Truth and Reconciliation Commission

Lessons in Creating Ubuntu

Conversations in Transition is a veritable graduate course in what South Africans call ubuntu, or good neighborliness.

Charles Villa-Vicencio and Mills Soko present 23 narratives of both well-known and unsung heroes of the anti-apartheid struggle. These narratives are filled with instructive words of wisdom for seekers of peace with justice in countries emerging from post-tyranny chaos and in long-established democracies alike. Historians and activists will find hope in the stories of South Africa’s courageous, diverse citizens, as well as prophetic insights and warnings as the subjects address post-apartheid violence and oppression in a country still on the edge.

My own experiences lead me to an unqualified endorsement of this invaluable compendium. Over several decades I have pondered repeatedly two particular conversations, one with a Jew in Israel and the other with a Muslim from Cape Town.

An effort was made to introduce the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) process into the Israel-Palestine conflict. At the end of an evening with South African officials and members of the Israeli and Palestinian communities, the director of a Jewish study center in West Jerusalem, Benjamin Pogrund, shared a revealing comment. He said, “TRC will never work here because Israelis do not have the theological and philosophical understanding of forgiveness and reconciliation that Muslims, Christians, and Jews shared in South Africa in order to bring unity and liberation without major conflict.”

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Archbishop Tutu Underwhelmed With U.S. Version of 'Reconciliation'

Archbishop Desmond Tutu's excitement that Congressional leaders were going through a process known as 'reconciliation' was abated last week when he learned that the procedure was not, in fact, a healing process for two bitterly feuding parties, but rather a technical congressional procedure designed to address budget items and bypass a filibuster.

From Fear to Truth

On Sept. 29, 2005, the eve of the final hearing of the Greensboro Truth and Reconciliation Commission, I sat in the sanctuary of the Presbyterian Church of the Covenant in Greensboro, North Carolina. At the front, former Mayor Carolyn Allen welcomed us to a prayer service. The audience was made up of white, black, old, young, Jew, Baptist, Episcopalian, and Presbyterian.

This commission, the first of its kind in the United States, is modeled after those held all over the world, such as South Africa’s post-apartheid commission, clerked by Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Tutu himself wrote to the Greensboro commission about the special importance of this task force, “Many will be looking to you to assess whether similar commissions might be helpful in their communities.”

The commission promised to address a question that had stayed with me since Zeb Holler, a retired Greensboro pastor, introduced me to this process, the massacre of 1979, and his own journey toward peace through reconciliation. When I asked him why he thought the commission mattered, he said, “If we can begin to look at ourselves honestly and use that self-knowledge, and use what we learn from one another, we might just experience healing in ourselves and become a source of healing in a world that very much needs it.”

How appropriate, I thought, as a seven-member gospel choir sang out “Glory, glory, hallelujah, since I laid my burden down,” that I was sitting in the church that Holler pastored at the time of the killings.

On Nov. 3, 1979, men, women, and children gathered in Greensboro to attend a “Death to the Klan” rally. They were publicly demonstrating their opposition to the resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan in their community. Music played as members of the Communist Workers Party (CWP), the organizers of the event, attended to details. As the sun rose in the sky, the group seemed concerned with just one thing—getting the march underway.

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Sojourners Magazine February 2006
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Public Truth-Telling

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.

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Sojourners Magazine March-April 1999
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