By Mick Krever, CNN
Nelson Mandela’s death has forced South Africa to reflect once again on its ugly past, and what it took to move beyond it.
A key part of that process, after the fall of apartheid, was the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which held hearings for more than two years on the horrors of the policy.
It was “a pressure valve, a safety valve, at a moment in our country where you couldn't turn away,” Paul van Zyl, a human rights lawyer who was executive secretary of the Commission, told CNN’s Christiane Amanpour on Tuesday.
“You couldn't sweep the past under a carpet; you had to give people a chance to tell their stories.”
But those hearings, he said, were not – and could not have been – like the Nuremberg trials after World War II that convicted individual Nazis of the most heinous crimes.
“We didn't have the vanquishments of the Germans after World War II,” he said. “We had a negotiated settlement.”
That meant that “compromise and accommodation” were necessary.
A “full press,” Nuremberg-style prosecution to punish persecutors “was not just impossible, given the nature of the transition, but might begin to jeopardize the very delicate process of healing a nation and bringing it closer together.”
What both Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who chaired the hearings, realized, van Zyl said, was that “a particular kind of justice” was needed at that moment.
The victims of apartheid needed to be able to tell their stories and have their suffering “officially acknowledged,” and the perpetrators needed to “acknowledge their misdeeds.”
It was a process, he told Amanpour, that was necessary for all South Africans, white and black alike.
“Many white South Africans thought that apartheid was a sort of benevolent endeavor, separate but equal, trying to do good for people by keeping them apart. And that was the terrible lie and the terrible myth that they told themselves.”
Supporters of the apartheid regime needed to be confronted, he said, with the suffering of mothers whose children were abducted and murdered; who waited in vain every night for their sons or daughters to return; who were given a moment’s false hope every time they heard a footstep in the hall.
“Once you have an opportunity to hear those stories, you realize that apartheid was not a well-intended social experiment. It was a profoundly evil system at its core.”
“The fact that given that abhorrent nature of that system, that [Nelson Mandela] could emerge as a figure with such grace, such dignity, an ability to draw a nation closer together rather than rend it further asunder, is all the more remarkable.”
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission, van Zyl said, was right for its moment in time.
“Although that was not perfect justice, I think under the circumstances it was probably the most justice that the country at that point could endure and could confront.”
Van Zyl himself is a white South African, but said he had the “great fortune” of having parents who told him from a young age that they lived in a “profoundly evil” country.
“Many, many, many white South Africans – and I could have equality been amongst them – could have grown up with a completely different narrative.”
When he was in university, he was inspired by his black classmates who were taking part in the liberation movement.
“Seeing their both incredible courage, but also the life circumstances that they came from – the squalor and the poverty and the unequal education – and to see them notwithstanding those circumstances rise up with such courage to both confront an evil system …was a great source of optimism.”
“It's not often in your lifetime that you get to see oppression and then liberation, in such short order.”