S. African Whites Face A Mirror
CAPE TOWN, SOUTH AFRICA — A single white rose blooms in the garden of the Dutch Reformed Church in Durbanville, a white Afrikaner enclave 12 miles outside Cape Town. The parish gardener obviously still struggles to keep the grounds green, but the desert on which the stolid white building sits keeps breaking through the tough buffalo grass, encroaching on the flower beds.
Standing in the brilliant sunlight, Rian Verster tucks his Bible under his arm and looks toward the church where he is a part-time minister. The paint is chipping. There's rust on the spire.
The whole Dutch Reformed Church needs renovation, says Mr. Verster, and he credits the country's Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) with opening the eyes of Afrikaners - whose Dutch ancestors first settled here in the 17th century - to that fact.
On Oct. 29 the TRC will publish a 3,500-page report, based on thousands of hours of hearings held in 61 towns and cities, and statements from 21,000 people, most of them victims.
"The TRC opened our minds to the reality of what happened in this country under apartheid and we have to stop it and get this society into a new way of thinking and living, especially the churches," says Verster.
The TRC's long and painful task since April 1996 has been to unravel the truth about apartheid and the struggle to end white domination in South Africa. It offered amnesty in return for full confession of human rights abuses committed for political purposes.
While black-liberation movements will be accused of crimes, the report will focus on torture, murder, poisoning, bombing, and germ warfare by whites against the black majority.
Despite Verster's conciliatory views, the report is likely to be rejected by much of his church, which refused an invitation to tell the TRC about its promotion of apartheid. The Dutch Reformed Church remains segregated into black and white congregations.
From the church sprang the National Party, which ruled South Africa and enforced apartheid from 1948 until Nelson Mandela's election in 1994 with support of the African National Congress (ANC). The subsequent TRC process has elicited far more resentment from Afrikaners than it has confession, truth, forgiveness, or reconciliation.
"The TRC has both healed and harmed South Africa," says Wilhelm Kruger, one of Verster's parishioners. Sitting on the church steps reading from a children's Bible to his two-year-old son, Mr. Kruger echoes the views of many whites who write letters to the editor and call in to radio talk shows:
"The TRC has gone too far. They are encouraging reverse discrimination and racism. They hammer the old regime too much, harder than they did the ANC, which committed atrocities in its own [guerrilla] camps [in Angola]. All that truth has been squashed."
A poll published in July revealed 60 percent of whites surveyed felt the TRC had not been fair to all sides in the apartheid conflict and had worsened race relations. The vast majority of blacks surveyed felt the opposite.
"We initially supported the TRC process, but to think now that they could come up with a fair report is expecting too much," says National Party spokesman Jaco Maree.
The last two NP presidents, F. W. de Klerk and P. W. Botha, continue to deny that they and their cabinets ordered state operatives to commit atrocities. Mr. de Klerk has asked the courts to stop publication of the TRC report, which names him as an accessory after the fact to certain bombings by apartheid operatives.
Media in the Afrikaans language have cheered Mr. Botha for ignoring subpoenas to appear before the TRC. De Klerk did appear last year but blamed torture, murder, etcetera on a "few bad apples" in the police force. Apartheid Law and Order Minister Adriaan Vlok has since alleged that Botha personally ordered the 1988 bombing of the supposedly subversive South African Council of Churches.
The National Party and much of the Afrikaans media have been unrelenting in their criticism of the TRC as biased against the former regime, while letting the ANC off the hook. The ANC is bracing for revelations about its violent preelection war with the Zulu Inkatha Freedom Party (reportedly covertly backed by the NP government).
The TRC lost a lot of credibility earlier this year when it tried to break its own rules by granting blanket amnesty to two dozen ANC leaders, without an investigation of their specific crimes, while refusing to grant it to white
military and police leaders.
The TRC has refused to investigate the torture and murder of alleged traitors in ANC camps in Angola between 1980 and 1984, stating it couldn't conduct extraterritorial investigations. But that didn't stop it from investigating the apartheid government's bombing of the ANC's London headquarters in 1982.
The TRC's power to grant amnesty has never sat easily with South Africans of any stripe. Amnesty has been granted in just 125 of the 7,060 cases before the TRC. So far, 4,570 applications have been refused and the rest are to be decided by March 1999.
TRC spokesman John Allen says that roughly 75 percent of amnesty applications came from ANC members. NP spokesman Maree says this indicates the greater guilt for human rights atrocities lies with the ANC.
"The reason so many ANC members applied for amnesty is that they are already in prison, while whites who committed human rights abuses are not and the evidence against them no longer exists so why apply for amnesty?" says researcher Hugo van der Merwe of the Center for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation.
"The NP's interest in the TRC is not reconciliation but how much mud the TRC report will throw at the ANC and other parties," says Mr. van der Merwe. Still, he thinks the TRC did hit home in the white community, and even the NP's Maree admits the TRC revelations may be one reason for the NP's declining popularity.
"Whites can no longer deny what happened," says van der Merwe. "The coverage of TRC proceedings has been too extensive. There's been a removal of some level of denial."
The walls are falling even in the Dutch Reformed Church: At its recent synod, unification of the racially segregated congregations was at the top of the agenda.