Back to Common Ground Archive


Program 9721
May 27, 1997


Brigalia Bam, Executive Director, South African Council of Churches

Alex Boraine, Vice Chairperson, Truth and Reconciliation Commission

This text has been professionally transcribed. However, for timely distribution, it has not been edited or proofread against the tape.

ALEX BORAINE, Vice Chairperson, Truth and Reconciliation Commission: We cannot achieve
reconciliation if we build it on lies and deceit and cover-up. So the truth is important, it
does free people to be real and start a new beginning.

KEITH PORTER, Producer: This week on Common Ground, a look at South Africa’s
Truth and Reconciliation process.

BRIGALIA BAM, Executive Director, South African Council of Churches: It might take
people a very, very long time to forgive and obviously people will never forget.

BORAINE: No government can forgive. No commission can forgive. Only I can forgive
because only I feel the pain.

PORTER: Common Ground is a program on world affairs and the people who shape
events. It’s produced by the Stanley Foundation. I’m Keith Porter.

South Africans have been rocked in recent months by the revelations raining down on them
about the horrors of the apartheid era. It’s all part of a very public process called Truth
and Reconciliation. Some South Africans describe the process as painful yet necessary. Others
just call it painful. Alex Boraine serves, along with Archbishop Desmond Tutu as Vice-chairperson
of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

BORAINE: So many countries who have moved from totalitarian regimes to a new democracy
have drawn a veil over the past and have been haunted by their past as a result. I know many
classic examples of this happening. Japan 50 years ago. Germany. So many others. And I think
the leaders in South Africa decided that this was something we couldn’t let alone. And in
particular to give back to victims and survivors of apartheid something of the dignity, their
social and human dignity, which they had lost, to give them an opportunity to publicly tell
their story. And to enable perpetrators of human rights violations to come clean so that we
could make a new beginning, and in particular that we can help to make sure it doesn’t happen
again in our country.

PORTER: It sounds so idealistic. And I’m not sure whether I mean that in a positive
sense or a negative sense. When you hear it described as idealistic do you take that as
criticism or as something positive?

BORAINE: Well it sounds as though you’re saying it’s not true. It can’t happen. And I
understand that because there’s a great deal of cynicism in my own country. And a great deal
of criticism and controversy surrounding the Commission. That’s very understandable because
the truth, and I’m not suggesting that we have “that truth,” but the truth of the past is very
disturbing. Disturbing for rulers and leaders, for security forces, for ordinary people,
because we have a very desperate, horrific past. And to lay the ghosts is not an easy thing to
do, and I don’t want to suggest for a moment that through this exercise, which is limited in
time and effort and resource and persons, that we are going to achieve reconciliation. What I
do think we cannot achieve, we cannot achieve reconciliation if we build it on lies and deceit
and cover-up. So the truth is important, it does free people to be real and to start a new
beginning. And I think if the Commission can do that, together with many, many other organizations
and people, and start a human rights culture in our country, which we’ve never had, then I
think it’s worthwhile.

BAM: I think it’s important to say that from the onset, we encouraged the Commission
very much.

PORTER: Our other guest is Brigalia Bam. She is the Executive Director of the South
African Council of Churches.

BAM: And we have attempted in our own way, because we believe in it, that we should be
complementary to what they are doing and support them as much as it is possible. We think it
is something important, painful though it is, traumatic though it is, to many, many people.
Not only to those people who are victims, but I think for the whole community of South Africa
as a Dr. Alex Boraine has said. But I think we can only in South Africa begin to deal with the
future if we can realistically acknowledge our past. And there is no way we can acknowledge
that past as South Africans without listening to some of these stories. And one of the things
that Dr. Alex Boraine has said is that the South Africans were aware that the system of
apartheid was repressive. That the system of apartheid was in fact evil. But I think many of
us, many of us, even though we were close to a number of victims and we had stories at that
time, we never realized that the system was so demonic. And it had actually dehumanized the
perpetrators. The kinds of stories we hear now make it very important for South Africans, all
of us, to go through the process of regaining all of us our dignity. Because I think the
situation really bruised both groups, in a different way. But any person who is human, with
values, with feelings, with any values, to have to do the things the perpetrators had to do
must have been a very destructive process to their being as people. And so I think it’s
important that before we can talk of becoming a nation, a reconciled nation, and we talk of
forgiveness all the time in South Africa, we talk of repentance, we’re using all these words
all the time, but to implement those processes, can only be done by this. And this is just a
first phase of an on-going that is to go on even at the end of the Truth Commission hearings
themselves. We are fully aware of that as South Africans that this is just a phase. But in my
opinion, probably the most important phase of the whole process of healing and forgiving for

PORTER: Ms. Bam, the hearings have all been broadcast on radio and television. Is that

BAM: Yes.

PORTER: What has been the reaction of the people? What has been the effect of this on
the people?

BAM: All kinds of reactions. In the beginning people were horrified. There are people
who had difficulties in handling the emotion, especially I think people coming from a culture
where you are supposed to suppress emotion. There was a lot of crying and people found that it,
people who were being subjected to this kind of going through the pain, and so there were
mixed reactions. Then there was a second phase of people being cynical as Dr. Alex Boraine
said, but I think we have moved to another stage now. Maybe I am describing my own reactions
of shock. And also of beginning to feel “Do we really as a nation have the capacity to
forgive?” This third phase to me I think is the one that most South Africans are beginning to
talk about. And how do we really begin to talk about justice now? Which is, having gone
through the process of hearing the truth, and then the second is the most important is, What
kind of compensation? Maybe that’s not even the word we can use because you can’t compensate
for that kind of pain. But what kind of restitution? At least the families have to live, the
families lost their dear ones. So there must be a symbolic, no matter how small it can be, to
the families and to the people who lost their relatives, their breadwinners, and people who
were also subjected to all kinds of tortures and things like that.

PORTER: Mr. Boraine. Compensation. Will there be such a thing?

BORAINE: Well, the, I think the strength of this commission is that it tries to hold in
tension on the one hand a human rights committee that enables and empowers people to come and
tell their stories, an amnesty committee which listens to applications for the very deeds that
brought about victims and survivors, but there’s a third committee which is called the
Reparation and Rehabilitation Committee. And with Brigalia I absolutely agree that you can
never compensate for what people have gone through. But repairing some of the damage, however,
inadequate that may be, is an essential part of our work. There’s a thing called the
President’s Fund, President Mandela Fund, which a lot of people from the international
community have already made major contributions to. The idea is that we as a commission will
recommend to the President a policy of reparation and rehabilitation which will be both
individual and corporate. For example, there are many victims who tell us that they don’t
know where their loved ones are. That they are missing, that they were in custody, they know
that they’re probably dead, but there’s no place to put a bunch of flowers on. So you’re going
to need some kind of memorials. You have a Vietnam Memorial in Washington which is very, very
powerful which reflects back at you so that you are part of this whole thing and people can
look at the names. We’ve got to do something like that and we’re looking at peace gardens or,
creations of this kind. But then, again as Brigalia Bam has said, there are individuals who
have lost the breadwinner. Their children have to be educated. They are inadequately housed.
Their health situation is poor. And we are devising a policy which we recommend to the
President, and then he goes to Parliament and asks for the Parliament to vote the necessary
money. Now, as a country which is besieged by huge needs to try and bring some equality into
the society, whether it be health care or education or housing, clearly you can’t allocate
vast sums of money. We just don’t have that sort of money. But anything which enables people
to know that their sacrifice, their loss was worth it, both in terms of building a new
democratic society, but also by saying, “Hey, we care about you.” That’s the President
speaking. It’s his commission. It’s not just a hole in the corner thing. So I’ve got no doubt
that both in terms of urgent interim relief and in terms of long-term reparation and
rehabilitation, this commission is going to make some very far-reaching recommendations. And
knowing the President we have, and knowing the Parliament which is democratically elected and
sympathetic to the sorrow and the suffering of the past, that whatever we can do, we will do.

PORTER: Before we get too far ahead on what will happen in the future I want to ask one
more question about the current process. Mr. Boraine, it seems that people have appeared
before your commission and some of them have shown no remorse. Either in the words they say
or just the look on their face. They seem, they tell horrendous stories of things they’ve done
and then they’ve shown no remorse. What effect has that had on your commission and on the
public in general?

BORAINE: Well, I think it’s a very negative effect obviously. We have hoped from the
beginning, although the Act makes no demand for remorse. You simply have to meet the criteria
for amnesty. And the reason why we did that in the Act was that, you know, remorse can be
manufactured. It could be a masquerade. “If you want me to be remorseful, okay, I’ll be
remorseful and I might even have a few tears.” What I’ve been encouraged by is that a number
of the people who have come and who have told what they did in terms of orders that were
given, or a policy which they believed was, had to be carried out, the propaganda that was
fed to them, or for whatever other reason, a number of them have turned and looked at the
victims, and the victims are encouraged to attend and are empowered to attend, and have said
words like this: “I thought I was doing the right thing then. I realize now it was wrong and
I’m very sorry and I want to apologize to the families.” Now again one could be very cynical.
But the fact that it’s not necessary, that it’s not demanded of them, I think gives a ring of
genuine contrition. And I think that we have to encourage that. And if there are those who are
quite cynical about this, who are simply getting themselves out of a tight jam so that they
don’t have to face criminal justice proceedings, so be it. What we are interested in is the
healing of the nation, both of perpetrator and of victim. We won’t succeed in all, but I think
we will have some success.

PORTER: Ms. Bam, your thoughts on the issue of remorse?

BAM: I think, I must say that I have never thought it that way. I had always been a
little critical of the Act that it did not include that. But listening to what Alex Boraine is
saying I think they were wise. There has been a lot of disappointment, I think, on the side of
the public generally about the way people, even in their boldness on talking about this. And
really not showing any remorse has upset quite a number of people. And I think some people are
simply doing it in order to protect themselves, but I think in those few cases where in fact
you have had people apologize, personally I have thought it’s genuine. It’s necessary. And I
think it has appeased people. Talking in general terms. I mean that words, “I am sorry” has
meant a lot. But the fear is now people have, which I need to express, not just on remorse, is
the fear of how the Amnesty Committee is going to handle this. Because they will not win no
matter what they do. If they are too hard we will still criticize them that people have gone
to make their confession and they are not helping them. If they seem to be lenient they will
also get, you know, all kinds of criticism from the community. So I think that it is an
impossible task.

PORTER: We’re talking in this edition of Common Ground with Brigalia Bam, the
Executive Director of the South African Council of Churches, and Alex Boraine, Vice-chairperson
of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Printed transcripts and audio cassettes
of this program are available. Listen at the end of the broadcast for details.
Common Groundis a service of the Stanley Foundation, a non-profit, non-partisan
organization that conducts a wide range of programs meant to provoke thought and encourage
dialogue on world affairs.

PORTER: Ms. Bam, I’d like to hear you say something about the culture of forgiveness
that has, that seems to exist in South Africa, and the pressure that it brings with it. And
also tell us something about what happened to your organization, the fact that the
headquarters of your organization was bombed. We now know who did it. Tell us something about
how that is being either resolved or not resolved.

BAM: It has not been resolved. Not at all. In fact when we received the news through
the hearings about the bombing of the headquarters of the South African Council of Churches…

PORTER: What year was that?

BAM: 1988. The house was called Hotso House, which means the House of Peace. And the
devastation and the experience and the emotion that we went through. And after we heard that,
we then said, “Well, how are we going to react to this?” And of course you see, as a church
organization people expected that now that we know the truth, there were all kinds of debate
in our Executive Committee, that what we are seeking is the truth. We are not seeking any kind
of compensation. We are expected to forgive. And I think that people are finding that is not
as easy as we thought it would be. And I think that’s really an on-going debate of this
forgiveness. I think that the expectations of people forgiving are maybe from quarters are a
little too high. But there is realism that it might take people a very, very long to forgive
and obviously people will never forget. And for my organization I think we still need to think
about it.

PORTER: Mr. Boraine, it does seem that from the very highest levels of the South
African government there is pressure to forgive. What do you think about that? Does that
pressure really exist?

BORAINE: I think there is some pressure, but I think it’s really unfair. On victims and
survivors. I think it’s an additional burden that we have not right to impose on them. Let me
explain what I mean by recounting very briefly a story of a woman who appeared before the
Commission six months ago, and she had told us that her husband had been, went missing, and
she didn’t know where he was and she pleaded with us to try and find out what had happened to
him. And he’s been missing for about 8 years and she’d been looking everywhere—hospitals,
police stations, morgues—but to no avail. Through the amnesty process a number of policeman
admitted that they had actually abducted him, that they had tortured him very severely, and
they had finally killed him. And she attended the amnesty hearing when the police told that
story. Now when she came to us she said, “I really am not interested in revenge. I don’t want
people to go to jail. I just want to know. I have to know what happened to my loved one. I
can’t forgive unless I know who did this and why.” But when she attended the amnesty hearing,
one of my colleagues asked her a question, she was a very ordinary, if you like, peasant
woman. And she was speaking in her own language, Sesotho. And so she had to listen to the
translation. And this member of our staff said to her, “You have heard about President
Mandela’s commitment to reconciliation?” And she said “Yes.” And he said, “You know that the
Truth and Reconciliation Commission is here in order to try and help to heal the country and
to help us to forgive and to move on. What do you think?” Now this very ordinary woman was
quiet for a long time and then she said, “No government can forgive. No commission can
forgive. Only I can forgive because only I feel the pain. And I’m not ready to forgive. Yet.
I may be, but now.” And my own response was almost to say “Absolutely. I understand.” Because
here was a broken woman listening in vivid detail of what had really happened to her loved
one whom she had, you know, lost so long ago. And it was, and how dare we then to say to her,
“You know, because of our Christian background or whatever, now God wants you to forgive and
you must forgive.” And I’ve come across the same thing in Northern Ireland when people have
said, “Please tell the priests to take away this burden that they are imposing upon us, that
we must automatically forgive.” So, I think as a Commission we have learned that we have no
right to make that demand. We can certainly create a climate. We can encourage if people ask
us. But to demand it—absolutely not.

PORTER: I have one last question for each of you. I’ll start with Mr. Boraine and then
give Ms. Bam the final word. What has happened in South Africa is unique. Never before in
history have we seen a minority in power give up that power in a peaceful democratic
transition that has gone as well as the one in South Africa has, at least to this point. I
think what we need to know from you is, what were the paths you could have chosen? After the
elections, after that transition, you chose this Truth and Reconciliation path. What were the
other paths, the ones that were rejected, that you could have gone down?

BORAINE: Well we had, we had different choices as a country. We could have gone the
way of, which many people asked us to do, including Mr. de Klerk and many others, who said
“We must just simply forget the past. And let’s not dwell in that. We are a young, fragile
democracy. We can’t bear this. So let’s just rather turn the page.” That would have been a
total insult to the people who had suffered for such a long period of time. I mean, apartheid
in one form or another has existed for 300 years in South Africa. And become sharpened and
focused and much more cruel in the last 40-50 years. But that, we owe something to people.
Second, I think if we do not remember the past we will, we are bound to repeat it. So I think
that was, that was one choice.

The other choice was, let’s have a Nuremberg-style prosecutions. Let’s take all of those
people who are responsible for apartheid, from high to low, and prosecute them. And for the
next 20-30 years South Africa would have been at the mercy of this process. Which can never
guarantee that it’s going to actually get to the truth, frankly. Because you know, you’ve got
high-powered lawyers who can defend and who can get people off, as we’ve seen what happened
in the case of General Milan and others. So that was another choice that we rejected. And we
went rather for the holding together of trying to come to terms with our past, not dwelling
in it, but dealing with it, in order to build a future. Because in the final analysis the
Commission is not about the past, it’s about the possibility of a new future. A future which
is decent. Which has mutual respect. Which has freedom. Which has equality before the law,
which is in a sense a human rights culture. And we’ve never had that before. I don’t think we
would have got there without this process.

PORTER: Ms. Bam, was the correct path chosen?

BAM: Yes indeed, but it’s a very long path. I think it was the best in our situation.
But I think we need a few more other phases. I think one of the things we have to think about
as South Africans creatively, and it doesn’t necessarily have to come from the government, is
that now that the Truth Commission has completed its work, which will be in another 18-20
months, what is the next stage of healing the communities in South Africa? You see we are
talking about a few individuals who will have to come through the Commission because of the
definition of the gross violation of human rights. But as one talks about communities and the
other people who also have psychological bruises, and the number of other people who were not
necessarily people torturing others but they were people who were coerced into being part of
that system, benefited from it, it seems though we need to think in a creative manner what is
the next process then of healing our communities in general. And I think this might take us
many, many more years to come. And we have to work together with this government, the
religious organizations, the human rights groups, to continue to work in communities where
South Africans are.

PORTER: That is Brigalia Bam. She’s Executive Director of the South African Council of
Churches. Our other guest has been Alex Boraine. He serves, along with Archbishop Desmond
Tutu, as Vice-chairperson of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. For Common Ground, I’m Keith Porter.

Our theme music was created by B.J. Leiderman. Common Ground was produced and funded by the Stanley Foundation.

Copyright © Stanley Center for Peace and Security