Truth and Reconciliation in South Africa
That's why it was such an honor for me to have the chance to interview Mary Burton, a member of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), which was headed by Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu from 1995 to 1998. The Commission's duties were to carry out Tutu's philosophy: "without forgiveness there is no future, but without confession there can be no forgiveness." The Commission heard the horrific stories of brutality and injustice from thousands of victims. But they also heard apartheid offenders finally admit the painful truth and confess their guilt.
Abeja, Shawn and I met Mary at her home in Cape Town on only our second day here on the African continent. We were pleasantly surprised to be greeted by someone sympathetic to our jetlag and culture shock. Mary herself was born in Buenos Aires, Argentina (where we just came from!) and was raised in Brazil. She had met a South African sweetheart on a vacation in Europe and moved here after their wedding in 1961.
"At first it was all so new and strange to me, I didn't know how to react," remembers Mary. "I decided to wait and watch and be silent for a little while to gain a better understanding of all the forces involved. But after a short while I just couldn't sit back any longer." She started bringing huge vats of soup out to the poorest settlements to help feed some of the many who couldn't afford even the barest necessities. Over time, it became clear that this was not enough. She wanted to do something more -- something that would actually bring about change, not just temporarily alleviate some hunger.
That's when she became involved in the Black Sash, a group of mostly middle class white women that fought for the abolition of apartheid. This involvement put her and her family in a difficult position. The government and most of the white South Africans were resentful of the Black Sash and felt threatened by them. Their mail was opened and their phones were tapped. Things would at times become tense even with their neighbors and co-workers. To add to their isolation, some South African blacks also pushed aside the work of the Black Sash members. In the 1970s there was a growing sense of black consciousness and pride and many of the black leaders believed that it didn't matter what the white population did or didn't do. For there to be an end to apartheid, these leaders felt that blacks had to unite and bring about that end themselves.
Despite this resistance from both sides, the Black Sash actively fought on and their tireless commitment to their beliefs made them successful in many ways. Since they were middle class white women, their presence at demonstrations often acted as a buffer. Police officers had a hard time unleashing general attacks of violence against crowds of protesters that included white women as well as the blacks who they were so prejudiced against. These women could also gain more political leverage, and international attention, due to their status.
After a long, hard, struggle that gained more and more international exposure, apartheid was abolished in 1994 and Nelson Mandela was elected president. (See our Multimedia and Special Guests Section to learn all about Mandela.) At that time, Mary was fortunate to be chosen as one of just 17 South Africans to sit on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). There were thousands of applicants and those that made it to the final rounds were interviewed on national television. Any South African was allowed to voice reservations about any of the applicants.
The hearings of the TRC were a very emotional and painful process for the entire country. A lot of wounds were opened, but it was also an extremely cathartic experience for so many people. Just the acts of finally being heard, finally admitting, finally revealing and releasing the truth started the long, difficult healing process. Hearing just some of the horrible confessions that came out during the trials, I couldn't believe Mary had the strength to endure the pain of hearing thousands. At first, the commission did not realize what a long process it would be. It took 2 1/2 years before they were able to hand over their report to President Mandela, and there are still thousands of cases they haven't heard.
What an inspiration Mary is to all of us! She was an outsider, unaware of the systems that govern and control society, yet instead of just accepting what she knew and felt to be wrong, she actively sought a way to bring change. Now, as South Africa struggles through this difficult transition period, she is still looking for ways to facilitate that change. She came up with the idea of a Register of Reconciliation, a way for anyone to share their feelings about the transition and share their stories, for all those that never could be heard by the TRC. Check it out on the Register of Reconciliation website!
Mary Burton Home | The Truth and Reconcilation Commission
Multimedia and Special Guests
Home | Search | Teacher Zone | Odyssey Info