A singular account of the successes and failures of South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission--and a penetrating look at how nations surmount legacies of violence. of photos.
The Boston Book Review
- Perseus Publishing
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- 5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.90(d)
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One by one, the widows came forward to testify. They had lived with their suffering and grief for many years, but for South Africa this was the beginning of a journey that would lead ever deeper into the dark recesses of its violent past. Each widow had a different ordeal to tell. But their common hope was that at last they would find out what had happened to their husbands, how they had died, where their remains were buried.
The commissioners listened attentively, steeling themselves for the tales of torture, kidnapping, and murder that were to become their daily fare. At their center sat Archbishop Desmond Tutuhead of the Anglican Churchdressed in a purple cassock and seeking to imbue the search for truth and reconciliation with a Christian sense of mission. He opened the proceedings with prayers, a hymn, and the lighting of a tall white candle in remembrance of those who had died and disappeared during the struggle against apartheid; he spoke ardently of the need for cleansing, for bearing witness, for joining hands, for forgiveness.
"We are charged to unearth the truth about our dark past," he told the audience gathered in the city hall in East London in April 1996, "and to lay the ghosts of that past so that they will not return to haunt us; and that we will thereby contribute to the healing of the traumatized and woundedfor all of us in South Africa are wounded people."
Few people at the time believed that the new Truth and Reconciliation Commission would establish either truth or reconciliation, let alone help solve murdersand disappearances that had occurred as far as back as ten or twenty years beforehand. The old security police network, the prime suspect in most cases, had long since covered its tracks and was determined to thwart any investigation; for their part the commissioners had no clear idea of how to proceed other than to listen to the testimony of witnesses.
Nor did Tutu realize how grueling the task of what he called "looking the beast in the eye" would be. At the end of the second day of testimony, he laid his head on the table and wept openly. "I don't know if I'm the right person to chair the commission," he said later, "because I'm weak. I thought I was tough. Until today."
Among the black community there was nevertheless avid interest in the commission's proceedings. Each day, the ornate Victorian hall was crowded with spectators, filling rows of wooden benches that stretched from wall to wall and lining the galleries above. Many there retained vivid memories of the years of conflict that had engulfed the streets of East London and other towns in the Eastern Cape and that had claimed so many lives. Now, at last, it was time for the victims to be heard.
The first witness was Nohle Mohapi, the widow of Mapetla Mohapi, a twenty-five-year-old activist teacher who had been detained frequently by security police and who died in police cells in Port Elizabeth in August 1976. "He was in and out of jail," she told the commission. "He used to say: `Our time together is short; the police are after me. You must be strong. You must never show the Boers you are weak. They must not see you crying.'"
One night, a security policeman hammered on her door and told her bluntly that Mapetla had hanged himself with a pair of jeans. "My first response was, `No! Not Mapetla! He never killed himself.'" On her way to identify the body at the mortuary, the police had laughed at her. "They said: `They call themselves leaders and they can't take the pressure and kill themselves.'"
An inquest recorded a verdict of suicide; the Supreme Court decided no one else was to blame. But Nohle Mohapi remained convinced her husband had been murdered. She told the commission that she herself had been tortured while held in detention after her husband's death. She had come forward, she said, in the hope that the commission would uncover what had really happened.
No sooner had she completed her testimony than four former police commissioners issued a statement criticizing her for giving evidence that they said was characterized by vagueness, generalizations, and hearsay. The police, they insisted, had done everything possible to ensure the welfare of detainees. They were clearly confident that their counterattack would succeed in discrediting her and other witnesses.
Next came the widows of the "Pebco Three," members of the Port Elizabeth Black Civics Organization who had disappeared without trace in May 1985 after receiving a message to meet a British consular official at the local airport.
Elizabeth Hashe described how she and her husband had endured years of harassment at the hands of the security police. They had both been detained without trial, and their house had been raided at night, time and again. Since her husband's disappearance, she had searched for him constantly, telling her story to magistrates and judges, but in vain. "I just want the commission to have sympathy with me, to understand what I went through when these things happened," she pleaded, breaking down in tears.
All she wanted now was to be allowed to bury her husband in a dignified manner. She asked, too, for help in obtaining the return of a photograph that police had confiscated after his disappearance. It was the only one she had of him.
The widows of the Pebco Three were followed by the widows of the "Cradock Four," four activists whose bodies had been found badly mutilated near Port Elizabeth in June 1985, several days after they had disappeared. Their deaths had ignited popular revolt throughout the Eastern Cape. One inquest had led nowhere. A second inquest in 1994 held the security forces responsible for the killings but still failed to identify any culprits. Now the widows hoped that Tutu's commission might provide them with answers. "We need an inside person, a witness," said Nyameka Goniwe. "We need the people out there who are still concealing the truth to come forward."
Her husband, Matthew Goniwe, the principal of a secondary school in Cradock, had been one of the most effective political organizers in the Eastern Cape. "He was seen as a dangerous man and a threat to the state," his widow told the commission. "They hated him for raising the level of political awareness of people." For years the family had been persecuted by the security police. "This took the form of early-morning raids and short-term detentions, death threats and tampering with our cars." Their movements had been closely watched; their phone calls had been tapped. And therefore, she said, the police must have known what had happened when her husband and his three colleagues left home by car to attend a political meeting in Port Elizabeth.
For another Cradock widow, Nomonde Calata, the grief of those days was still raw. Recalling the moment when she first heard the news about her missing husband, she threw her head back with a wail of such anguish that it sent a shudder throughout the audience. "I was only twenty at the time, and I couldn't handle this," she recalled. A family friend had subsequently gone to identify her husband's body. "He discovered that the hair was pulled out. His tongue was very long. His fingers were cut off. He had many wounds in his body. When he looked at his trousers he realized that the dogs had bitten him very seriously. He couldn't believe that the dogs already had their share."
Two weeks after Fort Calata's funeral in July 1985, Nomonde gave birth to a daughter. A few days later, the security police turned up to search her house. "Hau, you've got a baby without a father," one of them jeered at her in Afrikaans "Don't you want us to be the father of the baby?"
"I kept quiet. I didn't give them an answer. They waited a few minutes and then left. After a few minutes they came back. They said: `We want to evict you from this house. You do not have money to pay for the rent.... Even in Fort's account there is not a cent left. So we are here to take you out of the house.' ... I said to them I am not going to get out of the house. They could take a gun and shoot me, but I'm not getting out of the house.... I do not know the reason for their cruelty. I just want to know."
The family of Sicelo Mhlawuli, another of the Cradock Four, added further detail about their fate. His widow, Nombuyiselo Mhlawuli, described how, when reading the postmortem documents, she had discovered that her husband's face had been disfigured by acid and that his right hand had been chopped off. She had subsequently heard that the hand had been seen preserved in a bottle at security police headquarters in Port Elizabeth.
Her daughter, Babalwa, now nineteen but only eight years old at the time, took the tale further. She related how a few days after her father's body had been found, security police raided their house and made fun of sympathy cards sent to her mother. One of the policemen had shouted and screamed at her mother and stayed in the house for some six hours. He returned day after day, standing outside the house, howling like a dog and waving his hand loosely in the air.
Nombuyiselo Mhlawuli was asked by one of the commissioners what her reaction would be if the perpetrators came forward and requested amnesty for their crimes, as they were entitled to do. "Even if I say these people should be given amnesty, it won't return my husband," she replied. "But that hand, we still want it. We know we have buried them, but really to have the hand which is said to be in a bottle in Port Elizabeth, we would like to get that hand."
As well as the widows who testified, there were the mothers. Charity Kondile had spent nine years searching for her son, Sizwe, after the police claimed to have released him from detention in 1981. She had traveled to Lesotho hoping that the African National Congress would help find him. But ANC officials there had spurned her, telling her that Sizwe had turned traitor and defected to the police. "When I tried to reassure them that he had been kidnapped, they would not believe me."
Then, in 1990, she had been told of a newspaper story relating how Sizwe had been so badly tortured by the security police that they had decided to take him to a remote spot on the Mozambique border and kill him. "They put his body on a pile of wood with a tire near the Komati River at night, where it took them nine hours to burn his body," she said; and they passed the time drinking beer and enjoying a barbecue while the body burned nearby.
"As a mother, I feel that, no matter whether it was politics, fighting for his land, I don't think that he deserved all that treatment. I feel it was grossly inhuman. I feel if they could have killed him and given us the body or left it in the veldt. I feel that this was tantamount to cannibalism, or even Satanism."
Not all the testimony related to police brutality. Nontuthuzelo Mpehlo described how her husband, Mick, a businessman in Grahamstown, had been victimized for years after being falsely accused of betraying Steve Biko, the black consciousness leader who died in police custody in 1977. "My husband told me that he thought he was going to die but that he would die an innocent man," she said.
"While dressing for church, we heard the noise. The youths were coming down the road.... They surrounded the house, and they shouted, `Let the spy die! Let the spy die!' They threw stones through the window. When they left, he said to me, `Don't cry, Nontuthuzelo. A person dies only once, not many times. I know where these things are leading to.' ... Then someone we knew knocked at the door. `The comrades are burning your shop, Uncle Mick!'
"'I'll be back for lunch,' he said to me. They told me afterwards, he walked up to the door of his shop. He didn't look back.... Someone in the crowd shot him in the back."
There were also white victims who came forward, survivors of armed attacks carried out in the Eastern Cape by members of the Azanian People's Liberation Army. Beth Savage, a librarian, described how a group of friends belonging to a wine-tasting club were enjoying their annual Christmas party at a golf club in King William's Town in 1992 when gunmen burst in, opened fire, and tossed hand grenades in their midst.
"We were seated at one long table.... I suddenly became aware of something that sounded like firecrackers. I saw Rhoda Macdonald throw back her arms and die, and Ian [Macdonald] did exactly the same thing. I swung around to look at the door to see what was happening, and I saw a man there with a balaclava on his headbut not over his headwith an AK-47 [an assault rifle], and my immediate reaction was, `Oh, my goodness, this is a terrorist attack!' After that I blacked out."
In the hospital, she was haunted at dusk each evening by the appearance of a man at her window. Unable to speak, she wrote messages to her family, "Please tell them to take the man away from the window." Eventually, her daughter brought her a photograph of one of the suspects. "It was this face at the window.... This was the gentleman at the door with the AK-47.... So that actually was a tremendous healing thing for me."
She recounted how much harm had been done. Four of her friends had died in the attack. Her father, whom she described as a staunch opponent of apartheid, had fallen into a deep depression and died; her mother, distraught without him, had died a few months later; her daughter had suffered a nervous breakdown. Her own injuries had been horrific: half of her large intestine had been removed, her heart had been damaged, and she still carried shards of shrapnel in her body.
Yet she was remarkably resilient. "All in all, what I must say is, through the trauma of it all, I honestly feel richer. I think it's been a really enriching experience for me and a growing curve, and I think it's given me the ability to relate to other people who maybe go through trauma." She added: "You know there are people here who have had far worse problems than I ever had."
She was asked whether it was important for her to know the identity of her attacker. "What I would really like," she replied, "is to meet that man that threw that grenade, in an attitude of forgiveness and hope that he could forgive me too for whatever reason."
After four days of hearings, Tutu concluded the commission's first session, encouraged by the fortitude shown by the thirty-three witnesses who had testified. "It is like a weight has been taken off their shoulders," he said. "The country has taken the right course in the process of healing to hear these stories."
Hundreds more witnesses were to tell their stories in the coming months at hearings held in towns and cities across South Africa. But there were few signs of any perpetrators coming forward to take advantage of the amnesty the commission was empowered to offer. And the need for victims to know what had happened went unfulfilled. "I would love to know who killed my father," said nineteen-year-old Babulwa Mhlawuli. "It is hard to forget and forgive if we don't know who to forgive."
Against all odds, however, the commission eventually succeeded in breaking through the barriers of silence. Like the unfolding of a complex detective story, the secret world of the security police was slowly exposed, and many of the killers and torturers were forced out into the open. What was even more unexpected was that once the security police network began to unravel, Tutu's commissioners found it possible to probe higher and higher up the chain of command, reaching the highest levels of government.
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