Reconciliation: South Africa's greatest export?
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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."Skip to next paragraph
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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