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Truth & Reconciliation Commission

Quality of Mercy

Date: May 27, 2001, Late Edition - Final
Byline: By Mark L. Wolf

Inside South Africa's
Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
By Alex Boraine.
466 pp. New York:
Oxford University Press. $30.


Tocqueville observed that the most dangerous time for a bad government is when it seeks to mends its ways. ''A Country Unmasked: Inside South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission'' is a detailed account of an important part of the period when South Africa sought to make a peaceful transition from apartheid to a truly representative democracy. The author, Alex Boraine, is the former president of the Methodist Church of Southern Africa; he courageously fought apartheid as a member of Parliament, and served as the deputy chairman of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

The commission was established in 1995, as a constitutional compromise to avert continued bloodshed. Many members of the African National Congress demanded Nuremberg-style trials of white officials, who were seeking a general amnesty before agreeing to relinquish power. In principle, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission offered amnesty from prosecution only to individuals who candidly confessed their political crimes in public. Government reparations replaced victims' rights to bring civil suits, and those who did not receive amnesty were to be subject to prosecution. According to Boraine, the commission's main goal was to heal wounds. Its spirit was epitomized by Nelson Mandela, who established its mandate and membership with the remarkable lack of bitterness that characterized every aspect of his leadership.

The commission's emphasis on reconciliation is not utterly unfamiliar to Americans. Abraham Lincoln promised to pursue Reconstruction ''with malice toward none, with charity for all.'' He used his pardon power for its primary constitutional purpose -- to end insurrection -- and proclaimed an amnesty for many members of the Confederacy. But South Africa's de-emphasis of punishment and retribution is striking. In the United States, our system of justice is based largely on the belief that the credible threat of serious punishment will effectively deter crime. Retribution is regarded as essential to providing that credibility and to minimizing the risk of violent vengeance. The low priority given to retributive justice caused the family of Steve Biko and many other victims of apartheid actively to oppose any amnesty in South Africa.

Moreover, since Nuremberg enduring efforts have been made to establish on an international level the principle of individual accountability for violations of human rights. The model of South Africa's amnesty program has generated concern among many who give priority to prosecuting war criminals.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission succeeded in quickly establishing some painful truths. Its success in promoting reconciliation between the races is more questionable. The hearings provided catharsis to many victims, furnished survivors with important insights into the plight of loved ones who had disappeared, and led to many poignant expressions of regret and forgiveness. Disturbingly absent, however, was any meaningful acceptance of responsibility by white officials. P. K. Botha, who led South Africa during the decades of the most violent oppression of blacks, refused to cooperate with the commission. Botha's successor, F. W. de Klerk, who shared the 1993 Nobel Peace Prize with Mandela, and his colleagues constantly qualified their expressions of regret and insisted that they knew nothing about the atrocities committed by their nation's police and security forces.

In 1998, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission issued a report detailing a horrible history of human rights violations by the government. It also documented comparable crimes committed by some members of the A.N.C., including Winnie Mandela. The report made recommendations concerning reparations and the prosecution of officials who had not received amnesty.

The report was widely criticized, which is perhaps the best evidence of its intellectual integrity. Its recommendations have generally been ignored. Boraine deplores the lack of progress toward providing reparations. He does not, however, lament the lack of prosecutions, which by all accounts are not expected. What was described as a limited amnesty has become, in effect, a general amnesty.

Boraine nevertheless declares the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to have been a miraculous success and advocates it as a model for the Balkans, among other places. It is true that the establishment of the commission eased a peaceful transfer of power from the white minority to the black majority, and its members made a heroic effort to give South Africa its best chance for reconciliation. However, Boraine's judgment seems premature. According to polls, the vast majority of South African whites continue to refuse to acknowledge the atrocities perpetrated on their behalf or to accept responsibility for them. There is also continuing controversy among blacks as to whether they ought to forgive their oppressors and move on. The commission's report may be a basis for developing a shared memory, but there is also the risk that it will provoke violent anger as future generations learn of the unpunished crimes that were committed against their ancestors.

With regard to the international implications of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, it should be recognized that apartheid did not involve genocide or ethnic cleansing. There are some crimes against humanity that cannot be simply confessed and forgiven, even in the context of transitional justice. Although Borraine rightly notes that it is impossible to prosecute everyone, he inadvertently makes a powerful argument for effective prosecution and punishment of those most responsible for systematic violations of human rights. Despite the admirable efforts of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, South Africa's future seems uncertain because of its history of injustice engineered by powerful people who operated with a sense of impunity. By showing how difficult it is to deal with atrocities after they occur, this book demonstrates how important it is to deter them.

Boraine writes that it is necessary to subject the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to ''critical scrutiny'' as part of ''the search for the elusive peace which always seems to be beyond our grasp.'' He is right. While not gracefully written, his book should be a valuable resource in that effort.

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