February 25, 2005

The TRC: Making nice without making right

CAPE TOWN—On the television screen, glowing over our intent set of students, a mother railed, "I used to be fat." She gestured to her clothing—the gingham-print "folk dress" of rural black women—which hung loosely on her birdlike, frail frame. "Now I am thin. I used to be fat." Her eyes bore into the strong-jawed man who sat before her, his eyes downcast, his features unreadable. He was well fed, she remarked, because he had "sold his blood for money." Her eyes were ablaze.

The video was Long Night's Journey Into Day, a documentary on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) in South Africa; our group was a study-abroad program from the University of Chicago, trading the joys of Lake Michigan in winter for studies in Cape Town's Arcadian summer. The documentary followed four TRC cases, including, in this instance, that of a black informant who sold out the Guguletu Seven, a group of activists-in-training murdered by the apartheid government. Onscreen he sought the forgiveness of the slain men's mothers, who one-by-one swore off forgiveness, citing starved children robbed of their fathers, and the silence of their own emptied households. That is, until one woman—the same who'd held up her own thinness as evidence—inexplicably relented. "What good does it do us to be angry with him?" she asked her peers. "I forgive you, my son. I forgive you."

This is powerful and profoundly South African scene. In the new South Africa, forgiveness is a prevailing theme, and the TRC is held up as its paramount. Touted as an innovative approach to healing bloodied states through candor and compassion, the TRC is now emulated abroad, lauded not only for its humanity, but also for its pragmatism. In a country steeped in violence, ranging from the pass laws' petty degradation to the outright murder of apartheid dissidents, a purely punitive approach to the past's wrongs would jam the gears of the nascent "Rainbow Nation," flooding the courts with innumerable cases. Others argue that, on an emotional level, to forgive nothing would mire the country in its past and sabotage the new South Africa. Under the world's most progressive constitution, they contend, South Africa stands to move beyond its searing history.

This heady vision echoed my own enchantment upon entering South Africa, and especially upon visiting the Constitutional Court. The Court looks over the Old Fort, a former prison complex that held over 1.9 million people between 1975 and 1984, mostly for violations of the pass laws; Nelson Mandela was held there for two weeks following the drafting of the Freedom Charter. The new Court, a breezy, open structure "like the Constitution itself…designed to be open, accessible, and transparent." Our tour guide, one of the Constitution's first scribes, pointed out to us that the windows that surround the court chamber open onto urban pavement, grounding the law in the everyday life of South Africa's people. Thus, in its very architecture, the Court seems to make palpable the post-apartheid promises of democracy and equality.

In large part, the promise of democracy has been fulfilled. The promise of equality, however, is proving more difficult, and the Rainbow Nation's mounting disappointments prick the smooth surface of "reconciliation." Wealth remains highly race-stratified in South Africa, and the gulf between rich and poor is rapidly widening with the ANC's embrace of neo-liberal capitalism. "I am thin," complained the Guguletu mother—a lament that, in shorthand, stands for the poverty of the black townships, post-'94. Their youth were devoted to the struggle, and many South Africans found themselves bereft of an education or practical training in the new democracy. Unlike the U.S. post-WWII, there has been no G.I. Bill to aid them, and reparations have been pathetically small. They may make emotional amends, but the victims of apartheid remain thin while their oppressors, and their benefactors, stay comfortably fat.

In Afrikaans, the name for the TRC connotes the tinny phrase "to kiss and make up." For many South Africans, the idea of reconciliation remains just that trivializing, in light of the failure to restore economic opportunity to the townships. An emerging cynicism with the "Rainbow Nation" has fed the appeal of youth gangs, which affect a haphazard redistribution of resources through hijackings and theft. In a month's stay in the tiny white district of Tamboerskloof, Cape Town, our student group experienced four break-ins and one attempted mugging—thwarted by the victim's empty wallet. And this is despite the fact that crime is actually far more prevalent in the townships than in white neighborhoods, even if anxieties suggest the inverse.

Watching the Guguletu mother offer her forgiveness, I felt touched, and yet dissatisfied. Ostensibly, through the talking cure of the TRC, things had been set right. Yet a fatherless child, at home in the townships, would likely find herself scraping for school fees—fees the penitent man, well provided for, would never pay. For these, and for other, more attractive trappings, she would likely need to enter Cape Town's shadow economy: crime in the singular, or in a gang. And from there: prison, rape, HIV/AIDS.

There is beauty in the willingness to forgive, and wisdom in the words of the Guguletu mother. But forgiveness is only a polite veneer over a kinder, gentler apartheid state if the African National Congress does not affect structural change.