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South Africa apartheid hearings were a ‘pressure valve,’ says lawyer

December 11th, 2013
09:53 AM ET

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.”

Filed under:  Christiane Amanpour • Latest Episode • South Africa
soundoff (8 Responses)
  1. louis van wyk

    Hi, in your interview with both Paul and Anant singh several calculative factual omissions were made.
    Anant said that, during the armed struggle, the ANC 'did not target civillians, only infrastructure'. Blatant lies. The two most significant examples are the Church Street bombing in 1983, as well as the Amanzimtoti bombing on 23 December 1985, specifically two days before christmas in order to maximise CIVILLIAN casualties.
    In 1980 the ANC signed the Geneva Convention protocol on revolutionary warfare, thereby declaring that its action would only be directed at military targets.
    More than 1400 acts had been committed between 1976 and 1990 during the armed struggle against apartheid
    In the course of these, 240 persons were killed and more than 1500 injured... the majority by far civilians.
    A conservative evaluation by the SA Police of the target selection shows that in terms of the protocols more than 50 percent of the targets attacked can be categorised as civilian, adding to that the figure had risen to more than 85 percent after 1985.
    The ANC had tended to divorce itself from incidents which could have resulted in negative publicity, as was the case in the Pretoria car bomb explosion in 1983 which killed 19 people and injured 217 others, most of them civilians. Note that this bomb attack was sanctioned and signed off by Mandela. Mandela condemns mistakes and controversial policies of the west, but refuses to publicly condemn the genocides and brutal repression of current or former communist countries; he is supposedly a “champion of freedom and democracy”, the “hero of oppressed people everywhere” but considers dictatorships like Cuba and Libya shining beacons of freedom and justice...”" Mmmm
    Fact : The ANC killed more black people than the security forces ever did…
    Many of those opposing the Apartheid regime believed that "any means justified the end". For me, some of the acceptable "means" made them as distasteful as the enforcers of the Vorster and Botha regimes. That is the problem with revolutionaries; they often end up being just as bad (if not worse) than the people they seek to replace!
    It's not just the nature of the enemy that defines the morality of a struggle, it is also the nature of how that struggle is undertaken.
    President P.W. Botha told Mandela way back in 1985, that he could be a free man as long as he did one thing: Publicly renounce violence. Mandela refused. That is why Mandela remained in prison until the appeaser F.W. de Klerk freed him unconditionally. The bottom line is that Nelson Mandela never publicly renounced violence – and we should never forget that.
    Another example of civilian victims was the murder of (their own) people by the "necklace" (burning tyre placed around the neck) method. A total of 406 (black) people died in is way – at the hand of ANC members.
    And then the part of history that you’re not telling (or choose to ignore?) is the death camps that were administered by the ANC;

    …and the list goes on.

    and don’t forget the Genocide that’s currently taking place in South Africa…
    In the years under apartheid, hate speech was used by both supporters and opponents of the apartheid system to stir up their followers. When racial tensions in South Africa ran high, the song “Kill the Farmer, Shoot the Boer” was a revolutionary song of the anti-apartheid movement. However, it is an illustration of the long-term impact that such de-humanizing language can have.
    After many years when such songs were no longer sung, in 2010, prominent members of the ANC Youth League, in particular Julius Malema, ex-President of the ANC Youth League, openly sang the “Shoot the Boer” song at ANC Youth League rallies. Not only did revival of the song strike fear into the hearts of white farmers, but it has actually been sung during attacks on white farmers. It is an incitement to murder white Afrikaner farmers.
    Over 3000 white farmers have been murdered since 1994. The South African police have not made investigation and prosecution of these farm murders a priority, dismissing them as crimes by common criminals. The government has disbanded the commando units of white farmers that once protected their farms, and has passed laws to confiscate the farmers’ weapons. Disarmament of a targeted group is one of the surest early warning signs of future genocidal killings.
    The farm invasions are direct results of calls by Julius Malema and his Deputy, Ronald Lamola for whites to give up their land without compensation, or face violence by angry black youths “flooding their farms.”
    Even “President” Jacob Zuma sang “Shoot the Boer” at the ANC Centenary Celebration event in January of 2012. He claimed that its use at the ANC Centenary was not intended as hate speech, but rather to commemorate the struggle against apartheid. Despite Zoo-ma’s proclaimed intent, his singing of the song may be contributing to an increasingly hostile environment that threatens the safety of white South Africans.
    Do yourself a favor and study some of the autopsy reports of these victims of farm murders. Hopefully you will note the brutality of these murders?
    The South African Government for the last 18 years has adopted a policy of deliberate government abolition and disarmament of rural Commandos run by farmers themselves for their own self-defense. The policy has resulted in a four-fold increase in the murder rate of Afrikaner commercial farmers. This policy is aimed at forced displacement through terror. It advances the goals of the South African Communist Party’s New Democratic Revolution (NPR), which aims at nationalization of all private farmland, mines, and industry in South Africa. Disarmament, coupled with Government removal of security structures to protect the White victim group, follows public dehumanization of the victims, and facilitates their forced displacement and gradual genocide.
    Afrikaner farm owners are being murdered at a rate four times the murder rate of other South Africans, including Black farm owners. Their families are also subjected to extremely high crime rates, including murder, rape, mutilation and torture of the victims. South African police fail to investigate or solve many of these murders, which are carried out by organized gangs, often armed with weapons that police have previously confiscated. The racial character of the killing is covered up by a SA government order prohibiting police from reporting murders by race. Instead the crisis is denied and the murders are dismissed as ordinary crime, ignoring the frequent mutilation of the victims’ bodies, a sure sign that these are hate crimes.
    However, independent researchers have compiled accurate statistics demonstrating convincingly that murders among White farm owners occur at a rate of 97 per 100,000 per year, compared to 31 per 100,000 per year in the entire South African population, making the murder rate of White SA farmers one of the highest murder rates in the world.
    High-ranking ANC government officials who continuously refer to Whites as “settlers” and “colonialists of a special type” are using racial epithets in a campaign of state-sponsored dehumanization of the White population as a whole. They sanction gang-organized hate crimes against Whites, with the goal of terrorizing Whites through fear of genocidal annihilation.

    Finally, all of the above can be disputed, ignored and simplified. In the end however it boils down to

    If you have the moral fibre i believe you to have, you would present this side of the story with equal enthusiasm.

    December 12, 2013 at 2:48 am | Reply
  2. Paula

    Thank you Louis for giving factual truth!!

    December 12, 2013 at 9:46 am | Reply
  3. Nasdaq7

    It is absolute nonsense to hear the ANC being white washed and absolved of all sin.

    google global terrorism database

    enter african national congress

    4000 civilians died by Nelson Mandela's ANC. He might not be held accountable for those deaths because he was in jail, but his army, his army he had created decades earlier did plant bombs in white and black police stations, discos, trains. USSR funded.

    Reagan everyone was against the ANC. Thatcher everyone. Apartheid was tried. And it failed spectacularly. But don't lie and spread hatred and lies. The whites can be butchered in South Africa and not the blacks. The whites are outnumbered 10 to 1.

    June 29, 2014 at 10:01 pm | Reply
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