Lancing boils on the body politic

Unfinished Business
January 30, 2004

Black South Africa has decided to let apartheid's sleeping dogs lie. But there is a price to pay, says Colin Bundy.

Fabio Barraclough took office as professor of fine arts at the University of the Wi****ersrand, Johannesburg, in 1974. The Anglo-Spanish academic was dapper, articulate and a handy tennis player, but was a mediocre artist and poor scholar; the university shifted him sideways into an undemanding post as director of a gallery. At some point in 1976, Barraclough was recruited by South Africa's special branch. Equipped by his handlers with some rudimentary anti-apartheid credentials, he moved to Madrid. Here, in the 1980s, he led a double life: as Pablo Valls, ostensibly a committed anti-apartheid activist, "the most conscientious attender of every anti-apartheid conference anywhere in Europe", actually a paid informer and undercover agent for the apartheid regime.

Horace Doncaster, an English-speaking South African, enlisted as a career soldier. In 1969, aged 19, he became second lieutenant in an infantry corps, and gravitated, via three years of service on undocumented "border operations", to military intelligence. He briskly ascended the career ladder - major, commandant, colonel - and his various medal citations suggest direct involvement in a series of cross-border raids and reprisals. In 1993, Doncaster (by now brigadier) was appointed "director of covert collection", a suitably Orwellian title for a leading figure in the mass destruction of records and files in the twilight of white supremacy.

This high-ranking officer retained his position under Nelson Mandela's government (elected in April 1994), was awarded a good service medal in 1998, never appeared before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) hearings, and only in 2002 accepted an "employer-induced retrenchment package".

This shadowy pair are both identified for the first time in Terry Bell's book, Unfinished Business . Their careers criss-cross with those of others - policemen, soldiers, agents provocateurs and their political masters - who are better known. Bell is very good on the genesis of state terror in South Africa and its heyday: the murky worlds of Operation Daisy and Operation Victor; the licensed killers of Vlakplaas and the Civil Cooperation Bureau; the balefully competitive relations between secret police and military intelligence.

But this is only one strand of an arresting, if uneven, work. It is a difficult book to classify: part investigative journalism, part political intervention, and part biography of Dumisa Ntsebeza, who collaborated with Bell in producing the book and contributes an endnote.

Bell is a freelance journalist and activist who returned to South Africa in 1991, after years in exile. Ntsebeza is a lawyer in Cape Town and a prominent leftwing intellectual. His personal history ("from naive Christian student from a small rural village to anti-apartheid activist, from torture victim to political prisoner, teacher, human rights lawyer" and head of the investigative section of the TRC) provides a central narrative of the book.

Unfinished Business is arranged in three sections. The first is a somewhat humdrum account of the role played by the Broederbond secret society in the construction of the apartheid power base after 1948. Part two is an account of the Transkei, rural hinterland-turned-Bantustan, a site of poverty and violence and context to the story of the Ntsebeza family. Part three provides an excellent account of the period since 1985. It encompasses the final, brutal excesses of the security forces, the negotiations that ushered in the "new" South Africa in 1994, and the inner workings of the TRC. The TRC coverage provides the first full account of the "play within the play", the attempt to frame Ntsebeza as accomplice to a massacre of civilians in an attempt to derail the commission.

Bell's analysis of the run-up to 1994 deals with politics at three levels.

First, it links the global impact of the dissolution of the Soviet Union to the 1998 deal over Angola and Namibia - in which the superpowers in effect handed down to their surrogates a regional fait accompli . Cuban and South African forces withdrew from Angola, and elections led to Namibian independence in March 1990.

Second, it summarises the domestic politics of South Africa from 1985-90.

Quasi-insurrectionary protests were countered by successive states of emergency. The state was unable to impose order from above; the popular forces were unable to seize power from below.

Both the National Party and the exiled African National Congress recognised the impasse. So the third narrative level is the sequence of secret talks, and talks about talks, brokered by all sorts of unlikely intermediaries.

These included intensive exchanges between Mandela and his captors; unreported meetings between apartheid emissaries and exiled politicians in London; and widely publicised encounters in Lusaka and Dakar between the ANC and various representatives of white South Africa.

The inner logic of politics at each of these levels favoured a negotiated outcome, with all the concessions and trade-offs implicit in negotiations.

The outcome - historic compromise rather than miracle - transferred political control to the ANC, but left largely intact the main features of the economic order. There was no confiscation of property, no alienation of land, no mass cull of civil servants, no redistributive taxes - and no trials. Instead of trials, there was the TRC.

The TRC was a crucial element of the historic compromise. At its heart was an attempt to balance demands for disclosure and justice with a pre-agreed commitment to large-scale amnesty for perpetrators of "gross human rights abuses".

The TRC's public hearings, chaired by Archbishop Desmond Tutu, made unforgettable political theatre. Survivors and family members of victims confronted killers and torturers. Testimonies reduced commissioners, journalists and audiences to tears. The TRC possessed extraordinary emotional, cultural and symbolic power. Yet (as a number of critics have pointed out) it produced an attenuated and selective history.

While it created an explicit and terrible record of violence, vindictiveness and brutalisation, its scope was oddly narrow. It identified 19,000 victims; it named and granted amnesty to several thousand perpetrators; but it failed to explore how these were rooted in the system of apartheid. By individualising victimhood, it surrendered the task of comprehending the social nature of dispossession and subordination.

The TRC, in this respect, produced an incomplete history. Its business, charges Bell, was unfinished: it "treated a few symptomatic boils on a totally diseased body politic". In angry peroration, he asks how (named) individuals with appalling records, who publicly refused to apply for amnesty, remained in state employment and faced no prosecution. The TRC went some way to revealing the truth, he concedes, but balked at bringing to book the politicians and generals at the apex of the abuse of human rights.

The book's concluding sentence warns that, "if the past is not dealt with, it will return to haunt us". I'm not so sure. All sorts of other societies manage to get by while suppressing, repackaging or ignoring aspects of their history. Bell has certainly beamed a torch into previously obscure corners of South Africa's recent past - as other historians and social scientists will continue to do - but it is doubtful that such knowledge will lead to the political results he advocates. Thabo Mbeki's ANC government has sought to close the book on the TRC, does not intend to bring further prosecutions and has dissociated itself from class actions against corporations that profited from apartheid.

Colin Bundy is director and principal, School of Oriental and African Studies, London.

Unfinished Business: South Africa, Apartheid and Truth

Author - Terry Bell with Dumisa Ntsebeza
Publisher - Verso
Pages - 385
Price - £19.00
ISBN - 1 85984 545 2

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