Future and forgiveness
In an exclusive interview, Nobel Peace Prize winner Archbishop Desmond Tutu speaks to MUKUND PADMANABHAN about the significance of the truth and reconciliation process in post-apartheid South Africa.
One of the foremost figures in the fight against apartheid in South Africa, Archbishop Desmond Tutu was chosen by Nelson Mandela to head South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). The TRC, which worked with a restitutive, rather than a retributive, concept of justice, was set up to investigate the crimes committed by all sides during the apartheid regime. The commission worked on the unique basis of linking amnesty-granting to truth-telling and its hearings were challenged many times in courts of law before it published its final report a few months ago.
In 1975, Archbishop Tutu became the first black Anglican Dean of Johannesburg. A decade later, he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace for his non-violent struggle to end apartheid. He chose not to directly associate with party politics, a decision that added to his considerable moral stature.
The Archbishop was in India for a fortnight between November 3 and 18 for what he described as a restful break. He and his wife Leah spent the entire period in Bangalore at the residence of their good friends, the former Ambassador to South Africa, L.C. Jain, and his wife Devaki. The India-New Zealand cricket match, and short visits to Mysore, Melkote and a nearby village to study the Panchayati Raj experiment were the only distractions in a period that was otherwise spent on walks, conversations, reading and sleep.
Archbishop Tutu wanted to spend this visit away from the glare of the media. However, he granted an interview to The Hindu, his only interaction with the press during his recent visit. In a conversation that was largely focussed on the TRC, he speaks about the significance of the Commission and the stress it laid on reconciliation, peace and forgiveness to secure the future.
Extracts from the exclusive interview.
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THE Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) was set up in South Africa as a compromise between those who wanted a general amnesty to relinquish power and those who wanted people to stand trial for their wrongful acts. Was this compromise absolutely necessary to reach at that juncture in South African history? And why?
THERE is no question at all about its appropriateness. And with every passing day, one marvels at the wisdom of this kind of arrangement, even if may have been imposed by the circumstances. Look at the alternatives. Unfortunately, we have so many ghastly examples right around the world of those who have sought to try alternatives. Think of the experience of Pinochet and Chile, where they opted for a general amnesty. The past doesn't disappear, it has an uncanny capacity to return and haunt one. Pinochet is a very good example, because he thought he had sorted it out and that with his imprimatur everything would be (okay). But it wasn't.
I was in Germany when they were observing the 50 years after Nuremberg. The Germans feel an amazing resentment about what they call the `victor's justice' that was imposed on them.
We would not have even made it if the (South African) security forces had known that, at the end of the negotiation process, they would have been arraigned. They would have subverted it. As we subsequently discovered, there were arms caches all over the country. I would say although it was a flawed process, it was the best thing we could have had.
How critical was Nelson Mandela for actually selling the TRC idea to the African National Congress (ANC) and his political constituency? Would it have been possible without a man of his stature?
When anyone asks, how did you accomplish what you did, one of the most critical elements in the whole mix is Nelson Mandela. Many people think it was a fairly straightforward matter for the ANC to have accepted this. But it isn't true. There were quite a few in that constituency who would have wanted to see people sort of high-jumped. But Nelson Mandela had the stature, the moral authority, the credibility that came from having spent 27 years in jail.
Aren't concepts such as reconciliation and peace inherently incompatible with that of justice? Isn't there a paradoxical tension between them? Can justice be subordinated in the interests of reconciliation and peace?
I think when people speak of justice they almost always have one kind of justice in mind ...
Retributive justice, yes. The purpose is punitive, setting out to punish the miscreant. But even on the basis of retributive justice, what we set out to do, didn't exclude it completely.
When a perpetrator applied for amnesty, it almost always was the case that the application had to be in open court, had to be public. Imagine what it meant when someone who had kept his identity as member of the death squad under wraps to say in full glare that "I unleashed the kind of thing that I did". In some cases, it was the first time that even wives got to know what their husbands were up to. Quite a few even got divorced.
So I would say that even just in terms of retributive justice, the process did not mean letting off the perpetrator. There was the public shame and embarrassment. But having said that, it is crucial to say that the process was based on restorative justice, where the fundamental purpose is healing. When an offence has caused a breach in relationship, retributive justice clobbers the perpetrator. In fact, it leaves out of the victim completely. In our process, the victims were given the opportunity of telling their story. I was surprised by how potent telling one's story can be as therapy. We found that telling your story about what happened to a forum that was sympathetic was a form of rehabilitation.
The whole process premised on the principle of Ubuntu. This is the essence of being human. In our understanding a person can be a person only in relationships, not in isolation. Ubuntu speaks of compassion, gentleness, sharing, hospitality, embracing. Ubuntu is in our Constitution, certainly in our interim Constitution, that we will not pursue retribution and vengeance but seek to implement Ubuntu.
You say there is no future without forgiveness. Is forgiveness an absolute moral value? Or is it also a good strategy in conflict situations, a piece of realpolitik?
(Laughs) Take the Middle East as an example where forgiveness is not occurring. There, when one side clobbers the other, the response is clobber back. It is a cruel playing out of a game where the alternative is that one side has to say, "Sorry". It is the same in a relationship between two people. When that relationship is upset, unless one of them admits that he or she has made a mistake, there is no future to that relationship.
One vital aspect of the work of the TRC, some would say the very one that invested it with real meaning, was related to the grant of amnesty. Isn't it true that most of those who applied were either already in prison or those who feared they would be implicated in some way? In your foreword to the TRC's final report, you suggested as much when you wrote that, "It was something of a pity that the white community failed to take advantage of the Truth and Reconciliation process. They were badly let down by their leadership".
The white leadership, by and large, was a very carping bunch. They missed out on the opportunity. They were faced with a remarkable, extraordinary, exhibition of magnanimity. The generosity of spirit came not only from black people. There were white people who were victims who were extraordinary for their generosity too. But the white leadership on the whole was critical of the commission, they ridiculed it. They said it was a witchhunt against whites, that it was biased towards the ANC.
Instead, the white leaders should have said to the white people, "You just don't know how lucky you are." They should have said that, "Instead of going on the rampage, these people want to extend a hand of fellowship to you. And that we must be as generous as we can in response to their generosity."
As it happened, the ANC did a stupid thing which helped our credibility. When the report was about to be published, we nearly didn't do so because the ANC took us to court claiming that the commission had criminalised the struggle. We based our findings not on our investigations but on the submissions we received. We praised the ANC for the extraordinary and frank way in which it acknowledged the things that happened that shouldn't have happened. For instance, they had a landmines campaign and many of the people killed were not those who they targetted. We said that human rights violations are human rights violations. If you torture for a good purpose, it is still torture. Anyone who reads the report will know how highly the ANC was praised. It carried out a just war struggle, but sometimes used methods that were unjust.
How far is the TRC model applicable to other countries. Can it be replicated and, if so, where?
We have been very careful not to claim that we have a blueprint for replication. But there are certain principles available in the process which are probably universally applicable. You have to deal with what happened during a conflict, you can't sweep it under the carpet. That is a fundamental principle which is applicable everywhere.
If you really want peace, a stable present and future, it has to be a process that enjoys the support of all those who are going to be involved in it. It should not be something that is imposed by one side or the other. Take Sri Lanka as an example. Are you going to deal with the atrocities that happened? Or are you going to cover up and say they did not happen and leave a festering wound? If you do the latter, sure as anything someone will say, "We remember such and such a thing happened" or that "We were treated in such and such a fashion by this or that group." Unless all of this is brought into the open, it is going to imperil the future.
Then, there are the questions that you yourself raised earlier. How are you going to relate justice to reconciliation? What do you do with those who regard themselves as victims? People want to know the truth. For instance, they may want to know, "What happened to my child"? Or, "Who gave the orders for this"? When someone has been abducted, killed and buried secretly, the family is not going to simply effect closure. The truth hurts but it can heal.
The TRC recommended reparations for victims. What do you feel about this being held up for so long?
We have been very distressed by this. But as it happens, I was looking at our newspapers online today and there is a report that the Government has in fact gazetted ... that they are going to set forth the process of paying. Almost everybody, that is the 2,000 victims we identified, is going get 30,000 (South African) rands. This is a quarter of what we recommended.
Julius Nyerere said more than once that until South Africa was liberated, the rest of Africa will be in ...
Yes, bondage. What impact has liberation had on the rest of the continent?
One of the most significant things, is a sense of pride. People can point to Nelson Mandela, point to someone who is universally admired and say that he is an African.
You have been quoted as saying that you are not a pacifist and that violence can be acceptable if the moral tone of a society falls. But is it possible to draw a clear line where peace and non-violence may be given up in favour of violence, even war?
We need to have a situation where all kinds of non-violent ways have been attempted to bring about change. But there can be a justification for resorting to force. Certainly there is doctrine of a just war, which the church has enshrined. I believe that force can be used as the last resort, as the very, very last resort.
When did you first become aware of Mahatma Gandhi?
One has always been aware of him in a sense. In the 1950s, we had a passive resistance campaign in South Africa. I was in high school. I was quite aware that there was an influence from this man who showed us a ray of hope.
There have been a spate of attacks on farmers in South Africa over the last few years 1,500 farmers have been killed according to estimates. A Government-constituted inquiry suggests that these are not attacks against a racial minority, that the motives are not political but criminal. However, some people have drawn parallels with Zimbabwe. Is this parallel overdrawn?
The parallel isn't applicable at all. In Zimbabwe, it has been totally disorderly, chaotic and even (at the instance of) the Government, which has said people should occupy farms, take them over. It said the redistribution of land was for the poor, the landless. But it has not happened that way. The farms have ended up becoming the properties of cronies of the President.
In South Africa, there is an orderly process of land redistribution, which has been sanctioned by Parliament. If the land has got to be taken over and given back to its original (owners), there is compensation for the current land owners. But the attacks on the farmers are disturbing. As you say, the inquiry indicates the perpetrators are criminals. But for the community that is under siege, the impression has got around that this is not the case.
One wishes there is far more effective policing. This is true of so many other areas of crime. But black people can say that they had similar experiences in the ghettos. And that this has now come out into the open because it has spread from the ghettos into the more salubrious areas.
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