Talking Cure?

Johannesburg, not Nuremberg: Bill Moyers with Archbishop Desmond Tutu in Facing the Truth. Photo: Karina Turko

Albie Sachs, a white Jewish lawyer who spent most of his adult life fighting apartheid in South Africa – in courtrooms on behalf of black clients, in prison in Johannesburg for sedition, and in exile in Mozambique, where a car-bombing cost him his right arm – doesn’t show up until the second hour of Facing the Truth With Bill Moyers (Tuesday, March 30; 9 to 11 p.m.; Channel 13). In the new South Africa of Nelson Mandela, Albie Sachs is now a judge of the Constitutional Court. To Moyers, he speaks of returning after a quarter of a century, of “freedom and transformation,” of “roses and lilies growing out of my arm.” He also recalls what it was like, in solitary confinement, to discover the nearby existence of a fellow prisoner. From separate cells, they whistled to one another. And what they whistled was a passage from a Dvorak symphony: “Going Home.” On camera, with something like exuberance, Sachs whistles.

This is one of many amazing moments in Facing the Truth. Moyers and producer-director Gail Pellet have gone to Jo’burg to examine the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. They’ve had access to two years of public hearings and the testimony of 21,000 witnesses, most of which was broadcast live on state-run television, as well as archival footage that goes back to 1960. We see what Sachs looked like as a young man, when he was arguing civil-rights cases. We also see the aftermath of the car bomb in Maputo. Nevertheless, here is the man, like a cheerful ghost, whistling.

And yet the very Constitutional Court on which Sachs sits has rejected an application by the family of Steve Biko challenging the authority of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to grant amnesty to the state security cops who beat Biko to death in an interrogation cell in 1977. Moyers also talks to Biko’s son, who seeks more than an apology; he wants retribution. And we meet those cops too. In Biko’s case, they pretend to be mystified by such an “accident,” even in the face of a gruesome autopsy. In other cases, less notorious, they claim rather that the orders came from above, that they’d believed at the time they “were doing the right thing,” that they’d been trained to think “the blacks were communists,” and that in retrospect they’re sorry.

Nor are these crimes against humanity entirely white-on-black. While Facing the Truth alludes only briefly to the murder of suspected informers by the revolutionary army of the African National Congress, to the infamous “necklace” of burning tires, it dwells at length on the 1993 machine-gunning of Anglican parishioners in their Sunday-morning house of worship by APLA, the military wing of the Pan-African Congress. The husband who saw his wife killed in that attack makes up his mind to be a lot more Christian than most of us could manage. But the weight of the evidence, the imbalance of history itself, is racist. During apartheid, a white Christian fascist minority specialized in the abduction, defenestration, and incineration of troublemakers among the black majority; in torture, rape, and assassination; in electric shock with telephone wires and suffocation by plastic bag. After which, we had every right to expect a bloodbath. Instead, we got something remarkable.

There has never before been anything quite like the Truth and Reconciliation Commission – not a show trial, not a revolutionary tribunal, not a judgment at Nuremberg, not even a Czech “lustration,” but a public inquiry into the atrocities of the past that intends to purge the poison from the system. If the victims or their families could confront their tormentors, if the accused admitted and repented of their crimes, and demonstrated that those crimes were committed in the name of government, if the unspeakable was at last spoken in the light of day, then maybe the new nation might at least forgive, if not forget, and get on with the business of healing. “We needed to look the beast in the eye,” explains Archbishop Desmond Tutu, “so that the past wouldn’t hold us hostage any more.”

Such a project seems almost utopian, even whimsical. Already, the Nigerian playwright and Nobel Prize winner Wole Soyinka has published a book, The Burden of Memory, The Muse of Forgiveness (Oxford), casting passionate doubt on the whole idea of confession and absolution as strategies of social healing. Since the 13 percent white minority, as Facing the Truth points out, still owns four fifths of the farmland, 90 percent of the capital, and 95 percent of the industry, does it really need forgiveness too? And those white South African students at the University of Stellenbosch to whom Moyers introduces us are not exactly a comfort. Most seem weary of hearing so much bad news. Only one seems aware that the benefits he has enjoyed for most of his life come with “a moral blame.” Another actually complains about affirmative action for blacks.

Words like denial come to mind. But so do words like collective responsibility and collective guilt. How much good are they to the squatters’ camps and shantytowns? Can you cash them at a bank, trade them for a job, or buy back your loved ones? Maybe only art is generous enough to hold together, in simultaneous consciousness, the remembrance of terror and the willingness to forgo revenge. Certainly we are most dazzled by those interludes in Facing the Truth when the actual words of actual victims are turned into theater and song.

But this sort of television is also an art, more expansive and compelling than any article or book. One of the all-news cable channels should have broadcast these hearings, and this ambiguity, live. Once again we have reason to be grateful to Moyers, who suggests that however wishful it may be, some ingenious device like a Truth and Reconciliation Commission is obviously required to repair a century so addicted to state violence and reciprocal terrorism that they amount to brain-smoking forms of crack – to a tour of hell from which we get back picture postcards of death camps and Pol Pot; of secret police and Shining Path; of pink-cheeked bombers of federal buildings and abortion clinics and skywriting kamikazes of Kingdom Come; of Belfast, Beirut, Jakarta, and Jerusalem.

Talking Cure?