The breaking of the silence - and then what?

02 November 2006

Ten years after South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission began its task, Chris Chivers finds inspiration as well as doubts


Sam Malinga outside his shack in the informal settlement surrounding Bloemfontein

MY JOURNEY into the heart of South Africa's ongoing narrative of healing begins in St George's Cathedral, Cape Town - the very building where the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) was commended to the prayers of all South Africans on 13 February 1996. Ten years on, this journey is to take me from the splendours of Bishopscourt - the Archbishop of Cape Town's residence beneath the beauties of Table Mountain - to the corrugated iron shacks of the informal settlements surrounding Bloemfontein, on a trip that will take me to meet Anglicans across the social spectrum.

For now, I stare into the face of the beast, however. I gaze at not one, but two beasts, in fact: the historic beast of apartheid on the one hand, and the generic seven-headed beast of human sinfulness on the other, as depicted in the great west window of St George's. Both are pierced by enormous spears of liberation. Between them stands the figure of a black Christ in triumph over darkness and evil.


The great west window at St George's Cathedral, Cape Town. Photo Pretext Publishing

Gabriel and Jacque Loire's exquisite dalle de verre (faceted glass) - in a window that was itself an outcome of the TRC process, and one of the first attempts to memorialise the liberation struggle - is composed of jagged-edged, rainbow-coloured pieces set, jigsaw-like, in concrete to form one overwhelmingly radiant whole. And I am standing with the Revd Harry Wiggett, priest and poet, who sees the window as a metaphor for the process that began at a service in the cathedral ten years ago, when the Truth and Reconciliation Commissioners dedicated themselves to promoting the nation's healing. "It's like bringing to life a text, turning words into song," he says.

A few days later, he has turned this thought into a poem, "TRC", which accompanies me in my journey across the country. And Harry's poem prompts me to remember a TRC slogan: "The truth hurts, but silence kills."

I ask the TRC's former chairman, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, whether the commission's breaking of the silence around the horrors of apartheid has had its desired effect. He is characteristically self-critical in response.

"We looked the beast in the eye, and found a way to move out from its clutches, and on from the wounds it had inflicted. No one can underestimate the value of the stories of the 22,000 people who testified. What we suspected to have been the truth was shown to be as awful as we'd thought, if not worse. But we failed to engage the white community enough, those who had been privileged in the apartheid system, or to get beyond the foot-soldiers. We really didn't get the big fish, the kind of acknowledgement and accountability from those who gave the orders.

"This means that there are many who are narked that amnesty was given to so many, but there seems so little to show for it in a reciprocal way. Added to which, we have been less than generous as a nation in the reparations that were given to those found to [have] suffered gross human-rights violations."

I hear similar criticisms throughout my journey. Glenda Wildschut, another former Commissioner, also sees the fact that the Commission could give instant amnesty to perpetrators, but could only make recommendations to government about reparations for victims, as the TRC's chief fault-line.

The Commission, in fact, made 52 recommendations. These included such things as monetary settlements - after much prevarication the government made a one-off payment of 30,000 rand to victims (roughly £3000), but gave no assistance to damaged families so that the payment could add value to their lives - as well as suggestions for memorialisation, for the return of confiscated land or property, and for the reburial of the remains of loved ones. "People made modest requests. They wanted their children educated: that was all." But the silence from government in this regard seems to have been deafening.

Nomfundo Walaza, a psychologist whose work has been with victims of violence and torture, sees the failure to respond fully as the most damning legacy of the TRC process. "We are storing up inter-generational bitterness," she suggests. "We have placed a terrific burden on people to forgive what happened to them. They have told their stories, which is a crucial first step, but we have not acknowledged what happened in the fullest sense."

Most African languages cannot easily compute the word "reconciliation"; so, for a majority of South Africans, the TRC was in fact the truth and forgiveness commission. She illustrates the point graphically: "If you've lost your fingers on your right hand, you have to be reconciled with, to accept and make workable, life without those fingers before you can think of forgiving the person who caused you to lose them. Otherwise, what happens when you wake up the day after you've accepted the perpetrator's story and sorrow, and forgiven him, only to discover that you still in fact feel angry?"

The Dean of St Andrew and St Michael's Cathedral, Bloemfontein, the Very Revd Don Narraway, and his Cape Town counterpart, the Very Revd Rowan Smith, suggest that the process is long and painful. Dean Narraway is known for his work with the bereaved, and sees the Emmaus road as the model for the journey South Africans walk. "Terrible things have happened. People are confused. A listener is needed - someone to walk alongside people. This was the TRC's function, to provide compassionate listening that can lead to the moment when eyes are opened to new possibilities."

Dean Smith, a noted spiritual director, reminds me that the Afrikaans word for reconciliation has specific overtones. "In English it's a juridical word, but in Afrikaans it evokes the reconciliation of the divine and the human achieved through the cross. It's a work of God."

I wonder whether this hinders or helps the process, but when I talk with the Revd Sam Mokoena, the Rector of St Patrick's, Mangaung, the biggest black African parish in the Free State, his experience conflates all these ideas.

"Healing is expensive. It's not a cheap thing. It takes years."

I ask him to elaborate, and discover that when he was Rector of Botshabelo in the 1980s, a community 50km from Bloemfontein, he nearly lost his life.

"On 18 August 1986, three petrol bombs were thrown into the rectory. Miraculously, I escaped. I couldn't sleep for ten years. Because of the fumes, I still suffer terribly from asthma. In 1996, there was a hearing of the TRC in Bloemfontein. A policeman admitted that he did it on the orders of superiors. I forgave the fellow, even though his superiors denied his claim, and said that he was a lone hitman."

My mind races back to something Ms Walaza said: "I have questions about those who forgive, about those who are reconciled to partial truth, but who am I to say that what they've achieved in terms of reconciliation or forgiveness isn't life-changing?" Has Mr Mokoena reconciled himself to partial truth, I wonder.

It would be invasive and insulting to probe, especially since the radiance of Mr Mokoena's smile is so obvious. I see it replicated later on the face of Di Oliver, a former Black Sash member, as she recalls forgiving those who kept files on her and her late husband, the anti-apartheid activist Brian Bishop.

So I ask Mr Mokoena what it felt like to forgive the policeman. "You feel free and released. It's extraordinary. I cannot put it into words. And the other fellow, you see that he is healed, too."

Mr Mokoena seems to share the criticisms of the TRC which others have voiced. But he also introduces an area of critique that is a focus among the final group of people with whom I speak. "We've had political liberation," he says, "but it will take years to remove the economic, cultural, and residential apartheid that remains, and to feel that we are one people irrespective of colour or creed."

Dr Barry Smith, who for 42 years has been the organist and master of the choristers at the Cape Town cathedral, has used music throughout that time to create a sense of oneness. "Music-making is one of the few activities in which there was no apartheid," he reminds me. "Everyone could sing God's praises together, though they couldn't eat a meal together outside the cathedral precincts."

Dean Narraway's image of the Emmaus-road story ends with a shared meal. How close are South Africans to the time when they will share more equally their nation's abundant resources?

The ministry of the Archbishop of Cape Town, the Most Revd Njongonkulu Ndungane, who was once, like Nelson Mandela, a political prisoner on Robben Island, has focused on the legacy of economic apartheid. When I meet him, I find that he is particularly exercised by a scheme to promote an African- rather than Western-imposed monitor of the policies and performance of the continent's governments. "We must stamp out corruption and mismanagement through self-regulation if we are to bring about real transformation to those whom the apartheid system consigned to poverty," he states boldly.

Dr Mamphela Ramphele, former managing director of the World Bank, and founder, with Steve Biko, of the Black Consciousness movement, also speaks about apartheid's economic legacy.

When the African National Congress leaders were discussing an embryonic truth commission, she explains that she impressed upon them the need not only to address the issue of politically motivated crimes or human-rights abuses against South Africans (the main focus for the TRC process that emerged), but to focus also on the fundamental and systematic denial of health-care and educational provision, and housing and employment opportunities - apartheid's most debilitating legacy.

The process by which victims of gross violations could tell their stories was of "incalculable value", she says. But she views it as "nothing short of a scandal that, in our quest for economic equity, we assumed that poor people were interested only in immediate types of redress, monetary and otherwise, and that they were not interested in excellence. The problems are not monetary: there is plenty of money being spent on education and health care, for instance. There just isn't the infrastructure to deliver outcomes for the poor."

There are echoes of Dr Ramphele's analysis in the words of Moira Jones, who heads the programmes for Wola Nani, an agency working with people who live with HIV and AIDS - undoubtedly the most crippling social problem that South Africans face. She wishes that more of the post-TRC focus had been on such problems, since they are part of apartheid's legacy of migrant labour and the forced exile of people to those countries where the HIV and AIDS pandemic was already decimating the lives of millions.

As I return to St George's Cathedral to look the beast in the eye one final time, my thoughts are focused most powerfully by a conversation with Dumizani Zinyana, my taxi driver. Commenting on the TRC, he says: "It meant that I discovered why my father was killed by the security police. It gave me back my dignity. The government couldn't give money to everyone who suffered, but I'd like them to give a better education to my children, and better hospitals and houses. That would be something to remember my father by."

His words acknowledge the extraordinary power of the TRC to unlock stories that simply had to be told - reminding me that its job was to "promote", not to "achieve", national unity. But he also sees what remains to be done for reconciliation to take root in the lives of all South Africans.

What Mr Zinyana says I've heard on the lips of the poorest of the poor in Bloemfontein's informal settlements - from Sam Malinga, for instance, outside his shack: "We need more signs of development, of education for my sister's children better than the one she and I received." I've heard it, too, from distinguished psychologists, commentators, and academics: "Educate a child, and you change life for a whole family."

This is the thought I take with me into the cathedral, since for all the faults and unfinished business of the TRC process - a journey that produces an emerging consensus that improved education, public health, and housing should be the living memorials to those who suffered in the past - is surely a journey that will one day see the darkness of lingering evils finally defeated. In the silence, both the glass and the stones seem to sing out this truth.

The Revd Chris Chivers is Canon Chancellor of Blackburn Cathedral. He was previously Canon Precentor of St George's Cathedral, Cape Town, and co-author of the Children's Ubuntu Project, which supported the work of the TRC.

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