Sunday, May 4, 2008

PEN World Voices: Truth and Reconciliation: A National Reckoning

The panel on Truth and Reconciliation had all the substance and detail I had hoped for from the panel on African Wars – in part, perhaps, because the subject was more specific, and in part because of the efforts of moderator Paul van Zyl. Van Zyl, formerly a key figure in South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and now with the International Center for Transitional Justice, had the expertise necessary to ask pointed questions, the tact to focus discussion when it went off course, and the patience to listen to attacks on South Africa’s truth commission without becoming defensive. Most of these attacks came from Rian Malan, author of My Traitor’s Heart, which was published in 1990 as apartheid was entering its last throes. Malan, a crime report in Johannesburg, had seen the worst of South Africa’s political and nonpolitical violence, and he expected an all-out race war in those days. “I thought the wounds of history were too deep – the chasms of class and history.” The idea of a truth commission to address these wounds of history was a good one, he said, but could have been better executed. The commission succeeded in opening old wounds, he said. Its process was biased and distorted and therefore made white South Africans feel resentful. The “sentimental soft-focus human rights context” set up a Manichaean opposition between fascist whites and progressive, nonracial blacks. (The ANC, he said, didn’t admit whites as members until 1985.) Van Zyl responded to these points, but only after letting Malan have his say. It was the ANC and not the white nationalists, he said, who sued the truth commission to prevent its report from being released – one sign that the commission was hardly pro-ANC. And just as the Nazis and the French Resistance were not on the same moral plane, a distinction had to be drawn between violence committed in defense of injustice and in the attempt to end it. Having worked for several years as an anti-apartheid activist, the dialogue on South Africa was the most compelling to me, but there was much else to appreciate. Lieve Joris, author of The Rebels’ Hour, spoke about the child soldiers of the Congo and the violence that spilled over the border from the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. Alexandra Fuller, the Rhodesian-born author of Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight, asked, “Who cares about truth and reconciliation when there’s no reparations? You’ve got the farm and the Mercedes Benz, and I’m stuck in a scrubby piece of desert with a goat.” (I remembered, from my time in Zimbabwe in 1990, that you could see a straight line, as if drawn by a ruler, between the lush green of the white commercial farms and the dusty blight of the “communal areas” where native Zimbabweans scratched out a living.) During the Q&A a woman asked one of those questions that make me cringe: whether it might be helpful for countries like South Africa and Guatemala to send young people to the US to study democracy before returning to their homelands. Van Zyl noted what many must have been thinking: that America since 2000 is not the ideal laboratory for democratic principles. Francisco Goldman, author of The Art of Political Murder, had already spoken of what happened after many American-educated Guatemalans returned with dreams of reform. The military regime said that reform would open the door to Communism, and the regime’s US government backers agreed. About 70% of these young people, Goldman said, were killed by the regime.

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