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Uneasy Truths And The Truth And Reconciliation Commission

An appearance before the TRC was not a joke.

South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission heard confessions from perpetrators of humn rights abuses from 1996.
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South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission heard confessions from perpetrators of humn rights abuses from 1996.

Translated Extract from Vereeniging -- Die Onvoltooide Vrede [Umuzi]

An appearance before the TRC was not a joke. Ghosts rising from the security rooms of the old government or possible surprises from the TRC files contributed to this ordeal. Proud soldiers and police officers on their knees before the TRC, pleading for amnesty, was not a pretty sight. Their actions I cannot defend; yet, I also cannot not condemn them -- we were after all on the same side of the conflict.

Jan Wagener, a well-known attorney who had appeared in many legal battles on behalf of the security forces and members of the security forces seeking amnesty, tells the story of the parents of one of the victims who requested a meeting with the applicants for amnesty. Their son had been shot in the head in cold blood when he did not want to co-operate with those who were now seeking amnesty.

Wagener arranged this meeting and the parents just had one question: "When you put to death our son, how did he react?" They answered: "He was a terrorist, but he was also a brave man. He looked us in the eye when we shot him." The parents were satisfied. They were proud of their son. He gave his life for the struggle of freedom and had died like a man. They thanked the applicants and walked away.

There are proud people, heroes, cowards, traitors, joiners and murderers and rapists on both sides of any conflict. Nobody arrives at the negotiating table pristine. In August 1996 I appeared with FW De Klerk before the TRC when he tabled the NP's submission. I was not expected to say anything. My appearance later was one of the most difficult of my public life.

From NP circles Pik Botha, Adriaan Vlok, Roelf Meyer and I were invited to share our experiences and explain how the State Security Council functioned. We appeared in October 1997. Piet Meiring, the TRC Commissioner, writes in his book, Kroniek van die Waarheidskommissie, that the TRC wanted us to explain how the SSC functioned and also to accept responsibility for the gross human rights violations committed in the name of the government. Each of us testified individually.

I was concerned, not about anything I did, but about the things I knew nothing about, but should possibly have known about.

This was an intellectual and emotional challenge; an exercise that I would not have liked to miss for anything. It was my historic duty to be there and to explain what had informed our decisions. It was also nerve-wracking: one moment you had power and the next moment you have to explain in public what you did with that power. When you had power, there were people around you -- generals, senior cabinet colleagues, lawyers and -- very importantly -- government resources.

When the moment arrived to give account, I was alone -- there was nobody to help with the preparation of my submission. I was on my own. I fretted: what will my children think; what is Erika's and Willem's experience of all of this? Will my conduct be of such a nature that they will be humiliated? Will the circumstances force them to ask: Is this my father? Is that what had kept him busy when he was absent from home? How is it possible that he didn't know?

The images from the movies of World War Two, where children were so disillusioned with their father's secret government activities, haunted me. What did you know? What did you not know? What should you have known? What will the TRC throw at you?

I was concerned, not about anything I did, but about the things I knew nothing about, but should possibly have known about. When I drove to Johannesburg on 15 October 1997 to participate in this public hearing, I was nervous but I also was very angry. Where were all the other caucus members? Probably still in bed and saying to themselves: "Well I was not involved. I had nothing to do with this."

I was infuriated with the great PW Botha. His disgruntled non-appearance before the TRC was a missed opportunity. With his former colleagues, government resources and a wealth of information at his disposal, he could have hijacked this process strategically, explaining what had informed us. He was the most suitable person to give the context of the conflict.

William F. Campbell/ The LIFE Images Collection/ Getty Images
Former President P.W. Botha.

Botha could have used the platform and turned the tables. What seemed like an embarrassment could have been transformed into an opportunity for the sake of those members of the security forces who had applied for amnesty. Without someone of his stature explaining the political context, they now had to do it for themselves.

Apartheid -- of that I now more convinced than ever before -- was a terrible mistake that blighted our land.

When Alex Boraine, the deputy chair of the TRC, called on me to take the oath, I declined -- contrary to what everybody from the National Party had done. I preferred to affirm that I would speak the truth. I didn't want to take the oath, because how was I to know that what I was about to say "was the truth and nothing but the truth." I could only offer them the truth as I knew it.

Before I started my submission -- we all had to hand in written submissions before we gave oral evidence -- I asked that my written submission be amended: "That whenever I used the 'we' it should be changed to 'I'. I did this because I wasn't sure everyone was going to agree with me.

Among other things, I said the following: "I can think of no reason why Afrikaans-speaking South Africans and their children or any other Afrikaner should carry the apartheid label till the end of time." And: "Apartheid -- of that I now more convinced than ever before -- was a terrible mistake that blighted our land. South Africans didn't listen to each other's laughing and crying. I am sorry that I had been so hard of hearing."

I also said: "Although direct orders to kill political opponents were never issued, speeches were made by members of the NP that created a climate for serious transgressions. I had suspicions about things that happened, and that had caused discomfort in official circles. Because I didn't have the facts to substantiate my suspicions, I must confess, I only whispered in the corridors."

To me, my appearance seemed like a very lame affair. I felt it was neither here nor there. When I arrived home, General Magnus Malan called: "I am proud of you, but I now want to give you some advice: lie low because there is still a Big Crocodile (PW Botha) lurking. Be on your guard."

I didn't know what this was all about but realised that I had touched a raw nerve. I declined all further opportunities to speak to the media and said that my statement spoke for itself.

Vereeniging: Die Onvoltooide Vrede