Theatre of pain and catharsis

With Archbishop Tutu in the lead role the first sessions of the truth commission were like theatre, but for many it was the chance to release the pain of the past, writes David Beresford

THE name of Karl Andrew Webber does not feature large in the story of South Africa’s liberation struggle. But as he sat there, clutching at the stump of his missing arm in the light filtering through stained-glass windows, there was a sense that he had carved out a small place for himself in South Africa’s history books.

The huge burgundy curtains on the stage in East London’s city hall provided a fitting backdrop for the 17 truth commissioners when they set about uncovering the horrors of the apartheid era on Monday. From the moment Archbishop Desmond Tutu clambered up onto the stage to light a “candle of remembrance” the proceedings smacked more of theatrical performance than judicial inquiry.

In the theatrical tradition there was even a publicity poster, a huge banner strung across the stage announcing the production: “Truth & Reconciliation Commission — Healing our Past.” They even stalled to make sure the audience was in place; “Arch” — as the Anglican primate likes to be known — announcing a few minutes’ delay to give SATV time to cross to East London.

Then, being more of an archbishop than a theatrical producer, or chairman of commissions, he led his congregation in a Xhosa hymn before delivering a short homily. “We are charged to unearth the truth about our dark past; to lay the ghosts of that past so that they may not return to haunt us. That it may thereby contribute to the healing of a traumatised and wounded nation; for all of us in South Africa are wounded people.”

They were familiar ghosts which were paraded across the stage. The first was one of the best-known of South Africa’s litany of deaths in detention — that of Mapetla Mohapi, a close friend and colleague of Steve Biko. His widow, Nohle Mohapi, recounted the story with the familiarity of a tale often told since that night in 1976 when a police officer, “Fouche”, knocked at her door and announced: “I am here to tell you that Mapetla hanged himself with a pair of jeans.”

But, for all the familiarity, there was the recollection of passionate certainty in her voice as she recounted how she remonstrated with Fouche: “He was a person with a vision for the future. He had plans for his life, for his family and his country as a whole. I said: No, not Mapetla!”

Taken to the mortuary to identify his body she was confronted by a black policeman who laughed. “They call themselves leaders and they kill themselves!” he taunted her. One does not make jokes about death, Mrs Mohapi reminded the commissioners, adding with the weary remembrance of long time past: “I really realised then that it was a long journey that we were going to make.”

And so the performance rolled on. Or was it performance? At times it seemed more a group therapy session. The lawyers leading the evidence had been instructed by the commission to let the witnesses talk, in the hope it would bring them a personal catharsis.

And the catharsis was there, as the women let loose their pain with accounts of the years of struggle raising children without fathers, suffering detention and beatings themselves and endlessly searching for the truth of what had happened to their loved ones and a chance to bury them.

The widows of the “Pepco 3” took the stand to tell of the mysterious phone call that summoned their husbands to the airport to meet a non-existent British consular official, never to be seen again. Robert Kohl, his wife Cecelia at his side, described how police opened fire on a funeral procession, killing their eldest son, Bully. At the mortuary “I could feel the cold had already crept into his body and I had to leave to be alone and think about it.”

“I wish the commission could give me a tombstone for Siphiwe,” Toni Lillian Mazwai said of her son, killed in a shootout with police in the Transkei. Nombwyselo Mhlawuli just wanted a chance to bury her husband’s hand which was chopped off when he was killed. She had heard it was being kept somewhere in Port Elizabeth, in a bottle. Nomonde Calata had been told that her husband’s body was found with his hair pulled out, his fingers amputated and his tongue “was very long”.

Nomonde’s tears forced an adjournment and when the commission re-assembled “Arch” led them in the funeral lament, Senzeni Na ? —“What have we done?” intoned the interpreter over the translator’s earphones worn by the press. “What have we done? Our sin is kindness …” And soon there were more tears, “Arch” breaking down and weeping as Singqokwana Malgas told of the police torture that had put him in his wheel chair, of the acid that had killed his son …

Judicial commission? Church service? Theatre? Group therapy? Funeral? In the end, as in the beginning, it was none of those things. Because somehow it was all defined on the first day by that quiet little man, Karl Andrew Webber. Burly with closely-cropped hair and sporting a shabby track-suit top, he was the picture of that stereotype which is the white South African; a rugby player perhaps – — a hooker, surely?

In fact he was an animal-welfare inspector who had made the mistake of going to a local bar for a drink on May Day in 1993 with a friend who had just flown in from Cape Town. The friend died with five others when the masked gunman walked into the bar and opened fire with an assault rifle.

“My life changed overnight,” Webber said, describing his battle with his surviving, mutilated arm to dress, feed, bath and shave himself and to survive on state aid of R410 a month. “I’ve accepted it and I have to carry on with the daily routine of my life,” he said.

An official from the commission — a black, middle-aged woman — sat next to Webber as he spoke, a comforting arm around his shoulder.

What was his attitude towards the truth inquiry, asked a commissioner? “Hopefully it is the start of a new beginning,” he replied.

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