About this site

This resource is hosted by the Nelson Mandela Foundation, but was compiled and authored by Padraig O’Malley. It is the product of almost two decades of research and includes analyses, chronologies, historical documents, and interviews from the apartheid and post-apartheid eras.

12 Aug 1998: Burton, Mary

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POM. You've gone through an extraordinary experience. Personally, how do you feel coming out of it? Has it changed you?

MB. I don't think any of us are the same people that we were when we started in spite of having thought that we knew a great deal about what had happened. I don't think I've changed my opinions about the causes and the reasons why all these things happened, but it has obviously been a time of very profound emotion for the people we have been working with, a sense of anger sometimes, it's the wasted opportunities and the sense that if the country had known then what it knows now so many other things, many other better things could have been done. So one has to keep on pushing that aside and saying, well we have to deal with the reality as it confronts us and move on from here and believe that what we are doing will make a difference to the future. And sometimes it's hard to believe that because inevitably the commission has stirred up very strong feelings of hurt, yes, but also of bitterness and anger and guilt and those are very near the surface in our whole society and I think are having a painful effect on this society so we have to convince ourselves that there is value at the end, that the pain is an inevitable part of the process and that the healing and reconciliation will only follow after it and even then only if things are properly done between now and some wonderful reconciliation date in the future.

POM. That's like a thesis, there's pain and thereafter will follow reconciliation. I could offer a different scenario of the people that I talk to around the country and opinion surveys or whatever show that there is a growing antagonism towards the TRC on the part of all communities, not just whites but more surprisingly even blacks. I think we went into this before about justice versus amnesty. So my question would be if there is no justice, there is no reconciliation where is the truth? Is partial truth worth sacrificing both justice and reconciliation or is justice more important than reconciliation, that you've got to go through justice to get to reconciliation, that you can't get to go from truth to reconciliation to justice, that you have to go through truth, justice and reconciliation?

MB. Well you've said where is truth, or it was one of the questions you asked, and I think that we have a greater measure of truth than we had before in that the truth is more inescapable than it was. I think it's recorded, it's echoed, it's acknowledged and I think that is a useful contribution. I think that there has been a sacrifice of one kind of justice in that people are not able to see perpetrators go to jail or to be able to make claims against them and that is a sacrifice. But I think there are other forms of justice that are being followed. I think that's why the anger is so great because people are feeling the discomfort of being penalised for what happened in the past, whether it is through public criticism or loss of future opportunities, because I think some people will suffer in the future, either pay a political cost or pay an economic cost, so there is a kind of justice. I don't think justice has been entirely sacrificed through this process. One of the things we were talking about today was how the very concept of justice has been shaken up through this process. I think it's one of the reasons that legal people are quite uncomfortable and quite angry with the TRC because the processes of the judicial systems as we know them in the western world are often more advantageous to the lawyers than they are to the people that they represent and we've heard so many people say, "I did have a court case before but the lawyers did all the talking and I didn't get anything out of it." So I think there are different things that will contribute to the way we look at justice in the future, to more recognition for people who are the victims and we get that even now with victims of violence in our society that people say, "Well I got hijacked, I was robbed and what is in it for the victims? They go to jail and they get out after a very short time or they never get caught anyway." So I think that generally when we look back on this in a hundred years time I think that this process will have contributed to new ways of looking at punishing offenders.

POM. Could you also think of it in terms of that SA, though it has the most liberal constitution than any country has had in the past, which has accepted constitutionality as the basis of its democracy, that whereas the American constitution, for example, is less than 12 pages, you have a constitution of 68 pages that almost covers everything down to the last detail where the rights culture overwhelmed what has got to be pragmatic, not just in dealing with the past but in dealing with the present crime situation?

MB. Yes there are people who are just as angry with the constitution as they are with the TRC because they see that the constitution protects the rights of offenders rather more than it protects the rights of the victims, that is a claim which one sees made.

POM. Do you think that's a fair claim?

MB. No I don't because I think that until one has really built a climate of respecting rights one is not going to deal with violence either, but I recognise that one has to get the balance right in that offenders must be punished but I would not like to see us return to a time when people who are arrested have no rights and are not protected by the proper provisions of the constitution.

POM. But there is a balance between the two?

MB. Yes.

POM. Is it in balance now or is the balance tilted towards what most of the victims would think, towards the person who perpetrates the crime rather than the victim?

MB. I don't think so in the sense of the provisions of the constitution or the provisions of the law, of the old law and the new laws that are being made. I think the difficulty is that we have a great deal of crime and we have an inadequate and/or ill-motivated police force and our prisons are overcrowded so that the possibility of bringing people to justice quickly and enforcing punishment fall down. I don't think that's a problem of the constitution, I think that's a problem of resources, skills, just the nature of society at the moment.

POM. Let me go back to what I am here to talk about which is the TRC. There has been this argument that has been ongoing and off-going in the last couple of years and I don't think we addressed it the last time, is whether or not apartheid was a crime against humanity, i.e. whether you could make a comparison between what happened during the apartheid years and what happened under the nazi era?

MB. I'd like to separate the two parts of the question.

POM. Or even for that matter what happened in Bosnia, what's happening now in Kosovo.

MB. I don't think that what happened in SA under apartheid was what one would nowadays, in fashionable phrase, call 'ethnic cleansing', nor do I think it was genocide in the sense that it's used to describe what happened in Germany. I don't think that it was the intention or the effect of the previous government to either massacre or destroy an entire group of people simply because of their racial or ethnic origins. It wouldn't have been possible anyway. I actually don't think that that was the motive or the intention or the effect. I do think that it was a profoundly racist society and that the evils that happened were based in the first instance on racism, whether it was acknowledged and perceived as such by the government of the time or not and in that sense I believe that racism is a crime against humanity. I am not saying that it was genocide which for many people the two seem to be confused or conflated. I think that crimes that take place against a group of people because of the colour of their skin is a crime against humanity regardless of the magnitude of the crime.

POM. Isn't that making it too simple? That means that there's no difference, in a way, whether I am the instrument of sending a million people to be burned in a death camp and whether I've an attitude that says I don't like black people or I hate black people, I don't kill them, I hate them, I don't say all black people must be eliminated. If both are crimes against humanity doesn't it reduce one crime to the level of its most trivial?

MB. Well I don't think so but these things have become phrases. What do they really mean? A crime is a crime whether you commit it against one person or against a hundred people. Maybe it's a worse crime if you commit against a hundred people but the quality of the crime seems to me the same whether it's one person or a hundred or a million or a whole population. The crime itself, well perhaps that's not quite right because then you wouldn't call it a crime against humanity if it was against an individual but if it is against an individual because of that individual's race or religion or language or whatever the reason is as a group then it is aimed against a group and in that sense I think that apartheid is a crime against  humanity.

POM. So how would you make a differentiation between Eichmann and a policeman at John Vorster Square who slapped somebody around to the extent that they managed to slide on a bar of soap and dive out of the 10th floor window?

MB. Well I think it comes down then to the question, is that the crime or is apartheid the crime? So if apartheid is the crime against humanity then apartheid is the crime that moved people by their thousands from the places where they should live, that deprived them of many opportunities and in order to go on being able to do that allowed the kind of brutality that killed people in detention, that shot women and children when they were holding political demonstrations.

POM. What confuses me is why, after the two years of your hearings, all sections of the community have become antagonistic towards the TRC. Is it because they don't like what they hear? If I take whites, they're almost adamant to a person that this is a witch-hunt, they were fighting a just war against the total onslaught. You've heard it so many times that I don't have to go through it. So they don't feel any remorse or guilt at all and they say if we knew about the atrocities of the Vlakplaas police or whatever of course we would have objected but we didn't know. So my two questions would be, (i) is there justification in their own minds for what went on, i.e. the total onslaught of communism was one that you entertained seriously or the commission entertained seriously, and (ii) do you believe that the average white person living in SA had no idea what was going on? Were they saying, "I didn't know" in the same way as the Germans that we talked about the last time, that they didn't know about the concentration camps or about the death camps? There has been at least one book published that has been very controversial or very profound in its impact, published by somebody at Harvard (I forget  his name) and he says it's impossible for people not to know. Is it impossible for people not to know, or is it possible, or do they simply wipe it out, do they deny it?

MB. I think a whole lot of different things happen. The commission, and I entirely agree with this position, recognises the fact that very many people were motivated by what they held to be absolutely genuine beliefs that what they were opposing was evil forces of communism. I think many white people convinced themselves or were convinced, and one has to take oneself back thirty years into history to understand the climate too in which it was possible to have that view, that the forces of communism were raised against them, that SA was at a crucially important geographic position between east and west and that the only thing that was causing black people to resist the policies of apartheid was communist infiltration. I believe that some people still believe that. I gave a talk at a Rotary Club meeting well over a year ago and was angrily questioned by a person there whose son came back from Angola in a body bag and he felt that his son had given up his life in the fight against communism and that this was absolutely unrecognised by the commission and by the country as a whole. I felt sure that that was a genuine belief on that father's part. I think that there are also many people who perhaps didn't hold that view as strongly but genuinely did not know the things that were being done in order to keep control  over the situation here, whether it was control against communism or whether it was control against black resistance, they are genuinely horrified by the revelations from the TRC.

. One has to ask how they were able not to know when many of the newspapers tried to tell some at least of what was going on. Of course it depended what newspapers you read and chose to read, what part of society you moved in and as some of the senior Cabinet ministers have said in testimony to us, what questions to decide not to ask because knowing was going to be too uncomfortable. So there are a whole range of positions that people held and I sometimes find it hard to endure well meaning people who say, my goodness how dreadful this must be for you facing all of these things and to think that we never knew. And I feel like saying to them, well where were you when the Black Sash was holding up posters along the street corners, because there certainly were plenty of attempts to tell people what was going on. But nevertheless I think that it was possible to close your eyes and to live a very - apartheid was very successful in that way in that it kept people apart and one didn't see many of the things that happened and I'm not talking about atrocities, I'm talking about just the practice of apartheid as well as the atrocities.

. So I think that a good deal of white anger at the TRC comes from a sense of guilt at not having been willing to face the truth and a sense of anger and I think in many cases a sense of being misunderstood. I think many Afrikaans people feel that their genuine views at the time, even if now they would be prepared to take a different position, are not taken into account and I just hope that when we produce our final report and those acknowledgements are made that people will have the honesty to read them and acknowledge that we have taken them into account because people judge now on the basis of very fragmented information. They hear what is revealed at the hearings and they think that is the commission's finding. There is no sense of waiting to see what our measured opinion is going to be. The fact that we provide a platform for people to speak doesn't necessarily mean that what those people say is what the commission's view is. But unfortunately the report is going to be very long and very dense and not everybody will read all their way through it. Presumably people will continue to read the news mediated through whatever medium they choose to read.

POM. Who will read it?

MB. Analysts I imagine. I am quite sure the media will read it, social scientists will read it, probably not the average person in the street.

POM. But isn't it the average person on the street between whom reconciliation must occur?

MB. Yes. So the responsibility lies on us to try and produce summaries, guidelines, recommendations that are accessible and to make sure those are communicated in one complete chunk.

POM. So when Thabo Mbeki comes before parliament and says there has been no real progress towards reconciliation in the last four years, there has been a collapse in moral values and his opinion is followed up by the mainstream churches who say there has been a collapse in moral values and where you have George Fivaz saying that the major cause of crime is really 'the absence of norms and values', how do all those things tie in? Is this a society without morals? Is the Deputy President correct?

MB. I would want to see the Deputy President's speech in its entirety. He talked a great deal about no, I've got it somewhere as well. But he talked about a lot more than collapses in moral values and talked about reconciliation and what it meant and how much people still need to do to achieve it. I don't think this is a society -

POM. He said there had been no significant progress made towards reconciliation.

MB. I would say that that's true, that there has been no major thrust towards reconciliation yet.

POM. He did say there was a collapse in moral values and called for a Moral Summit. What do you think he meant by that?

MB. I don't know what he meant by a 'Moral Summit', and I would contest the collapse in moral values. In fact I think this is a country that examines itself quite a lot in terms of its values and talks about it quite a lot and it's in public discourse and I think that was the advantage of the Deputy President's speech in parliament in fact, that it raised some of those issues which are uncomfortable and people tend to avoid in decision making processes. I think that the very strength of the different faith organisations in this country is quite unusual, they may sometimes cause clashes and arguments but I think the biggest problem in this country still is the huge gap between the privileged and the underprivileged and the colour of people on both sides of that divide may have changed but the inequalities are still very great. I think it's very hard to think about reconciliation until some balance has been reached and that's very difficult. That's why in a way I say I get angry about the waste because if we had been doing what we are doing now, talking about reconciliation at a time when our own economy and the world's was in better shape, we might be in a better position to do some of the things that need to be done. When we have moved in rural areas and we have seen how people's lives have not changed one jot since five years ago, they have every right to be angry and privileged people and especially white people who in 1994 were so anxious that they were going to lose everything they had built up over the years and in the year or two after that were so euphoric at this miraculous settlement, now have lapsed back into their comfortable lives and are much quicker to be judgmental about the things that are wrong in society without doing an awful lot to make it better.

POM. In fact they are still living the same comfortable lives as they ever did.

MB. And more apathetic and more critical than ever. Until there is some kind of move from that sector to reach out, and I think - that's how I read Thabo Mbeki's speech.

POM. How do you do that?

MB. Well I think there are ways of doing it and I think in a very pragmatic sense the suggestions that are coming out of the private sector for things like Operation Starfish and other initiatives to try and create a skills base and training opportunities for people and this view that is being promoted now by Stephen Mulholland but has come from other sectors as well about taking a percentage of the Stock Exchange, I think those are all very pragmatic recognition of the fact that things need to change, but how to do it?

POM. That's the difference between, the analogy I would give would be when the Berlin Wall fell and East Germany and West Germany came together is that the West Germans were prepared to make a massive redistribution of resources towards the east in an attempt to bring it up to some, not equal, but at least comparable level with their own standard of living, whereas you don't see that here among whites at all. They feel, as comfortable as they are, they feel they're at the short end of the stick, that somehow they're being done in whereas in fact most are probably, if you ask them, I ask families I visit, how are you doing? And I find most of them are better off than they were four or five years ago and yet they're complaining more and more and more about everything going wrong.

MB. That's right and putting up bigger and bigger fortresses to try and protect what they've got, either physical ones or metaphorical ones.

POM. Yes. What's - ?

MB. What's going to tip it? Well I think what's there is self-interest, what was always there, what was always in not knowing the price that was being paid for their privilege. But for me the question is how do you shift it? You see people who have had privileged education in the world but they are feeling very vulnerable as changes happen quite rapidly in the education system and people find that very threatening, but there's very little sign, it's coming, of engagement with that, getting involved and doing something and making up for the reallocation of resources that has to happen. But otherwise there is really very, very little and all we can do from the commission's point of view is point out to people that they are really incredibly fortunate at the way issues have been resolved in this country and if they want to go on being fortunate there is a price to be paid.

POM. Do you think that in the same way that the ANC when running for office in 1994 made all kinds of extravagant promises and raised expectations, that the TRC also was hyped in a way that it raised expectations of what it could achieve?

MB. Yes.

POM. And now just by the course of human nature it couldn't have and can't do that. People still believe it should have achieved this, it should have achieved that, it should have achieved the other and it hasn't achieved this, that or the other therefore it was a failure, therefore throw it out?

MB. Well I think that there is some very extravagant and some very beautiful language in the founding legislation and in the post-amble to the constitution and so on and I think it's fine to have that kind of language and those visions and dreams, but I think one also has to recognise the harsh realities of those things are not achieved, neither overnight nor in the space of a few years. I think all of us on the commission from very early on pointed out the impossibility of reconciliation being brought about in this country by seventeen commissioners and their team of staff and that this was a project that required the entire country to participate in it and that what we were being asked to do was clear out some of the obstacles and point in some directions. I do think that the very public attention to the commission was a huge blessing in some ways because it meant that what was heard at the public hearings and so on was carried throughout the country as well as throughout the world but more importantly throughout the country. We have radio to thank for that in that it reached everybody in all the languages and I think that was a very good thing but it created these huge expectations and everywhere we went people thought that the commission was going to solve all the problems in their lives and people have been angry with us on all sides, including some very important voices in the country raised on issues such as the other injustices of apartheid as opposed to the gross human rights violations defined in the legislation, the question of unequal access to land and education and job opportunities and all the things that apartheid did to people, to the whole country, has not been within our ambit at all and yet people have expected us to be able to deal with some of those issues. Reconciliation won't happen until the legacy of that discrimination has left us and it doesn't do that quickly. We still see now in appointments to senior positions in society that racism doesn't disappear overnight and that feelings of victimisation don't disappear overnight either. I think that's perhaps a lesson that I've learnt, that people are deeply affected in their perceptions of themselves by being victims of racism and you don't get rid of that.

POM. But do you not think that applies across the divide, that whites feel they are victims too, that you have a society where it's not just two nations but two societies that think of each other in some different ways as being victims?

MB. Yes I suppose that's true, although it's difficult to think of people who have so much privilege as being victims. They may be victims now of being criticised.

POM. You may have difficulty in thinking of it, but what do they think, what are their perceptions of their situation?

MB. You see I think it's a difference of feeling a victim of the present situation, whether one is a victim of criticism, of being blamed for something that wasn't your fault. But where people are the victims of racism they are socialised from their childhood in a perception of themselves which is very hard to overcome and a lot of even the bravest and noblest people in our society were, when they were children and when they were young adults, treated as if they were of less worth than others and it takes a great deal to overcome that. Similarly people of my colour were brought up in this society to have an innate sense of their own worth. They are feeling victimised now, perhaps feeling the victims of injustice now doesn't mean that they have that deep within them. They have a sense of injustice, yes, but not a sense of not being worthy and I don't think we'll overcome that until at least another generation has passed.

POM. Let me take you back to two specific things, and the one I may be wrong because I have not been following it closely enough. It would seem to me that what you've got in terms of the security forces is people who come forward and apply for amnesty and whose evidence is heard is that they are all second rank and the people who were the victims that their atrocities are the poor or the super-poor and that you had this, again, level thing but what you've not gotten is that was it your view, was it your own personal view, was it possible that those at the top in ministerial positions all along were absolutely blind to what was going on around them when they were getting daily reports from the townships, daily reports of this, daily reports on that, or that they either implicitly approved, explicitly condoned or, again, chose not to see it? I won't use the analogy of the fall of the Roman Empire but there's a certain point where internal decay and corruption sets in where people choose not to see but enjoy the last luxuries left to them.

MB. Yes I think that is what happened at the very top of the decision making ladder.

POM. Well spell it out to me. I gave you all this stuff and you just said 'yes', so I don't know what you're saying yes to.

MB. We have heard evidence, as you say, in the first place from the people who had to do the dirty work and they have given evidence that it was their understanding that their instructions came from the very top. At a very early stage in the TRC's process, which I am sure you do know about, was the encounter when President de Klerk was challenged by the chairperson to take responsibility for what had happened. He made perhaps the most handsome apology that has ever been made for apartheid itself and the pain it caused but it was overshadowed by the dispute about his refusing to take responsibility for the actions of what he referred to as rotten apples or bad apples. He refused to take responsibility for the actions of people whom he referred to as criminals. I think what we have seen over the subsequent months is increasing evidence that there was a very clear understanding at the level of the State Security Council about the fact that illegal steps were taken by the police and the security forces in general.

POM. With the knowledge of the State Security Council?

MB. With the knowledge of the State Security Council, I think I could only go as far as saying 'with their general knowledge'. They probably did not give -

POM. Again, whatever you say to me won't be published until the year 2001.

MB. They probably did not - I think before I came to the commission I would have  been more generous in my interpretation, I would have said that probably what they said was, "Do what you have to do but don't tell us about it." I think now we know more than that. I think they had a pretty good idea of what had been done and therefore what would be done again if they didn't stop it and they didn't stop it, so they recognised that the price that had to be paid for maintaining the control was deaths of people under interrogation, was infiltration of opposing groups and therefore the use of Ascaris who turned informers and the kind of thing that we have heard about.

POM. But then let's go back into their context. This was a war, this was part of the total onslaught, this was SA as being the last beacon of hope between communism and capitalism, or east and west, or liberal values and you were fighting the good, good war against all odds.

MB. But then it would be more honest if they were to say that was what we believed and therefore all means were acceptable, and that's not what they are saying.

POM. Well hasn't Magnus Malan said that, not just now but before in his speeches throughout his whole career?

MB. Well Malan and Vlok are the people who have perhaps been the most, and Vlok in particular most recently, most open. After all they were the people who were commanding the forces who were doing these things. They didn't take responsibility until the fingers were pointing very closely to them but I think we do know that the State Security Council had a pretty good idea of what the price was that was being paid. There are a number of reports of people being congratulated, of people being decorated, of people getting extra bonuses rather than being rapped over the knuckles for having gone too far. So I don't have any doubt any more that the knowledge went right up to the top.

POM. I interviewed FW de Klerk last week and it was just after the allegations were made that he knew about the bombing of Cosatu House and he was enormously relaxed and said he felt his conscience was absolutely clear, that he had nothing to do with those decisions and, yes, he had been informed of them but they were post facto and post facto information is not the same as participation and he felt absolutely justified in what he had said before the TRC, that there is not a word he would detract, not a phrase he would add in terms of apology, that he had made his apology and he had told the truth and to me he had told the whole truth and nothing but the truth, so help him God, and if people wanted to misinterpret him that was their problem. But he was not sounding like a man who was burdened by any kind of reflective conscience or somebody who was saying, well should I have known or wasn't I deep enough in the system that I ought to have known? He was saying, "I didn't know, that's the truth, I didn't know." So how would you answer?

MB. Well it seems to me both from what you've said and from what he has said publicly that what he is saying is, "I didn't know beforehand." But he could have said when he was before us, he could have said, "I only knew afterwards", but he didn't. He denied responsibility for the act of any criminals and any illegal acts and yet he was the head of state at the time and if illegal acts were carried out -

POM. He wasn't head of state when Cosatu House and Khotso House were bombed, in fact he wasn't even in the general loop of the inner circle.

MB. OK, so he doesn't carry that responsibility of having been head of state at that time. That's true. But he was head of the party when he was speaking to us and in that capacity and he knew, I think, then, if I've got the timetable right, that agents of the state had been responsible, for example, for the Khotso House bomb. I think perhaps technically he didn't lie but I think morally it would have been correct to acknowledge that those things had happened under the aegis of the state.

POM. I asked you this before and a year later it's like going back to the same question, why did the commission seem to go after him with such a vengeance whereas the man under whom most of the atrocities were in fact committed, PW Botha, has always been treated with almost tender loving care?

MB. Well his court case is still to come up. I don't know how much more the commission could have done other than to issue a subpoena. It could have issued it earlier I suppose, tried to do so earlier. I wouldn't say that the commission 'went after' De Klerk with such venom. There was the very emotional encounter between him and Archbishop Tutu but there has been no trying to get back, trying to put him on the spot, trying to pursue him. I think we've just tried to get clarity about what he had said and what he really meant at the time because most recently there have really been revelations which have put him a very uncomfortable position. In fact he and our deputy chairperson had lengthy telephone conversations where we were trying to help him to get the transcripts and all the details of what had been said so that he could respond to the media and so on.

. I think there have been a lot of criticisms of the commission for not pursuing PW Botha more energetically. Part of that is the chairperson's own very gentle personality. He tried everything he could on a personal level first and his encounter with FW de Klerk was largely a sort of instant reaction, trying to get him to make an admission which he was not prepared to make.

POM. And to this day, till last week when the allegations, as I told you, broke through that he knew about bombings, he was very quick to make the distinctions between: I wasn't part of the decision and I learned of it afterwards therefore I'm not responsible, I can't be held accountable or responsible for decisions and actions taken by other people. I am accountable for decisions and actions taken by myself and I am accountable for decisions made while I was head of state but I am not accountable for decisions before that. If people want to hold me accountable for 40 years of apartheid, that's ridiculous. I am the person who broke it, I am the person who released Mandela, I am the person who unbanned - I am the person who did it and it was my initiative, not their initiative.

MB. Well PW Botha also claims to have been the person to have opened negotiations with Mandela and to have begun the changes. Maybe that's part of the price you pay for initiating change.

POM. We had been talking about people, I suppose in FW's case it would be his perception of guilt which he clearly doesn't feel. In fact he feels maligned and hurt, that in some way he has not been sufficiently appreciated for the 'courageous' actions that he took but rather he is being persecuted as a result of those actions. If I were him putting that question to you, what would you say to him?

MB. Well I would say that taking those actions and unbanning the political parties and releasing now President Mandela were very important parts of South African history. He has been recognised for them. He has been recognised nationally and internationally and nothing really takes that away. Our job was to find out who was responsible for the gross human rights violations that took place and I do believe that he carries responsibility, if not for having planned and perpetrated them, then for knowing that they had happened or were happening and for not taking steps to prevent them.

POM. That was during his term as State President or while he was a minister in the Cabinet of PW Botha?

MB. Well both although I realise that where we talk about the buck stopping with the head of state that would apply to the time when he was President and I understand that it was during some of those times that he became more aware perhaps than he had been before of things that had been done. I would imagine that if one was really trying to undo some of the past you would at least acknowledge that atrocities had been carried out by the forces of the state. I don't think people were asking him to take sole responsibility, I don't think the commission was asking him to take sole responsibility but was asking him to acknowledge that the state, the state of which his party had been the governing party, had carried out gross human rights violations, that they had been, if not on direct instructions of members of Cabinet, either his own Cabinet or that that had preceded it, that they were not only the injustices which he did recognise of apartheid system but that they actually required in order to maintain apartheid in place, they required illegal actions, illegal actions against individuals, people in the custody of the state, people who were being interrogated by the state or in terms of actual attacks on people.

POM. How do you put that in a context where perhaps most of those individuals genuinely believed that the threat of a communist onslaught was both real and imminent and that they saw themselves, had been indoctrinated for X number of years to see themselves as the last bastion of opposition in Africa between the ideology of the western ideology at least, so that in situations of that kind of course there were atrocities?

MB. I recognise that they may very genuinely have believed that that was the case. The point is that they were denying that there had been atrocities, they were simply saying that they had carried out the normal actions of the state, that they took unto themselves enormous powers. Certainly the state had huge powers but in the perception of the government at the time those powers were legal because they had been arrogated to the state through the various acts of parliament which had allowed the state of emergency regulations which provided for detention without trial and extensive interrogation. But the things like killing people, burning people's bodies, sending people parcel bombs, raids on neighbouring countries whether they were civilian people or whether they were guerrillas, those things are admittedly illegal actions and the highest authorities of the time, whether it was Mr de Klerk or whether it was PW Botha or other members of the Cabinet, still maintain that they did not know a great deal of what was done.

POM. So when Roelf Meyer stands up in front, and I've asked him and I've asked FW right to his face and I've asked his brother, sometimes he's a better barometer - he can translate FW's stern faced confrontational mode with his brother's interpretation of how his brother thinks and feels and conversations they've had - so Roelf Meyer stands in front of me and I say, "Roelf, you knew nothing at all about any of these things?" you would be saying in fact he's lying implicitly or explicitly, he was Deputy Minister of Law & Order, he was on the State Security Council as Secretary, he was Minister for Defence even if only for a year or whatever, but he was up there in the power structures post-1989?

MB. Well I would say that he's either deceiving us or deceiving himself.

POM. OK, because I'm going to see him again next week, I've been trying to follow this up with him now for two years. We have these continuous conversations about the same thing.

MB. I don't remember whether it was he or Leon Wessels who said, "We just didn't ask the questions."

POM. Leon Wessels.

MB. I think it was Leon, yes.

POM. Yes, that everybody knew. That was the difference between Leon Wessels' evidence and everybody else's. Leon said everybody knew that people were being detained and tortured and I've put that quote back at other senior members of the former Cabinet and they all said, "Well poor Leon is suffering from feeling too guilty about the past", it's rationalised out of the way.

. Just to move a bit to a case we talked about before, remember the case of Joe Seremane? I've been back and talked to him and he is most disillusioned and most disappointed.

MB. I know.

POM. He said what he got in response to his testimony was a form to fill out, first of all it was like a form letter, "Dear Mr Seremane, we recognise that in the case of your brother Timothy - (almost typed in) - there was a gross violation of human rights. Under the conditions of the TRC you can apply for reparation. Enclosed are the forms and you fill out the forms." And he takes out all the forms, they're like applying for a bank loan, give all the details of the family, give all the details of this, give all the details of that and you qualify for R3000. And he was saying, "I didn't want money, what I wanted was the truth. I feel insulted. I want to know just two things, where my brother is buried and who killed him." And all of those were just absolutely ignored and this almost standard letter for reparations looked like a bank loan application.

MB. Him and seventeen to twenty thousand other people getting the letter, that's what is the gruelling work now. Yes I raised the question of Joe and his brother just at our last meeting, not only his but the many other cases officially of quite well known people, saying what of our investigations are going to be given to these families and how, what form are we going to follow? A sub-committee has been set up to work out a proper way of dealing with giving people back information because that is what many of them want. It doesn't stop the process of making findings in each of the cases. I suppose we could have gone and hauled the Seremane letter out.

POM. I went to Angola last year, I think I told you, to try to trace down where the Quatro camps were. All I ended up with was malaria.

MB. When we interviewed the ANC representatives about the Quatro camp we asked very hard questions about Seremane in particular but also about other people whose names we have, who either died or were extensively tortured in the camps, and we got some answers. Not answers about where people are buried unfortunately, that is very often the question that people want to know. We've got a report on the exhumations we have carried out but there are many more people whose graves we have not been able to find. Yes, we don't know very much more. We have the Seremane family story and we have the ANC's story and probing brings out a little bit more about who was there when he was tried and who represented him and who spoke for him and how the decision was made. It's not going to help the Seremane family very much but they still are entitled to know.

POM. But if they don't know that?

MB. No, but they will.

POM. That's one of his points, that he doesn't know who was the judge, what were the accusations, what their names are.

MB. We know a little more than we did and we will be informing them. My question to the commission was, how? Who is going to go and do this? Are we going to go and visit the Seremane family and tell them or are we going to write to them or are we going to write them a report? That's the process that has to be now decided, not only for them but for many other people.

POM. You have to go and talk.

MB. Yes, but who? The Archbishop leaves for the States next week. I think it should have been the Archbishop but he can't be everywhere.

POM. He can't talk to everybody.

MB. Exactly.

POM. The process doesn't depend upon one person.

MB. No, no it doesn't but it would have been a nice process because to a certain extent things do depend often on one person, figureheads are important too.

POM. Of course if he went to talk to Joe, Joe would be crying over his shoulder in about five minutes and saying, "All is forgiven, now at least I know that the best has been done to find out the truth." I don't know whether it's particularly African but it's like: I want just to take his bones home so I can bury them, that he's buried, and his soul is lost as long as he's not found.

MB. It's not with his ancestors. Unfortunately for all too many people that's not possible and what we need to do also is develop new kinds of rituals and ceremonies which will bring peace with the ancestors even without the bones, and there are people working on that too and it's very, very important.

POM. Just some follow up questions. To whom will your report be directed? In other words if it's going to be a long, dense report it's not going to get into the townships where it's going to be read in its entirety or even the first page, so what kind of things are you doing to do?

MB. It's going to be a four-volume report, so as you say it's not going to go into the average municipal library even, which is what I would have liked to see. First it gets given to the -

POM. It won't go into the average library?

MB. Well I don't know whether the average library will buy it. That's what I would have liked to see, for it be in every little municipal library all over the country.

POM. Wouldn't it - it's not going to be compelled in some way? Not compelled, let me use a better word, wouldn't it be - ?

MB. It would be nice. Well the President decides what to do with it. The report goes to the President. We have every assurance that it's not going to be one of those reports that get put in a filing cabinet so on government instructions we are printing, I don't know whether it's 1000 or 5000 copies.  We are assured that it will be immediately distributed so we are charged with printing 1000 or 5000 copies right away.

POM. Are you doing summaries? Executive summaries?

MB. Well not at this stage, at this stage we are getting the report ready. I think those executive summaries will be separate from the report itself so that we will have things that can be given to the media and made available widely because we have to have it ready for printing now by early next month.

POM. But this will be the same white media that President Mandela excoriates on every occasion that he opens his mouth.

MB. Well it will be to all the media whether white or otherwise. It will also go to a number of different agencies, NGOs, all the embassies, etc., etc., and of course it will immediately become accessible to researchers and archivists and so on. Then we ourselves, after much debate but fortunately the outcome was positive, will be producing a one-volume summary with pictures and with more accessible language and that I think is what will probably be more widely read and more widely accessible and probably more the sort of thing that will be in every little library. We hope that that will become very widely available.

POM. I'm just going to ask you a series of questions that you can answer very shortly, these are allegations as distinct from things that need long rebuttals. Would you say that the TRC is biased in favour of the ANC? Most of the commissioners are in one way or another ANC connected. This is a particularly prevalent belief among, again, whites obviously.

MB. Well I can say from my own experience, people obviously have to take it on trust, that in all our work we have really tried extremely hard not to show any partisanship or bias. I take personal exception to being lumped in with people who are attached to the ANC because I have always cherished my political independence and I don't think it can be said of any of the commissioners that they have retained any ongoing involvement with the ANC. I know some of them probably have not relinquished membership of the political parties to which they belonged.

POM. The second one is one we've touched on but I'll go back to because it's a very important one to me because I'm trying to explore it in more depth, and that is that there is no way the white population could not know what was going on or around, that atrocities were reported, that tortures were also reported, that demonstrations were held, that you had the pass laws, the race discrimination Acts, influx control laws, pass laws, a law providing for detention without trial, that there was sufficient information available to the average person to know that something not right was going on.

MB. I believe that's true but I also believe that for white people many things conspired to allow them to maintain a position of ignorance. It was possible to choose not to read newspapers which were telling you that information. The electronic media were very much controlled by the state and people had been subject to pro-apartheid propaganda for a long time.

POM. So how would you differentiate, to put it very starkly, between what the average German might have known and what the average South African might have known?

MB. I think that the experience in SA was not one of mass concentration camps and killings.

POM. The difference between the two would be?

MB. Well it's very hard because I don't really know exactly how much German people could have been expected to know but people in Germany would have probably noticed that Jewish people were disappearing from their society even if they didn't know exactly what was happening to them. That was less visible because apartheid had already forced people apart so much, that would perhaps be one way. And the other thing is really apartheid was not killing people in their hundreds and thousands or putting them in concentration camps, it was putting them in reserves and keeping them out of the cities and I don't think people deny that they knew that, they just acquiesced in the practice of apartheid.

POM. Would you find Kader Asmal's thesis of what happened in SA as being comparable to what happened in Germany with Jews to be an overwrought analogy?

MB. Well I think it's comparable in some ways but I find that it clouds the issue because I find that white people are very easily able to convince themselves that there is no comparison and in a way it lets them off the hook. I think that what happened here was in many ways just as bad as that but I think making the comparison suggests that there were gas ovens and that sort of thing here and because there weren't I don't think that people's suffering was different and so I find that the comparison, because it is so strong, people's emotions get in the way of being able to understand what their responsibility really was.

POM. What do you think?

MB. Well I think it was a terrible, terrible system that destroyed people's lives and ruined their life opportunities and was so harsh that it gave people little option except to resist it by force.

POM. That's here in SA?

MB. Here, and that created the climate for the atrocities that happened. Whereas I think that in the German example the programme was a much shorter programme, it hadn't developed over forty years and taken people along and made them accept it as a way of life and so the starkness of it is not so easy to discern here. It's more, well I don't know, maybe that's just because I was here, I wasn't here all the time but -

POM. How has the experience of being on this commission changed you?

MB. I think mostly in that it's made me much angrier, interestingly. I thought I was much angrier when I was busy fighting apartheid. I think I've come much closer to understanding the loss and the harm and the damage to the fabric of our society so I spend a great deal of my time being angry with everybody and everything which is probably not the reconciliatory feelings that one should have. Anger with our own processes, with the imperfections and the lack of completeness, the mistakes we make. There's no doubt that they are there and one wants it to be perfect. We keep on trying desperately to make it perfect.

POM. That's within the process of the TRC or - ?

MB. Yes mainly, yes within the process, within the limitations of what it's possible to do.

POM. Treatment of Winnie Mandela, of the APLA boys who were given amnesty for the St James' massacre, the boys who were given amnesty for Amy Biehl, and on the basis of just those three cases (well she didn't apply for anything) but for APLA and Amy Biehl, how can Clive Derby-Lewis not be released?

MB. Well he hasn't been refused amnesty yet. We're waiting to hear.

POM. He's applied for it?

MB. Yes.

POM. How can he not get it, given that the Archbishop's son who -

MB. Yes well the Archbishop's son was an extraordinary case. We're not very good people to ask about the Amnesty Committee because they are entirely autonomous, they make their decisions without reference to the commission so I only know what I read in the newspapers and what I read in their judgements and so on. I believe that the amnesty granted to the killers of Amy Biehl and the Heidelberg Tavern and the St James and all the APLA people fall within the ambit of the commission. I think that what they did was terrible but then that's what you apply for amnesty for, for terrible things.  So I think giving amnesty for going out to kill a black person just in order to show that you could actually do it and in order to be accepted into the ranks of the AWB, so giving amnesty at all is almost always for pretty terrible things and I think that those decisions were within the ambit of what the commission is supposed to do. And if Clive Derby-Lewis and Walus get amnesty too, that's the way it goes. I don't know the kind of technical, legal issues on which they will make final, final decisions but looking at it from outside what they did was what they did. The fact that they killed somebody as important as Chris Hani doesn't make a difference to the quality of what they did.

POM. So in that sense they - ?

MB. I wouldn't be surprised if they get amnesty, put it that way. Mandela, Madikizela-Mandela, I'll try and get the record straight, we issued a request, possibly a subpoena, I'm not sure whether it was a written request or whether it was a subpoena, to Mrs Madikizela-Mandela to appear before a closed hearing, a hearing for the purposes of investigation. That would be our normal practice. She made an enormous fuss and said she wanted to be heard in public and demanded a public hearing. We had discussion within the commission and felt that we had to follow our own normal practices and we called her to a closed hearing, but we do also sometimes have open hearings and subsequent to that we held an open enquiry at which a number of the families of people who were missing or killed, probably by members of the Mandela United Football Club, appeared and lawyers appeared and it was a very high profile thing. The Archbishop says that if we had put any National Party person through nine days of public hearing we would have been grilled mercilessly for being harsh, which is probably true, although I would say Mrs Madikizela-Mandela had asked for a public hearing herself. I think the controversial bit always is the Archbishop's appeal to her to apologise and his embrace of her and his warm words towards her, his words.

POM. If you look back at the whole process over two years and the fact that at least at this point, again by most public opinion surveys and by sentiment on the street, the commission has not achieved or does not yet appear to have achieved its stated objectives of truth, reconciliation and justice.

MB. And unity.

POM. What went wrong or what should have been done differently? If you had to write an analysis of the process what would you say? These were our strong points and these were our weak points, this is what gave rise to misperceptions but ultimately there's no reason to believe that your report will lead to any change in opinion.

MB. I'm too close to it to be able to do an objective analysis about what we could have done differently. My anger at our mistakes is at small mistakes, at our inability to reach everybody, at just the sheer administrative problem of dealing with such large numbers. Perhaps if I were rewriting the legislation I would want to consider very strongly whether the category of severe ill-treatment has or has not been a useful one. It has been very useful in terms of exposing the many kinds of suffering that people went through but it would have been much easier for us to deal only with killings and torture and having a category as widely defined as severe ill-treatment has had both blessings and great difficulties. So perhaps that would be the one thing that I would want to examine the pros and cons and I don't think one can do it while we are as close to it as that. But otherwise I don't think anybody could expect that this process would be one that was embraced wholeheartedly by everybody at this moment.

POM. I'm going to ask you a very intellectual question, just almost as my wrap-up. Now that you're tired I wait for the -

MB. The vulnerable moment.

POM. The vulnerable moment? Is that what you call it? Let me see if I can follow my own handwriting. How does the process of trying to unfold man's inhumanity to man day after day, how does the constant retelling of atrocity maim the heart rather than heal it?

MB. I think one of the things that it does is to damage faith and optimism and we need that kind of optimism at the moment in society. It's when one is constantly battered by that evidence of man's ability to be cruel -

POM. But there's a diminishing impact. It's like the law of diminishing returns and like everything else rather than getting - if I hear a hundred outrages by the time I get to the one hundred and first -

MB. No I don't think so, I don't think so. On the contrary almost it makes one more vulnerable to hearing about them. At least that's my experience. I find that I can no longer listen to - there's a radio advertisement about car accidents and I can no longer listen to it, I turn it off.  I just think that the cumulative effect is actually worse.

POM. Do you think that applies to the public?

MB. I do think so, I think that's why people are in such pain at the moment because I don't think they can take very much more of it.

POM. When you say 'people are in such pain', what people are you talking about?

MB. The people who are so angry, that's why they're angry, it's because it hurts.

POM. You think white people are angry because it hurts?

MB. And black people also.

POM. Has anybody done any research on this?

MB. No it's an area that needs work. The only thing that we have is the register that people have signed expressing some kind of regret. I haven't even done any kind of analysis of that but I believe that to be true, people do feel guilty.

POM. My last question.

MB. I thought the last one was the last one!

POM. I always get another five minutes out of people by saying the last question is the last question, that's why I'm Irish. You buy the extra five minutes by saying the last is the last is the last.  This one seriously concerns me, is that I have heard from people that I have talked to who were in the MK and who were abroad about many abuses of women by senior members of the MK and including a number of people in the present government, abuse or blackmail which ultimately led to abuse and this seems to have been buried completely by the commission.

MB. Well not completely and not only by the commission. Many of those women are in high places now, they have no desire to be known as a victim, they have no desire to spend the rest of their lives with people looking at them and saying, yes she was raped by a few people in Quatro or whatever. It's not the way you want to build your life.

POM. But where is the pursuit of truth?

MB. Well people also have rights about what they tell about their own victimisation and for women particularly that is one of the - we will be having a chapter on the experiences of women. It is a very hard balance to find, women who are prepared to speak about rape and other abuse are very brave because it never goes away.

POM. Particularly if they are in a position of power.

MB. It never goes away from them.

POM. In fact they've been raped by some of their colleagues who are also in power.

MB. A rapist is more likely to go on and have a successful public life than a rape victim. That is the harsh reality of our society still. I know several people, not all of them women, who regret having spoken in public to the commission because of what it has done to them. It has made them victims in the public eye as well as in their own heads.

POM. Has it also made them victims within the - in most part we're talking about the ANC, that their careers get sharply curtailed?

MB. It's bound to happen.

POM. Are there certain things you don't talk about, so that there are boundaries to what's acceptable as the truth?

MB. Again, we pushed very hard when we had investigative hearings into what happened in the camps and some of that will come out, but not names, not pack drill, not detail, because the victims don't want it to.

POM. OK, I know you have a meeting, it's 4.15. That you ever so much for your time.

This resource is hosted by the Nelson Mandela Foundation, but was compiled and authored by Padraig O’Malley. Return to theThis resource is hosted by the site.