Blaming the oppressed
South Africa ‘reconciles’ apartheid with its victims
The Truth and Reconciliation Committee has at last published its report on the crimes arising from the South African apartheid system.
Chaired by Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the TRC did not aim simply to uncover all the acts of oppression, brutality and inhumanity perpetrated by the country’s former rulers. There was certainly never any intention of using it as a launching pad for a politically useful show trial of key members of the apartheid government, security forces, secret police, etc. Hanging former president PW Botha, his successor FW de Klerk and Inkatha leader Mangosuthu Buthelezi, might have sent a positive message. Such an outcome would have been possible only if the liberation forces had carried through the democratic revolution to complete victory, sweeping away not only all formal vestiges of racism, but smashing the state which upheld it and establishing in its place the direct rule of the people, organised in their street, township and other such committees.
Far from resolving the revolutionary situation in such a positive way, the leaders of the movement - the African National Congress, in close alliance with the South African Communist Party - stopped halfway. The main global counterbalance to imperialism was gone - at first gradually weakened, as Gorbachev committed the Soviet Union to full cooperation with the US in order to cool the world’s ‘hot spots’; and then, with the final collapse of the USSR, suddenly removed altogether. The changed global balance of power found its reflection within individual countries. In South Africa the ANC/SACP gave up all hope of crushing the apartheid regime through a combination of military attacks and mass uprising. At the same time global capitalism became more confident of winning a consensus for an imperialist stability. That too engendered a parallel turn within the South African ruling class.
As a result, the transition from apartheid was conducted in a steady, orderly manner. The institutions of the state - political, military and juridical - were left intact and its personnel either remained in place or were allowed to quietly retire. The promise of a ‘new South Africa’ was presented as all things to all people. All sections, all classes were to be the winners - those who benefited from apartheid just as much as its victims. The main task of the new order was therefore to unite the former enemies. Not just the political leaders - that was relatively easy, as both the more realist wing of the National Party and the ANC bureaucracy could see new opportunities opening up for themselves as individuals if they agreed to cooperate in the transition.
More importantly, the mass of the population, polarised according to race under apartheid, had to be disabused of the old ‘truths’. For middle and working class whites, the majority black population was not after all inferior to themselves and ought not to have been held back. And the mass of blacks in city and country had to be persuaded that changes at the top meant that their liberation had been achieved and there was no further need for militant struggle.
Hardly anyone can now be found to speak out in favour of the old system. The set of social relations known as apartheid has been reified - it was an evil which carried along everyone - oppressed and oppressor alike. Both were its victims. At least that is the basis of the Truth and Reconciliation Committee’s investigations. It is around a new ‘truth’ that the new-old bourgeoisie seeks its reconciliation.
Tutu described his committee’s findings as a “triumph for truth and humanity”. That was to be expected. And the South African liberal press was also exuberant in its praise. According to the Mail and Guardian, the TRC “has performed an extraordinary service for this country, which the pettiness of the politicians has only thrown into relief” (October 30). The reference to “pettiness” was provoked by the degree of criticism with which most political leaders reacted to the report.
In fact its publication was very nearly prevented by legal action. First, the final apartheid president, de Klerk, succeeded in having removed passages accusing him of being an “accessory to the fact” in relation to two state-sponsored bombings in the mid-80s. The 1993 Nobel peace prize winner claimed to have no knowledge of, let alone complicity in, any of the old regime’s dirty tricks, despite the complete implausibility of such ignorance. Tutu asserted he had been “scrupulously fair to Mr de Klerk” - ie, he had seen to it that the most damaging allegations against him did not see the light of day. The good archbishop claimed to be deeply upset at having to remove the relevant sections.
Jolted into action by de Klerk’s success, the ANC made similar legal moves at the 11th hour. The party wanted many of the critical references to itself removed from the report. Allegations (however true) of “gross human rights violations” by its military wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe, including the torture and murder of its own dissidents, would “criminalise the whole liberation struggle”, according to the ANC. In an attempt to expurgate such allegations the party made common cause with its former enemy. If de Klerk and the ANC thought that publication would not be “in the interest of reconciliation and nation-building”, said a presidential spokesperson, they had every right to seek to prevent it.
Tutu reacted furiously in the face of these threats to his entire work. “I have struggled against a tyranny,” he said. “I didn’t do that in order to substitute it with another.” But the ANC move was rejected by the courts, and the official handing-over ceremony went ahead on schedule. President Nelson Mandela announced: “I accept the report as it is.”
However, de Klerk and the ANC were not the only ones to speak disparagingly of the TRC. The Pan-Africanist Congress echoed the words of that die-hard defender of apartheid, PW Botha: the commission was a “circus”, declared the PAC. The National Party and rightwing Freedom Front boycotted the ceremony, while the Inkatha Freedom Party described the fact that its leader, Buthelezi, stood accused of orchestrating pro-apartheid killings as “preposterous”.
Such criticism from just about every quarter was actually very useful in appearing to support Tutu’s claim of even-handedness. He completely and shamelessly equated the violence of the oppressed with that of the oppressor. Commenting on the antics of those who wished to discredit his work, he said:
“It won’t change the fact that they [the apartheid police] killed Stephen Bopape; they [de Klerk’s agents] bombed Khotso House; they [Umkhonto we Sizwe] tortured their own people in their camps in Tanzania, in Angola; they [ANC supporters] necklaced people...”
The report was quite specific in this regard: “The fact that the apartheid system was a crime against humanity does not mean that all acts carried out in order to destroy apartheid were legal, moral and acceptable,” it said. The commission actually went so far as to condemn the killing of apartheid spies and informers by the revolutionary movement. According to this liberal gang of utopians, those waging war against one of the most brutal and inhuman systems ever known should have allowed the lives of hundreds of heroic fighters to be put at risk rather than acted quickly to eliminate such traitors.
Of course that does not mean we can give leaders of those who fight oppression carte blanche to treat the movement as their own property; to accuse comrades of treachery merely because they have dared to question decisions. We are well aware of the shortcomings of the South African liberation organisations. An alliance of petty bourgeois nationalists and ‘official communists’, they suffered from all the deformities you would expect of such movements. Nevertheless, they were conducting a revolutionary war against an oppressive state, with the support of the working masses. In no way can their mistakes or crimes be equated, in terms of working class morality, with those of apartheid.
While Botha, Buthelezi and Winnie Madikizela Mandela are the most heavily criticised, it is Buthelezi’s position that will cause the government most embarrassment. The current home affairs minister, he is the only figure named in connection with human rights abuses who still holds an official state post. The TRC candidly admitted that it had refrained from subpoenaing him because it feared such a move “would stoke the flames of violence in KwaZulu-Natal”. In 1994 Buthelezi unleashed a wave of terror in an attempt to prevent the holding of the first post-apartheid elections. He was only bought off by a promise to let him run the province, and it is widely believed that the results in KZN were officially doctored so as to show the Inkatha Freedom Party as having gained more votes than the ANC.
Rightwing groups have called for a blanket amnesty for all those named, but so far Tutu is resisting this demand. However, a government move to drop proceedings against the IFP chief would certainly be an attractive option for the ANC. Individual amnesty hearings are set to continue until March 1999.
The TRC report recommended that big business should atone for having profited from apartheid by paying ‘conscience money’ into a fund for the system’s victims. Whereas under apartheid capital took full advantage of the pass laws, racial restrictions and union bans - all of which delivered a cowered working class - today it relies simply on market forces to ensure that the 40% unemployment rate allows its super-exploitation to continue. But for the TRC the ‘normal’ operation of capital is of course perfectly acceptable.
Other recommendations include a proposal for a national summit on reconciliation (it is not difficult to imagine the meaningless platitudes such a talking shop would produce), and a ban on research into methods of interrogation and torture. Talk about closing the stable door ...