After apartheid, Desmond Tutu’s truth commission opted for “restorative” justice rather than retaliation
Two days after South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) began investigating apartheid-era crimes, Archbishop Desmond Tutu broke down in tears.
In front of him sat a former political prisoner who had been tortured for years by the notorious South African security police.
While Singqokwana Ernest Malgas described being suffocated with a mask, he cried and Tutu cried with him.
It would be the first and only time Tutu has publicly mourned during the heartbreaking work of the commission he chaired.
“It wasn’t fair,” he told a TV interviewer years later.
“The media then focused on me rather than on the people who were the legitimate subjects. If I wanted to cry, I would cry at home.”
Between 1996 and 1998, some of the darker days of the apartheid crackdown were relived in a sort of public theater during a series of hearings Tutu held across the country.
South Africans gathered around their televisions and radios every Sunday evening to hear weekly summaries of the testimonies.
Many learned for the first time about the brutality of their rigid, right-wing former government, through the words of torture victims or the family members of missing activists.
It was “a space in which victims could share the story of their trauma with the nation,” Tutu later wrote in the commission’s seven-volume report.
Full Disclosure Unlike the Nuremberg Trials, he and his 14 fellow commissioners came together “not to judge the morality of people’s actions, but to act as an incubator for national healing, reconciliation and forgiveness.”
The perpetrators of horrific violence, often infantrymen of the repressive regime, could appear before the commission and receive an amnesty for the acts they committed.
It was a difficult pill to swallow for many observers and victims, but only if one thought of justice “as being punitive and punitive in nature,” Tutu wrote.
“There is another kind of justice – restorative justice that is not so much about punishment as it is about correcting imbalances, restoring broken relationships – healing, harmony and reconciliation.”
Amnesty was meant to come at a price – Tutu insisted that reconciliation and forgiveness can only come with full disclosure.
“As painful as the experience is, we must not allow the wounds of the past to fester,” he said. “They must be opened. They must be cleansed. And balm must be poured over them so that they can heal.”
And so husbands and fathers sat down before the commission and detailed their worst crimes, often breaking families and friendships as secrets and divided loyalties came to light.
“People said the amnesty was cheap,” former commissioner and human rights lawyer Dumisa Ntsebeza, a longtime friend of Tutu’s, told AFP in 2015.
“How cheap? Just because people don’t go to jail?
“In fact, the amnesty was an even heavier kind of justice than what we would have obtained through the criminal justice system.
“In an amnesty request, you yourself would say what you did, in detail. It came out of your mouth, with your own lawyer sitting next to you. It’s a life sentence. can’t get rid of it. “
An “Unrealized” Vision But Tutu’s vision of a South Africa cleansed by the truth failed.
After the 976-page report was released in 1998, the government led by the liberation giants of the African National Congress failed to act on many of the TRC’s key recommendations.
None of the human rights abusers who were denied amnesty for failing to fully disclose their actions – or for failing to prove they were politically motivated – have ever been prosecuted.
None of the generals and commanders who avoided the hearings were held accountable either.
And the government has also failed to implement the recommended single wealth tax to close the gap in a deeply unequal South Africa.
No one has been more virulent in their criticism than Tutu himself.
“How we deal with the truth after it has been revealed defines the success of the process,” he wrote 20 years after South Africans of all races took part in the country’s first democratic elections in 1994.
“And that’s where we tragically fell short.
“By choosing not to act on the commission’s recommendations, the government has not only compromised the commission’s contribution to the process, but the process itself.”
South Africa was a sick patient, he wrote, and in the midst of the healing process the government chose to withhold all further treatment.
“Our soul remains deeply troubled,” he concluded.
After Tutu’s death, the TRC is perhaps more celebrated abroad than in South Africa, which still struggles with a huge racial wealth gap, limited integration between blacks and whites, and violence. endemic.
“It is not being achieved,” Ntsebeza said of Tutu’s vision for the CVR.
“We have focused on reconciliation between perpetrators and victims – blood and guts. We have never had to deal with reconciliation between the haves and have-nots, between the rich and the poor.”
“The situation would have been much different than it is now if a significant number of our recommendations had been implemented.
“But I would ask the question, can we imagine a South Africa without it?”
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