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Unreconciled to truth

With the end of apartheid,people said,South Africa would crumble under racial violence.

Written by Vinati Dev |
April 9, 2009 11:54:12 pm

With the end of apartheid,people said,South Africa would crumble under racial violence. Soweto would spill into Johannesburg,revenge would redeem years of oppression and civil war would take the lives of many more South Africans,both black and white. This did not happen. Two men,larger than their parties and personal political ambitions,F.W. De Klerk and Nelson Mandela,brokered a historic transition — economic and political — to today’s peaceful,integrated South Africa.

There were many strategic steps behind this transition. The first step was the setting up of a Truth and Reconciliation Committee (TRC) in 1995. Anyone who felt that he or she was a victim of apartheid-related violence was invited to come forward and be heard. The forum allowed perpetrators of violence to give testimony and request amnesty. Everyone came forward — the regime’s foot soldiers,its big bosses,and even members of African National Congress (ANC) and other smaller guerrilla outfits,who in their own frustrations had justified equally brutal violence. 

The idea behind this was that broad notions of collective blame and guilt were dangerous,and that trauma could only be addressed by distinguishing actual perpetrators,preserving evidence and finding the truth.  

The TRC was much criticised — amnesty was seen as unimaginable by some. But by and large,the verdict has been that it was a success. It was because of three factors: first,it established an official public record of the apartheid era’s crimes and political violence. Secondly,by emphasising the brutality of crimes perpetrated by apartheid enforcers (and those who fought back with violent means),it exposed the inhumanity of South Africa’s right-wing elements. Thirdly,as the truth became apparent,it put South Africa on the path to reconciliation,altering,in less than 10 years,the entire political consciousness of the white minority.

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Beyond that,South Africa managed to establish institutions able to find truth and respond appropriately without racial political manipulation. This meant that the state did not become fixated on individual perpetrators but chose to prevent politically motivated acts of violence over a sustained period of time. 

Unfortunately,in India today,it appears that we have neither leaders nor institutions capable of this. Perhaps we have never really been good at it. Had we been,every Indian child would learn about the horror of Partition and our history books would not just jump form Nehru’s famously inspiring speech at midnight to five-year plans. After all,nation-building doesn’t come from dams,steel mills and IT parks alone — it comes from altering the political consciousness of a new generation. It comes from accepting (as even a generation of young Germans have,painfully) one’s parents’ complicity in acts of violence and murder. We just didn’t do that. We should have paused to remember that mammoth event of national shame.

The dangerous legacy carries on and now holds true for the investigation of all incidents of communal violence. The Sikh Riots of 1984,for example. Ten commissions have looked into the matter thus far. The latest,the Nanavati Commission,was appointed by a unanimous Rajya Sabha. But,despite claiming evidence against several political and law enforcement leaders responsible for instigating the mobs to violence,none have been convicted. Jagdish Tytler’s recent “vindication” by the CBI raises several questions,of which one is most important: if indeed our democracy is about democratic institutions (not just electoral rights),and if the CBI is one them,are we certain that it is a depoliticised objective body? Only if the answer is yes are its verdicts acceptable. Unfortunately,the CBI,like other institutions,has on several occasions failed to remain above the dangerous communalised politics that now plagues all dimensions of Indian governance.

This story is repeated in the investigations of the Bombay riots,the Godhra riots and numerous other incidents,where we have not yet even agreed on the truth — far from providing justice and reconciling our darkest moments as Indians with our pride in ourselves.

Finally,it is said that as the TRC’s public meetings (which were held in churches and town halls across South Africa) were telecast into the homes of every South African home and as confession after confession were recorded,the nation witnessed thousands of South African mothers,wives,daughters,sons and fathers weeping for those they had lost to apartheid. Then the truth came to light,evidence was preserved,the accused brought to justice (and some even forgiven),and the painful but peaceful reconciliation began.  

It was those tears that cleared the path for a new South Africa. It’s time we shed some.

The writer is a Delhi-based political economy researcher

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