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World: Analysis From Washington -- Reconciling With The Past

Washington, 2 November 1998 (RFE/RL) -- The hostile reaction from South Africans across the political spectrum to a report by that country's Truth and Reconciliation Commission highlights the problems many countries face in trying to deal with their often troubled pasts.

The commission was created to overcome the deep divisions in South African society between those who were part of the apartheid-era government and those who fought to replace that system.

But in the short term at least, it has highlighted and perhaps even deepened those splits. And that development is likely to be used by people in some post-communist countries who want to prevent any exploration of the activities of the past.

In South Africa, individuals and groups associated with the apartheid system are furious with the commission's finding that they were guilty of gross violations of human rights.

Even if true, these people argue, it is now time to move on, to acknowledge the positive role that many involved in the apartheid state played in its remarkably peaceful dismantling, and to focus on the future rather than the past.

And individuals and groups associated with the struggle against that system are even more angry at the commission's insistence that many of them, including parts of the now-ruling African National Congress, were also guilty of abuses.

Such conclusions, these people suggest, fail to reflect the nature of the system they opposed, smack of moral equivalency, and blacken the reputation of the nation's heroes.

As a result, representatives from both sides tried to block the release of the 3500-page report in court, and leaders of virtually all political parties boycotted the official release of the document in the South African capital of Pretoria last Thursday.

None of this surprised the commission's chairman, Nobel Peace Prize laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Writing in the introduction to the report, Tutu observes that most of the opposition to the work of his commission reflected "erroneous notions" of what reconciliation is all about and what it requires.

"Reconciliation," he says, "is not about being rosy; it is not about pretending that things were other than they were. Reconciliation based on falsehood, on not facing up to reality, is not true reconciliation."

And consequently, Tutu says, even if the truth that emerged in the course of the commission's work "has initially alienated people from one another," it nonetheless remains the only basis on which "true reconciliation can take place."

But if Archbishop Tutu has presented this issue in a uniquely elegant way, the problems that his report raises are to be found in many other countries, particularly in post-communist states where communism was toppled by the combined efforts of a few then in power and their dissident opponents.

As in South Africa, many former communists often argue that any focus on their own pasts or on that of the system of which they were a part will undermine them and their hopes for a democratic future.

Such attention to the past, they suggest, will quickly degenerate into a witch hunt, one where the reputations of many good people will be blackened to serve the political interests of others and where the contributions individuals may have made even in overcoming communism will be ignored in the face of charges about long-past actions.

And any investigation, they add, will undermine the chances for stability, an argument that has proved compelling to many both in these countries and elsewhere. Indeed, this argument led many Western governments to oppose even limited efforts at lust have been less than enthusiastic about any examination of their own roles in the past.

Not only do a few of them have some obvious things to hide, including on occasional cooperation with their oppressors, but they too believe that their current opponents will use such investigations to smear them and thus force them out of political life as well. Such opposition is easy to understand. "True reconciliation," as Archbishop Tutu notes, "is not easy; it is not cheap." But as he also suggests, without a willingness to acknowledge mistakes and crimes regardless of their origin, no society will be able to reconcile itself with the past.

And without that reconciliation, no society, not South African or any other, will be able to escape new evils in the future.