Provost's Film Series
April 5, 2005
Amnesty and Ubuntu
For more than four decades South Africa was governed by its white minority, the architects of a policy of "apartheid," or separateness. As South Africa's policies of racial division and domination began to capture international attention, violence increased throughout the nation. Among the shantytowns mobs rebelled against the police, and security forces struck back at the poor townships with fervor. The right-wing Inkatha Freedom Party incited violence, all with the government's knowledge. The military launched a program of chemical warfare against dissidents. When the regime finally collapsed in 1993, the new democratic South Africa had to face its brutal history. Officials of the National Party (the white ruling apartheid regime) claimed to be merely following the government's orders. Like many of the rebels who had killed in the fight for freedom, they now wanted amnesty for their crimes. But cries for justice, even revenge, rang loudly among the survivors of the victims, among both blacks and whites.
South Africa's interim constitution tried to strike a compromise. It declared a "need for understanding but not vengeance, a need for reparation but not retaliation, a need for ubuntu but not victimization." Ubuntu, a word from the Nguni languages of Southern Africa, alludes to the challenge of being humane, restoring justice, and promoting communal interdependence. While negotiating an end to the reign of apartheid, the African National Congress had accepted a plan where amnesty could selectively be granted for various brutal crimes. In 1995, the new South African parliament called for the establishment of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) as part of the National Unity and Reconciliation Act.
The Challenge of the TRC
The chair of the TRC, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, was soon charged with a seemingly impossible task—to divulge the horrors of the past without provoking rage and retaliation. According to the terms of the parliamentary action, amnesty could be offered if individuals frankly and fully disclosed "gross human rights violations," acknowledged the political motivations for such actions, and depicted a proportional relationship between the violations and the political goal. Suspects from the former government and the liberation movement could choose—either apply for amnesty and testify before the TRC or face prosecution.
This compromise did not sit well with everyone. Ntsiki Biko, the wife of famed martyr Stephen Biko, fought unsuccessfully to convince the courts that the TRC denied her the right to prosecute and seek civil redress from her husband's killers. As Bronwyn Leebaw observes, the TRC invoked "a national community that never really existed." In asking victims to set aside their own hopes for redress or reparation in order to support "national reconciliation," the TRC asked citizens to trust in the vision of a better future rather than to return to the ideals of a more stable past. For South Africa, there was not a stable past that could be a foundation. But, as Desmond Tutu observes, for the nation there would be "no future without forgiveness." In the face of all the conflict, the TRC withstood constitutional challenges and began its extraordinary journey.
"A Real Commitment to the Truth"
Winner of the Grand Prize at the Sundance Film Festival in 2000, Long Night's Journey Into Day follows the TRC's heroic and heartwrenching process. The filmmakers, Francis Reid and Deborah Hoffman, first learned of the TRC during a broadcast on National Public Radio. Reid, whose first documentaries had been set in Africa, was immediately drawn to the subject. "There have been a lot of truth commissions around the world in relation to human rights abuses," she notes. "I think this is the first time there has been a real commitment to the truth. A lot of the other ones have been doing a sort of blanket amnesty, for instance, where there is really no individual accountability. . . . You look at the Nuremberg Trials where you have Nazi after Nazi coming up and not accepting blame for what they did. Suddenly, in South Africa, you have people coming forward and saying, 'I did these things.'"
As Dennis Lim writes in the Village Voice, the documentary is "sparse, direct and devastatingly effective," largely because it "puts fuzzy, big word concepts like absolution and redemption into an agonizingly vivid context." For all of their enthusiasm for the heroic ambitions of the TRC, the filmmakers do not hesitate to show that the quest for truth can be as devastating as it is healing. There is plenty of sorrow for those whose naiveté and illusions are shattered. For many, the anguish of revisiting their deep tragedies virtually outweighed any gains from exposing the truth. Some mental health professionals criticized the TRC for opening old wounds without providing adequate opportunities for ongoing psychological care. Some of the victims who came forward to tell their stories expected the government to compensate them for past sufferings. Indeed, the early optimism in the TRC that the nation might be able to pay substantial reparations did not last. Furthermore, only a small percentage of participants in the hearings truly believed that the process would lead quickly to reconciliation. Eighty percent of those applying for amnesty were black, a sure indication that many of the white were reluctant to tell the truth or trust the TRC. Despite these disappointments, many South Africans still insist that the TRC was necessary if the nation had any chance of confronting its tragic past. Without avoiding the controversies about the TRC, the documentary does underscore that the TRC must be seen from a long historical perspective. It may not fully address the raw, contentious emotions of the hour, but it was the first step in a long process of healing.
Forgiveness and Pain
By focusing on four stories, the documentary reveals that forgiveness requires extraordinary gestures of self-denial and reconciliation. One focal point in this search is the story of Amy Biehl, a young, white, Fulbright scholar and anti-apartheid activist from the United States who is stabbed to death by four black South African men. To honor their daughter's hopes for South Africa, Biehl's parents travel to testify before the TRC, insisting that they will not object to amnesty for their daughter's killers. Moreover, they meet with the family of one of the murderers, trying to understand more of the pain of South Africa's dispossessed.
That pain comes from so many different corners in this film. A Caucasian police officer strives to reconcile with the angry wife of a black activist that he killed more than a decade earlier. Several mothers, long fed lies and denials by the government, finally learn the truth about how their sons were framed and killed by a police conspiracy. The remorse of black rebel over killing civilians in a blast at a bar does not fully convince the relatives of the victims. The filmmakers capture these conversations, as all parties try to pursue forgiveness even in the midst of great sorrow and fear.