This resource is hosted by the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory, 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 It is the product of almost two decades of research and includes analyses, chronologies, historical documents, and interviews from the apartheid and post-apartheid eras.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 Mar 1997: Boraine, Alex
POM Dr Boraine, I just came from visiting General Viljoen and he reiterated his opposition to the TRC saying that it can never bring about reconciliation and national unity and he said that he's often asked members of the commission what is the strategy to bring about reconciliation and unity and that no-one has been able to give him a satisfactory answer.
AB Yes I've had a number of discussions with General Viljoen and I think if you bear in mind where he's coming from I'm not surprised that he's critical of the commission. The commission believes that you cannot have any kind of reconciliation without the truth. In this country we have had lies, deceit, cover up, without anybody really knowing what was happening and why it was happening and what the implications were of the actions taken during that time. So the truth is always uncomfortable, truth in itself cannot bring reconciliation but you can't have reconciliation if you do it on the basis of saying it never happened because sooner or later the skeletons will fall out of the cupboard and then you've got to deal with them and that can effect reconciliation.
Second, I think the fact that a lot of people for the first time in their lives, and I'm now talking about thousands of people who have appeared before the commission, have had an opportunity to tell their own stories and this in itself is a catharsis. Many of them have said to us, I quote one earlier this morning, where a mother who said to me after she had spoken at the commission hearing, that for the first time in 16 years she was able to sleep through the night. Now that's reconciliation, that's bringing about a sense of 'I dealt with the past, I can take charge of my life, I can move forward'. And I think that's what South Africa has got to do.
I've also tried to say to General Viljoen and others that the commission is really not concerned with the past so much as with the future but you can't build a future if you build it on distorted memories and clashing of memories, so let's try and see if the nation can come clean with itself in order not to dwell in the past but to build a future which means that it will never happen again. But if you don't know what's happened, if you're not prepared to be accountable - and that's why I think that General Viljoen and others ought to accept their own accountability for what has happened in this country so that we can deal with it and not dwell on it and lie about it but move forward and start building a country which is based on human rights and self respect and dignity which we have never experienced in this country.
POM I know that many opinion polls show a division along racial lines regarding the TRC, that whites believe it generally to be a witch-hunt of some description whereas blacks are far more favourably disposed towards it. I have two questions in that regard, or three. One is that you have, I won't say attacked, but made noises about the submissions of the National Party which it seems are not only partial submissions but seem almost submissions that avoid acknowledging the truth and certainly avoid taking accountability for the past so that on their part there appears to be no great change of heart regarding the actions they took in the past rather than they seem to be continuing in a policy of trying to justify their actions, whether it's on the grounds of the total onslaught or whatever. That's one.
Two, that when you watch some of the white security policemen give evidence they do so without any sense of remorse or guilt and you've got the feeling that they are looking at their watches and saying, "I've got another 15 minutes to go and my application for amnesty is in, I've given my evidence and I'm out of here and if I have a good lawyer and I made a good case I will get amnesty."
Three, that there is a growing resentment on the part of whites that this is in fact something that's aimed more specifically at whites.
And four, that there is increased anger among blacks who more and more as they hear atrocity after atrocity being revealed and the barbarity with which atrocities are carried out, are angry that so many self-confessed killers may just simply walk while they as victims, or as the families of victims, receive nothing in the way of compensation other than an acknowledgement by the killer saying, "I killed your son, your husband, I'm sorry, I'm free now goodbye."
AB There are four points that you make and let me try and address each one of them. First, I think that there has been a general mood of self-justification within the very people who were the architects of apartheid and this is very disappointing, to put it mildly, and we've tried to emphasise over and over again that in the end it's not the foot soldiers so much but the politicians who have to accept accountability because they devised the policy, they created the climate, they gave the orders and we are concerned all the time as a commission to challenge that and that is why we've asked political parties to come back and re-submit. And this is why, I just happened to be in the chair at the time, we asked the former military generals to go back and do some more thinking and to assist them we gave them a long list of questions and they are coming back.
So my guess is that in the end although the commission grinds very slowly, it grinds surely and we are getting more and more information which I think is going to lead to a far greater sense of responsibility and accountability and that, of course, covers wherever human rights violations have been taking place. The ANC itself have people within its ranks who feel that because they were on a liberation struggle, therefore they don't have to be directly involved and I've tried to make the point over and over again and I think it's now accepted that no matter how just your cause is if there were human rights violations as a result of that then you have to own to that and you have to accept responsibility for that and I think the ANC have now accepted that and a number of their Cabinet ministers are applying for amnesty. I think De Klerk should apply for amnesty in terms of his overall responsibility and not say, "Well I didn't know about it", or, "There were a few rotten apples", and that sort of thing. The commission feels very strongly on this score.
POM That seems to be still the attitude of the NP in general, that we didn't know these things were going on, there were a couple of bad apples and my God! if we'd known about them we'd have been the first to throw them out.
AB Right. The fact, of course, is that we have said to them, and the evidence before the commission is clear that it wasn't just a mere aberration, it was a general direction within the security forces and we've moved right throughout South Africa, small towns, townships, big towns, cities, wherever we go the same thing comes through, a policy and approach by police, black and white, against black society which said you are less than human and therefore we can treat you as such. And that's not a few bad apples and this is what we have been trying to say and we will say it again and in the end of course they have to decide whether or not they will accept that accountability but that certainly will be reflected in our own final report.
As far as the attitude of perpetrators is concerned it's very mixed. Yesterday I was listening to someone who said that he is haunted by what he did and can't put it out of his mind and he's very sorry about it, he thought he was doing the right thing at the time. Now in the end you could be very cynical about it and you can say this is a tough security guy who killed and maimed and tortured and of course he's going to say that. Well, I mean, you can say that about anybody who goes and asks for forgiveness to a friend or to a husband or a wife and so on. You've got to have some sort of degree of faith that hopefully some of this repentance will take action in a new style of behaviour, a new life in relation to his own family, his own society and his own country. But the Act does not call for contrition, it doesn't say you have to say you're sorry, it asks you to tell the truth and what we've got to do is to make absolutely sure that they don't sanitise their stories in such a way that you're really not getting to the truth and we've had to warn perpetrators who come to us that the Act demands that they make a full disclosure and if it's found that they do not then, of course, they will not be granted amnesty. So that's where the focus is.
It's pretty tough but if you did say in the Act that one of the conditions would be that you have to show contrition, well that would be very easy to do, so one could even become even more cynical. So when it comes, even though it's not demanded, perhaps there is a degree of sincerity there. We can only hope so. I have a personal deep feeling that the healing that is needed in this country is not the healing only of the victims and survivors but the healing of perpetrators. And when you think of the many young men, very young, in their teens, who were recruited into the police and into the army and were given almost a license to kill, were told this is what's happening and these are the terrorists and the communists who are going to destroy our country, our churches and our homes and our economy, who really has to assume responsibility for that? I have a degree of sympathy with the East German guard of 19 years old who is told that nobody must jump over the wall even if you have to kill them. I want to talk to Honecke, I would want to talk to people who gave those orders rather than that 19 year old. I'm not excusing it, I think there's a degree of responsibility there.
I think the third point you made about the general view of whites, that this is a witch-hunt and that they are getting blamed for everything -
POM As if they have turned off. When I go to talk to ordinary families or whatever about it they just switch off and it's like they would rather be watching rugby or cricket.
AB Yes. It's like there's someone who has disgraced the family. You don't want to talk about it. There's an uncle who is an alcoholic or a brother who rapes or something so you turn the page. There is a degree of guilt. There's a feeling of being uncomfortable because whatever one's position was in the white community, and there were many who opposed apartheid and paid quite a heavy price, some of them. Many went to jail, had to go into exile, were killed and all the rest, but on the whole whites were privileged in the apartheid era. They were not forced to live in one area, they were not confined in terms of their race excepting in terms of privilege so I'm not surprised that whites generally feel this way. I think it's almost inevitable. What I have been trying to say to them when I talk on radio and on television and in public is to say, look let's come to terms with this, let's accept what happened and let's move forward. The moment one turns away from it then healing is not possible and then you have resentment and, "I was better than so-and-so", and "I wasn't a Nationalist", or "I wasn't the Cabinet minister", "I wasn't the soldier", that doesn't matter.
I don't think any of us have got clean hands, and I think there are a hell of a lot of blacks who are in the same position. Many of them were in the police force and in the military and were informers and took sides. I don't think it's a question of pointing a finger. It's just saying, here's an opportunity, here's a period of grace, if you like, where you say we did wrong, we should have spoken up louder, we should have taken action; we didn't, we're sorry about that, let's make sure we don't do it again. So it's not a witch-hunt, it's not a sitting in judgement, we're not a court, we don't send people to jail. It's a very, very generous provision and people who exclude themselves I think will rue the day that they didn't use this opportunity of coming to terms with their past whether you're black or white or National Party or ANC or whatever.
There's a final point that you made about black anger?
POM Bishop Tutu always talks about ubuntu and how forgiving blacks are and they're not after revenge or whatever, yet I sense among many as they hear more and more stories about the barbarities of the atrocities carried out and that these people may walk, that their anger is increasing, not diminishing. Is it also part of the inevitability of the process?
AB I think so. I think that the commission has no right to expect and demand that people should forgive. The commission can't forgive, the government can't forgive; the individual can or cannot and I think it is to add another burden if we say, "You know the right thing to do is to forgive." I think what we have to do is that the right thing is that you shouldn't remain a victim, don't be trapped in this. To empower people to take charge of their lives, even if it means for them to say, "I really find this forgiveness damn difficult and I'm going to take a while on this one and I don't know if I ever can face up to it." I think that's perfectly normal and natural.
I know there's a strong Christian emphasis that you must forgive your enemies and love them and so on but I don't think it would be right for the commission and we try very hard not to do that. I think inevitably some of the more religious members of the commission it comes, it shows. But I certainly have tried to say again in commission meetings, in public hearings, in broadcasts, that we have no right to demand this. If people ask and say, "Well, what do I do about this?" I think one could if one wishes make it clear that sometimes a festering sore or hatred inside of one does more damage to oneself rather than to one's enemy so it's better to deal with it, but how they deal with it is their business.
I think what has happened is the following: many people have come to us before the amnesty hearings and have said, "I really don't want revenge", and in that respect Archbishop Tutu is reflecting the reality. "I don't want people to go to jail, our jails have been far too full and we've all been in jail." Many of these are black people talking. "But I do want to know the truth. I want to know who did this. And I can't even begin to think of forgiveness until I know who did it and why and what. What happened to my youngster, my son, my daughter, my father, my husband, my mother?" And I think that's part of the healing process and I've heard it in Chile, I've heard it in Northern Ireland, I've heard it in Sotho and Xhosa and Pedi and English and Afrikaans here, almost exactly the same language. "I can't forgive until I know who to forgive and for what." I couldn't believe it when I first heard it in Spanish in Chile and Argentina and I come and I sit here and I hear from peasant people, who don't even know where Argentina is, saying almost the same thing.
So there seems to be a human need to know, to know the truth, and that's why I take strong exception to the General Viljoens and others of this world who just want to say, "Let's forget about the past, let's not deal with that." And De Klerk took the same line earlier. I think he thinks differently now, I'm not sure. So, yes, there is anger there and I think the anger ought to be directed towards the political parties that made the deal, the ANC, the National Party, in large measure.
The commission is simply an instrument of a democratically elected parliament, elected by the people who said there ought to be amnesty and when I talk with Mr Mandela he assures me that were it not for amnesty provisions in the interim constitution the possibility of a free and fair and peaceful election would not have been there. And I respect him and as someone who has suffered a great deal and who was incarcerated for so long he's not going to play fast and loose with this sort of stuff. If he thought that amnesty was necessary as the price we had to pay for transition and a peaceful shift in this country then I think the politicians should speak much more loudly and clearly to their own constituencies. That's not to say that we must duck it.
I came into this commission, as did my fellow commissioners, knowing what was in the Act and I can live with that. I think that amnesty is the price we have to pay but it's not a general amnesty, it's a conditional amnesty, it's a public amnesty and I just think that we must absorb some of the pain because we are nearest to the victims. We must try and help them to see this and understand this. But at the end of the day it's really the political parties and parliament which has to accept responsibility for this process and this programme and to help members of their own parties, because the vast majority of people who come to us who have suffered so deeply are black. That's a fact of life, and the perpetrators are in large measure white but most of the people who come were supporters of the ANC or the PAC and it's their parties that were the father and mother of this process and I think politicians have to accept that sort of responsibility as well.
POM You're saying most of the people who have come - ?
AB Who have come and said my house was destroyed, my husband was killed, etc., were the victims. The victims, their support base is not in the Democratic Party, it's not in the NP, it's in the ANC which fathered, if you like, this Act and this amnesty process and whilst I don't want to stand away from it, I accept my responsibility. I believe it's necessary for the healing of this country but in the final analysis it was a political compromise which always happens when you negotiate and you don't have a victor and vanquished situation of armies marching into Pretoria. You sit round a table and it's a win/win situation. You give something, they give something and those compromises were made.
POM On the three fronts of justice, truth and reconciliation, on which of the fronts do you think you've made most progress and on which do you think you've made least progress?
AB I don't want to beg the question but it depends how one sees reconciliation or justice or truth, perhaps it's self-evident, perhaps that's easiest, perhaps that's what we've succeeded in, where we've been able to identify for the very first time after 20 years those who were involved in the death of Steve Biko.
POM That's truth.
AB That's truth, but it's a measure of justice because you can't separate truth from justice. Part of justice is knowing the truth. If you're talking about retributive justice then that is the least part of the commission's work and therefore we would be least successful. If you're talking about restorative justice, which is something very different, the TRC -
POM Do you make a distinction between the two? Retributive justice is - ?
AB The last word is punishment. Restorative justice is that the last word is healing. I think there's nothing cheap about that. The courts for years have failed to bring any kind of justice. In Biko's case, for example, there were inquests, people lied at the inquests. There were hearings. Nobody could get to the truth and one of the things, as I said earlier, most people that I've talked with and listened to, their major, major concern overall, there are some exceptions, is: what happened; why did they do this; where is his body; where can I have a little place that I can put flowers? That's restorative.
If you take a crude example, the War Crimes Tribunal in The Hague dealing with the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda, the last word there is punitive and I can't see any hope for those countries of any kind of reconciliation when that is the final word because in 20 years time others who will get into power will say, "OK, you had your day now we're going to punish you", and it's going to be a cycle and you can see it in Yugoslavia and you can see it in Rwanda, how it's happened.
I'm not saying ours is a perfect situation and in terms of reconciliation I would have to argue that this is such a vast concept that the TRC could probably begin to lay a few foundation stones on which others can build. The TRC is not going to achieve reconciliation in this country. We can point the way, we can make it possible in certain areas, in certain homes, in certain lives but the reconciling process is going to have to do with economic justice far more than only the restoration of the moral order, which I think is what the commission is about, and it's going to take time because the wounds that have been dealt and received are deep and there is no way you can have a nice easy cheap kind of reconciliation in this country. I think it's going to be a generation. What I think the commission can help this country to do is to begin to co-exist, begin to give each other space and say we've come from different histories, different ideologies, we've done different things to each other, let's start on that basis, let's come clean on that basis and let's try and see how we can build for the future.
POM But there is no necessary relationship between truth and reconciliation?
AB I think that for some it seems to have a very strong link. For example, people will say, and almost use the words, "Now that I know what happened I am reconciled, I feel that peace. I'm not sure if I can forgive, I certainly will never forget but at least I know", and there's a measure of reconciliation, but only a measure.
POM I suppose what I'm talking about specifically would be the Chris Hani case and the Steve Biko case, in which cases both of the families want the perpetrators prosecuted.
POM They want justice. They're not interested in reconciliation as such. They want the truth and they want punitive justice not restorative justice. Do you run into this dichotomy all the time or is it just in a number of high profile cases?
AB Well my impression is that it's much more in the high profile cases because they're the people who go to the media and the press and the Attorneys and so on and the communities say, "Well what are you going to do about it?" So it's public and I don't want to suggest for a moment that they are squeezed into a corner. But it's a very political thing as well as a personal thing and that's understandable. I have no problem with that. I think it's perfectly understandable that people want some kind of revenge or some kind of payment to be made by those who did these dreadful things. But what Mandela and De Klerk in parliament had to do was to take the larger picture and say that if we spend all our time on retribution where will this country ever come to some kind of resolution? Therefore we've got to have a period of grace where we can deal with these things, we can come to terms with it and then move on. So to put it quite bluntly, and it sounds almost cruel, but the few have to suffer for the many and the many is the whole of the country finding itself and coming to terms with itself and it's peace, coming to peace with itself in terms of its past so that we can build a future.
The Malan case is a perfect indication of a long expensive trial where everybody walked. I said to Mrs Biko, "Come to the commission because no-one is going to take this case up. There is no fresh evidence, no Attorney General. What grounds is he going to have to re-open this and to have another court case? The only way we're going to get this is if people come and say 'I did it'. So come to the commission and ask us and encourage us to do this." She heard that, she didn't come to the commission, she opposed the commission, but ask her now as to whether she ever believed that she would know the names and will one day listen to them in public describing how it happened, which is something she has said over and over again she wants to know. So it must be part of the answer. I'm not saying it's the whole answer. She would want to go a step further say these people ought to be prosecuted. They would never have come forward if they were in fear of prosecution. It's only the amnesty process which can reveal the truth and I think that's a large contribution towards healing.
POM This is a technical question. If I, say, were a killer of Biko and I came and I tell my part that I played in it and then the amnesty committee decides that I don't qualify for amnesty, am I from a legal point of view in double jeopardy? I've confessed to murder and can I be prosecuted on the basis of what I've said?
AB No. The Act makes it very clear that any evidence led before an amnesty hearing cannot be used against you either in criminal or in a civil prosecution. The reason why that's there is because if people felt that they were putting themselves into this double jeopardy they would never come. So what we've tried to say is, you've got to have a carrot. You've got to be able to say it's in your interest to come, it's to deal with this thing, to tell the truth so come clean and to move forward. What can happen is that if there is fresh evidence other than that led in the amnesty hearing then of course that person could be prosecuted but that could happen in any event. But anything that is led in evidence at an amnesty application, even if that person doesn't get amnesty, they cannot be charged in a court of law civilly or criminally on the basis of that.
POM Since you joined the commission what has been the most difficult decision you've had to make, one? Two, what has been the most disturbing thing that you've either heard of or have had knowledge of?
AB The most difficult thing?
POM Difficult decision.
AB Oh boy. I think what I've been saying earlier on is encapsulated in the fact that you've got to say to people who come to you that in terms of the amnesty provision that person could walk away from prison even before the victim has received any kind of reparation or rehabilitation because the Act says within 24 hours or whatever it is the lawyers concerned, the perpetrator concerned and the head of the prison concerned, must be notified because amnesty, of course, means that the sentence is gone, it doesn't exist any more, therefore that person can leave prison. I think to try and explain that to people they would like to say, "Well can't you leave him there for another week while we think about this?" and you say "No I can't, we can't do that. Pardon has been granted and we can't withhold it, the Act doesn't allow us to." And I think that kind of tricky situation with people who have told their story to us, they have asked us to find out the truth. We find out the truth by persuading people to apply for amnesty through one measure or another, they come and they tell the story and those people have to listen to it and they listen to the gruesome details and we have to say to them there is a very strong possibility that that person is going to be given amnesty and will be released. So it's a very, very tough thing because one feels for people and you have to try and get the total picture in mind. But when you're facing somebody with tears in their eyes and wracked with pain it's a damn difficult thing to do.
POM The last two quick ones: what during this whole period has touched you the most personally and what most troubles you about the process?
AB I think what has touched me most is funnily enough not the older, mostly women who have played such an incredible role in this country, without them there would be no peace in this country. I've almost come to take their strength for granted. It's wrong but I almost sense they can bear it, they are incredible people. What has moved me most are young people, and I'm talking now about some of them very early twenties and so on, who are quite clearly, have been so badly tortured and hurt, some blind and shot in the face, some psychiatrically deeply troubled and disturbed, and I look at these and I know that they represent a tiny proportion of a vast number of children and youngsters who have been devastated by apartheid and all that that means and I find that hard to live with. I find it hard to bear, I've got to bite the inside of my cheek not to weep and that haunts me. The others almost, they're victorious, if you like, in being a victim and surviving it and understand that they contributed towards the end of apartheid. But these young people who are almost unemployable, come from terribly poor backgrounds, need medical help, need psychological help, need training, need everything and they're not going to get it in large measure, I know that, and you think of the price that we've paid and then you realise how very costly the liberation of this country has been. We count it not in terms of MK soldiers but in terms of the lives of youngsters who have been devastated.
And the process, well, as I say, the toughest thing is that in terms of the Act, and I think this is flawed, the Act is flawed in this regard and as one who contributed towards it in large measure I must accept some responsibility, and that is that the amnesty applications are dealt with and are resolved, it may take weeks, but once the decision is taken and amnesty is granted it's instantaneous whereas the Act says that we've got to listen to all the victims. I can understand that. Only when we've heard them and heard their voices and what they want do we then formulate a policy which we then present to the President who then presents it to parliament. It's a long process. We're now trying to rectify that and we've discussed it with the minister and he's agreed to cut the red tape and try to have what we call urgent interim relief so that people who are in desperate need right now can be attended to. In fact my colleagues this very day are finalising that policy and then we will present an amendment to the Act. It will go through parliament and then we can start because there are funds now in the present fund. We've got no money in the budget of the TRC for victims, not at all. The President's fund is there to do that. We've already solicited quite large sums of money from the international community and others so the money is there, it's the bureaucratic nightmare that we're now short-circuiting. As I say, the basic sort of unfairness of on the one side perpetrators, who were the cause, walk free and the others hang on, hang on. When we give our report to the President then we will erect the monument, then we will get the tombstone, then we will have the scholarship, then we will have the house. It's too long to wait.
POM Thank you ever so much.
AB A pleasure.