Will reconciliation follow disclosure?


Brandon Hamber


New Nation, 3 May 1996



The first three weeks of hearings of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission have been marked by emotionally harrowing stories that victims across the political spectrum have related.

Time and time again, witnesses have broken down during their testimony and although some events occurred years ago, victims relate their stories as though they happened yesterday. Clearly, many wounds have not healed and scars carried by South Africans have been exposed by this difficult truth-telling process.

Many victims said that some of the burdens of the past have lifted as they told their stories. For those present, the question of "where was I when that happened?" must have gone through their minds forcing them to confront their own past.

The emotional impact of the hearings to date make it difficult to ask the question "Is this enough to build reconciliation in South Africa?" But it is a question we have to ask.

To answer this, a distinction between individual and national reconciliation needs to be made. Individually those giving testimony have themselves said that they have found telling their story healing. The hearings, however, only give us a brief look at the immense pain that many victims have had to reconcile within themselves.

We should not see particularly emotional testimony as an indicator of the individual coming to terms with his or her past. Individual healing is a personalised process; it depends on the support the individual gets before and after the hearing. However, it may also be the first step in coming to terms with what has happened and the personal road to individual reconciliation may be a long way off.

The issue of national reconciliation may be more complex. The media has covered the hearings extensively and this may have forced many South Africans to think about the dark days of apartheid.

This may anger some people when they think of past injustices. Others may begin to realise their role in either upholding or opposing apartheid and in doing so are coming to terms with what happened.

Interest will decline

Perhaps the question is what the hearings will mean in a year's time, when hundreds of stories have been told and heard. It can be predicted that media and public interest will decline over this time. Even if the interest was to continue, it is not guaranteed that simply listening to stories, as necessary as this is, will build lasting national reconciliation.

The Commission needs to ensure that the victims' voices are heard in schools, communities, and police and military institutions if we are to ensure that the lessons of the past will be learned. this needs to be happening at the same time as the Commission sits. If we wait for two years until the recommendations of the final report, the stories we have heard may be too far away.

A further challenge facing the Commission will come when the Amnesty hearings begin. One of the contributors to nation building has undoubtedly been the surprising willingness of victims to talk of forgiveness. However, one wonders how victims and the country will feel when perpetrators begin to tell of how they personally victimised and killed people.

This will be even more difficult if perpetrators do not show remorse. This is likely, as the granting of Amnesty rests on the perpetrator telling everything and not on merely being sorry for their deeds.

Marina Geldenhuys, a victim of the Church Street bombing, commented that "the new government is significant to me because now I can sit here and tell my story."

If she feels this, and she probably had more space to speak out than the majority of those victimised in the past, the initial hearings must have been successful in giving a voice to the victimised.

The challenge facing the Commission is to sustain this voice and draw the entire population into the process.

Brandon Hamber, at the time of writing, was the Manager of the Transition and Reconciliation Unit at the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation Unit.