On South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation

Q.: Let me put it this way; you do read newspapers and watch TV, not so?
A.: Yes I do read newspapers and I do watch television.
Q.: I assume that you know about this Truth & Reconciliation Commission that is going on, of which Amnesty is part thereof?
A.: Yes I heard.
Q.: Do you know that this is done by the Government to foster or to promote reconciliation in the country?
A.: Yes I do know that.
Q.:What is your attitude about this reconciliation process?
A.: I don’t have any comment on that one.
Q.: Do you believe in reconciliation?
A.: Yes I do believe.

The witness’s refusal to forgive or to support the granting of amnesty thus is met with attempts to convince her that her attitude will harm her country’s rebuilding efforts. A more harsh interpretation—based on the possibility that the commissioner did not really seek to move the witness by invoking national reconciliation efforts—is to see the exchange of questions and answers as motivated by a wish to publicly shame or belittle the unforgiving relative by attempting to position her as “unenlightened.” In any event, the questioning aims to pressure or intimidate the witness. It is striking that we hear no words that could reassure dissenters that their sentiments and demands are legitimate as such and that the TRC, despite its preference and support of the suspension of those demands, could still recognize them as genuinely moral in nature. It is also worth noting that giving up resentment and a desire for retribution or revenge does not imply a support for amnesty—unless of course one assumes that the only reason for the state to punish criminals is to satisfy the crime victim’s desires for vengeance or even punishment proper. The contrast between the warm and welcoming responses given to forgiving victims and the range of responses given to their unforgiving counterparts can also be illustrated with the following example. During Bettina Mdlalose’s testimony about the killing of her son in an HRV hearing in Durban, Vryheid, on April 16, 1997, the following exchange occurred:

COMMISSIONER: But one other thing that’s an objective of this Commission is that after we have ventilated about the atrocities that were committed to us, is that we should reconcile as the community of South Africa at large. The perpetrators, those who committed those atrocities to you, killed your son, according to our records haven’t come forth for amnesty, or perhaps sending us to you for forgiveness. But one question I would like to ask is that, if today those perpetrators could come forth and say, “Commission, because you exist today, we would like to go and meet Mrs. Mdlalose to ask for forgiveness,” would you be prepared to meet with the perpetrators? I know they haven’t come forward, they have not even admitted an application for amnesty, but still we would like to ask from you, to get a view from you that if they come to you and ask for forgiveness would you be prepared to sit down with them, shake hands with them, and reconcile with them? Would you be prepared to talk to them?

MRS.MDLALOSE: I don’t think I will allow such an opportunity.

COMMISSIONER: Thanks. Thank you for responding, because you just told us what you feel from inside. But do not feel bad . . .

Thomas Brudholm, Resentment’s Virtue

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