Why there is no easy way to dispose of painful history

R.W. Johnson

  • The Truth about the Truth Commission by Anthea Jeffery
    South African Institute of Race Relations, 167 pp, Rand (SA)89.95, July 1999, ISBN 0 86982 463 5

No book in recent South African history has attracted such venom as Anthea Jeffery’s analysis of the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. She has been accused of wanting to defend the apartheid past, of having a desire to hurt and humiliate black people and of much else besides. Yet none of her attackers has dared to take issue with her on the basis of fact or evidence – Jeffery’s scholarship is beyond reproach. She is one of the few people who have actually read the five volumes of the TRC Report and is probably the only one who has tested it against the evidence uncovered by the various judicial inquiries, special investigations and court cases which had – in far greater detail – covered much of the same ground as the TRC and their findings. Jeffery has, moreover, done something of the sort before. The Natal Story: Sixteen Years of Conflict (1997) displayed the same impressive scholarship and, with almost painful evenhandedness, sought to put forward the opposing interpretations of every incident in which Inkatha and the ANC had been protagonists, leaving the reader to make up his own mind. This was, in current South African terms, a brave thing to do, but it is as nothing compared to the courage required to lay bare the procedures of the TRC.

Although Jeffery commends the TRC for having exposed many apartheid atrocities and for having provided many former victims with the opportunity to tell their stories and achieve a certain catharsis, the overall effect of her work is to leave the Commission looking shoddy and untrustworthy. The TRC, she points out, was not content with what it termed ‘factual and objective truth’ but, at the urging of the radical activist Albie Sachs, now a Justice of the Constitutional Court, also came up with ‘social or dialogue truth’, established ‘through interaction, discussion and debate’, then added ‘narrative truth’ – victims’ recitations, including ‘perceptions, stories and myths’ – and, finally, ‘healing truth’. ‘Healing truth’ – ‘the kind ... that places facts and what they mean within the context of human relationships’ – was, the TRC said, ‘central’ to its work.

Armed with these four orders of truth, the TRC relied principally on the data provided by some 21,300 uncorroborated victim statements, none of them tested in cross-examination, and fewer than 10 per cent given on oath. There were also 7127 amnesty statements which did have to be verified, although only 1.4 per cent of them had been by the time the TRC came to its conclusions about culpability. The TRC itself actively sought out many victims – and then concentrated all its attention on the 9980 killings they proceeded to recount. Of these, the TRC concluded, the police were responsible for 2700, the ANC for 1300 and Inkatha for 4500 – leaving 1480 killings unexplained. However, the total number of killings between 1984 and 1994 was 20,500, 15,000 of which occurred in 1990-94, after the abolition of apartheid. There are some 12,000 killings, then, which the TRC made no attempt whatever to explain; many of them took place after Mandela’s release. It is thus possible that the TRC had a very partial and selective approach to the truth: what if other victims had been sought out? Inkatha has always insisted that more than four hundred of its leaders were killed by ANC hit squads – which would, if true, represent the largest hit squad operation of all – but this claim was not satisfactorily dealt with, because Inkatha refused to play any part in the Commission, regarding it as hopelessly biased from the outset.

The Commission did not help itself much in this respect: the overwhelming majority of commissioners were clearly disposed in favour of the ANC, as were all the members of the research department, which seems to have written the report. Commissioners frequently showed strong hostility towards witnesses they didn’t like (most famously F.W. de Klerk, to whom they had to make a public apology) and despite their statutory duty to remain even-handed, several of them announced sweeping verdicts long before they had heard all the evidence.

As Jeffery shows, the TRC repeatedly sought to override or ignore the findings of far more thorough judicial investigations, apparently on the basis of sheer political prejudice. Justice Richard Goldstone, for example, had conducted a major inquiry into the Sebokeng shootings of 1990, which concluded that a small police detachment, faced with a crowd of 50,000 demonstrators, had fired on them, killing five and wounding 161. Goldstone criticised the police, and the organisers of the demonstration, but found that the commanding officer, Captain Du Plooy, was innocent of criminal conduct, the problem lying rather with the undisciplined behaviour of his men, who had, unordered, loaded their weapons and opened fire. Nine policemen were prosecuted, six of them for murder. The TRC, without giving any reason, simply ignored Goldstone: 13 people, they said – at other times it’s eight or 17 – had been shot dead and 400 (or, later, 300) had been wounded. The TRC held Du Plooy ‘directly responsible’, failed to acknowledge Goldstone’s criticisms of the demonstration organisers and, ignoring the prosecution of the nine policemen, asserted that ‘no action’ had been taken.

Six months after the police killings in Sebokeng, aggrieved Inkatha supporters in the township, who had been expelled from their hostel by the ANC, attacked and killed 38 ‘mainly ANC’ supporters; 137 Inkatha supporters were then besieged by a crowd of 5000, calling for their blood. An Army detachment was sent to the scene and, according to Judge Stafford who conducted the inquiry into this incident, a young conscript had panicked and begun shooting. Other soldiers followed suit. Stafford described this behaviour as ‘inexcusable’ but wished, he said, to lay to rest the rumours that the Army had killed as many as 11 people: the correct figure was four. The TRC ignored these findings, saying only that the Army had killed 15 people and that the Inkatha supporters were entirely to blame. Their earlier expulsion from the hostel is mentioned only in passing.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

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