Investigating apartheid


To anyone with hope for humanity's progress, "Facing the Truth with Bill Moyers" really is must-see TV.

This supremely fair-minded two-hour documentary (March 30, PBS, 9-11 p.m.) about South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings, which ended last fall, will open the eyes and stir the conscience. It is the best kind of investigative television journalism.

Police, military, and political leaders come forward to tell the truth about atrocities they committed - many still believing they were "only following orders" or were "serving their country."

The incentive for the perpetrators' honesty is the hope of amnesty.

"People were not going to talk unless they had some protection against prosecution," says Mr. Moyers in a telephone interview. "Now, they don't automatically get amnesty because of the hearings [anti-apartheid leader Steve Biko's killers were recently denied amnesty], but they have a better chance" if they talk.

He goes on to explain:

"If this commission had not been appointed, these hearings not held, and amnesty not been promised, it is altogether possible that South Africa would still be locked in a civil war.

"When [black leader Nelson] Mandela was freed, even though the black majority was in the ascendancy, the white minority still had the guns and the means to carry on a long-running guerrilla war. President Mandela, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and others [felt] that unless they held out the offer of amnesty, the guerrilla war would be so costly and so prolonged that the country would never get on its feet."

These crimes against humanity were taking place mostly during the negotiations to end apartheid between 1991 and 1994. Moyers interviews journalists and victims, as well as perpetrators, who tell their stories simply and honestly. Though atrocities by the white apartheid government are never described in horrific detail, we visit the cells and prison yards where they took place. Even these restrained descriptions are difficult to hear.

TV has largely ignored the events in South Africa since Mandela was elected president. Some of those events have been earthshaking, Moyers points out. So this gripping documentary is timely and welcome - opening as it does the window on recent events.

A dean of high-quality TV journalism, Moyers is the right man for the job, partly because of his professional stature and partly because he is a man of conscience and conviction. He understands the healing power of forgiveness, even as he reveals the very human desire for retribution. And he reveals the tensions between the two.

"I know from my own experience as a human being and as a student of religion that this conflict is there," Moyers says. The son of one woman, Maria Ntuli, disappeared in 1986. Her "calls for retributive justice were struggling with her own [Christian] faith - you could see it in her eyes, in her voice, in her face. She was torn between these two conflicting inclinations in the human heart.

"But if you understand that emotions and issues are not black-and-white and that it is possible for people to hold two conflicting emotions in their psyches at the same time, it helps the listening."

The people of South Africa have much to forgive and much to heal. Among those seeking amnesty are black guerrillas who used terrorist means to fight apartheid. Some of them have confessed to bombing white churches and have asked forgiveness of the families of their victims.

But the lion's share of human-rights violations lie with the former white minority government. Some political leaders have denied knowledge of the death squads and torture chambers they did indeed support - as various witnesses show in their testimony.

Moyers lets no one off the hook.

"This is a story one tends to invest one's emotions, one's history, one's experience in," he says.

"I just kept following it - reading books about South Africa, watching the fight in the '80s in [the US] to get corporations and universities to support the boycott Archbishop Tutu called for in the early '80s.... So naturally when the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was appointed, I wanted to follow the story into its next chapter."

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