Questioning If Guilt without Punishment Will Lead to Reconciliation

By Tsedu, Mathatha | Nieman Reports, Winter 1999 | Go to article overview

Questioning If Guilt without Punishment Will Lead to Reconciliation


Tsedu, Mathatha, Nieman Reports


The black press relives its own horrors and seeks justice.

In South Africa, the black press is essentially two newspapers, The Sowetan and The City Press. Unlike their counterparts in the white media, these newspapers supported the truth-seeking aspects of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission [TRC]. But they bitterly criticized the clause in the document creating the Commission which granted amnesty to killers who testified before it.

Many black journalists had themselves been victims and/or survivors of apartheid's killing machine. They had been victimized in the same way as political activists and had languished in jail just as the others had. So their interest in covering these hearings was more than just a passing fad or a "good story" needing to be written. They brought to their jobs passion, concern, anger and true understanding of the tears that flowed freely once testimony started.

Members of the black press saw the TRC as an institution designed to vindicate their former stories of the horrors of apartheid and an avenue to expose lies of the white press, which either scorned those press revelations or simply trashed them as propaganda. After the media hearing, in which Commission members heard about various roles the press played in propping up apartheid, the editorial staff of the City Press wrote the following:

"Claims by representatives of the English-language press that they could have done more to oppose the evils of apartheid must ring hollow in the light of what happened in their newsrooms. Stories by black journalists of police brutality were routinely rejected--simply because there was an unwritten rule that these black writers could not be trusted with telling the truth. On the other hand, police versions justifying the killings of students and other political activists were most of the time accepted without question."

Following the 1994 elections, many in the black community wanted to see killers of their children tried and sentenced. They wanted to see the political leadership of F.W. de Klerk declared a criminal activity for which he should be tried. But it was not to be....

So as the hearings started, survivors or relatives of victims of criminal activity of the apartheid regime appeared before the TRC and asked Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the Chairman, for justice. Many were ordinary people who could not be bothered by the niceties of political arrangements between Mandela and de Klerk and who felt that the law of natural justice should be followed.

Many black journalists who followed the TRC hearings also felt this way, and the reporters' personal feelings spilled over into their coverage of the proceedings, making it distinctly different from what appeared in the white press.

After the first few days of hearings, The Sowetan's TRC reporter, Mzimasi Ngudle, wrote with great eloquence of those who had appeared and of the pain they'd suffered, the indignities they'd endured, and the rawness of current emotion. "The dignity and modesty of the victims brought to the fore the indelible virtues of ubuntu (humanity). All they asked for was a better education for their children, the erection of tombstones, and other basic needs. However, ubuntu cannot be stretched too far. It would simply be presumptuous and reckless to incise old wounds in pursuance of lofty hopes.... [T]here is no proven link between confession on the one hand and forgiveness on the other. …

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