The South African role model

Boraine on truth and reconciliation
Prof. Alexander Boraine, President, International Centre for Transitional Justice and former Deputy Chairperson, Truth & Reconciliation Commission, South Africa was in Sri Lanka to deliver the third Neelan Tiruchelvam Memorial Lecture on July 29. During his visit Prof. Boraine also addressed a programme for Judges of the Magistrate Courts, High Courts and District Courts on 'The contribution of the Judiciary in upholding human rights in Sri Lanka'.

Prof. Alex Boraine, who had been president of the Methodist Church of South Africa and an elected Member of Parliament for the Progressive Party, co-founded the Institute for a Democratic Alternative for South Africa (IDASA) in 1986 and was the founder of 'Justice in Transition' in 1994. He was appointed Deputy Chairperson of the Truth & Reconciliation Commission (TRC) by President Nelson Mandela, serving under Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Since TRC completed its work in 1998, he has travelled to many countries at the invitation of governments and NGOs to share the South African Experience.

Addressing Sri Lankan audiences, Prof. Boraine spoke on 'Truth and Reconciliation in Times of Conflict: the South African Model'.

Here are some excerpts of his address at the Neelan Tiruchelvam Memorial Lecture:

The best and most fitting way to remember Neelan Tiruchelvam and to honour his memory is to reject violence, embrace dialogue, negotiations and peace so that he and others will not have lived in vain.

It is impossible to understand and appreciate the search for truth and reconciliation in South Africa unless we see it in historical context. For decades, the dominant theme in social and political life was the politics of oppression and the politics of resistance. After years of escalating violence, this finally gave way to the politics of negotiation. The logic of war was replaced by the logic of peace.

After 300 years of colonialism and racism, there were many perpetrators and there were many victims. There is an ever-growing body of literature dealing with society in transition from an authoritarian or dictatorial regime to a new form of democratic government. Countries in transition share a number of similarities. Briefly, these are:

A shift from totalitarianism to a form of democracy

A legacy of oppression and serious violations of human rights

A fragile government and a precarious unity

A commitment to the attainment of a culture of human rights and a respect for the rule of law

A determination to make it impossible for past violations to be repeated.

Questions confronting these newly emerging democracies, including South Africa, include the following:

How do they deal with past violations of human rights? How do they deal with leaders and other individuals responsible for disappearances, death squads and psychological and physical torture? Where must the line be drawn between those who gave orders and those who carried them out or both? How do they deal with the fact that some perpetrators may remain part of the new government or security forces or hold important positions in public life? Does this hold the new democracy at risk?

The arguments advanced to take the nations past seriously are moral, psychological and political. The political argument is summed up in the famous statement by George Santanyana, "Those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it". Another side to this is highlighted by Prof. Bruce Ackerman of Yale Law School, who strongly criticised those who "squander moral capital in an ineffective effort to right past wrongs - creating martyrs and fostering political alienation rather than contributing to a genuine sense of vindication". Timothy Garton Ashe reminds us in his book, The File, that there is a defensible position, which calls for moving on into the new future and not allowing the past to destroy or inhibit the new democracy.

Right and moral
There were those in the leadership in the new South Africa who sided with those who believed that some serious accounting for the past is not only right and moral but is also wise in terms of developing a stable and peaceful future. Our argument can be summed up as follows: To ignore the past is to perpetuate myth and error - It is to build a future on lies and half truths. Finally a conscious act of memory frees us from being paralyzed by the past.

I want to refer briefly to what I describe as favourable conditions which contributed to the establishment of and the work of the TRC.

The public call and support for the Commission was made by the African National Congress, which was the major opposition and which ultimately won the first ever democratic election in South Africa.

The role of Nelson Mandela - He is the embodiment of truth and reconciliation in his own life and person. From the day of his release , he has focussed on the need to come to terms with the past, but always with a readiness to forgive and to move on.

A third favourable condition was that the Commission was building on the successful political negotiations which had led to peaceful elections and the appointment of a democratic government.

A fourth feature was the existence of a very strong civil society.

A further factor which assisted the Commission was the interest of the international community in its initiative. Not only were many governments, institutions, organizations and individuals willing to offer advice, but several governments responded to our request for assistance, with direct financial contributions to the President's Fund set up to help victims with reparation and rehabilitation.

A final factor which I think assisted the Commission enormously was the Archbishop Desmond Tutu. I don't think the commission could have survived without the presence and leadership of Desmond Tutu.

There are six unique features which distinguish the South African model from any other truth commission that has taken place anywhere in the world and I would like to briefly outline some of these.

A distinctive feature was the democratic process that was followed throughout. The role of civil society, the churches, opposition parties and the government in drawing up the act ensured maximum participation.

Secondly, the proceedings of the TRC, unlike the Argentinean, Chilean and the Salvodorian commissions, or any others, were not held behind closed doors, but were open to the public. This resulted in maximum transparency as well as remarkable participation by many. On the whole, the media were very cooperative and the commission was able to reach an agreement on guidelines for the presence of cameras at hearings. Overall, these guidelines met the criteria for good media coverage, but at the same time ensured dignity and sensitivity.

A third unique feature was the powers granted to it by the Act. These included search and seizure as well as subpoena powers.

A fourth unique feature was the extensive mandate, which the Commission chose to adopt. Instead of confining itself to hearing individual victims of human rights violations and perpetrators applying for amnesty, the Commission decided to hold special hearings and institutional hearings, because of apartheid's impact on every area of life.

A fifth point to stress is that after considerable discussion, it was decided that the Commission would make public the names of the perpetrators. The main point was that we gave people who were named an opportunity to make their own response.

The most unique feature of the South African Commission was undoubtedly the inclusion of conditional amnesty. It rose directly from the South African context where the military and security forces remained very powerful and threatened to make a peaceful election impossible.

It is important to stress that limited amnesty under stringent conditions is very different from general amnesty, which encourages amnesia and impunity. In South Africa amnesty was made possible in exchange for truth and there were certain very clear demands. There were 8000 perpetrators who applied for amnesty and it is interesting to note that of these, a very small percentage actually received amnesty. In its determination to avoid impunity, the Commission in its recommendations to the government, emphasised the need for accountability.

The search for truth
Despite the understandable reservation regarding the search for truth, it is a fact that a commitment to history involves a search for an objective truth. The Commission therefore unapologetically set out to try to reach a public and official acknowledgement of what happened during the apartheid era. If only to counter the distorted and partial recording of history in South Africa, it was necessary that there should be an accurate record of the period under review.

In its final report, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission distinguishes between four kinds of truth. The first is objective or factual or forensic truth. The Act which governed the work of the TRC, required it to 'Prepare a comprehensive report which sets out its activities and findings based on factual and objective information and evidence collected or received by it or placed at its disposal'.

The second kind of truth is personal or narrative truth. Through the telling of their own stories, both victims and perpetrators have given meaning to their multi-layered experiences of the South African story. Through the media these personal truths have been communicated to the broader public. Oral tradition has been a central feature of the Commission's process. Explicit in the Act is an affirmation of the healing potential of truth-telling. One of the objectives of the TRC was to "restore the human and civil dignity of victims by granting them an opportunity to relate their own accounts of the violations of which they were the victims".

It is important to underline that the stories we listened to didn't come as 'arguments' or claims as if in a court of law. They were often heart-wrenching, conveying unique insights into the pain of our past.

The third kind of truth is social or 'dialogical' truth. Albie Sachs, even before the Commission began its work, talked about 'microscopic truth' and 'dialogical truth': "The first is factual and verifiable and can be documented and proved. Dialogical truth, on the other hand, is social truth, truth of experience that is established through interation, discussion and debate."

People from all walks of life were involved in the TRC process. What I am emphasising here is that almost as important as the process establishing truth was the process of acquiring it. The process of dialogue involved transparency, democracy, and participation as the basis of affirming human dignity and integrity.

Finally, the fourth kind of truth is healing and restorative truth. The Act required the TRC to look back to the past and to look to the future. The truth which the Commission was required to establish had to contribute to the reparation of the damage inflicted in the past and to the prevention of it ever happening again in the future.

In summary, one of the major advantages of a truth commission committed to discovering the truth is that it involves what could be termed inclusive truth-telling. The TRC had a specific and limited mandate, but its attempt to restore the moral order must be seen in the context of social and economic transformation. It was when listening to ordinary people relating their experiences under apartheid that one was able to understand the magnitude and horror of a system which damaged and destroyed so many over so long a period. It also reminded the Commission forcibly of the maldistribution of assets and the legacy of oppression, which makes transformation so difficult. Therefore the work of the Commission was not a one-off event, a kind of cure-all. The process has only started and has to continue, and the public and the private sectors have to accept leadership in this regard. In particular, those who benefited from the long years of discrimination and inequality have a particular responsibility.

A central part of the Commission's work was to establish a policy and set off recommendations for reparation, which the State wanted to implement.

The Commission had no budget, so we were not in a position to pay reparations to any of the victims.

I have outlined the South African model and of course it is impossible to impose this model on any other country. Nevertheless it may be possible for comparative models, including the South African experience, to be of assistance to those countries which wish to deal with a conflictive past, to build an enduring peace and establish a human rights culture.

To do this requires a comprehensive strategy, a holistic approach which will include accountability, truth, reconciliation, institutional reform and reparation. It's a difficult and challenging process, but essential, if the logic of war is to be replaced with the logic of peace.

A member of the Royal Group of '63 takes a stroll down memory lane
Royal recollections
By Oh Gee
The members of the sixty-three group are celebrating their fiftieth birthdays. We are reputed for looking for any excuse to 'party'.

When the Hon. Secretary of the Group, Gemba (very respectfully known as Kumar Mayadunne in the world outside ours), asked me to contribute my unforgettable memories of Royal College, I did not know where to begin. The entire period of my life, 1957 to 1962 at the then Royal Primary School, and then from 1963 to 1970 at Royal College proper was one long experience that I will never forget. It was like a dream with the occasional nightmare.

My fellow members of the 63 Group of Royal College are the first outsiders I came to know. Considering how mischievous and naughty we were then, I think we have done remarkably well to be what we are today. Today we are established professionals and career people in widely diverse areas of the Sri Lankan society. We have faithfully kept in touch and continued our friendship of nearly four decades.

My memories of Royal Primary mainly centre around Headmasters Mr. Dissa Bandaranayake and later Mr. H.D. Sugathapala, and our masters, the tough disciplinarians like Messrs. H.P. Jayawardena (known as 'horse power' due to his initials) Pingamage, William, Bannaheka and John Silva. While Mr. Bannaheka was known as 'Hapaya', (he used to chew betel) Mr. John Silva was known as 'Suruttuwa' (because of his fondness for suruttu).

'Ruperty' or Mr. Rupasingha was our class master in Form 1 and taught us art. I remember once he took us to the shade of the well-known landmark of Royal, the 'Siyambala' tree and asked us to paint the landscape. After giving us these instructions he left saying that he would be back soon. The shade and gentle wind was so comforting that I dozed off. I hate to be reminded of what happened after I was rudely awakened by Ruperty's stentorian voice.

I had another memorable experience while in Form 2. Mr. Wickramasena or 'Wicky' as we called him appointed me as the monitor. I maintained strict discipline as Wicky said that he would have my hide if there was any misbehaviour in class. Naturally this did not meet with the approval of the mischievous lot in class. Led by Gemba, they signed a petition and handed it over to Wicky insisting on my removal as monitor. The petition was signed by most students in the class and was the first ever such document known in my life though it is a common issue today. 'Meka salaka balanna mama komisamak pathkarannam' (I will appoint a commission to consider your request), Wicky said. Perhaps that was the origin of that utterence.

Geometry, Algebra and Arithmetic became more and more complicated in Form Three. We were preparing for the Junior School Certificate (JSC) Examination at Grade 8 level under the guidance of Mr. A.N. Perera. This was the time when we became interested in the glamour of playing rugger. Freda (Dr. Fred Perera) and Maiyya (Dr. Maithri Gunasekera) took to rugger. We did play 'touch rugger' during the lunch interval. However, one match went a little too far and left me with painful memories. I was in possession of the ball and trying to make a break when I heard Freda who was on the opposite side say, 'kill him'. The next moment he was on me like a ton of bricks. I was flat on the ground and lost the ball. I tried to get up but could not. There was a severe pain in my left hip. After the usual medical investigations I was advised to rest for two weeks.

In 1966 we graduated to the 4th Form and the middle school. The GCE Ordinary Level exam, the first ever-serious public exam we faced was looming up next year and we had to be prepared. Some of us had graduated to long trousers. It was from this hard point that we came to direct contact with Mr. E.C. Gunasekera (Kataya) and Cos Dias. While Kataya was the Master-in-Charge of discipline, Cos Dias was the Vice Principal. Cos Dias was so named as he taught Advanced Maths dealing with cos, sin and beta. Cos Dias always used to tour the corridors after intervals and shooed the boys into their respective classrooms. Any student found 'loafing' was doomed. Cos Dias carried a cane. He pulled the cane out from his waist like a medieval warrior pulling out his sword from the scabbard and thrashed the unsuspecting student.

Cos Dias also had a method of caning that was unique to him. He called it the "Six on the back". The candidate for this type of punishment had to place the palms of his outstretched arms on the wall and have his bum protruding well away from his upper body. You could imagine what the feeling is like when the cane makes contact with the fleshiest part of the body, not once, not twice, but six times. Oh yes, I had that experience. I could not sit on that chair in the classroom for half a day!!

The following three years, till late 1969 were very eventful. It would run to hundreds of pages if I were to write all my memories at Royal College. Some of the highlights briefly:

o The Royal Thomian of 1969, which went down in the history of the series as one of the best victories by Royal in which two of my classmates, Sunimal Yapa (now a successful entrepreneur in Canada) and Shantha Upali Samarage (Sam, now a VOG in London) played.

o How we 'scooted' from the hostel in the night by removing one of the bars of the window in the common room.

o How we thought what was a dead body (and ran for our dear lives) turned out to be a drunk, very much alive, but fast asleep on Galle Road, one such night.

o How we used to scoot early morning and drink the milk delivered to residences in the neighbourhood.

o How we changed house numbers and names of occupants on such outings so that the postman was confused the following morning.

o How fifteen of us used to visit the Maliban Creme House during 1st eleven cricket matches, have milk shakes and at least five slip away without paying during the commotion the others created.

o How I used to go by bicycle to SBC, Bishops and Ladies during the lunch interval with certain mates who would prefer to remain anonymous, to 'cap' girls and then furiously pedal to get back to class on time.

o How Kota Silva (Mr. G.W.D.De Silva), if he was on the floor, used to climb back on the master's platform in the centre of the classroom to slap us. He was very short.

o How we used to align and tie three pens together, and write hundred lines as a punishment after school, in one third of the time otherwise taken.

o How we excelled in rugby during the late '60s. Three of my classmates played rugger during school days, and later for All Ceylon. They are Freda in the pack with his weight, Maiyya excelling in the line-out with his height and Butter because he was like butter, so slippery! (C. Jagath Fernando, MD., Keells Holdings). It is uncanny how both Freda and Maiyya eventually became surgeons.

o How fifty of us cleared a thorny jungle area full of snakes during one August vacation, at Mr. R.I.T. Alles's request, so that he could start the construction of the school now known as D.S. Senanayake Maha Vidyalaya.

o And I will never forget those who guided us during the latter years at Royal College, Messrs. Samararatna (known as Pol Tokka) Earnest Amarasekera (Fitness Fanatic and Cadet Master known as Horlicks), R.I.T. Alles (Rita), Sivapathasundaram (Siva), Thavaneetharajah (Thavam), Jayasekera, Wariyapola (Polla - master-in-charge of swimming), Upali Attanayake (who later became a popular dramatist/actor), Dissanayake (Gamaya), P. Nonis (I would not like to state his nickname here. Some ingenious fellow had coined it from his real name, but back to front) Viji (Mr. Vijitha Weerasingha who maintained a low profile then) and many more. Among the lady teachers Mrs. Weerabaddana and later in the senior classes Mrs. Rajapakse were popular among us. Thank you, masters and teachers of Royal during my time, for all your efforts to make us "good men". We are what we are today due to all your untiring efforts of then. I am sure you can be proud of us.

I could go on. Oh, yes, I could go on and on and on....!! Such are the memories of our schooldays at Royal. And they never become stale. They remain so fresh and enjoyable even if they are repeated over and over again, and we laugh at these memories as if we heard them the first time. And when someone starts to say, "Machang, umbalata mathakada..." ("Do you remember the time when...") it strengthens the bond between us.

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