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Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Truth and Reconciliation in South Africa

Yesterday I reviewed THE SECRET KEEPER by Paul Harris, a book I really loved. Today I'm glad to welcome Paul to my blog. Recently I've heard around the blogosphere that some readers skip over author guest posts but I do hope that you will take the time to read what Paul has to say. I found it fascinating and I hope you will too.

And now, Paul Harris.
In writing The Secret Keeper, I wanted to explore my own experiences of covering the end of the war in Sierra Leone. But, curiously, I also wanted to re-examine issues left over from another country completely. In The Secret Keeper I try and look at the age old conundrum of "the greater good". Is it right to sacrifice justice for one individual for the sake of a larger community? It is a tough question and very relevant to Sierra Leone. But, for me, the question really was about my experiences living in South Africa and covering an organization called the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC).

I spent two years living in Cape Town working for the Associated Press. Part of my beat was reporting on the work of the TRC, which was a panel set up to examine apartheid-era crimes committed by all sides in the struggle against white rule. It was headed by Archbishop Desmond Tutu, a wonderful man who I can safely say fits the definition of "good" or "holy" more than any other person I have ever met. The TRC spent most of its time uncovering things like torture and murder by apartheid police and soldiers. But it also also looked at bombings and killings carried out by the black liberation movements.

The main aim of the TRC was simple: to search for reconciliation by simply telling the truth. As part of that mission amnesty was offered to anyone who had committed a crime but who could prove that a) they were telling the full truth and b) they committed the crime for political, not personal, reasons. Thus if you were a white policeman who had killed a black activist, as long as you fully detailed how you did it and proved you had acted politically, you would receive a full amnesty. Likewise, a black liberation fighter who had perhaps blown up a bar popular with police could also walk free if he too spoke truthfully about it and proved his political motivations. Not surprisingly this amnesty process produced often unbelievably tragic and gut-wrenching scenes. Relatives of the tortured and the dead had to endure listening to their tormentors and killers detailing exactly what they had done. And, often, walking away free.

Was this justice? For many individuals it cannot have felt that way. People were literally getting away with murder, and not by covering their tracks, but by fully confessing their crimes. It was harrowing to watch. But at the same time it was an astonishingly brave thing to do for the country as a whole. Something that was deeply rooted in African village traditions of putting the community's good ahead of the interests of getting justice for any one individual. As a society South Africa had tottered on the brink of a race war in the early 1990s. But the TRC became a vital part of the process of national healing. It led the way forward in moving the country on from its dreadful past and into an uncertain but democratic and peaceful future. It was an awesome thing to see, even as it raised for me still unanswered questions of whether it was the "right" thing to do. In the West we see things often through such an individualistic lens. What would you do if it was your relative who had been murdered and the killer walked free?

It feels impossible to say. But South Africa as a country, in the shape of the TRC, tackled the issue head on. Looking back, I guess it depends on what your definition of "right" is. But we are taught to think a little more clearly than that. That some things, especially around murder and torture, are always right and some are always wrong. But the TRC showed me that the real meaning of justice can be more complicated. Nothing is ever as easy as being simply right or wrong. The TRC decided that sometimes letting a killer walk free can be the right thing to do.
Thank you, Paul, for being here. Your book was excellent and I wish you much success with it. And thank you to all my readers who stopped by today; I hope you enjoyed hearing from Paul as much as I did. That blurred line between right and wrong is a central theme of THE SECRET KEEPER - if you found this guest post interesting then you will surely enjoy the book.

9 comments:

bermudaonion said...

This was a great guest post - it really made me think.

Heather J. said...

bermudaonion - Me as well. Thanks for taking the time to read it.

avisannschild said...

Wow, what an amazing thing to do. I'm still unsure as to whether I think it was "right," but like Kathy said, this post certainly made me think. Thank you, Paul and Heather!

Literary Feline said...

I had a chance to read a few reports from the TRC awhile ago. Some can be found online for those interested (I wish I could remember the link to share with you). This really is a great guest post. And as others say, it makes you think. I don't know how I feel about it either when it gets right down to it, but I do see the benefits of it even though it may not always seem fair, you know?

I sometimes wonder if the TRC process or something similar would work between countries, those that have high animosity towards each other and can't seem to move forward because they are so focused on past wrongs. Perhaps something like this would allow them to move forward. Idealistic, I know. :-)

Heather J. said...

avisannschild - Thanks for taking the time to read, and to think about it.

Literary Feline - I thought some of the same things about other "trouble spots" in the world today, but I can't see anyone agreeing to go along with it. Of course, they somehow got the people of South Africa to go along with the TRC so it COULD work ... Thanks for reading and commenting.

violetcrush said...

I dont' skip guest posts, usually. I have enjoyed all the guest posts and interviews by this author so far.This one is no exception. I don't have anything intelligent to comment on this post other than saying I enjoyed it :)
Thanks for featuring him on your blog today.

Heather J. said...

Thanks violetcrush - glad to know you were here. :)

Serena said...

wow, what a powerful guest post about how reality informed his decision to write this fictional work about Sierra Leone.

Thanks for sharing this story with us, Paul, and for allowing Heather to host you.

Heather J. said...

Serena - Thanks for coming by. I was very interested in what Paul had to say, and I'm glad you were as well.

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