The great shame

Unfinished Business: South Africa, apartheid and truth

Terry Bell, with Dumisa Buhle Ntsebeza <em

This book is a strange amalgam. It includes chapters on the apartheid security services, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and the attempt to frame Dumisa Ntsebeza, one of the commissioners and head of the investigative unit. Its argument - that the commission never got close to the truth about a large number of apartheid crimes - is undoubtedly true but hardly new. Like many books on the subject, it avoids mention of Anthea Jeffries's The Truth About the Truth Commission. Jeffries tore the commission's procedure to pieces, showing how it had overlooked more than three-quarters of all deaths under apartheid, that it had made frequent factual errors, and that it ignored findings by technical experts, judicial commissions and court cases.

The commission's biggest problem was that it was given only 18 months (later extended to 24) to report. Clearly the ANC wanted to run for re-election in 1999 against a background of horrific revelations about apartheid, and the old National Party (NP) had its own reasons for wanting to keep things brief. A second problem was the assumption that churchmen were the right people to put in charge of a task requiring the expertise of historians, lawyers, social scientists and detectives. Given the bitter internal politicking and different political biases, it is not surprising that the commission was such a mess.

Clearly, the NP had a great deal to hide - but the ANC was almost as bad. Everyone knew that the party had been honeycombed with informers and spies, that many guerrilla recruits had been knowingly sent to their deaths, and that horrific abuses had occurred in the ANC camps. The ANC is still paying for its reluctance to get to the bottom of all this.

Perhaps the key moment came when a young researcher, Piers Pigou, suggested obtaining a list of the apartheid security police and then matching the names to all known cases of human rights abuse in each town. This idea was rejected with the result that no torturers or killers came forward unless they had already been identified - and most weren't. One of my best friends almost certainly died as a result of the torture he was subjected to by the security police. Thanks to this ruling, his case was among the thousands the commission never bothered to look at. Even when a security policeman such as Ferdi Barnard was forced into confessing to murder, no action was taken against other policemen he admitted were involved in the killings.

One of the most chilling accounts is of the framing of Ntsebeza. This episode shows the commission's chair, Desmond Tutu, and his deputy, Alex Boraine, in a particularly bad light. Initially they issued a statement of endorsement for Ntsebeza but, as bad publicity for him multiplied, they wanted him to step down. The casual way in which he was betrayed for PR reasons was typical of the commission's haphazard and opportunistic attitudes to justice.

That said, many of those who would like to go on chasing the crimes of apartheid seem motivated mainly by money or revenge. It is wrong to suggest - as Bell does - that apartheid was a crime against humanity to equal the Holocaust. It was a nasty, brutal, racist system, but the number of people it killed (no more than 30,000) is far less than the number of babies who die of Aids each year for lack of antiretroviral drugs. The uncomfortable truth is that under apartheid the black population soared and its living standards, literacy and life expectancy rose; under ANC rule, poverty and inequality have increased and life expectancy has plummeted. This is not to defend apartheid: both Afrikaner and African nationalism have been disastrous for South Africa.

As yet, South Africans are far from coming to terms with their history; and, in that respect, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was a huge missed opportunity. Perhaps its greatest failure was not to have established a culture in which it would have been a great deal harder for the present government to show the same cynical disregard for human rights as its predecessor.

R W Johnson is writing a history of South Africa since 1994 for Penguin