FORGIVING THE UNFORGIVABLE

an interview with Archbishop Desmond Tutu

The idea for South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission-the topic of the interview that follows-sprang from the same political negotiations that led to elections in 1994, and the creation of the first democratic nonracial South Africa. There was a keen awareness in the country at the time that the need for justice and reconciliation went beyond simply the installation of a new government.

In 1995, the new democratically elected Parliament enacted The Promotion of National Unity and Reconciliation Act. It provided for a commission whose objectives are to promote understanding and overcome the conflicts and separation of the past.

The commission has seventeen members, representing South Africa’s different constituencies. Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the former primate of the Anglican church in South Africa, is chairman. The commission is divided into three committees that deal respectively with human-rights violations, amnesty, and reparations and rehabilitation.

The commission has attempted to establish as complete a picture as possible of the nature and extent of gross human-rights violations committed from March 1960 to May 1994; to facilitate the granting of amnesty to persons who make full disclosure of all the facts related to acts associated with political objectives at the time; to establish and publicize the fate and whereabouts of victims, and to restore their human and civil dignity by giving them the opportunity to relate their accounts of what took place; and to compile comprehensive reports of the commission’s work.

In order to grant amnesty to an individual, the commission must be satisfied that the act in question was associated with a political objective; that it took place during the time period designated by the commission; and that full disclosure has been made by the perpetrator. Furthermore, the nation must be notified of any decision to grant amnesty through publication in the official Government Gazette.

The committee on reparation and rehabilitation is responsible for dealing with victims’ applications in a speedy and accessible fashion, and for making recommendations to the government on the reparations to be granted.

The full commission’s work ends this year, with a report due the government by March 1998. The South African Constitutional Court has upheld the commission’s power to grant amnesty.

FRANK FERRARRI: Archbishop Tutu, as I understand it, the ultimate aim of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission is to create a culture of human rights in South Africa so that what happened in the past does not happen again. You’ve been chairing the commission’s hearings since December 1995. You’ve listened to some horrendous stories of personal suffering and tragedy. Did you imagine, before you began, that the situation would unfold in the way that it has?

DESMOND TUTU: In a way. No, not quite. And yes. Now I’m being African! You hoped that I could begin to share the truth about what happened. Many people thought they knew what had happened, but the details, when they began unfolding, shocked us. The depth of depravity was breathtaking. As an illustration, a young man who was first poisoned and shot in the head was then burned. While the body was burning, the perpetrators were carrying on and enjoying their own barbecue. You hear this and think, “how can we sink quite as low as that?”

On the other side, when I say “no, not quite,” I have found breathtaking and, in fact, exhilarating the magnanimity of people, the incredible nobility of spirit of people who have suffered as much as they have suffered. So many of them are ready to forgive, which sometimes makes you feel as though you should take your shoes off because you are stepping on holy ground.

I want to highlight especially the role of women. I certainly didn’t expect this. Somebody has looked at statistics that said when women came before the commission, it was almost always to tell a story of what has happened to someone else; when men came before the commission it was almost always telling about what happened to themselves. I think we ought to have a special thing to mark the role that women have played.

FRANK FERRARRI: Go back to the point you made on the ability of the victims to forgive. Some people question whether, given the crimes that have been committed, amnesty is too big a price to pay for what they have suffered. Another question: How can there be forgiveness without remorse? Minister of Finance Trevor Manuel has said that the faculty of remorse is vital for reconciliation. Inasmuch as it’s only the oppressed that can do the forgiving, do you think they can forgive without any demonstration of remorse on the part of the perpetrator?

DESMOND TUTU: There is a kind of Catch-22 situation for the perpetrators. When they appear before the amnesty committee, if they express no remorse, people say, “look at them, they don’t care.” When they do ask for forgiveness from the victim, as most of them have-in fact, I can’t recall anyone not somewhere expressing repentance-people say, “Ah... they are putting it on, it’s not genuine.” So the perpetrators are in a no-win situation. Legally, there is no requirement that they express contrition, though in some ways, most of their expressions were, I think, reasonably genuine.

You ask: “Is the amnesty too heavy a price to pay?” It is a very heavy price to pay. But having said that, you have to ask, what is the alternative? It would have been highly unlikely that the security forces would have agreed to a transition to a democratic civilization without amnesty. Amnesty was the price we had to pay to get the security forces on board. That is one response.

The second is to ask: Supposing we had a settlement without amnesty, what are the alternatives? Well, we are talking about the possibility of a Nuremberg Trial. First, Nuremberg has not satisfied anybody. The Germans have said it was victor’s justice. Second, South Africa would not have been able to afford it; too many resources would have to be invested in trials which, in fact, would not guarantee a conviction, as we saw with the Malan trial. [General Magnus Malan, defense minister in the former government of F.W. de Klerk, and several other army officers were accused of the deaths of thirteen people by death squads. Malan and the others were acquitted.] Our particular amnesty process is a compromise, but an important compromise. With a general amnesty, as you had in Chile, you are revictimizing the victim by saying the things that happened to you are of no account. What is happening at home in South Africa is that we are saying we genuinely want bygones to be bygones, but not in a glib way that people don’t take account of what has happened, because then they won’t be bygones. As Santayana said, those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it. And there is a specific provision in the law to do this over two years, then the shutters come down.

FRANK FERRARRI: Do they come down the end of December this year?

DESMOND TUTU: Yes, after this period no one can come forward and say, just look at this horror story, because they’ve been given the opportunity of telling their stories. After this, the country can’t be held to ransom by new revelations. We are saying: We had the opportunity; we looked at cases to the best of our ability; we have unearthed the truth.

It is not a general amnesty, but an amnesty on an individual basis. Perpetrators must apply and satisfy certain conditions: It must be a thing that happened between 1960 and 1994. It must have had a political motive. The policy of either the previous government or the liberation movement must have been behind it. And, sometimes people forget this: the amnesty is not automatic. There is also proportionality. If it is felt that what you did was out of proportion to your objective, then amnesty will be refused. Once amnesty is granted, the perpetrator is set free, and many have already been set free. Whereas the victims have to wait until we determine that they are a victim and then we make a recommendation to the president about the reparation that is to be made, and he has to ask Parliament. (“Reparation” is the term used in the act. We think it is instructive that the act does not use the term “compensation.” Compensation seems to say you can quantify suffering, compensate someone for the loss of a loved one. How do you compute this?) It is a very roundabout way.

FRANK FERRARRI: One is haunted by the plight of the victims. All of your life, Archbishop Tutu, you have pursued justice for the people of South Africa, all of Africa, and globally. Truth and justice are not the same. It seems that justice is eluding the victims.

DESMOND TUTU: This is not exactly the case. People tend to think of one kind of justice, which is retributive justice. It is true that the amnesty provision expunges the victims’ rights to civil damages, though there is a provision for reparations.

The fact of the matter is that we have been sent to find ways of transcending the conflicts of the past. How do you heal? And so, we speak about restorative rather than retributive justice. It is not the case that the perpetrators get off scot free. They have to stand in the full glare of their city and say I did this and this and this.

I watched recently one of the security police having to demonstrate the “wet bag” method he used. Now it is possible that many in the community, and possibly his own family, didn’t know that when daddy went out in the morning to his office looking so normal, in fact, his work was the killing of people. Having to come clean in public has a very heavy cost. Many have found that their marriages, if not broken, have fallen into serious difficulties because often their wives and children didn’t know that that was what daddy was doing.

While reparation is not compensation, one of the things that has happened is that these people who were treated like rubbish now have a story that the country acknowledges. Victims have been given an official forum where they have told their story. Not all of them have appeared, but the ones who have done so said at our very first hearing: We have told our story in many many places, but this is the first time, having told it here, that a heavy burden has been lifted off our shoulders.

So, there is the acknowledgment by the nation, and you can’t put a money value on that. You can’t put a money value on what it is to be acknowledged as a person, and to be able to tell your story to a commission appointed by the president, your president, elected by you. That is something whose value we can never compute. And here I have to heed Judge Mohammed’s judgment in the Constitutional Court on the constitutionality of reparations because he’s said, amongst other things, many people have suspicions about things having happened to their brothers, but they didn’t have the evidence that would satisfy a court of law. This process allows them to get some kind of recognition and some kind of reparation on the basis of a story that requires some rigorous process....There is another kind of justice than the retributive one.

FRANK FERRARRI: On the question of the acknowledgment of the past, Thabo Mbeki, South African deputy president and assumed successor to President Nelson Mandela, said “the hatred and animosities of the past will not go away unless the truth is told about what happened.” You have said the same, and Richard Goldstone, Constitutional Court Justice, said “the old wounds have not been closed. Most of them are septic and have to be cleansed.” On the other hand, former Deputy President F.W. de Klerk has said that the commission’s activities and the way that it is dealing with the past are rekindling polarization. Is the very reconciliation that you’re trying to achieve threatened by the polarization coming out of the revelations of the past?

DESMOND TUTU: No. One should ask people like de Klerk, “When you say it is opening up and exacerbating animosity, who are you talking about?” When we had the de Kock trial, some extraordinary facts emerged about the things done to our people. [Colonel de Kock ran the Vlakplaas Headquarters, site of the hit squads of the South African Police. He was found guilty and sentenced to several terms of life imprisonment, plus several more years. He has applied for amnesty.] Very few people attended that trial, even at the time when this guy was sentenced. Despite all of those revelations, that didn’t egg our people on to an orgy of revenge. They had to accept that that is what the country did.

I noticed recently an article that referred to the mothers of the Gugulethu Seven [activists beaten and killed by South African authorities]. I just want to point out that our commission counseled the mothers and told them that a video we had is quite harrowing. But they said they wanted to see it. When we were viewing it, they became so incensed that one of the mothers threw a shoe at one of the police officers who was testifying. Afterwards they said it was horrible, horrible, horrible, but thank you because now we know what happened....One of the mothers, whose son was dragged with a rope, was asked how do you feel about the police? What would you like to do to this policeman who shot your son? She said, “I don’t want anything to happen to him. I don’t want him to go to jail. I forgive him.” This is not the only incident of that kind.

So I want to ask Mr. de Klerk, if it is a fact that the commission was exacerbating feelings of animosity, how come people can still live in squalor, wake up in the morning and go to work in town, mainly working for white people who are affluent and have beautiful homes, salubrious surroundings, and at the end of the day, those people go back to the squalor-all of this and that they shouldn’t say we’ve had enough of this, we’ve seen just how horrible these people are, and now we want our payback. No way.

The article doesn’t speak about people like Brian Mitchell, the police officer whose orders resulted in the deaths of thirteen people. The commission got him because he said he wanted to do something to help rebuild, rehabilitate his community, and he went before the commission. Initially it was a very difficult meeting, but by the time he left, the victims’ kin were waving to him. I don’t claim that that is our work. It is not our work in a proprietary kind of sense. The most that we have done is to be facilitators. The people to whom we have to take off our hats are those who have been trampled underfoot, and by now are filled with anger and bitterness, and should be bent on revenge. And you see, just to add maybe one thing, many things have happened, many people have disappeared, but as a result of the amnesty applications, we’ve been able to find out where people who were secretly killed were buried. We’ve been able to exhume the bodies and help their families rebuild. The families have expressed remarkable appreciation, because it has helped a closure to take place.

I want to say again, please show me where the revelations and the work of the commission have led to a resurgence of race hatred, and I’ll show you many, many instances of the opposite.

FRANK FERRARRI: Archbishop, following that point, there are some people who say the commission is not neutral. I wonder how can a commission such as yours that is listening to the tales of the victims and holding hearings on the consequences of apartheid be neutral?

DESMOND TUTU: The act requires that we be even-handed, but we are not waiting to be persuaded that somehow apartheid wasn’t evil. Long ago, I said apartheid was evil in essence. So we’re not waiting to get evidence that somehow we missed out and now the evidence demonstrates otherwise about the evil thing we fought. We are required to be even-handed in the sense that we must give everyone the opportunity to state their case. But we don’t say that the victim is on the same moral plane as the perpetrator. That would outrage the moral nature of this community, the moral nature of the universe. We give the perpetrators every chance. The Nationalist party gets an equal chance to tell its story-why it wanted to have such a policy, and explain things from their perspective. We want to have their perspective. We want to hear their story. We are trying to get at the truth for the purpose of healing this land, and to find ways to ensure that the ghastly things that happened do not happen again, because we are passionate in our love for this country and its people, all included.

They never believed me, you see, when I told them this, when I said I am deeply committed to freedom. And it is freedom not for black people; it is freedom especially for white people. Because they are not completely free until we are free. Those are not just some slogans I like throwing around. They thought I was driven by political motives, and they believed that once you had this democracy, I would be seen holding down a particular position. I told them: “No, I am driven by my faith.” So if something is wrong, I don’t ask who has committed it, I say it is wrong. So they were surprised when I told President Nelson Mandela you can’t have your gravy train. We are even-handed, but some don’t want to believe it. They decided long before the commission started that it was going to be a witch-hunt.

A number in the white community hold on to the view despite the evidence. I said to the ANC, to no other party have I said I will resign if you hold on to a view that undermines our position. If that is how you feel about amnesty, I’ll resign from this commission. I’m not here to play marbles. But I haven’t said I will resign if you don’t come before the commission. I was the chair when Mandela attended the hearing in Johannesburg. He arrived at a point when someone was accusing the ANC of atrocities in their camps. He sat through this tirade. We are independent. I was chosen because I was morally neutral. Any credibility that I might have comes from my fight against apartheid and against oppression. I don’t make any apologies for that. They have a strange notion about what reconciliation is. They think that reconciliation is patting each other on the back and saying it’s all right. Reconciliation is costly and it involves confrontation. Otherwise Jesus Christ would not have died on the cross. He came and achieved for us reconciliation. But he confronted people and caused division.

FRANK FERRARRI: Archbishop, apart from reconciliation, black and white, the one province in South Africa whose immediate history challenges the principle of reconciliation is KwaZulu Natal. Articles in the daily press highlight the absence of Chief Buthelezi’s Inkatha Freedom Party from participation in the work of the commission. One article implied Inkathas not only reject the commission but also participation in the process curtailing violence within the province. How upsetting is it to you and the work of the commission that Inkatha is not involved?

DESMOND TUTU: Doctor Buthelezi’s IFP from the onset has hardly cooperated with the commission, despite many appeals. We are distressed since reconciliation is something not just for the TRC but for all South Africans. We are, however, not surprised. Every political party, whenever some embarrassing revelation was likely to take place before the TRC, has attacked the commission to preempt that embarrassment.

It is an interesting coincidence that the most vehement opponents of the commission have tended to be those who benefited most from apartheid. We are sad that the IFP has abandoned its peace talks with the ANC in KwaZulu Natal. It would be ideal if the whole nation accepted the commission.

FRANK FERRARRI: On another case, the New York Times [August 12] reported the opposition of Chris Hani’s family to the possible granting of amnesty to his killers. [Hani, one of South Africa’s most popular black leaders, was assassinated in 1993.] I was at Hani’s funeral and remember your passionate homily praising him. Could amnesty be extended to Hani’s killers, and under what condition?

DESMOND TUTU: Yes, amnesty could be granted to Chris Hani’s killers if their applications satisfied the conditions for granting amnesty.

FRANK FERRARRI: Do you think that reconciliation is lasting for people whose life doesn’t improve? That in this quest for transformation in South Africa, the people who don’t have jobs, who don’t have education, who don’t have the houses-can those people still hold on to reconciliation and forgiveness?

DESMOND TUTU: There are, of course, very, very severe strains, and it is crucial that people experience freedom as being qualitatively different from what was the case when they were oppressed. Therefore, I believe that housing, jobs, clean water, life, security are quite crucial. People will give up, not just on reconciliation, but on democracy if it doesn’t deliver the goods.

FRANK FERRARRI: How long would you say it would be before you could estimate the effectiveness of the commission? Months? Years?

DESMOND TUTU: There are some things you can see in the short term but reconciliation is, in fact, a process. It will be down the line when one of the things that must be done, what they will talk about, is the change in the quality of life of people. When they can in fact say, “Yeah, I can be friends with you.” In fact, we can be fellow South Africans. Race and ethnicity are irrelevant; I care about your best interest. The best that is for you, I shall strive for that myself. We can have a passion for human rights and have that culture. We are working against the status of apartheid, and whilst we don’t want to keep using apartheid as a scapegoat, the fact of the matter is that much of what is happening now in terms of crime, to a large extent, could be blamed on what happened under apartheid, the kinds of beliefs we had in the apartheid era, the corruption. But we’ve all got to be saying now we’ve attained freedom, but that’s just the beginning. Now we’ve got to roll up our sleeves and put our shoulders to the wheel to make this country work.

FRANK FERRARRI: All gratefully acknowledge the contribution you have made over the years as a Christian, a theologian, and an active member of society. And there are now other theologians in South Africa who are talking about a theology of anger, how anger can help people come to grips with the future, particularly with regard to holding on to something of the past. If that’s the case, how can people hold on to anger and forgive at the same time?

DESMOND TUTU: I think what you mean about anger is again acknowledging that such things happened and refusing amnesia. Because amnesia is the way to hell. There can be no future without forgiveness, and to ever forgive, you have to know what happened. In order for us not to repeat what happened to others, we’ve got to have a memory. Memory is quite, quite crucial. We must give everything that we have to help people remember. Remember for one thing, the cost of the freedom they have got, so that they will not devalue it. Remember the anguish they went through so that they don’t inflict it on others. Remember in order for us to be human.

FRANK FERRARRI: One final question. In the introduction to his book, Reconciliation, the Search for Truth, Kadar Asmal says that South Africa is now grappling successfully with the defining problem of the twentieth century. The problem is, as W.E.B. Dubois said, the problem of the color line. Is South Africa the place where nonracialism is taking hold? Does what’s happening between blacks and whites in South Africa have a particular message for the United States?

DESMOND TUTU: We want to avoid seeming like we’ve got blueprints which we’re dishing out all over the place. I have to say for myself, you see, we are such an unlikely bunch. Nobody would ever have thought that South Africans would be held up as anything but an example of awfulness. I think it is part of God’s sense of humor to say to the world: Now look at them. Remember who they are? They had a nightmare they called apartheid. It has ended. Your nightmare will end too. They had a problem which people said was intractable. They are solving it. So, Northern Ireland, Bosnia, Rwanda, wherever, your nightmare, your intractable problem will end. We are being asked already to intervene. I was invited to go to Australia where they are talking about reconciliation with the Aboriginies. I couldn’t go but someone else did.

We were invited to the Rwanda delegation to help them as well. So there may be some things that could be applicable.

What I’m saying is, yes, until you find a way of dealing with the legacy of the past, you’re going to constantly be shocked by the eruptions of racism. You see this in South Africa. After the end of the Boer War, the English and the Afrikaners didn’t deal with it. Afrikaners had women killed in their concentration camps. They’re always carrying that. It’s there each time the Afrikaner and English meet. They have a warm relationship, but it is not really warm under the surface. The Afrikaner is always believing that unless he’s got power, he’s going to suffer the same thing he suffered as a result of their losing the Boer War. You didn’t hear what the legacy is of this, what are the aches and pains, what did we do to each other. It doesn’t just disappear; it goes into the fabric of your nation.

Now again, you get these eruptions. It isn’t surprising that the incident seems to be so insignificant. A driver knocks somebody down, and it causes a riot. There’s an end pain that I think might be felt. But we’re not omniscient. We don’t want to be prescriptive. We’re just saying God seems to have blessed us in finding a way, which is not acceptable to everybody. That isn’t surprising because it reveals the ghastliness. The interesting thing to note is who are the people most opposed to the commission. Mainly, it’s not the victims.

Published in the 1997-09-12 issue: 

Frank Ferrari is vice-president of ProVentures, Inc. He formerly was senior vice-president of the African American Institute, and lived in Johannesburg from 1992 to 1994.

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