It all began at Bergen-Belsen

The first two people I spoke with about national reconciliation in South Africa were murderers; the third is the current minister of education. "When did you first hear the term Ubuntu," I asked Ntobeko Penni, who answered that he'd heard his father use it when he was six years old. "Ubuntu" - humanness in Zulu - is an African outlook on life, the essence of which is that a person is a person through other people. Some say this perspective on life is largely what led to the foundation of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), after apartheid's collapse in the latter half of the 1990s.

Penni, 28, was one of four young black men who murdered Amy Biehl, a young American woman who came to South Africa to show her solidarity with the black struggle. Penni and his comrades attacked her in the street and tore her to shreds.

Education Minister Kader Asmal said he only heard of Ubuntu in the past few years, after the term began to be used by the media as part of an attempt to root the TRC in the African tradition.

Asmal is a short, mustachioed man of 68, a Muslim of Indian descent, who looks and sounds like a British professor. No wonder - a graduate of the London School of Economics, he was not permitted to return to his homeland, and spent the next 25 years teaching law at Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland. Asmal was born in Natal province; his father was a shopkeeper. When Asmal was 11, he told me, he sneaked into a whites-only cinema. It was 1945. He doesn't remember what film was shown, but the newsreel that day changed his life. It was about the British Army's arrival at the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. He has never forgotten, and never will, the images of bulldozers clearing away piles of bodies, said Asmal. Afterward, he hurried to tell his mother that despite her wishes, he would not be an imam, but that he wanted to study law, so he could help those subjected to political persecution. And so he did. His legal and political activities led to his exile.

While living in Britain and Ireland, said Asmal, he spent a lot of time studying the history of Nazi Germany, the annihilation of the Jews and the Nuremberg trials. The more he learned, the more he expanded his political activity, and became one of the chief spokesmen in Europe against apartheid. One dream kept him going: Someday the evil regime in South Africa would collapse, and he would return home and devote himself to bringing to trial the criminals of the white regime; it would be an African Nuremberg trial.

In September 1990, Asmal was permitted to return. He accepted a university post as a professor of human rights, and began preparing for the trials he'd been envisioning for all those years. But Oliver Tambo, the legendary leader of the African National Congress (ANC), the leading underground group, decided there would be no trials in South Africa akin to those held for Nazi criminals, as such trials were vindictive, and were liable to tear up South Africa instead of uniting and building it. South Africa needed reconciliation, not revenge, he said. Other people involved in the establishment of the TRC confirm Asmal's story - up to here. Nor is there any argument that Tambo's and especially Nelson Mandela's wisdom and forethought, prevented Nuremberg-style "trials of revenge."

According to Asmal, Tambo asked him to think of another way to expose the truth about the crimes of the white regime. After some thought, Asmal suggested that instead of a trial, the government set up a public commission of inquiry. At first they wanted to call it the "Truth Commission," but in order to prevent any critics from dwelling on the Orwellian origins of the name, they settled on "Truth and Reconciliation Commission." The idea was implemented after much discussion, to which many voices contributed. One was attorney Albie Sachs, another champion of human rights.

Mama said

Sachs, of Jewish descent, is now 67. He was arrested during the apartheid era for his activities on behalf of the ANC. He was held in isolation and eventually forced out of his country. At first he settled in England, but later moved to Mozambique, where as a law professor he continued his anti-apartheid activities. The South African authorities must have felt that he had strong influence; they dispatched secret agents to Mozambique, who planted a bomb in his car. Sachs was miraculously saved, but the intensity of the blast caused him to lose his right arm and one eye. He, too, went home in 1990, and he now serves as a justice of the Constitutional Court.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Sachs told me, was not born so as to settle accounts with the white regime, but as the result of the need to deal with crimes of the ANC itself. The story begins with a session of the ANC's National Executive Committee in August 1993, held about eight months before the first-ever democratic elections in South Africa. It was a difficult meeting. The issue was how to deal with a report of an internal commission set up by the ANC to expose the barbaric interrogation methods used by its members against collaborators with the apartheid regime. Aside from the horrific tortures administered during interrogations, ANC men would detain suspected collaborators, place tires around their necks, and set them aflame. Sachs is proud that the ANC made the decision to investigate itself. It may be the only liberation movement to ever have done so, he says.

However, the feeling of self-satisfaction was not enough; the findings were atrocious, and something clearly had to be done. Discussion of the report continued for a long time. It was embarrassing, as the ANC was poised to assume control and lead South Africa into a new era. Finally, one of the participants stood up and asked simply, "Let us think for a moment what my mama would say about it." When he said `my mama' he meant the healthy logic of a simple, unsophisticated woman who may be unaware of politics but is blessed with a robust sense of decency and justice.

The speaker then offered the answer: "We are simply crazy. Here we are, examining our own weaknesses and faults, and exposing our nakedness to the whole world - which maybe has to be done - while in the meantime those rascals and villains on the other side, who for decades and centuries murdered, mutilated and tortured our people, are getting away scot-free." The others nodded their heads, and then Kader Asmal proposed a truth commission, which would expose all of the evil in its entirety, of all the evildoers, whites and non-whites alike.

Previously, there had been much discussion in South Africa about the possibility of setting up a forum for clarifying the historic truth. Committees had been formed, surveys held, experts from other countries consulted. There was a study of how other countries, such as Argentina, Chile and Zimbabwe, had handled the issue.

The upheaval

The apartheid regime evolved over the years and did not collapse all at once. It gradually crumbled, primarily, it seems, as a result of the international sanctions enacted against South Africa. The breakup of the Soviet Union nullified the main factor that justified the apartheid regime, besides the racist ideology itself. Many whites truly believed that the evil regime was necessary to protect their country from the Communist threat. In retrospect, everyone now speaks of ideological laxity, fatigue, a general feeling of "we can't go on this way" among the whites. The governing party had become a doormat, the economic situation deteriorated. There was a feeling that everything was falling apart, and masses of people were leaving the country.

In the 1980's, the authorities began to cancel some regulations of "the petty apartheid," which forbade blacks from sitting in public parks on white-only benches, or using telephone booths or public restrooms designated for use by whites. However, the fundamentals of discrimination, including the lack of a parliamentary vote for blacks, were supposed to remain unchanged. But the willingness to nibble at the foundations of apartheid seems to have done to South Africa what perestroika did to the Soviet Union. The authorities were unable to control the narrow cracks that opened in the wall of repression, the cracks grew wider and the walls fell. The journalist and commentator Vessel de Kock explained to me that as more black workers were being allowed to live in close proximity to white-owned factories, over time a mixed economy developed: The political system was no longer suited to the economic situation and therefore had to be changed. Meanwhile, the ANC was growing stronger.

Colin Eglin, a veteran parliamentarian, told me that Frederik Willem de Klerk, the last white president, decided to hold talks with the blacks shortly before he lost everything. Nelson Mandela accepted the offer shortly before he was to win everything. The result was a uniquely realistic compromise. Many whites in South Africa, if not all, and numerous foreign observers, assumed that with the collapse of apartheid, the blacks would rise up, drive out the whites, and slaughter any that stayed behind, to avenge centuries of racism, during which the evil was, at its height, equivalent to that of the Nazis. That this did not happen is referred to by some as "the miracle of South Africa."

I spent some time asking people to explain this "miracle" to me, but I eventually stopped. The question itself shows a prejudice, journalist Zubeida Jaffer told me. We aren't a primitive tribe of man-eaters. She suggested I read the ANC publications dating back to its inception in the early 20th century, and especially the freedom charter it adopted in the early `50s. The movement had never threatened to kill the whites. On the contrary, it had always called for reestablishing life on the basis of full equality, calling for South Africa to be a state of all its citizens, blacks and whites and all the others too.

Jaffer is a well-known political commentator. We sailed to Robben Island, where Mandela was held prisoner for 18 of the 27 years of his incarceration. On the way there, she spoke of her own arrest and torture. As a talented reporter with good sources, she was able to report exclusive news about the black struggle. The authorities suspected her of belonging to an underground organization, and had her arrested. The interrogators threatened to rape her - but did not do so, although they did beat her, and forced her to swallow a drug that caused nausea, and pain all over her body. At the time of her second arrest, she was pregnant. The interrogators threatened to "burn her fetus," but she was released before her daughter's birth. Only recently has she begun to recover. Prior to her arrest, Jaffer was allowed to visit prisoners held on Robben Island together with Mandela. The current visit to the prison as a tourist, with me, provoked strange feelings.

Island of Good Hope

Robben Island has served as a place of detention almost from the day Vasco de Gama dropped anchor there 500 years ago, as a quarantine camp for slaves and lepers, and a prison for criminal convicts and political opponents. Some of the men imprisoned together with Mandela now serve as guides, sharing their memories with the tourists. At the height of the tour, the visitor arrives at Mandela's cell.

Conditions were harsh, and the wardens abusive. Mandela and his comrades spent part of the time working in a nearby quarry; the dazzling light severely damaged his eyesight. The long years on Robben Island had an effect on his worldview: the prolonged struggle for improving prison conditions made him more acutely realistic, taught him to better assess what can and cannot be achieved, judge when to be stubborn and when to yield.

The more the whites withdrew from their positions, the more the security forces demanded that any settlement be conditioned upon a blanket amnesty for anyone involved in the crimes of apartheid, including expulsions, liquidations, faked terrorist attacks, torture, murder, rape, plunder and corruption. At one stage, the talks nearly broke down over this demand. Several army leaders threatened to start a civil war. On this point, the nation's jurists, including Justice Minister Dullah Omar, seem to have played a significant role. Albie Sachs' wisdom and prestige also aided in resolving this disagreement.

A blanket amnesty was out of the question, of course, Sachs explained to me. But the controversy threatened the acceptance of the new constitution, which may be the best and most righteous constitution in the world. Its acceptance saved South Africa from a civil war and perhaps from complete destruction. Sachs feels the constitution was worth conceding on the sensitive issue of granting amnesty to apartheid criminals. After much effort, the sides reached a compromise: no blanket amnesty - instead, separate discussion of each and every case as part of the TRC hearings. Along with granting amnesty, the commission was also authorized to rule on compensation to victims of the regime.

Amnesty seekers had to comply with two main conditions: First, they had to disclose the truth about their crimes, although they were not required to express remorse. Second, they had to prove that their acts were performed as part of their political position. This was new: Most people accused of crimes against humanity defend themselves by arguing that "they were only carrying out orders." This line of defense has not been accepted, partially because of the duty of refusing a blatantly illegal order. In South Africa, they took the opposite course: Anyone who could prove he committed the acts while serving the country, or even while serving its political ideology, qualified for amnesty. Many of those harmed by apartheid, especially the families of its victims, had a hard time accepting the idea of criminals going unpunished. Sachs is not happy with the amnesty arrangement, either, even though he had much influence on its acceptance.

Sachs told me about the day that a man named Henry appeared in his chambers. A former South African army officer, he told Sachs that he had been involved in gathering the intelligence prior to the booby-trapping of Sachs' car. Sachs tried to draw him out: He was an excellent officer who evidently believed he was dispatching a dangerous enemy. They sat together for nearly two hours. "He looked at me almost with a measure of jealousy. I was a judge of the Constitutional Court, and he had been cast aside and was unemployed. He too had injuries, he told me. He had been shot in the leg and walked with a slight limp. We could have gone on eyeing each other and talking forever. I stood up and said: `Henry, (a cheap emotion surged in me. I was tempted to say: `I cannot shake your hand. You know why.') I cannot shake your hand now. Go to the TRC, tell them your story, do something for South Africa and then maybe we'll meet again.' He looked so uncomfortable, uneasy and sad when he left."

Henry is one of thousands of witnesses who have appeared before the commission and requested amnesty. The two men eventually did see each other again, at which time Sachs shook the other's hand. Sachs did not ask if Henry had received amnesty. He thinks he did. The number of amnesty recipients is relatively low: about 2,000 of the 7,000 who applied for it. The granting of amnesty has not added much luster to the commission's prestige, and in retrospect, along with its successes it has had its weaknesses. Mary Burton, a member of the commission, told me about them.

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