the TRC's life, close attention will be given to the process of reconciliation. Workshops will be held countrywide where all the stakeholders will have to help us think through the process. Many questions need answers: What exactly do we mean by reconciliation? Who will carry the flame once the TRC's life comes to an end?
We all recognise that it will be a costly and time consuming process. Microwave reconciliation does not last. Sometimes, however, heaven smiled on us, so that even in the hectic programme of the TRC, heart-warming instances of reconciliation did occur. 'It never ceases to astonish me', Archbishop Tutu often says, 'the magnanimity of many victims who suffered the most heinous of violations, who reach out to embrace their tormentors with joy, willing to forgive and wanting to reconcile.'
3. There is a real need to create a new moral order in South Africa.
How do we learn the lessons of the past? How do we build a new South Africa, without repeating the errors of the society we come from? The TRC is tasked by the Act to provide, to the best of its ability, answers to these questions. This, it can never attempt on its own. Realising the fond dream of 'a rainbow nation', will take all the will power, all the wisdom, all the effort, of every single member of society. South Africa has recently adopted its new Constitution, founded on the highest principles of human dignity and human rights. But what is on paper needs to be put into practise.
As we step out of the wreckage of the past, South Africa is still in many respects a spiritual wasteland, a reality painfully expressed by the appalling crime rate, the breakdown of family structures, a growing disrespect for the dignity of the human person. We are a nation in need of healing, in every sense of the word.
Excerpts from a speech by Professor Piet Meiring,
Truth and Reconciliation Commission, South Africa