Four white men and truth

The Mark Gevisser Profile

Why, I asked Minister of Justice Dullah Omar, did he think that, of all the issues before our first Government of National Unity, the one that nearly brought the whole damn house tumbling down was his Truth and Reconciliation Bill?

“All of us involved in this bill,” he replied with those sad, Basset eyes so perfectly suited to truth and reconciliation, “are forced to look at ourselves, to see whether we, personally, are living up to the standards we hope to set in the legislation. It is a painful process”.

Paraphrase: it’s not just about politics; it’s about Freud and Christ, about repressed memory, confession and redemption. It’s about needing to deal, or not being able to deal, with the past.
Those legendary 300 hours the Select Committee on Justice sat were not simply about horse trading—they were an intense course of psychoanalysis.

Once the Truth Commission is up and running, Omar hopes it will trigger “a time of national soul searching”. It’s going to be a tough time, particularly for white men. White people, and specifically white men, have perhaps a far more complex and ambivalent relationship—and thus, perhaps, more of an attraction or repulsion—to the memory of this country’s history. Here, then, are four white men, intimately involved in the process, talking about truth.

Father Michael Lapsley

Exactly two months after Nelson Mandela was released, Father Michael Lapsley, a New Zealand-born Anglican priest with the African National Congress in Harare, received a letter, on ANC stationery, telling him to expect books from South Africa. A few days later, two parcels arrived. The first contained a religious book, the second a bomb which blinded him in one eye, blew one of his hands off, and left the other severely mangled.

In Australia, as part of pre-operative counselling before his second hand was amputated, he was seen by a psychologist. She turned out to be a white South African. “Suddenly,” recalls Lapsley, “there was this fascinating role-reversal; now she was the client and I the father- confessor. She experienced some sense of collective responsibility, a sense in which she saw herself as an indirect party to the bombing.”

Lapsley now works as the chaplain for the deliberately uneuphemistically named Trauma Centre for the Victims of Violence and Torture. He is appalled at the lack of contrition among those who were in power when he lost his hands. Unlike that psychologist, they, “the perpetrators, have the audacity to tell the victims, ‘it is your job to forgive and forget,’ while at the same time refusing to acknowledge that they have been party to evil”.

“Just by existing,” he says, waving about the metal pincers that have replaced his hands, “I am a problem to the forgive-and-forget crowd. Priest, white, no hands. If I’m dead there’s not a problem, you can deny it all; bury the evidence. But I’m living, I’m a big problem.”

And he intends to remain one. He is already unhappy that we have only a Truth and Reconciliation Commission rather than a “Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Commission. No trials mean no justice. Personally, I would say it would be better if we had trials and then amnesty. You’d have the truth, and then you’d say, well justice is that you are sentenced for 10 or 20 years, but in the interests of reconciliation we’ll give you amnesty.”

His is the language of confession, absolution and redemption, “of bringing good out of evil, life out of death”. He is irritated with “cheap reconciliation”. In the New Testament, he says, “the Greek word for forgiveness is the same as that for untying a knot”. Both involve hard work, particularly if you have no hands.

Danie Schutte

When, asks Danie Schutte exasperatedly, “are we going to be done with all this recrimination? For how long are we going to hear that we did this and that and the other?” It has poisoned even his own family. He has two kids at university and two in high school: “I’ve been confronted by three of my kids with the accusation, ‘Why was apartheid there? I’m waiting for the fourth one to come with the same

How does the National Party’s Justice Committee leader answer his own children? Exactly as he does his political opponents: “I was not the architect of this system. I got it. Basically, we are the ones who dismantled it, who moved away from it.” No guilt, no responsibility.

He has been in parliament, on and off, since 1977, when he was elected MP for Pietermaritzburg North. Has he ever had a personal moment of reconciliation? He is hard-pressed to think of one. “I have never been a racist. If anyone can argue with me and tell me I was one, I’d like to know on what grounds ...”

If anyone is personally responsible for the the hundreds of hours of deliberation in the Justice Committee, it is Danie Schutte. He is perhaps the most belligerent of the NP backbenchers, and has made a name for himself, this first year, as one of the party’s fiercest opponents of the ANC. He has been identified as one of those positioning himself to take up the reins of the tough “new right” of the Party.

His more uncharitable opponents accuse him of using the Truth and Reconciliation debate cynically, to relaunch his political career (he was Minister of Home Affairs in the De Klerk government). Says one source close to the NP: “He was trying to show the NP caucus that he could get more concessions out of the ANC than the softies in cabinet. The battle over the Truth Commission has been one long and extended media opportunity for him. No wonder he didn’t want it to end.”

Schutte feels victorious: his doggedness has ensured that the commission will no longer be a “witch hunt in the service of vengeance, but rather an instrument for reconciliation”. Also, very importantly, it will be “even- handed in its approach to both sides”.

He says he has come to believe that “a Truth and Reconciliation Commission is the only way forward, because it is a way of getting the past out of the way”.

Granted, Schutte is a second-language English speaker. But listen carefully: “It is essential that this country turns to the future and turns its back on the past.”

Alex Boraine

In the mid-1980s, while he was still a Member of Parliament, Alex Boraine went to visit Dullah Omar in jail. It was their first meeting, and the radical lawyer did not mince his words. “He asked me,” recalls Boraine, “who I thought I was, coming to see him in jail and then going back to my white parliament to stand up and make speeches while he was banned from speaking?”

Nine years later, on the day after Omar took office as Minister of Justice, he phoned Boraine and asked him to come in and talk about the establishment of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

Reconciliation in motion. Boraine was one of the Act’s primary drafters. He will probably be appointed to the Commission and, if he weren’t white, he would be a shoo-in for its chairmanship—a position that is more likely to go to a high-level black cleric (the names of Desmond Tutu and Frank Chikane are much bandied about).

Briefly and powerfully, he scorched white South African consciousness in 1986 when he, together with Van Zyl Slabbert, walked out of parliament. It was, to some, an intense betrayal, to others an intense acknowledgment of prior complicity. It figures that he would make “Truth and Reconciliation” his life’s work: he epitomises white guilt.

The Truth Commission, he says, “will give a shared memory to the people of South Africa. It will give ordinary people a record of what they stood for and what they were punished

The face of the state is one of hostility—the hostility of a police station, a hospital, a morgue when you are looking for your lost son. “It may sound romantically idealistic, but if a group of people appointed by the President of South Africa offer you a cup of tea and ask you to tell your story, you’re now going to be seeing a face of the state that is sympathetic, reassuring, healing

Thank heavens for the self-concious romanticism of

Willie Hofmeyr

In 1989 Willie Hofmeyr went on hunger strike for 28 days. The previous year, he had been locked up in solitary confinement for six months. He is the chuckling master of wry understatement: “We tried to keep things as cool as possible,” he says of the Justice Committee where, as the ranking ANC member after chairman Johnny de Lange, he has been responsible for bringing out the ANC heavy artillery. “But there were times when having to plead and negotiate for a Truth Commission with the perpetrators of crimes against humanity did get one down.”

Hofmeyr, like his primary adversary Danie Schutte, is an Afrikaner. He went “striaght out of school to the army, full of naive enthusiasm. But the army radicalised me more than anything. I was in the Transvaal and it was the first place I experienced hardcore racism. Things are much more gentle here in the Cape.”

In the 1970s he was banned, in the 1980s he was a United Democratic Front leader. Now he is one of the ANC’s egghead lawyers, a steely determination masked by his affable, nerdlike demeanour. He no longer sees himself as a victim in need of healing: “I was plunged into that work when I had to make arrangements for the first Groote Schuur meeting. There I was, sitting face to face with policemen I had had a particularly bad relationship with, and having to come to agreement.”

But, he acknowledges, his own experiences have given him a very sharp sense of how “the experiences of victims need to be validated. With all these negotiations and the transition, victims have been left by the wayside, and that’s just not on”.

Did Hofmeyr and his ANC colleagues sell justice down the river by acceding to so many of the NP’s demands? “How ever much justice might require it,” he said, “the one compromise is that we’re not going to have Nuremburg-type trials in South Africa. This might be against what international human rights and norms require from us, but the ANC accepted that very early on. I certainly did. A negotiations process means having to work with and live with and build together with people who treated us very badly in the past.”

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