The Common Good
March-April 1999

Public Truth-Telling

by Molly Marsh | March-April 1999

Moyers on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission

Questions of justice, oppression, evil, and forgiveness are eternal ones, and South Africa, through its Truth and Reconciliation Commission, is grappling painfully with them as its people confront the legacy of apartheid.

In his two-hour PBS special Facing the Truth, scheduled to air March 30, Bill Moyers shows us the charred bodies of the "The Cradock Four," men who were murdered for their resistance to the white regime; the infamous "truth" rooms in buildings throughout South Africa where interrogations and killings occurred; and footage from the hearings in which white police officers demonstrate, in exchange for amnesty, the methods they used to torture blacks.

We see many, many mothers crying for their sons, such as Maria Ntuli, whose son Jeremiah was killed in 1986. Along with nine other boys, he was kidnapped and put into a van filled with explosives. This was "preventative" killing, in the eyes of Brigadier Jack Cronje, leader of the death squads that operated around Pretoria. "I thought I was doing the right thing," he said.

Thandi Shezi copes with the assault and beating she received from four white police offers by divorcing her body from her spirit. "I let them devour the body with rape, and my soul and spirit were at the corner, watching," she said. "I told the Truth Commission that I wish to go back, to collect my soul, for the real Thandi is there at the corner."

For some, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings may help start the process of restoring body and soul. Moyers interviews several people who, by the act of telling their stories, have begun to heal. But for others, the hearings merely intensify pain and suffering. Nkosinathi Biko, son of Steve Biko, a prominent activist and leader of the 1970s Black Consciousness Movement, recounts his frustration at the police officers who killed his father but refuse to fully admit it, or accept punishment. "How are we better off now?" he asks Moyers.

Indeed, the hearings present a cruel paradox. If the commission hadn't been established, many would never know what happened to their loved ones. But after dealing for years with the never-explained disappearances, beatings, and detainments of mothers, daughters, fathers, and sons, to have to endure the sight of their tormentors walking away from the commission hearings free from punishment seems too much to ask.

In the second half of the program, Moyers turns to the ways in which South Africa is trying to put apartheid behind it. He speaks with Mcusta Jack, a black businessman who employs several white men, including a former government intelligence operative. Black poet and journalist Don Mattera travels the country speaking to students about shaping a new South Africa. "Sorry is not just a word. It's a deed. It's an act," he tells Moyers. "Contrition is, I have taken from thee, therefore I give thee back. I have hurt thee, therefore I help to heal your pain." Healing this level of pain seems a nearly insurmountable task, and perhaps the only truth Moyers refers to in his title is the reality that this is excruciating work.

Facing the Truth

is a stunning, important documentary. It will leave you both wounded and healed—for the unspeakable cruelty some inflict, but for the tremendous capacity of others to forgive.

MOLLY MARSH is editor of the "CultureWatch" section.

Facing the Truth with Bill Moyers. Bill Moyers. PBS, March 30, 1999, 9-11 p.m. (ET).

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