Truth & Reconciliation – Doris M Schoenhoff – South Africa 1996

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission, headed by Archbishop Desmond Tutu, began a four-day hearing in Durban, South Africa on May 7, 1996. Perpetrators and victims spoke about the suffering, torture, and murder under apartheid.  What follows are brief excerpts from the diary I kept during my year at what is now the University of KwaZulu-Natal.

The hearings were held at the Durban Jewish Center. Desmond Tutu remarked that this was unintentionally appropriate since the Jewish people had suffered so much and had been trying to heal from the Holocaust for 50 years. There were bomb threats and other expectations of violence but I felt if people had the courage to come and tell their stories, I must have the courage to come and listen.

The horror stories that unfolded were difficult to listen to. One woman, Mrs. Helen Kearney, was working in a bar one night when a bomb exploded. The only thing that saved her was that she was in the process of walking from one room to the next and was beneath reinforced steel and brick work. When she turned around, she spoke of seeing half a head, large splinters of glass sticking out of bodies, human flesh and blood all over the walls, and she smelled burning skin and death. The bomb was planted by a man named Robert McBride, subsequently elected to the South African parliament and appointed Deputy Director of Foreign Affairs. Mrs. Kearney only asked help for the surviving victims and that men like McBride “who have no godliness” not be able to hold public office.

There was an 11-year-old child at the hearings, Phoenix Meyer, who was a year old when her parents were killed. Her mother, Jacqui, was white and her father was black. Jacqui’s mother said, “I want our society to redevelop the moral attitude that to kill another human being is a totally and absolutely unacceptable sin. I want our country to be a place that never again allows people to damage the lives of others — especially not because of their color or because of their living belief in justice and goodness—which is ultimately why Jacqui was killed.”

There were tales of prisoners being pushed out of prison windows to their deaths. Tales of men whose genitals were hooked up to electrical wires and men who had to get their drinking water from the flush toilet. Tales of torture. Tales of murder. Tales of fear. Desmond Tutu said that the whole country had been “embraced by evil” under apartheid.

After the attack on the U.S. Capitol—6 January 2021—I was reflecting, like many Americans, on how fragile a democracy really is and how moral clarity can be lost. Now I’m finding wisdom in those African voices I heard so long ago and my hope is for my own country to find truth and reconciliation.

Doris M Schoenhoff – Fulbright to South Africa 1996

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