In South Africa, 20 years after Steven Biko's death, the Truth Commission grapples with the meaning of justice
In September 1977, a naked and shackled Steven Biko -- the leader of South Africa's Black Consciousness movement -- died on the filthy floor of a police hospital in Pretoria. What exactly killed him remains unclear. While in custody in Port Elizabeth, Biko probably suffered head blows so severe that they shifted the inside of his brain. Denied medical attention, he was driven 700 miles to Pretoria and thrown in a cell, his desperate pleas for help ignored.
The men in charge -- a parade of smug police officers -- swore they did not kill the 30-year-old Biko. He must have slipped and fallen, they said. Perhaps he struck his head against a wall. Or a cabinet. It didn't really matter. As officers in South Africa's brutal Apartheid police force, the men knew they would never face criminal charges.
Fast forward 20 years, and the five men accused of killing Biko are the ones begging for mercy. Unlike Biko, however, their pleas will most likely be granted.
A lawyer for the five police officers recently announced that they were ready to admit "culpable homicide" in Biko's death in exchange for a pardon from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the panel that investigates South Africa's apartheid-era human rights violations.
Full disclosure is required for the commission to grant amnesty, which is the panel's most controversial function. Many South Africans consider the amnesty clause to be against the due process of law. Others view it as the only way to get the offenders to reveal the truth.
Facing the past
As a stipulation of the white minority regime, the establishment of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission was agreed upon before the 1994 election that brought Nelson Mandela to power. For two years, the beast of Apartheid has been dissected before a skeptical South African public. Now, the commission, a 17-member panel headed by Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Desmond Tutu, faces its most high-profile case.
Biko's widow says she wants justice; she wants Biko's killers to be tried in a court of law. Challenging the constitutionality of the amnesty provisions, she took the Truth Commission to court last year. However, a unanimous decision of the constitutional court confirmed the amnesty provision.
Steven Biko's death at the hands of the police galvanized the nation and the world. Many nations, including the United States, imposed sanctions on South Africa following Biko's death.
As the charismatic leader of the Black Consciousness movement, Biko urged South Africa's blacks to fight for their empowerment; the eloquent advocate of black self-pride soon emerged as the leader of a generation of young black militants. He preached that blacks' main problem was their attitude of inferiority, and that only they could spearhead a victory over their oppressors, rather than the white liberals who tried to speak for them. Biko's death made him a martyr to the cruelties of minority white rule and racial separation.
Biko's legacy today includes Cabinet ministers, provincial premiers, church leaders, labor officials and others who came of age under his leadership. Most of them later shifted allegiance to the more inclusive, non-racial philosophy of Nelson Mandela's African National Congress.
Justice vs. Political Compromise
Multi-racial South Africa made the transition to democracy on the basis of a compromise between the black and white leaderships, and, in this respect, it differs from post-war Germany or the South American countries that shed their brutal dictatorships. In South Africa, those in power were not militarily defeated and thus retained substantial control during the negotiations leading to the 1994 elections.
The Commission is neither a Nuremberg Court that practices "victor's justice," nor a Latin American-style commission, but a quasi-judicial compromise. Countries in South America have experienced a system of "general amnesty" which amounted, in most cases, to total impunity. This blanket amnesty left a bitter taste in the mouths of the victims -- a feeling of betrayal and denial of justice.
Even Desmond Tutu has admitted that South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission is a "risky and delicate business." It is, however, "the only alternative to Nuremberg on the one hand, and amnesia on the other," he wrote in a letter to the South African Sunday Times.
Often seen as "group therapy," the Commission's public hearings have so far been emotional occasions. The reaction of victims and the public to the revelation of atrocities illustrates how traumatized the South African people are about their past. "Crying rooms" are available for those who become overwrought by the confessional experience.
For some victims, the chance to express their trauma, although painful, constitutes a healing process. Some of Apartheid's victims' families are ready to forgive and forget, but they need to know who to forgive and what to forget. The Commission represents the only place where they can find the truth, they say.
But, in the eyes of others, the Commission is not the healing answer to South Africa's wounds. While members of the former security forces accuse the Commission of staging a witch hunt, others feel the Commission is being too lenient toward perpetrators of human rights abuses.
Reconciliation needs justice, victims and families of victims say, and justice means retribution. They cannot simply forget and expunge their feelings without some form of accounting, some semblance of justice. Many political activists, in particular, have refused to attend the hearings, instead developing a culture of silence. If truth is necessary, they say, half-hearted apologies are not enough to achieve reconciliation.
Some observers see the absence of retribution not only as an ethical problem, but also as a major political problem. They fear that the Commission will legitimize a system of lawlessness in a country where the credibility of the justice system is held in doubt.
The problems are many, and no solution is perfect. South Africans have opted for a compromise that their political leaders hope will buy peace and stability. The ability of the Commission to bring about reconciliation may be in question, but it has at least brought a debate on the past into the floodlights of the present.
Donald Woods, the journalist whose friendship with Stephen Biko was portrayed in the film "Cry Freedom," said that the Truth Commission will "at least supply the vital ingredients of finding out what happened, which, in the final analysis, is the most important thing." But to Stephen Biko's widow, a simple apology from the police officers who left her husband to die on a cold cement floor twenty years ago will never be "justice."
Cyrille Hugon currently serves as a lecturer and francophone cooperation coordinator at the School of Government at the University of the Western Cape in Cape Town, South Africa. http://www.columbia.edu/cu/sipa/PUBS/SLANT/SPRING97/hugon.html