This is history in the making, and I am both moved and appalled at the spectacle unfolding before me. Has it been too neatly choreographed for public consumption? Why is it that the world pays so much attention to the murder of an American, while the deaths of thousands of South Africans remain tucked away on the back pages of history?
Amy Biehl was an exchange student, stabbed and stoned to death in August 1993 by a mob in the township of Guguletu, just two days before she was to return home to the United States. Four young men, members of the youth organization of the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC), were convicted of the murder. This is the day of their amnesty hearing.
The young men appear frightened as they are led into the hearing room. The Biehls have publicly offered them forgiveness and stated that they will support the Truth and Reconciliation Commission if it decides to grant them amnesty.
THE AMNESTY HEARINGS are perhaps the most controversial aspect of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). The vast number of the more than 7,000 applicants for amnesty are white police officers and others who have been convicted of the brutal crimes of apartheid. During the negotiations that led to the transfer of power from F.W. de Klerk's NP (National Party) to Nelson Mandela's ANC (African National Congress), NP leaders pushed for blanket amnesty; in other words, those who tortured and murdered were not to be held accountable for their crimes.
The ANC agreed to an amnesty provision, but it insisted on a reckoning: Amnesty applicants must make a full disclosure of their crimes before the TRC. It is widely believed that the amnesty compromise averted a bloodbath and made a peaceful transition possible. Still, it is understandably hard for many South Africans to swallow. "They don't even have to say they're sorry," one woman lamented to me about the applicants.
The controversy hits at the highest and deepest levels. Some South Africans wonder if they should be expected to forgive the likes of the police officers and doctors who collaborated in the brutal murder of black consciousness leader Steve Biko, or those who gunned down activist Chris Hani. To its credit (and to the chagrin of some South Africans), the TRC has refused to exempt ANC or PAC leaders, as evidenced by intensive hearings related to the activities of Winnie Madikizela-Mandela. In a courageous move, the TRC has just subpoenaed former state president P.W. Botha to a court of law for his failure to appear before the Commission.
But of course for many people, the issue is more personal: Can I forgive the person who tortured my daughter, the one who murdered my father? Surprisingly, the answer for many South Africans is yes. Yet this graciousness is not being met with a widespread pang of conscience on the part of the perpetrators. "What we have now is the truth, but it's not reconciliation," was a common refrain I heard as I traveled throughout South Africa. Reconciliation requires the participation of two sides.
Brian Mitchell is talked about in some circles like a national hero of sorts. As a young police officer, he threw a grenade into a home in the village of Trust Feeds, intended for an ANC activist. But a wake was going on inside that home, and 13 women and children were killed. After being granted amnesty and released from jail, Mitchell went back to Trust Feeds and apologized before the whole community. He has committed himself to working for reconciliation and trying to bring resources into Trust Feeds.
It seems that that's the way it should work. And yet, with few exceptions, the white collaborators with apartheid have remained intransigent in their belief that they did nothing wrong and have nothing to confess. In one well-known case, a security police officer who several years ago murdered the parents of a 5-year-old boy (who was found sleeping on his mother's dead body) recently met with him. The officer's approach to the now 14-year-old was, "I don't know you; I owe you nothing."
Still more difficult days are ahead for South Africa, as a nation attempts to balance the demands of justice and forgiveness. I pray that hearts of stone might be turned to hearts of fleshand that the world will pay close attention to this marvelous experiment in truth and courage.
JOYCE HOLLYDAY is a Sojourners contributing editor and the author, most recently, of Then Shall Your Light Rise: Spiritual Formation and Social Witness (Upper Room Books, 1997). Thanks to the Permanent Endowment Trust of First United Methodist Church, Forest City, North Carolina, and Mary Jane Evans of Brevard, North Carolina, for generous donations that made her trip to South Africa possible.