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Fierce emotions as S. Africa seeks peace

Special to the National Catholic Reporter
Durban, South Africa

On the day that Nelson Mandela's government reached the halfway mark of its first term in office, three grim-faced young men listened, distraught, to the history of their fathers.

Two black men heard gruesome details of how their fathers were butchered. The third sat through his father's confession of the part he played in this slaughter.

Mbasa Mxenge, Sizwe Kondile and "Klein (Little) Dirk" Coetzee were part of the audience at hearings of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, an independent body under Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu set up to inquire into apartheid atrocities. The commission is one of the Mandela government's biggest gambles.

Soon after it won power in South Africa's first democratic elections two years ago, Nelson Mandela's African National Congress government made the risky decision to deal with apartheid crimes through public hearings.

Two other options were urged on Mandela at the time -- sweep the past under the carpet in the name of national reconciliation or prosecute perpetrators to the full extent of the law in Nuremberg-style trials.

The soft option appealed strongly to many whites, some of whom said claims of apartheid atrocities were lies and that the former South African government had done nothing of which it should be ashamed.

No national amnesia

However, rank and file members of Mandela's African National Congress party balked at the idea of what they viewed as national amnesia. They wanted the atrocities they and their families had suffered to be heard and acknowledged. A small but articulate lobby urged high-profile trials of apartheid architects along with its killer squads and torturers. But Mandela's government overruled these demands in the name of reconciliation.

More pragmatically, it had to veto Nuremberg-style court cases, since the new government was not the victor in a war, but rather a partner in a negotiated settlement. The other parties to the settlement made it clear that the deal was off without minimal guarantees of immunity.

All parties -- some with more enthusiasm than others -- ultimately backed the establishment of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Now halfway through its two-year mandate, the commission has been hearing testimony from victims and perpetrators while its subcommittees deal with other crucial issues such as restitution and amnesty.

Months of wrenching stories seem to have had some effect in bringing about reconciliation, but the commission is limited in the number of cases it can handle. Many churches are making plans to continue the process in other ways once the commission hearings have ended.

Perpetrators, like "Klein Dirk" Coetzee's father, Dirk, a former captain in the South African police, may be given amnesty if they confess fully before the mid-December cutoff date. That date may be extended to March.

The commission's panel of judges and lawyers considers these applications for amnesty. A grant of amnesty ensures immunity from prosecution and civil claims -- a considerable attraction since many people who have lost breadwinners or suffered in other ways could otherwise be entitled to massive awards.

Qualifying for amnesty

To qualify for amnesty, perpetrators must satisfy a number of requirements. For example, their actions must have been carried out with a political motive. Confession carries the risk that amnesty might be refused if these conditions are not satisfied. If perpetrators do not confess and are subsequently charged, they will have to serve the full sentence handed down by the court and face financial ruin if they are sued.

Information coming out of public applications for amnesty made by former government security operatives has left no more room for disbelief about atrocities committed during the apartheid years. Many ostrich-headed whites, however, still refuse to read reports of these hearings and complain that the commission's work is a witch-hunt.

Self-confessed killers such as Coetzee and other senior ranking officers have told how they blew up church buildings, including the Johannesburg headquarters of the South African Council of Churches in 1988, on the instructions of the former state president.

Through double agents they supplied "doctored" hand grenades to antiapartheid activists, who blew themselves up when they removed deliberately defective pins.

In one application, former officers recounted setting a fatal ambush for groups of activists trying to leave the country to join the then-banned ANC. Lured to an isolated spot, the group was injected with knockout drops manufactured in police laboratories, then blown up by explosives.

Another police team confessed to torturing three ANC suspects to death by electrocution, then placing their bodies on land mines and blowing them up to remove any evidence. After each explosion, the body parts were gathered up and bombed again, to ensure that nothing remained.

A typical story concerns Durban lawyer Griffiths Mxenge, who like his lawyer wife, Victoria, was long suspected by the government of being an underground agent of the ANC. According to Coetzee, in 1981 a special section of the security forces was ordered to get rid of Mxenge. Coetzee was instructed to make sure his death looked like a robbery and so none of the usual security police methods could be used.

Coetzee brought a squad of killers from a secret police training center on the other side of the country. First, Mxenge's dogs were poisoned. Then, some days later, he was hijacked on his way home from work and taken to a deserted township sports stadium. There they systematically slaughtered him with knives, slicing off his ears, disemboweling him and cutting his throat.

As Coetzee described the killing frenzy of 45 stab wounds inflicted on Mxenge, his son Mbasa left the hall, unable to bear the details. Shortly after his father's assassination, his mother was also murdered, shot and axed to death in front of their home. So far no one has claimed responsibility. Mxenge's brother says Mbasa has suffered grievous psychological damage and still cannot cope with his parents' deaths.

Bantu Kondile, 16, sat unflinching during the rest of Coetzee's tale. Bantu was only a year old at the time his father, Sizwe, was captured by police while returning to South Africa from Lesotho. He was given knockout drops and then shot in the head. Four junior officers picked up the corpse, put it on a pile of wood and tires and set fire to it.

They stood around for hours, drinking beer and barbecuing meat, while the body burned. As Coetzee explained, it takes about seven hours to dispose of a body this way. "The buttocks and upper part of his legs had to be turned frequently during the night to make sure it all burnt," he said.

For "Klein Dirk" Coetzee, listening to the evidence was no less traumatic than for the Mxenge sons and others. This 20-year-old fled the country with his father and younger brother in 1989 when allegations of police hit squads first surfaced. They have spent more than three years in exile.

He says he believes what his father did "was not wrong at the time." The country was fighting a war, and his father, he says, was acting on the instructions of his superiors -- officers, he notes angrily, who are now letting the fighting men take the rap.

An almost daily litany of officially sanctioned murders, such as those of Mxenge and Kondile, has numbed and sickened the public.

Mxenge's family strongly oppose amnesty for his killers. They have taken their objection to the Constitutional Court, claiming unsuccessfully that amnesty provisions infringe their constitutional rights to charge and claim compensation from his murderers.

Whites face the evidence

Faced with the mass of evidence before the commission, more whites are having to acknowledge what was done in their name under apartheid. "When we were young people in Europe, we found it hard to believe Germans who said they did not know what the Nazis were doing in their extermination camps," said one European immigrant. "Now I am asking myself the same question: How was it that I did not know what the apartheid government was doing?"

But responses to these revelations vary: A former military officer said the police now confessing their actions should not have to take responsibility. "They were simply following orders during a war," he said. "What else could they have done?"

National surveys have found that more than half of those interviewed believe perpetrators now giving evidence to the commission ought to be brought to trial. While the majority support the work of the commission, there is deep division about whether amnesty should be granted for serious human rights violations. A third of whites felt the commission favored the black population; not a single black respondent shared this view.

The hearings have brought together people who previously shared a very different relationship. The former secretary general of the Southern African Catholic Bishops' Conference, Fr. Smangaliso Mkhatshwa, now deputy minister of education in Mandela's government, met his former torturers at a recent hearing. Listening to the policemen's evidence of some 16 murders, attempted murders, kidnappings and bomb explosions in which they were involved, Mkhatshwa commented that when he was being tortured and interrogated, "these men were God Almighty."

"I was scared of them. They were very powerful people. Suddenly now that I see them here they are very ordinary human beings," Mkhatshwa said.

He put aside memories of his prolonged detention, including a particularly brutal 30-hour torture, and shook hands with the policemen involved, saying he hoped their confession would help restore their humanity.

Other victims appear more psychologically damaged than Mkhatshwa. A special session held for women victims produced horrific evidence of rape and abuse. Some women spoke of rats being shoved into their vaginas. Others had boiling water poured into them. Another told of the lips of her genitals being sliced off. One woman was gang-raped by some 20 men while her husband was forced to watch. Her womb was later removed in emergency surgery, and she says she and her husband can no longer speak to each other.

Many victims have not been able to name their torturers. But in some cases where the perpetrators are known, the response of the affected communities has been extraordinarily generous.

The people at Trust Feeds settlement, for example, did not turn their backs on former police captain Brian Mitchell, who appeared at a recent amnesty committee hearing. Mitchell had been sentenced to death for his part in an attack on the settlement, thought to be a stronghold of anti-apartheid supporters, which left many women and children dead. His sentence was later commuted to life imprisonment when South Africa outlawed the death penalty.

His appearance before the amnesty committee turned into one of the emotional high-points of the commission's work so far. Weeping copiously, Mitchell asked members of the community, many of whom had turned out to listen to his evidence, to forgive him. They said they would willingly do so if he committed himself to work with survivors of the massacre for the development and reconstruction of the village, a task to which Mitchell had already promised to devote himself.

Mitchell -- who became a born-again Christian while on death row -- has since been granted amnesty and released.

Requests from survivors to the reparations subcommittee include mostly symbolic gestures such as financial help from the government to erect a gravestone for a relative now known to have died at the hands of police; a wheelchair for someone left paralyzed by police action; or psychological counseling. One mother said, "All I want is to know where my child has been buried." Another asked for police to return the only photograph she had of her son, killed during interrogation in detention. A third requested the return of her husband's hand, allegedly stored in a specimen jar at police headquarters.

Difficulties remain

Despite their undoubted success so far, the commission faces twin difficulties: persuading more supporters of the former government to apply for amnesty and persuading supporters of the present government, many of whom had been involved in bombings and other guerrilla activities aimed at ending apartheid, to do the same.

Many former apartheid operatives are leaving their applications to the last minute, apparently hoping that they will not be incriminated in anyone else's evidence and may then safely risk not applying for amnesty. The African National Congress also has dragged its feet about amnesty. This obvious reluctance recently led Archbishop Tutu to threaten to resign if the ANC did not cooperate. He said the commission's task would be made impossible if it were seen to be presiding over a "one-sided affair."

In a year-end survey of the work of the commission so far, he said the reluctance of political leaders "of all persuasions" to submit applications for amnesty was the commission's greatest concern. His commission could probably "get to the truth without them" because of the number of subordinates volunteering information. "But in hiding behind their foot soldiers, political leaders are squandering an important opportunity for reconciliation."

He added that if the leaders of both sides took the moral high ground and accepted full responsibility for their actions, it would reduce the potential for future conflict and recriminations that "could poison our national life for generations."

Trying to deal with the reluctance of former ANC guerrillas to apply for amnesty, he said, "The law doesn't require them to express remorse: They can come to the amnesty committee and say, for example, that they fought a noble struggle for liberation but that, because they opened themselves to prosecutions or civil action as a result, they are asking for amnesty."

Tutu and his commission have asked the government to change two crucial dates: to extend the deadline for amnesty applications from Dec. 14 to mid-March and to bring forward the cutoff date for incidents qualifying for amnesty. A number of acts of violence were committed between the present December 1993 cutoff date and Mandela's inauguration as president on May 10, 1994. The commission has recommended that these acts should also qualify to be considered for amnesty.

(A spokesperson at the South African embassy in Washington, in a Dec. 23 phone interview, said Mandela had agreed to ask for an extension of the deadline for amnesty applications until May 10 and to recommend that his inauguration date be the cutoff date for incidents qualifying for amnesty. The South African parliament reportedly will take up both requests when it reconvenes in February.)

In the meantime, many church groups across the country will be spending much of their Christmas holidays continuing their role of counseling victims, an urgent and difficult task that has largely fallen on the nongovernmental community.

The churches face enormous challenges to complement the commission's work. Compared with the number of people traumatized by apartheid atrocities, few have been able to give their testimony in public because of the limited resources and lifespan of the commission. Plans are now being discussed among church leaders for a parallel process that would continue for some years after the commission comes to an end. In terms of these proposals, the churches would use opportunities such as worship services and Bible study groups to help many more people to tell their stories and experience the relief it appears to provide.

In addition, the hearings have stirred up many deep feelings in both white and black communities, which the commission, scheduled to last until the end of 1997, will be unable to resolve. Some church leaders believe the churches are uniquely placed to facilitate an ongoing process of reconciliation between former enemies. While little has yet been done to convert this need into reality, it is likely to become a focus for the churches in the future.

National Catholic Reporter, January 10, 1997