Magazine article The Christian Century

Truth-Telling in South Africa

Magazine article The Christian Century

Truth-Telling in South Africa

Article excerpt

A week after public hearings began unearthing facts about the atrocities committed during South Africa's apartheid era, the chairman of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and other commission members were being offered psychological counseling to help them cope with the harrowing testimony.

The government-appointed TRC was scheduled to hear accounts of about a thousand gross human rights violations perpetrated by the security forces and supporters of the former apartheid regime as well as members of the liberation movements between March 1960 and December 1991. In its first week, starting April 15, the TRC heard 33 cases. Nohle Mohapi detailed events surrounding the death of her husband, Mapetla Mohapi, a close associate of the slain antiapartheid leader Steve Biko, and her detention in solitary confinement for six months. Mohapi, who worked as a secretary for Biko after her husband's death, told the commission of a miserable existence in a small prison cell--never being able to change her clothes or wash, and being infested with head lie and subjected to beatings.

Another witness, former Robben Island prisoner Singqokwana Malgas, wheelchair-bound, gave a sobering account of three decades of detention, harassment and police torture. His son died after acid was poured over him. During the testimony, Archbishop Tutu dropped his head on his arms and wept openly after Malgas himself broke down. The archbishop was unable to voice the closing words, and his deputy quickly ended the session. TRC spokesman Phila Ngqumba confirmed that Tutu and other TRC staff would undergo counseling--possibly weekly--to help them cope with the accounts of unbelievably inhuman police brutality during the antiapartheid struggle, according to media reports. "It has been very traumatic. We are all deeply affected by what we have heard," Ngqumba said. Some commissioners are already in private therapy.

During the TRC's first round of hearings in East London, not only the normally ebullient Archbishop Tutu but also many witnesses and members of the public--including a psychological counselor--wept. At one point Tutu told journalists he was not sure that he was the right man for the job, as he felt "weak." The first week of hearings was marked by an apparent lack of bitterness. Witnesses only wanted to know the identities of those responsible for the abuses, and for the perpetrators to show remorse, observers said.

Beth Savage, who suffered serious injuries at the hands of "a grinning, AK-47 wielding man in khaki uniform" during an armed attack at a King William's Town golf facility by the Azanian People's Liberation Army, told the TRC she would like to meet her attacker, to forgive him and to ask his forgiveness "for whatever I might have done. …

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