For South Africans, what happens in Northern Ireland probably seems tangential to everyday life. However, living in Belfast means that I cannot escape it. Currently, as the new power-sharing government beds down, the issue of dealing with the past is taking up much media space. This marks a major shift. A few years ago, the question was off limits.
That said, exactly how society should deal with its past remains unclear. Some still favour ‘drawing a line’ under it. There is much talk of the South African approach, but few takers.
Last year, the British government set up a Consultative Panel on the Past to provide a way forward. The fact that it was a panel appointed by the British government, which is a player in the conflict, means that some people question whether it is the best vehicle to chart a way forward. Nonetheless, work has begun, with most adopting a ‘wait and see’ attitude.
Recently, the panel burst into public view with controversies about whether amnesty should be granted and whether the conflicts of the past should be labelled a ‘war’ or not. To South Africans, this might sound strange. Although this is an odd place for the discussion to start, it belies wider questions familiar to South Africans. In terms of amnesty, what compromises will be needed to deal with the past? As regards the ‘war’ question, this is significant in terms of acknowledging the extent of the conflict, and determining whose actions were legitimate.
South Africa was forced to confront these questions, given the scale of deaths, but in Northern Ireland, where 3 600 people lost their lives, it seems as if people think confronting the past is a choice. That said, the population is only 1,5-million, so 3 600 deaths is proportionally close to the number (roughly 25 000) of those who died in South Africa from political violence.
It seems, however, as if Northern Ireland has not reached first base. One critical question needs to be answered at this stage: is truth about past violations a right? Do we think knowing about the past from all sides is important, in principle? If so, then the next step is not to list all the reasons why this will never be possible, but rather to ask how society can ensure truth can be delivered. This needs political and social backing, independence and integrity.
South Africa, at least at political level, opted for the idea of truth as non-negotiable. This resulted in the truth commission. However, as I write, I am struck by the fact that much business related to the past is still not finished in South Africa. For example, those who failed to take the opportunity to apply for amnesty during the life of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission have not been prosecuted for crimes such as murder and torture, or told the truth. For most victims, truth and justice remain elusive. Most continue to live in poverty.
So, as Northern Ireland confronts the question whether it should engage in truth recovery for the first time, perhaps, South Africans have to ask the question for a second time. Some of you reading this will roll your eyes at such a suggestion, but, if we think truth is a principle our young democracy should embody, have we done enough about uncovering and addressing the horrors of the past?
In turn, is the lack of a principled and unrelenting quest for the truth about the past emblematic of how we pursue truth in the present? It seems that when we suspect a cover-up, we establish a commission with much fanfare and promises of truth recovery and justice, but over time such endeavours lose focus and grind to a halt. Remember, to paraphrase writer HL Mencken, truth would cease to be stranger than fiction, if we were as used to it as to lies.
This article by Brandon Hamber was published on Polity and in the Engineering News on 1 February 2008 as part of the column "Look South". Copyright Brandon Hamber.