South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, a series of hearings held between 1996 and 1998, allowed perpetrators of heinous crimes under apartheid to be pardoned as long as they confessed and could prove they were politically motivated.
“South Africans chose to exchange prosecutions for truth-telling, via a conditional amnesty process – offering amnesty for truth. It did not accomplish the level of truth that many sought and numerous questions about the past remain unanswered. It did, however, result in the disclosure of a significant amount of truth – and opened the way for an ongoing quest for truth which has been vigorously promoted through the media and public debate,” says Charles Villa-Vicencio in his chapter in Public Media and the Right to Memory: Towards an Encounter with Justice (2012).
The public avidly followed the TRC hearings. Initially, they were going to be heard in camera, but the intervention of 23 non-governmental organisations gained access for the media. As a result, live radio was broadcast throughout and a few high-profile hearings were also televised live. The rest of the hearings were shown on television in hour-long episodes every Sunday from April 1996 to June 1998. By the time the TRC had completed its work, a total of 5,392 amnesty applications had been refused and 849 granted.
For many different reasons, amnesty was widely accepted as the only way the nation could begin to recover from apartheid. But South Africa is currently facing a new challenge with the release on parole of Eugene de Kock – former commander of the apartheid government’s infamous Vlakplaas unit, a police squad responsible for unimaginable horrors. De Kock admitted to more than 100 acts of murder, torture and fraud. He also took responsibility for the actions of undercover officers who carried out his orders. Sentenced in 1996 to two life sentences – and a further 212 years in prison – de Kock is to be released after serving 20 years in prison.
On the one hand, 20 years of atonement in prison, apparently having expressed remorse and contrition, are grounds for society to relent. On the other, individuals in other countries and contexts who have committed grievous crimes may not benefit from any leniency. In a world where octogenarians are being prosecuted for crimes against humanity – Cambodia and Germany come to mind – a 66-year-old man in South Africa is being released simply for good behaviour. Whereas in Greece, leaders of the far-right Golden Dawn party are facing trial and could be imprisoned for 20 years merely for participating in a “criminal organisation”.
According to the country’s justice minister, it is “in the interests of nation building”, and in the hope that de Kock will assist with unsolved cases. The authorities say de Kock has co-operated openly and honestly with investigators searching for the remains of anti-apartheid activists. Overtones here of Northern Ireland and the IRA.
Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela is senior research professor in trauma, memory, and forgiveness at the University of the Free State. In her book, A Human Being Died That Night: A South African Story of Forgiveness(2003), which includes accounts of her interviews with de Kock, she argues that the TRC process challenged the notion of acts that are unforgivable and for which no atonement can be made. The TRC affirmed apology and forgiveness for the kind of evil that Immanuel Kant described as “a radical perversity of the human heart”.
“A genuine apology focuses on the feelings of the other rather than on how the one who is apologizing is going to benefit in the end. It seeks to acknowledge full responsibility for an act, and does not use self-serving language to justify the behaviour of the person asking forgiveness. A sincere apology does not seek to erase what was done. No amount of words can undo past wrongs. Nothing can ever reverse injustices committed against others. But an apology pronounced in the context of horrible acts has the potential for transformation.”
There are those who think that Eugene de Kock was the scapegoat for the political and social hierarchy of apartheid South Africa and that there is a deep current of denial beneath the surface of South African society. We know from the USSR, the GDR, and even Northern Ireland that the State authorised crimes and that thousands of petty betrayals condoned their actions. While Verwoerd is recognised as the “Architect of Apartheid”, and the hands of Vorster and Botha drip blood, apartheid was sustained by brutality on a grand scale and only one of its henchmen was Eugene de Kock.
Is this merely another kind of prescriptive forgetting – edicts that say it is inadvisable to remember and that recommend that people forget? Or is it another step on the path to genuine reconciliation? Only time will tell.