Can South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission ever hope to heal the wounds of apartheid?
The roles of politics and justice are such that they will forever remain tangled and inseparable. But while this marriage may be inevitable, it is certainly not palatable. There comes a time when we all sit back and make our own assessments of the criminal justice system and more often than not, it seems as though we are not happy with what we find. Somewhere along the line, people (and I use the term “people” in a global, not just a national, sense) have decided that a deal with the devil is better than no deal at all. Allow me to explain.
South Africa is one of those countries in this world which is unfortunate enough to have emotional scars that run even deeper than those of the United States. It doesn’t take a genius to begin to fathom what the years of apartheid and its subsequent abolition can mean to a country just starting to come to terms with its own identity. While I have the utmost respect for the leadership of Nelson Mandela, I can not help but wonder at the lengths a country will go for the right to lick its wounds.
The amnesty program which has now taken effect in South Africa allows for a full pardon in return for a confession of past crimes which took place under the reign of apartheid. Former members of the police, the military, or any other government agency who are guilty of heinous crimes can receive full amnesty by simply submitting an application to the country’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission and saying, “I did it.” That’s right. There are no penalties, no investigations, no trials or juries, just a handshake, a pat on the back, and a “Thank you for your confession.” On the surface, this may seem to some as an excellent opportunity for a people to wash their hands of the past and get on with their future, complete with a clear conscience and a free mind. However, this seems to send conflicting messages to those in the world community who might see fit to commit crimes and in the end, it may result in a societal plague of misplaced values that could cause as many problems as it had originally solved.
The brute force of this action, and its consequences, hit me square in the face this morning when I read the headlines on my Internet browser. Sitting in front of me was the news that the killers of Stephen Bantu Biko had been found. Those of you familiar with recent South African history may have no problems recalling this man’s name from memory. Some of you, however, may not be so familiar with Mr. Biko. Steve Biko was a catalyst for the black consciousness movement in South Africa and was an important leader for the opposition while Mandela was left to rot away in prison. His life was a tribute to the strength of many black men and women who were made to endure injustices during apartheid. In 1977, Biko went missing and was never seen alive again. While there was never any proof of his fate, there was little doubt in the minds of most South Africans and the media that he had met a gruesome death at the hands of some type of government agency. Alas, as in most cases of human rights violations, most people assumed that the true nature of Biko’s death would never come to light.
So here we are, in 1997, and the murderers of Steve Biko have been found. They weren’t hunted down or uncovered through some miracle of investigative technology. Nobody turned them in or sold their story to the Globe for some untold amount. No, instead they just walked in and said, “We did it.” And what sentence will the perpetrators of this crime be made to endure for their inhumanity towards man? None. They will live a peaceful life and enjoy all the benefits that are afforded to those in our world who lead a productive existence. All they had to do was appear before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and admit that in September of 1977, they arrested Biko, beat him severely during interrogation in Port Elizabeth, drove him 1,200 km in the back of a police vehicle (while naked, bound in chains, and suffering the effects of untreated wounds), and allowed him to die in a Pretoria prison cell. This is supposed to help heal the wounds of apartheid?
As with many great leaders before him, I was too young to experience this man’s impact in the present. All that I know of him comes from books and magazine articles. Still, the knowledge that this man’s murderers have confessed and are walking free leaves me with no sense of satisfaction. Instead, their freedom should be seen as a source of rage for all those who believe in even the most basic ideals of human rights. It is hard to understand where healing can begin to grow in a bed of violence which sees its ultimate fruition when the people who sanction that violence are allowed to go free, in spite of their confessions. These confessions are supposed to heal some of the wounds left by South Africa’s previous government. Tell that to Biko’s family, or better yet, tell that to Biko. His wounds will never have the chance to heal and his family will never be able to truly fill the void that was left by his absence. The South African authorities have expressed a hope that these confessions would help them to arrest and convict some of the larger, overall leaders who orchestrated hundreds, even thousands of deaths but one is left to wonder, “Does it matter?”
Of course, a similar approach to justice has long operated in the U.S. Our justice system is famous (or perhaps infamous) for its use of plea bargains and confessions to lesser crimes as a means of inducing small-time hoods to help convict a godfather, don or kingpin. But South Africa’s application of this logic suffers a basic flaw. Most U.S. law enforcement officials proceed on the assumption that the crime boss is the ultimate target. After all, he’s the one who masterminded the scheme and gave the orders. Without him, presumably, the entire crime ring would collapse.
Perhaps it would. But that crime boss couldn’t accomplish anything without underlings willing to carry out his orders. Ultimately it’s their acquiescence that gives him the ability to rule his illegal empire. A general whose troops have deserted him doesn’t remain on the battlefield; he flees.
Think of the syndrome when a small child does something wrong because somebody–an older sibling or a schoolmate– tells him to. Once caught, he cries to his parents, “But Johnny told me to do it!” The parents’ customary response is: “If Johnny told you to jump off a cliff, would you do it?”
How we answer that question as adults is what distinguishes civilized people from sociopaths. When Mafia dons tell their hit men to kill somebody, they do it. When drug lords order their agents to smuggle cocaine across a border, they do it. When South African police were ordered to torture and kill Steve Biko, they did it.
In these situations, there is a displacement of culpability which is downright frightening. The underlying current of thought leads us to believe that killing someone is acceptable, as long as the killer can lead us to the one who gave the orders. Crimes against humanity are inconsequential, so long as the orchestrator can be brought to justice. He who wields the weapon should not be held responsible, as long there is someone who coerced him into wielding the weapon in the first place.
One can always argue that many of these crimes would not be possible without the brains behind them. However, it can also be contended that a brain with no brawn is as useless as brawn with no brain. The overlord and the thug are as inseparable from each other as the body and the mind. Take one away from the other and they both cease to function with any consequence.
On a dark night in Port Elizabeth, Steve Biko sustained the blows which would eventually end his life. Those blows would never have been delivered were it not for a corrupt and immoral form of central government. But in the final analysis, it was not the government who delivered those blows. It was a select group of security policemen who brutalized Biko and left him in a cell to die, the same policemen who subscribed to, and abided by, the ideals of apartheid. If these men had refused to carry out the orders of their apartheid leaders, Biko might still be dead today, but we will never know that for sure. All we do know is that Steve Biko is dead and a number of former security policemen have confessed to the crime.
Biko will never have the chance to walk on this earth again. He will never see his family, enjoy a good meal, lead his people, or feel the cool breeze of salt air rushing over his face. These are all privileges which can be enjoyed by his murderers for the rest of their days and this the consequence of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
Somehow, I don’t believe that Biko’s family would consider this to be much of a reconciliation.