During the anguished years of apartheid, Dumisa Ntsebeza was detained more times than he can remember. He wrings his massive hands as he recalls the various assassination attempts on his life and violent acts against other South Africans, including the gunning down of his eight-year-old cousin by South African security police.
Despite his painful experiences, Mr. Ntsebeza isn't vengeful. "I don't have the capacity to hate," the former anti-apartheid activist says.
Ntsebeza, who served as chief investigator for South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission, has become an eloquent spokesman urging reconciliation and forgiveness in war-torn parts of Africa. But as Burundi's warring ethnic groups stumble toward a proposed peace agreement, it is uncertain whether Ntsebeza's and South Africa's example of healing will be followed by neighbors on the continent.
On Monday, President Clinton is scheduled to join peace mediator Nelson Mandela in Arusha, Tanzania, to witness the signing of a truce to end Burundi's gruesome civil war between Hutus and Tutsis. Tensions have risen, however, as the deadline for a peace agreement approaches, casting doubt on whether the accord will be signed.
When the fighting in Burundi stops, Ntsebeza believes that the devastated nation should use South Africa's TRC as a model to begin healing rifts in a peaceful way. "No experience of any one country can be exported to any other country, but there is something to be said for South Africa" and its relatively peaceful transition, Ntsebeza says.
True, agrees Pearl Robinson, an Africa expert at Tufts University in Medford, Mass., but the problem is that those negotiating a truce in Burundi are not Burundians. "In Burundi," Dr. Robinson notes, "they are attempting to take a model that worked in South Africa and use external actors as the primary people who are trying to make that model a fit."
Robinson notes that "what finally happened In South Africa was that a racial minority agreed to live under a majority-rule Constitution, protecting minority rights." The same political compromise would have to be reached between the minority Tutsis, who now rule, and the majority Hutus - a difficult proposition.
Ntsebeza has become an ambassador urging nationwide moral self-examination as part of reconciliation. He has received a promise from Nigeria's President Olusegun Obasanjo of full disclosure and compliance in investigations into crimes committed during dictator Sani Abacha's regime. And Ntsebeza was recently in Verona, Italy, where he discussed setting up a TRC to deal with the aftermath of the 1998 Guinea-Bissau rebel uprising. He hopes that the same process can eventually transpire in Sierra Leone, where antigovernment rebels have plunged the country into a civil war.
It is the TRC's honesty process that offers conflicted societies the key to working through divisions instead of returning to bloodshed, Ntsebeza says. "In Sierra Leone, for instance, everyone who was involved in those violations of human rights will be pardoned, without knowing what exactly the person did, how the person did it," he says. "When people are publicly shamed and know that everything that they have done will be open for public scrutiny, they are not likely to repeat the same experiences again."
As South Africa's TRC chief investigator, a position to which he was appointed by Mr. Mandela, the country's first black president, Ntsebeza had less than three years to investigate human rights abuses stretching from 1960, the year of the infamous Sharpeville massacre, when 69 black South Africans were shot dead by police during a nonviolent demonstration, to 1994.
South Africa took the first steps toward exorcising the demons of its racist past in 1995. Shepherded by Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Mandela, whom Ntsebeza calls "the epitome of what forgiveness is about," the TRC was revolutionary in its ethos of "the truth shall set you free."
In exchange for full disclosure, perpetrators of politically and racially motivated crimes - no matter how detestable or remorseless, were granted full amnesty. Most sessions of the controversial process were televised. Victims were allowed to tell their harrowing stories uninterrupted.
"Judge Ntsebaza ... showed himself to be a person of integrity and complete consistency," says Sheila Sisulu, South African ambassador to the United States.
"If I was focusing on who killed my cousin, I wouldn't be here doing something productive for the people of South Africa," says Ntsebeza, who did most of his law studies through a correspondence course from prison.
While acknowledging that South Africa still has far to go to heal its divisions and become a true civil society, Ntsebeza believes that the TRC laid the foundation for equal rule of law in a country that he characterizes as "virtually lawless" for three centuries. "One has to imagine what South African society would have been like today without the TRC," he says.
One thorn, he says, has been the resistance among some whites to admit what happened. For instance, at the Cape Town office of the TRC, there was a reconciliation register propped up on a table, so that people could pen anonymous apologies. Few whites repented.
Ntsebeza says that if reconciliation is to be lasting, whites must take a vigorous role in nation-building, including investing financially in the country. "The task of this government," he says, "is to make sure that the gap between the poorest of the poor and the richest of the rich is narrowed."
Ntsebeza supports requiring whites to pay into the President's Fund for making reparations to blacks, explaining, "There should be more preparedness on the part of whites to accept responsibility, even if minimal."
Ntsebeza also underscores the need for more diverse institutions. "How is the rule of law going to be implemented when governmental agencies and the judiciary are still formed from the old order?" Judges, he continues "need to be appointed to the bench from previously disadvantaged ranks."
Another crucial need is for an independent, fair, robust press, he adds. He says that a newspaper journalist told him that her editors "as a matter of policy, decided not to report favorably about the TRC."
If there is one danger in reconciliation, it is perhaps that it encourages expectations of rapid change. Ntsebeza says that some white South Africans have idealistic views of what the government of Mandela's African National Congress (ANC) party can accomplish. "They complain that the social welfare program is not what it used to be. It isn't. That's because it's evenly distributed now, and they aren't getting all the money."
Financial redress, Ntsebeza says, will help restore dignity to many impoverished blacks. So will exporting the ideals of the TRC, which, he says, would help South Africans see their nation in a new light - as a model and no longer a pariah.
Asked what the greatest lesson of South Africa is, Ntsebeza says, "Don't encourage a culture of impunity."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society