Truth and Reconciliation

‘Many layers, many seasons’

How to Cite

Miller, A. (2001). Truth and Reconciliation: ‘Many layers, many seasons’. M/C Journal, 4(1).
Vol. 4 No. 1 (2001): Sorry
Published 2001-02-01

The South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) commenced in 1996, providing high hopes to those concerned with change and redress. By many it was seen as the first stage in the reconciliation process. Former General Secretary of the South African Council of Churches, Reverend Frank Chikane, himself a victim of attempted murder when poisoned with nerve gas, likened the role of the TRC in the disclosure and forgiveness process to the confessional, and suggested that "there can be no absolution without confession." However, Methodist bishop and long-time apartheid activist Peter Storey cautioned that "One of our problems is that we’re trying to find a legal framework for what is essentially a spiritual and psychological process."

"The Promotion of National Unity and Reconciliation Act, No 34 of 1995" states that "amnesty shall be granted in respect of acts, omissions and offences associated with political objectives committed in the course of the conflicts of the past", on the basis of full disclosure. The hearings are over, the committees nearing completion, and on 29 October 1998, the Final Report of the TRC was handed to President Nelson Mandela. Now we have five neatly bound volumes, but how much has changed in the lives of those who have suffered gross human rights violations at the hands of the perpetrators?

Some want retribution and will not rest until those who have tortured, abducted or murdered their loved ones or themselves have been tried and convicted. Others just want to bury their loved ones, along with "this shameful chapter of our history." Decisions on who will be granted amnesty linger since the hearings closed.

Gillian Slovo, daughter of the late South African Communist Party leader, Joe Slovo, and his wife Ruth First, is one of those who is unwilling to let things rest. Her mother was killed by a letter bomb allegedly intended for Joe Slovo in 1982. She comments on the amnesty hearing of her mother’s killer, former student spy Craig Williamson: "We remembered the incredulity on the faces of the members of the committee when [Williamson] told the committee how he had looked at the intercepted envelope and seen the address, the postal mark and the logo, but not the name of the addressee." The Slovo family has now filed an application in the Cape High Court to set aside the amnesty accorded Williamson, whose testimony seemed contradictory, and not to meet the requirements of full disclosure.

And what of reparations to the victims of these human rights violations? An initial payment of R30 million rand (approximately $US 3, 844, 000) was made. People who were part of the ‘urgent interim reparations’ payment received in the region of R2000 rands (approximately $US 250). In the case of those who have lost a loved one, says Duma Khumalo, a founding member of the Khulumani (Speak Out!) Support Group, and himself granted a stay of execution just 15 hours before he was to be hanged for a crime he did not commit, this has the effect of "the victims selling their dead."

The government now wrangles over whether further payments will be made, urging business to engage in reparations payments, with business declining to do so on the grounds that it is the role of the state. In the meantime, the suffering of victims seems to have become something of a political football.

Where does this leave us on the issue of forgiveness? There are two equally important parts to the issue of ‘sorry’: ‘I am sorry’, and ‘I hear that you are sorry, and I forgive you.’

Many South Africans feel that insult has been added to injury, because an assumption seems to have been made by some perpetrators that, having apologised, they must naturally be forgiven. This is at worst arrogant, and at best naïve. As anyone who has been through any kind of act of betrayal can attest, the healing process and forgiveness, take time. As Clarissa Pinkola Estes wrote in Women Who Run With the Wolves, forgiveness is not "a singular act to be completed in one sitting", but has "many layers, many seasons."

For many the concept of ‘re’-conciliation is inappropriate, as this suggests a restoration of positive relations that existed in the past. However, for all but the youngest generation of South Africans, division and/or discrimination is all that they’ve known. To some, conciliation seems more appropriate.

Others see reconciliation as a personal process and journey of coming to terms with a painful history, and reconciling only within oneself.

Still others have abandoned the idea of reconciliation and aim instead for resolution. As Gavin Harrison says, "Sometimes things are also resolved when a situation is clearly comprehended, when all personal work relating to the situation is done, and you realise that, for whatever reason, full reconciliation is just not possible right now."

The mainstream media has become noticeably quiet in recent months on the issue of reparations. It would seem that after extensive coverage of the hearings, and then of the tensions between government and the TRC, they too have become burnt out.

What has captured their attention, however, and the attention of the public at large, is the controversial Declaration of Commitment by White South Africans, initiated by apartheid activist Carl Niehaus and others. Sociology lecturer at the University of the Witwatersrand, Eddie Webster observes ironically that "it seems as if the signatories are largely drawn (with the puzzling exception of the South African rugby team) from prominent anti-apartheid figures." Quite absent from the signatories is the "white leader who will say, ‘We had an evil system with awful consequences. Please forgive us’" for whom Bishop Tutu had wished in his Forward to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission Final Report. The absence of such a leader, says Tutu now, remains his biggest regret. (It should also be noted that a number of black South Africans chose to sign the declaration in support of the initiative.)

Possibly the best we can hope for are more people like Wilhelm Verwoerd, grandson of the architect of apartheid, Hendrik Verwoerd, whose openness about his own painful personal revolution can provide us with inspiration. Verwoerd reminds us that: "As a beneficiary [of apartheid] I thus tend to take for granted my good education, my ownership of a house in town and my access to a family holiday home near the beach, my inheritance from parents, my relatively high income and low risk of unemployment. While individual effort and skill must be acknowledged, it is important to unmask a false, overconfident sense of entitlement, to help white South Africans see how much of what we have is built on unfair, systematic privileging." Perhaps he can symbolise for us that hope lies not in the ‘New South Africa’, but in the new generation of South Africans, committed to change, and not waiting for government or big business to ‘do it for us.’

There are ever-increasing television documentaries about ordinary South Africans, black and white, "who never made a proclamation or held an office, but were handed a place [in South Africa] and are quietly making a life out of it" (Dietz). Such people seem often the strangest of bedfellows, stumbling around in the dark together and finding creative solutions to apparently insurmountable problems. Not politicians or academics, just ordinary people, with the ability to say ‘I am sorry, I will try to make amends.’ Equally important is the ability to say, ‘I recognise that you are sorry, and I will give you another chance.’ This, not the 1994 first democratic election, is the real miracle of South Africa.

Author Biography

Andie Miller