A Hopeful Slice of History

Four water cannons. Two vicious dogs. Six armored personnel carriers. A score of police. I cringed as I walked past these former symbols of apartheid, making my way into the town hall in rural Ladybrand, near South Africa’s border with Lesotho. But inside, it was explained that the security measures were necessary, not to control the crowd, but because of bomb threats from right-wing elements angry about the truth-telling going on there.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings in Ladybrand in late June were the last in an 18-month series around the country, aimed at uncovering gross human rights violations from South Africa’s apartheid years. In contrast to the security apparatus outside, at the front of the hall burned a single white candle, lit at every hearing as a sign of endurance and hope.

The hall was overflowing. People had come three hours from the black township of Bethulie, packed into dilapidated vans and taxis, determined to tell their stories or support others in their telling. What stays with me is a collage of faces: confident, angry, young faces; pained old faces staring at the floor; activist faces bearing the scars of resistance. I will never forget the looks of pride, pleading, and relief.

The stories were often accompanied by tears. A social worker sat beside each witness, offering a comforting arm around the shoulder, a tissue, or a glass of water when needed. For three days the stories of anguish poured out.

Nakedness and beatings and electric shocks. A young man lowered five times from a bridge into the Orange River in a mail bag; another castrated with a pair of pliers. Brothers and mothers shot dead in the night. A man beaten with the skulls of other men. Police with tear gas, and doctors with pills that destroy the nervous system. "Death farms" in the middle of nowhere, where bodies were tortured and then blown up.

A seven-year-old grief resurfaced when a couple spoke of their young son who died in police custody. They were told that he had hanged himself, but weeks later—when the police finally released his body—it showed deep cuts in his back and chest.

At the end of the second day, an elderly woman, with a quiver in her voice and dignity all over her face, began to talk about her son Eliot. He had been arrested with several schoolmates and accused of burning a bus. They were eventually acquitted, but they spent 30 days in police detention.

"When Eliot was released," said his mother, "he was not the Eliot I knew." He is mentally disturbed, doesn’t eat, wanders away. One of the commissioners asked if she could name the police officer who assaulted her son and a doctor who had abused him. She slowly put out her quaking right hand, palm up. The social worker beside her gripped the hand. Voice cracking, the social worker read out the names, likely written there for this mother who couldn’t read or write by someone back in the township who wanted to make sure she didn’t forget.

I WAS MOVED over and over by the gentleness of the commissioners. They thanked each witness for their courage, told parents that their murdered children are heroes. At every break—for tea, lunch, at the end of the day—everyone in the hall rose in silence as the witnesses filed out. Fay Walker, my travel colleague, observed that this day gave each one a memory of honor to replace the many memories of degradation.

A particularly poignant exchange took place between a young ANC (African National Congress) activist and Rev. Khoza Mgojo, a commissioner. The police had tried, through threats and torture, to turn the young man into an informer. "Thank you," Mgojo said to him, "that though they tried to blackmail you—that was their strategy with those with gifts of leadership—that you have not given up; that it has failed; that you are still who you are. Thank you for being involved in our struggle for liberation."

Mgojo asked him, "What can be done for the young people who, like you, fought so much and lost so many opportunities?"

The young man responded, "Can the Commission please take us back to school? I think South Africa can change." He wants to be a journalist or a social worker, to write the truth and make the country better.

I spoke to him later about his testimony. "There’s this hatred," he said. "It can haunt you. I feel a bit freer, a bit relieved. I was a leader in those days and I feel now I need to tell the story for others. I think maybe someday I will write a book."

He asked me why I had come all the way from the United States to Ladybrand. I told him that I wanted to tell the story too—for other parts of the world to hear. His eyes welled with tears as he clasped my hands in his and said, "Yes, please, tell the story. Thank you."

Not a day passed in my six-week South Africa sojourn without my acknowledging how blessed I was to observe such a vibrant and hopeful slice of history. There is much more to tell than can fit on this page; more stories will appear here in the months ahead.

At the end of my first day in Ladybrand, we stood to sing "Nkosi Sikelel’i Afrika" ("God Bless Africa"), the new South African national anthem. I couldn’t stop the tears when I heard the great swell of harmony and saw the emotion in the sea of faces that surrounded me. I invite your prayers for the people of this courageous nation as they continue on their long journey of healing.

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). She wishes to thank 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.

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