Crimes of the past

Interview with White ANC activist Albie Sachs

By Michael Enright (interviewer) | 1994-07-01 12:00:00

Who should be punished for the crimes of the past? If anyone has given that question thought, it's Albie Sachs. Six years ago he was a white South African living in exile, a member of the ANC, and a known enemy of the apartheid regime. One day he opened the door of his car, not knowing that the South African security agents had found it and planted a bomb inside. The explosion blew his right arm off and left him burned and partially blind. He survived, returned to South Africa, and now is senior policy adviser to Nelson Mandela. CBC radio's As It Happens kindly allowed us to publish this edited transcript of their interview with Mr. Sachs, whom they reached in Cape Town.

Michael Enright: Mr. Sachs, what happens to state terrorists who tortured and killed in the name of apartheid?

Albie Sachs: Something has to be done about the past. You can't just bury it. The question is, what to do about it? Our approach is, we don't forget the past but we don't live in it. We don't torture ourselves with the memories, and we don't persecute those responsible. If we revive memories, it's because we want misinformation to be cleared away so that our memory becomes stable and honest. Second, we want to heal, compensate victims, support children who lost their parents in the torture chambers, and so on. On a case-by-case basis, parliament will grant amnesty for politically motivated crimes of the past. That includes people who fought against apartheid and people who committed crimes defending apartheid. A record will be kept for historians and we will know what happened. It may even be possible to maintain anonymity, because we want these people to come forward to tell their stories. If the threat of humiliation prevents them from opening up, we get less truth, rather than more.

Enright: But is it not likely that many of these oppressors in the police are in the same position tonight as they were at the height of the oppression?

Sachs: Well, they certainly have to be prevented from carrying on such activities. Jobs and pensions are guaranteed, though people can be transferred to other posts where they're not in charge and not capable of forming hit squads. We are not doing this to be nice. We're doing it to end the fighting. Everybody, however rascally they may have been in the past, can feel that there is a possibility for them in the new South Africa.

Behind the torturers who got blood on their hands often stand politicians who gave the orders, condoned, and covered up everything that was done. They include people high in government who lately have been playing a positive role and whom we want to encourage; many of them are now bringing in their supporters. We destabilize the process if we go for them. It would be unjust to penalize the actual torturers and allow those who ordered them to do those things to go scot free. Yet if we went for everyone there would be hardly anyone left. Apartheid wasn't just a few villains abusing their positions. It involved virtually the whole state apparatus in every area of government. We're trying to transform government rather than go for individuals. It's not just me. I've got a reputation for being soft and kind, but I'm articulating the sentiments of Nelson Mandela and other top leaders who were imprisoned for years. We want reconciliation and disclosure, not vengeance.

Enright: You are calling for reconciliation at the very time when people in the Balkans are talking about bringing war criminals to the bar of justice.

Sachs: We had a conference here about two months ago for people from Eastern Europe and Latin America advising us on their varied experiences. The Argentine position took a hard line. They actually sent the former president and military rulers to jail, but after an army mutiny they had to release them. In Chile they had a softer approach-a commission of truth and reconciliation, which got to the bottom of what happened. It named victims but not the torturers. This softer approach seemed to produce better results. I favor the Chilean approach, which emphasizes healing the wounds of the victims and encouraging those who are guilty of villainous conduct to see themselves as citizens of the new society.

Enright: At the human level, though, Mr. Sachs, can you be as understanding with the person who planted the car bomb that nearly killed you?

Sachs: Absolutely! It will give me no pleasure to send that person to jail. I hate jail. It gives me enormous pleasure to feel that I took part in the struggle for freedom. We got our elections, we're going to have a new, legitimate, nonracial, and hopefully non-sexist government. That's glorious! That makes lilies and roses grow out of my short arm! I don't want to be locked into whathappened several years ago. I want to move with the new constitution. I want to play a role in establishing a new justice system. I have no problems whatsoever. It won't make my arm grow back to send someone to jail.

Peace Magazine Jul-Aug 1994

Peace Magazine Jul-Aug 1994, page 22. Some rights reserved.

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