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Joining the witch–hunt

Human Rights
South Africa

Harvesting hope: more than 2,000 people have told their stories to the TRC.


As a very small girl, I was impressed by the story a nun told to our catechism class. It was about an old woman who went to her priest asking forgiveness for a sin of gossip that had harmed the reputation of a neighbor. The priest accepted the woman’s expression of remorse, gave her ‘conditional’ absolution, told her to mend her ways, and gave her the following penance. He ordered the old woman to climb the belfry of the parish church, where she was to cut a small hole in a feather pillow and then shake the feathers loose onto the streets below. Then she was told to go about the village collecting the feathers until she had enough to sew back into the pillow. ‘But Father,’ the woman protested, ‘that would be impossible!’ To which the good priest sadly replied: ‘Yes, and so, too, is it impossible to undo the damage caused by malicious acts.’

Wise words – but counterintuitive to the received wisdom of the day. For the romance with remorse and with reparation, memory and healing – of both the individual and groups – has emerged as a master narrative of the late twentieth century, as individuals and entire nations struggle to overcome the legacies of suffering ranging from rape and domestic violence to state-sponsored dirty wars and ‘ethnic cleansing’. Lawrence Weschler has hit upon an appropriate metaphor for looking at the present contexts of national recovery: ‘getting over’.

'Getting over it'

Just what needs to be ‘gotten over’ if South Africa and South Africans are to get safely to the other side? Surely, as many have argued, a first step towards reconciliation is learning exactly what happened to whom, by whom, and why.

‘I sometimes wonder,’ said Father Lapsley, who received a letter bomb from the apartheid regime, ‘who that man or woman was who typed my name on the envelope that was supposed to kill me. I wonder – what did they tell their spouses or children that night at supper time about what they did in the office that day? Either they are so dehumanized that they don’t care or else they have learned to live comfortably with their guilt. I don’t want vengeance but I think that the names and faces of these people should be known.’

The official vehicle to facilitate ‘getting over’ is the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the TRC. More than 2,000 victims of apartheid-era brutality have told their stories to the independent Commission and a smaller number of perpetrators of the violence have come forward to confess the details of their attacks on civilians, in exchange for political amnesty.

Those seeking truth in South Africa today do not want the partial, indeterminate, shifting ‘truths’ of the post-modern but rather the single, sweet, ‘objective’ truth of the moralist and, with it, a restored sense of wholeness and a taste of justice. But, as Justice Albie Sachs has noted, South Africans are willing to settle for a ‘good enough’ truth – a narrative that will at least place black and white South Africans, Afrikaners and English speakers, Xhosas and Zulus, African National Congress and PanAfrican Congress members, on the same map rather than living in different nations across the road from each other.

It seems that a great number of white people in South Africa still fail to get the point behind the TRC

There are, of course, many critics of the TRC ‘process’. Some worry about the focus on the ‘exceptional’, the ‘extreme’, and on the ‘gross’ acts of human-rights violation, which runs the risk of obscuring or, worse, of normalizing the daily acts of apartheid’s structural violence – the legal, medical, economic, bureaucratic and commercial violations of human rights that alienated millions of South Africans from their property, their homes, their families, their labor, their citizenship and even from their own bodies.

Still others – most of the ‘ordinary’ South African whites I have spoken to – worry about witch-hunting, scapegoating, and persecution. Indeed, it seems that a great many white people in South Africa still fail to get the point behind the TRC. So, time and again, I was told that if General Malan ordered these tortures or that massacre, it was because he had to do it for the national security. Those who were detained, tortured and killed were not innocent, after all, they were terrorists. And, I was reminded, Communists were poised to take over all of Southern Africa.

As for the ‘higher ups’, their defences are well fortified. Wynand Breytenbach, for example, a former Deputy Defence Minister under both Presidents Botha and De Klerk, is now comfortably retired on a government pension and living out his days as a recovering heart-transplant patient in a luxurious, well-tended and gate-secured community in Sun Valley. He remains unrepentant as he comments on the revelations of torture and murder by the apartheid regime: ‘You know, I sat in at all the top executive meetings of the Defence Force, which is where all the decisions were taken... and I swear to you that never, ever were these sorts of things discussed. OK, we said that we must try and achieve something in this area [ie torture] to get stability. But these characters went out and slaughtered people like cattle.’

‘Does that mean that discipline had broken down in the security forces?’ I asked.

‘I wouldn’t say that discipline had broken down so much as… If you read that book _The Sword and the Swastika_, you can see what the Germans did in the past war to the Jews. You just can’t believe it. And there, too, you find the same thing as happened here. It all boils down to a few individuals, a few rotten apples, small people sitting in big jobs who suddenly think that they can play God… But nowhere and at no time were these things ever discussed or hinted at during the executive meetings.’

In his extraordinary narrative, Breytenbach both manages to deny and to assert his knowledge of, and responsibility for, the state-level atrocities, to attribute blame both above and below him, and to take comfort in the knowledge that the kinds of atrocities committed by the apartheid state are not unique to South Africa but have taken place before (as in Nazi Germany). And now, he says, the real ‘bad guys’ are the ‘disadvantaged’ black criminals who have no respect for law and order, and so corrupt the morals of white people who violently respond to the country’s rising crime.

Like most whites I have encountered since 1992, Breytenbach fails to recognize the enormous grace by which he and all white South Africans have been spared. In the light of the aberrant behavior coming to light through the TRC amnesty hearings, one is inclined to feel that perhaps the ‘witch-hunting’ metaphor is not such a bad one. The apartheid state was filthy with ‘witches’ at all levels of power and authority and a little ‘witch-hunting’ could clear the air.

Witchcraft and popular justice

Allow me, then, to play devil’s advocate in suggesting that witch-hunting might not only be a fitting metaphor for the collective recovery and healing of South Africa, but that certain aspects of this kind of popular justice have been incorporated into the curiously hybrid formulas and rituals of the TRC.

Confession is, of course, a central dynamic in all witchcraft-believing societies from the Navajo and Pueblo peoples of the American south-west to highland Papua New Guinea, from vast stretches of indigenous Africa to the Bocage region of modern France. Conventional insight suggests that witch-hunts are aberrant and dysfunctional institutions which choose the ‘witch’ as the surrogate ritual scapegoat who represents the group’s worst collective nightmare. The processes of fact-finding, guilt determination, the ritualized expressions of remorse and the demand for immediate, though often symbolic, reparation strike liberal, bourgeois sensibilities as weak, irrational and unjust. But a great many anthropologists have challenged the Western stereotype by showing the positive uses of witchcraft in restoring health to troubled communities.

The apartheid state was filthy with 'witches' at all levels of power and authority and a a little 'witch–hunting' could clear the air

In South Africa, the power of traditional Zulu medicine resides in the _sangoma’s_ (healer’s) skill in identifying the social tensions, ‘hard feelings’ and anti-social hostilities that can congeal into sickness, misfortune and death in the community. ‘Witches’ are asked to identify themselves, to come forward and to ‘speak out’ their ‘bottled up’ envy, hatred and guilt. And a great many ‘witches’ do – confessions are said to be a means of ‘emptying themselves’ of the burden of evil and restoring feelings of lightness and emptiness which signify balance, health and good relations.

Rarely, however, do such public confessions result in amnesty and even the most repentant ‘witches’ can be punished by fines, forced labor and public floggings. Miscarriages of popular justice can result in outbreaks of indiscriminate witch-hunting hysteria and witchburnings, such as the much-publicized spate of recent witch-hunts in Venda, northern Transvaal. But these incidents are anomalies compared to the more common and judicious applications of ‘counter-sorcery’ as a traditional form of popular justice. During the anti-apartheid struggle years, some of these older practices were transformed into newer institutions of popular justice, including the people’s courts, security committees and discipline committees put into place by ‘the comrades’ in urban townships and squatter camps. People’s courts meted out a rough sort of popular, revolutionary justice using apologies and fines, public lashings and at times suspected or confessed police collaborators were punished or even killed as ‘witches’.

But in my work in a new and desperately poor squatter camp outside Cape Town during 1993-94, and during a return study in 1996, I was impressed by the generally responsible manner of those involved in community policing and in administering the organs of popular justice. For example, in the Chris Hani squatter camp, several young ANC and PAC members intervened when an angry mob gathered around three local unemployed teenage boys who were caught stealing 400 rand from a local shebeen (bar). The crowd wanted the boys ‘necklaced’ (burned to death) but these few youth leaders, waving the then-draft ANC Bill of Rights, raised their voices in protest and argued for public whippings rather than the death penalty. The floggings were laid on ‘collectively’ by several older men of the community.

Afterwards I visited the boys and they were not a pretty sight. Their eyes were dull with fever, they had trouble bending their legs, sitting and urinating. But following the incident many open-air meetings took place in the squatter camp at which the future of people’s courts and popular justice were endlessly debated Only one of the boys could not get over his anger at the floggers. He was advised to leave the squatter camp and was given help in locating a new home. The other two boys accepted their punishment and were reintegrated into the camp. Nothing more was said about their crime. The last time I saw one of them he boasted that his circumcision ‘cut’ hurt very badly, much worse, he maintained, than his whipping.

The strength of these institutions of popular justice is that they are immediate, public, collective, face-to-face and relatively transparent. They are based on traditional notions of _ubuntu_ (people are people through the eyes of others), and the power of shame within a context of codes of personal honor and dignity.

Of course, popular justice and people’s courts are vulnerable on many counts. They depend on volunteers and have a high turnover following any criticism of their activities or decisions. Many township and squatter-camp residents are afraid to serve on people’s courts, fearing intimidation by relatives of those accused and/or punished; paving the way for ‘strongmen’ with vigilante or police connections to usurp these roles. But in the main, these grassroots institutions operate judiciously. And, elements of both traditional and popular justice have made their way into the uniquely South African version of the idea of the ‘truth commission’.

Witch–hunting and the TRC

Like traditional witch-hunting and the people’s courts, the TRC is not terribly concerned with fact-checking and relies more on the power of the dramaturgical moment – public enactments of suffering, confession, remorse and forgiveness. The TRC places a high premium on apologies offered in person by the perpetrators, who are asked to give ‘eye contact’ to those who were hurt and wronged. At the close of each amnesty hearing, the commissioners and trained ‘briefers’ expedite a ‘closing’ ritual by inviting the survivors to come forward and address their former tormentors, raising with them any final, unanswered questions.

Perpetrators are asked to give 'eye–contact' to those who were hurt and wronged

And so Dawie Ackerman, who lost his wife when shooting broke out in a church in an incident known as the St James Massacre, comes forward. He tells the young men who killed his wife how he had to step over dead bodies in order to get to her, still sitting bolt upright in the front-row pew, and how all the while he was hoping against hope that Marita might just be shell-shocked but still alive, until he finally crossed that endless expanse and reached her. But just as he touched her back, her body rolled over and fell with a dull thud to the floor, her special Sunday clothes splattered with blood.

Dawie continues, his composure now broken, his voice cracking and trembling with tears that have been, he said, a very long time – five years, in fact – in coming: ‘I’ve never cried since I lost my wife other than to have silent cries. I’ve never had an emotional outburst till now. When. . . when Mr Makoma here [the young man who was 17 at the time he took part in the church attack] was testifying, he talked about his own tortures in prison, and that he was suicidal at times, but that he never once cried. I thought to myself – and I passed the TRC lawyer a note – to please bring your cross-examination to an end. Because what are we doing here? The truth, yes. But then I looked at the way in which he, Makoma, answered you. All his anger. And I thought that he cannot be reconciled.’

Then, in a final and painfully wrenching scene Dawie Ackerman, now openly weeping, asks the three young applicants to turn their averted faces to look at him directly and remember which of them shot Marita in her long blue coat. Makoma looks terrified, as if he is seeing Hamlet’s father’s ghost. He nervously bites his lower lip and slowly shakes his head. No, he cannot remember – neither Marita nor her long, b1ue coat. But all three young men apologize to Dawie. Makoma is the most affected: ‘We are truly sorry for what we have done. But it was not intentional. It was the situation in South Africa. Although people died we did not do that out of our own will. It was the situation we were living under. And now we are asking you please, do forgive us.’

Dawie Ackerman did give Makoma his forgiveness and he withdrew his formal, legal objection to the young men’s receiving amnesty from the state. But while some seem to have experienced a real catharsis through the TRC process, young Makoma has yet to find any such emotional relief. He said to the girl whose mother he had killed about the attack: ‘Yah, I had feelings then. It was bad. But no matter how I feel now, at this moment, that what I did was bad, there is nothing I can do. The people are dead. How I feel cannot change anything.’ As a ‘strong’ and ‘disciplined’ PAC militant, Makoma still feels that all these emotional performances are unseemly and just a little bit beside the point.

Albie Sachs expressed the wish that there could be more ‘felt emotion’ by the perpetrators of political violence. He referred to those who seem unmoved by the TRC process, who (like PW Botha and Winnie Mandela) have refused the new history, and who remain frozen in the past. But the TRC process has in fact opened up new emotional spaces where conversations and actions that were once impossible, even unthinkable, are now happening. The unlikely encounters between perpetrators and victims, who are beginning to empathize with each other’s situation, is an extraordinary case in point. And I think of the ordinary Afrikaner couple with very concerned looks on their faces who approached me one day on the steps of St. George’s Cathedral in Cape Town (Archbishop Tutu’s church). ‘Where can we find the Bishop?’ they asked.

‘Oh, he’s a very busy man,’ I said. ‘I’m sure he’s not here now.’ They both looked crestfallen.

‘What did you want to see him about?’

‘We want to confess to the Truth Commission. We did not treat black people very well and now we want to make a fresh start.’

I explained that the TRC was a very formal process ‘with lawyers and official papers’ and that it was meant for murderers and torturers and not for ordinary people who could have behaved better. But the real effects of the TRC will perhaps be felt in small ripple effects like these and, hopefully, in various community circles. As part of Father Lapsley’s ‘Healing the Memories’ forums, some of these healing retreats are reserved for those who were neither victims nor perpetrators, but people who, all the same, were hurt, diminished, traumatized and/or compromised by the apartheid state and the violent struggle against it.

And some have been redeemed, such as Hennie, an Afrikaner and a private security guard. I ran into Hennie in the streets of Cape Town during a spontaneous celebration of South Africa’s victory in the All-Africa Soccer Cup in February 1996. Hennie was very excited, almost emotionally overwrought, and he didn’t know quite how to explain to me the magnitude and significance of that magical moment. ‘Did you see the game?’ he asked. I did, I said, on a big screen in a packed bar.

‘Both goals?’

‘Yes, indeed’

‘And did you see our President right there out on the field?’


‘Can you possibly know what this means for us?’ And without waiting for an answer, Hennie told me: ‘It means we are not 100-per-cent bad. It means God is willing to forgive us. That He would give to us – of all people – such great heroes! It is a sign that we are going in a good way now. We are not hated any more. Oh, how can I explain this? It’s like before we were Fat Elvis: sick, disgusting, ugly. Now we are like skinny Elvis: young, handsome, healthy. In the New South Africa we have all been reborn.’

_*Nancy Scheper-Hughes* is a professor of anthropology at the University of California, Berkeley. She is a frequent contributor to the *NI*._

New Internationalist issue 311 magazine cover This article is from the April 1999 issue of New Internationalist.
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