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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 It is the product of almost two decades of research and includes analyses, chronologies, historical documents, and interviews from the apartheid and post-apartheid eras.

14 Mar 1997: Jones, Colin

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POM     Colin, I just was dropped off by a taxi driver who said that there ought to be more emphasis on truth rather than on theology and he was maybe a slightly above average taxi driver. This is like a confessional, I am very concerned about the direction the Truth & Reconciliation Commission is taking, and we have talked about this before, I've got all the extracts with me. I am disturbed that it is not bringing about (i) reconciliation, (ii) that truth is not being revealed in the right way and (iii) that justice is certainly not being served in any either punitive or restorative sense.

CJ     It's an interesting comment to make because I think it pre-supposes a number of things. Firstly, that theology has got nothing to do with truth or that the expression, the theological expression around the TRC, is not revealing truth and justice and that I think is a view which is fairly common in this country. I think a lot of people are concerned by the over-emphasis on forgiveness rather than on reconciliation. I myself have become increasingly concerned, particularly over the last few weeks during which we've had some really horrible testimony from Security Police who have been involved in the killing of activists, the most gruesome elimination of activists in this country. One begins to wonder whether there isn't a kind of mad scramble for safety now on the part of people who have already got the luxury of hiding behind the fact that they were only acting on orders. I am afraid I find the most recent claims on the part of Security Police that they are suffering from post traumatic trauma absolutely mind boggling because it almost seems to be saying that these people are suffering as much or more than the victims, the real victims of apartheid. We must be very, very careful in this country that we don't confuse that, that we don't allow the real issues to be lost here and that we suddenly find ourselves bleeding hearts for a regime which was absolutely evil.

     And so your taxi driver, I think, is articulating a very widely and growing view and I certainly would add my voice to that view that justice needs to be seen to be done and that the amnesty issue is one which I think is going to find itself getting into deeper and deeper murky, muddy waters because maybe in the efforts to get at the truth that truth is being somewhat watered down by a misdirected sympathy now being offered seemingly, or being asked for rather by the perpetrators of violence and of atrocities. The fact that people make the connection between the TRC with theology is an interesting one.

POM     This is the taxi driver by the way.

CJ     I know, the taxi driver indeed. It must have to do with the fact that Desmond Tutu is seen to be involved, he's the chairman of the commission, the fact that he always asks us to be forgiving and so on, and there are quite a lot of church people involved. There's Alex Boraine who's a Methodist Minister and in a way there's a very strong influence from the churches, the Christian churches in particular, in the TRC which must colour the way people see that whole thing operating, so that when they are unhappy about the way in which the amnesty proceedings are unfolding they are going to make that connection with Christianity, with religion, with theology, because there certainly is quite a lot of that present.

     I don't think it needs to be that way though . I think that we need to reclaim in this exercise an element which hasn't been strongly identified and certainly hasn't been articulated in the name of the commission, and that is justice. Justice is a very hard thing. I don't think justice is necessarily the opposite of reconciliation. I don't think that to go the just route, that justice is seen to be done, necessarily excludes reconciliation. I don't think justice necessarily excludes mercy and forgiveness, but to exclude justice and to have no real kind of articulated visible support, no 'support' is the wrong word, to have no visible justice being acted out in this as you see with the reconciliation part and the truth part.

POM     What I see, I'll give you just two observations and then we can come back to the question, is that on the part of whites they have mostly turned off, switched off, they don't want to know a lot about the past and if there is a past it's like a Eugene de Kock and a few psychopaths who were out there, it wasn't us, it was madmen out there operating, drinking beer and burning bodies. So to me they are switching off and seeing it as a way of trying to blame them as a community. And then in the black community I see people that I used to visit, or have visited for the last two or three years, who were then quite passive who are now quite angry as they hear self-confessed murderer after murderer come up and describe in gruesome detail exactly what they did and almost look at their watches and say, "I've another 15 minutes of testimony to give and then I qualify for amnesty and then I walk." So there is no justice.

CJ     I have a lot of sympathy for the black position and I think your description of what is happening in the white community is very real. We don't hear a lot of discussion in most polite circles, white polite circles, about the TRC, about the revelations, and certainly in this city I don't think that many people are appalled any longer in this very liberal city of Cape Town about what they are hearing because they can choose not to hear if they want to. I'm concerned about the way in which we seem always in this country to bend over white-wards to try and make white people feel OK and comfortable here and we haven't begun, I think, to really take seriously the pain of black people in this country. We play on the tremendous capacity of black people to absorb suffering and to forgive, the ubuntu thing. I think it's over-played quite frankly, I really do. I think we take advantage of this. I think that we need to be very careful that we don't push black people too far and particularly when having endured so much now they do not see justice to be done and they just see people walking after having publicly 'confessed to their sins'.

POM     With no act of contrition or no act of remorse.

CJ     No consequences, no real consequences.

POM     They're saying in fact 'I'm proud of what I did'.

CJ     'I did it for my country'. And the issues of personal moral responsibility. The message that's going out into this country at the moment is that as long as you were following orders it's OK, that the individual moral responsibility doesn't really matter as long as you can justify it as a following of orders. I think when you do that you actually underline the kind of democracy that we're trying to establish.

POM     But then Eichmann could have claimed the very same thing?

CJ     Absolutely.

POM     And he could also have said that the killing of Jews was within the stated political parameters, it was a political objective.

CJ     Absolutely, which it was. For some reason, if I may say so, I think that the contribution of the religious voice in the new South Africa is more problematic than ever before. It had a proper place and it said the right things in the struggle for justice and for liberation. The voice has now suddenly, I think, lost its edge, in fact it's a really problematic voice because it seems to be saying forgive and forget. It seems to be a voice in which we talk about reconciliation without justice because the consequence of the processes that were put in place suggest that people will walk and that they can, as it were, shift the blame and so on and personal moral responsibility, again, for actions taken is now being down-played and has become subservient to the kind of collective orders from above. And I think that the church really needs to go back to the drawing board and have a good hard look at what message it's sending through.

POM     I'm sure we talked about this before but I will go back to it in order to re-check on what you said before. This is the whole concept of just an unjust war, that I've talked to four of the commissioners in the last two days and they all made a point of saying that the legislation says we were not to investigate apartheid or the apartheid regime but we were to investigate gross violations of human rights during a conflict. That's the way it's now called, so it's been neutralised to that kind of term. Now do you as a person and as a minister or a former minister or whatever, as a theologian, make a distinction between actions taken, i.e. somebody in what might be called a just war, and the ANC would say it was fighting a just war against an oppressive, unjust regime, or can all acts be linked together? Somebody gave me the example today and it was like saying if you were a member of the Resistance in France and you threw a bomb at the Germans were you guilty of a crime or were you guilty of trying to liberate and seek justice? Were your actions justified in that connection and where is the justification for the use of violence when violence might be the only last resort? Was violence the only last resort?

CJ     I think that for me the key is around the issue of gross violations rather than just war. That's the helpful thing. I don't want to get into just war, unjust war, because in a way it's very subjective, it depends on which side you're on. Just war, unjust war, the issue is one which better minds than I have dealt with ad nauseum. I think that it is helpful to concentrate in this instance because it's germane to the problem of gross violations and what could be regarded as gross violations and I don't think that's necessarily a subjective thing. I think that there are some acts which are obviously by any standards quite atrocious. What we're hearing coming out of the amnesty hearings in particular, and out of the TRC hearings in general, are some of those atrocities which are just absolutely blood-curdling and chilling when one hears of people being burnt alive or being tortured and of bodies being burnt while the killers stand and have a barbecue a few yards away. There is no way in which one can even begin to argue about the justness or unjustness of that. What you have there is barbaric, bestial behaviour and I think that is what we are addressing here. But beyond that there are the perpetrators of such atrocities and then there are those who create the climate and provide the space for that kind of thing to happen and my point is this, that you had a whole government which either actually turned a blind eye to that or which in fact authorised that and who paid people to do that. Whatever means of operating and administering that situation that government cannot wash its hands of what happened.

POM     Let me give you a very specific example, because I'm publishing nothing until the year 2000 and I can rub names or whatever. I talk to Roelf Meyer about twice a year and yesterday I was asking him these very questions because he was the Deputy Minister of Law & Order when Adriaan Vlok was the Minister for Law & Order, and I said, "What were your responsibilities?  What were your obligations? What is your accountability since that process was in existence at that time?" And his answer was, "I knew absolutely nothing about it", and he looked me straight in the eye and said, "I knew absolutely nothing about it." And I said, "That's fine, but even given that what is your degree of accountability?" And he couldn't answer it at all.

CJ     I'm sure he couldn't. This is precisely my point. I don't care whether people knew or didn't know. The fact is that he had a responsibility to know. There was enough evidence going around to check it out. They did not. They did not and even if it's just a failure to be responsible that is sufficient reason for that government or those ministers to have stepped down. They did not. Why did they stay on? They would argue, I imagine, that they felt that they were protecting everybody and particularly whites from the horrors of communism and from the indignities and inhumanities of a government or form of political philosophy which would drag us all down into horrors. For God's sake, what sort of argument is that when those very horrors were existing under their regime there were citizens of this country who had even fewer rights than people who lived in, say, communist countries? I'm not flying any flag for those sorts of regimes either.

POM     So if he had given that response to you?

CJ     I would not accept it.

POM     Say you were ... what would you say to him?

CJ     I would say whether you knew about it or not, if it happened in my administration, if I was the responsible minister and it happened in my administration and I did not in the light of the seriousness of those sorts of allegations, and they were certainly flying around, it wasn't as if there was no talk of it, we had people slipping on bars of soap, I would at least have investigated the soap factory concerned and try to make some kind of connection whether it was one particular kind of soap that people were slipping on, and what kind of investment did the soap factory have in all of this? That's the least he could have done. I'm being facetious of course. But nothing was being done, nothing was being done, and every time somebody died in some horrible way we had the same reasons being trotted out; it was accidental death, the person took his own life. This kind of stuff. Now we discover it was all lies and it didn't take a genius, you needn't be a rocket scientist during those days to have begun to smell a rat and the fact that they did not smell a rat either suggests to me that they just had no nose for anything or they got so used to the smell of rats that they couldn't tell the difference. So I don't accept, I refuse to accept the fact that somebody whose responsibility it was to know what was going on in the face of the kinds of accusations and with the kind of things going on at the time, to at this point still claim that they didn't know. I want to know what efforts did they make to know. And I feel very strongly about that, however nice Mr Meyer might be.

POM     I  brought this up quite strongly with him yesterday because I was trying to say, well maybe you didn't know and that's fine, but what do you believe your level of accountability is?

CJ     The most accountable person is the person most responsible to know. He should have known.

POM     And he is saying, "I didn't know because my minister never told me. I was just a junior person in the administration." I hear this from all whites, that rather than the TRC leading to an acknowledgement that apartheid was evil that you have a semi-belligerence on its justification by either cold war, the total onslaught or whatever, and I've quoted these mavericks like De Kock and Cronje, but that's nothing to do with them, they would never (have condoned it.) You don't distinguish between them, you said that the climate that they created in which people could operate, they take no responsibility for climate.

CJ     I think that's exactly my point. They have to claim responsibility for that climate and also I think that to hide behind some kind of corporate identity is unacceptable. God help us if we did that, we could not hope for any kind of civilised future or any kind of real democracy unless people realised that each of us are also individually responsible and accountable and that we can't hide behind some grand policy or behind the person whose instructions we were following. There comes a point I think, part of being a civilised democrat is that you actually have the right to disagree, you have the right to stand out on your own. You don't have to be mindless and go with the flock as it were, and he certainly need not have gone with the flock on this one. But I'm not just knocking him, I'm using that as an example.

POM     This seriously concerns me because I run across this all the time, that he keeps talking about trying to form a new party and a new movement and a new alignment of cross-racial forces and I'm saying there's no way you can do that until you almost get down on your knees.

CJ     That's a kind of laundering thing for me, it's political laundering like money laundering, you pass it through here, you pass it through there, do some changes here, bring some other things in.

POM     Yes, get a couple of credible black leaders and then we're on our way.

CJ     Political laundering.

POM     What I'm saying to him is that, no, you're missing the point. You've got to get down on your knees and say, "We acknowledge the damage, the evil we did in the past and we ask for forgiveness."

CJ     It's more than that for me, it's about restitution also. It's not just about asking for forgiveness because it would be most ungracious not to forgive and it puts black people again on the spot where we have to now suddenly put ourselves in a position where if we don't forgive then we're the bad guys. I'm quite frankly getting a little tired of that, of always having to have the responsibility to forgive, to forget and so on. I think some of that responsibility, some of the accountability and some of the effort must now come from white people and it's about restitution and it's about sticking out difficult times that we're going through now instead of packing up their bags and disappearing off to other parts of the world, bad mouthing the country. I mean suddenly they're at pains to say their mouths work fine but when their ears should have been open that wasn't working fine. And I think we need to look very hard at the business of how we ensure justice. Justice is about restitution, it's about making right. We're not saying that those people should be treated in any atrocious way, we're not saying an eye for an eye. We're saying that if now you've come to your senses, now you know, and if now you see that you should have been accountable and weren't what can you do about it now to make it right? How can you begin to contribute to the victims? How can you begin to contribute to this country in helping to build up a better place so that it does not happen again?

POM     So in my experience I find no evidence of that at all.

CJ     I see very little of it either.

POM     In fact I find almost a resentfulness of that, we are being hung out to dry on the crimes of a psychopath like Eugene de Kock, we would have put him behind bars if we knew who he was. So no-one is taking responsibility.

CJ     It's a funny irony, isn't it, that the very people who were saying, "I was just one in a cog", are now saying, "Well it wasn't me", now and seeking to take a step back from being part of the problem.

POM     But then the machine is saying, "We had no knowledge of what the cogs were doing."

CJ     That's right. It's a great disclaimer all round. Maybe there is some real reason in South Africa having the springbok as its national animal because we're very good at passing the buck aren't we in this country. I'm thinking about your cab man, your cab driver, I think that what you're hearing there is a growing sentiment amongst people who were either on the receiving end of the atrocities and have lived as victims of apartheid all their lives in this country, or who were in the struggle against apartheid. I think we're having an increasing sense of dis-ease at where this process is taking us. Maybe it's too early to say, to reflect upon.

POM     It's like saying this conversation is more like a confession because I'm very uneasy too having followed it and talked with you about it from the time of its inception. I'm just very disturbed about the way things appear to be going.

CJ     It depends on what the recommendations of the commission are at the end of the process which is in almost exactly a year, I think it is exactly a year from today.

POM     There are 166 days left as of today.

CJ     Working days. Yes. It will be very interesting to see what comes out of that and whether justice will be seen to be done. Already we're being asked to forgive and forget when we don't even know the whole story. Maybe our job is not to be reflecting on history, our job is to be making it at the moment, so we must go on doing that. But the warning signs are up. I think there are red flags of a number of very, very serious potential and actual gaps in the process, shortcomings.

POM     How would you identify them?

CJ     Well it's around the fact I think that we haven't really looked at the issues, we're not sending out a clear signal that we are as concerned about justice, concerned about finding ways of restitution. Now it's interesting that the White Wolf, he has been indemnified by the courts but he's now looking for further amnesty being granted to him so that he doesn't have to face any civil suit from the victim survivors. Now that's great, if that's the kind of justice we're going to end up with where the victims will have no recourse, and I'm not asking for a pound of flesh here, but if a family has been left destitute of a breadwinner what kind of hope do they have? I mean this man will have a farm and a car and drives around and will be very happy and bring up his children in a new South Africa and they will enjoy the benefits of the country for whom people spilt blood and his father shed blood of other innocent people. Now we can't build a real nation. I'm not concerned about the tradition of ubuntu, I'm more concerned about the tradition which my children and grandchildren will inherit out of this experience of the formation of a new nation and the legacy we are presently calculating is one, I think, which has some very, very serious shortcomings; the absence of justice, the absence of a real, real visible, tangible compassion for the victims, and the bleeding hearts bending over white-wards isn't helping us.

POM     I would see it as, reflecting your views, that everybody on the commission that I've talked with tells me how moved they were about the stories they heard and the sense of release of victimisation on the part of people who tell their stories, then when I get to the -

CJ     They're missing the point totally.

POM     And then, two, when I get to say, well what about reparation, where is justice? All these guys are going to walk and then where is reparation? And they say well there's no money available for reparation.

CJ     Well we'd jolly well better see that there is some kind of reparation.

POM     Can you begin with the first one?

CJ     As I said, I'm sorry I interrupted you, I think it's missing the point. This is not so that some of us can feel good and it's not certainly that the perpetrators can absolve their consciences. This is about the truth coming out so that justice can be done.

POM     Is truth - what's the connection between truth and justice? First of all what is truth? Two, is there a connection between truth and justice? Is there any necessary connection between truth and justice and reconciliation? May reconciliation be political truth?

CJ     I'm talking here from a very particular perspective as a Christian person and someone who has dabbled in theology. I think that for me still to this day the relationship between those three things, truth, justice, reconciliation, makes the most sense when you see it acted out. And the person of Jesus Christ speaks for me, makes a very strong statement, because in that you see how it is lived out. When the truth is out there is a consequence and the truth calls for some kind of action and that action is justice. The effects of acting justly on the basis of the truth is what brings about reconciliation. But you can't have the effects without having the cause and the cause for reconciliation is not truth, the cause is justice. Reparation can only happen when someone is prepared to act upon the truth which has come out.

POM     So in the present process where the emphasis is on - they would say that the legislation says they must record and make a history of the conflict, as I said, again, not the apartheid years, it's putting everything into a moral equivalence. There was a conflict and people were killed and atrocities were committed on every side, we will document them as far as possible but that the perpetrators for the most part are going to take a walk. Where is justice?

CJ     I don't think it's there at all. I think it's missing quite frankly. If it is there I don't see it. If it is there I don't think there's enough of it, not enough for us to really begin a long-lasting reconciliation.

POM     As I said earlier, if I was a black person I would get increasingly - well I've met some. Just to finish the point you were making, there is no - ?

CJ     Well I don't see the evidence, I don't see strong enough evidence that we are really looking at ensuring that justice is done to the victims. I think we mustn't make the mistake that because some of us are deeply moved by what we're hearing and we're amazed that people can talk about such atrocities and we're also amazed at how incredibly warm and open black people, the victims, have been and the survivors of the atrocities have been in the face of these truths. We mustn't make the mistake of thinking that is sufficient upon which to build a lasting peaceful future in which we will not make that mistake again. I think that the message which is going out is one which seems to suggest, and I want to just add a little rider to this, which seems to suggest that it doesn't matter what you do and how bad it is, there is always the chance that you might get off the hook. I think that we don't understand the implications even arising out of it now for our crime ridden society. If some gangster in the townships was to be asked to stop his activities, he would say, "Well why should I stop? These guys mass murdered, they do worse things than we do and they walked, so there might be a pretty good chance for me to get away with this too." And I think we're sending out the wrong signals both for the present and for the future of our country.

POM     Would you distinguish between punitive justice, i.e. people being prosecuted and sent to jail for their crimes, and what might be called restorative justice?

CJ     I think we need to see a bit of both. I'm not sure, again, some people have to sit down and think that through. I think there are some crimes which if it is clear that people had choices and didn't take those choices in terms of the actions they committed that punitive justice would be proper, and where there might be some doubts here, and again we all do normal things like operate within the legal jurisprudence about probability and how all this kind of stuff must operate, then maybe restorative justice. But certainly at the very least restorative justice must be experienced and must be seen to be done.

POM     Just a last question. Talking to Roelf Meyer yesterday he was trying to distinguish between the National Party government and the members of the National Party and he was saying that most ordinary people had no idea that these things were going on and would have  been shocked out of their minds.

CJ     I would argue the other way. I would say that for a lot of people it was such common practice to treat black people like dirt and to see them as animals. Look at the way farmers treated people and physically abused them, beat them, sjamboked them, the kind of accommodation which black people by and large had to occupy, I think they probably didn't see anything wrong in what was going on there. It might have been taken a little further than they themselves would have taken it but I think that we have created a climate here in which black people just counted for nothing and so they had no way to measure what was going on. That's the truth. I think there is a lot of that there too.

POM     So you think that people like Roelf who want to create a new cross-party movement which brings in Africans, even put Africans at the top of the movement, do you think that they are still suffering from, operating under moral blinkers, that they just don't get it?

CJ     Absolutely.

POM     People just don't get the past.

CJ     They still don't get it and because they still haven't got it the chances of us repeating this in the future are great and the very purpose for which all these truth and reconciliation things are happening, that we don't ever make the same mistake again, I think will be underlined tremendously because people still refuse to acknowledge the seriousness of wrongs of the past.

POM     So very quickly three things: in terms of the three objectives of the commission, how far do you think it has been successful so far in trying to establish truth?

CJ     If by truth you mean a series of facts, however atrocious they may be, I think a lot of that kind of truth has come out. But the deeper truth, the deeper truth about ourselves and our implicatedness in it and our corporate responsibility, that truth, until that sinks in -

POM     It hasn't?

CJ     I don't think that's happening.

POM     Justice?

CJ     Justice has to be seen to be done whether it's punitive or restorative and I don't see enough of that happening. And it's those two things, if that kind of truth and that kind of justice doesn't happen I don't think that reconciliation of any lasting and deep kind is going to be our lot.

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