Belfast Telegraph

This country can learn from South Africa's example

Northern Ireland can make real steps forward by taking the route of reconciliation and truth, writes Gasant Abarder

As a visitor to Belfast, one is struck by the way people go about their day-to-day business in this bustling city. It is only when you look below the surface - and with the help of a fleeting history lesson from a black cab driver and tour guide - that the Troubles begin to be brought to life.

It is difficult for a visitor to fully grasp the complexities of the politics at play in this region. But there are definitely parallels for a South African to draw from the debate about the introduction of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, or TRC, to delve into Northern Ireland's troubled past.

For better or worse, South Africa needed a TRC to purge a wounded nation of some of apartheid's deepest and darkest secrets.

It was significant that a man of the stature of Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu, a leading cleric in the anti-apartheid struggle and a globally recognised peace icon, chaired the hearings where victims and their families could give account of atrocities and the perpetrators on both sides could reveal all in exchange for amnesty.

Tutu became the face through which a nation rode the rollercoaster of emotions that the past dredged up.

After some hearings he was utterly exhausted, in despair and in tears. There were a few lighter moments during testimony, however rare, when his trademark laughter would pierce the sombre atmosphere. In short, he lived and breathed the TRC.

At the same time, a court process ensured that those who did not qualify for amnesty were suitably punished.

The process in South Africa was by no means perfect. There are several untold stories about the darkest chapters of South Africa that never made it to the TRC; the debate about whether to grant reparations to victims still rages; and there were inconsistencies in how amnesty was granted.

Colonel Eugene De Kock - nicknamed "Prime Evil" - was arguably one of the most effective killing machines of the apartheid state. De Kock ran a police farm called Vlakplaas, where the most heinous murders and torture of anti-apartheid activists took place. He was sentenced to more than 200 years in South Africa's highest security prison.

De Kock - whose hearings were perhaps the most prominent news event to emerge from the TRC - now wants a presidential pardon, arguing that he was a mere soldier acting on the instructions of police generals and their political masters in what he considered a legitimate war.

Those generals and politicians now enjoy all the freedoms of the new South Africa when, if the TRC's terms of reference were strictly applied, should have been hauled before the hearings to give account of their complicity.

Whether De Kock has a case has to be weighed against the feelings of the families of his victims.

But, by and large, South Africans went some way to confront their past during their - mostly peaceful - journey towards democracy.

The final transcripts of South Africa's TRC have been consigned to the history books where they live as a lesson of what should never happen again.

How far did the TRC go towards healing a once deeply divided nation?

My country is by no means without its problems and apartheid's legacy still manifests in the socio-economic challenges that hold South Africa back.

We are a nation poised for greatness, but have yet to make the definitive stride.

Our Rainbow Nation, as Archbishop Tutu nicknamed South Africa, somehow found a way to co-exist even though it will take many more decades for the hurtful past to be completely erased. But the "born-frees" - those born after our first democratic elections in 1994 - are leading the way and have abandoned many of the hangovers of apartheid.

To a visitor, at least, the people of Northern Ireland are really no different.

South Africa and Northern Ireland's transitions both occurred around the mid-1990s. The difference is that my country have had our TRC. The question for the people of Northern Ireland is: are they ready to open Pandora's Box and face their past?

What will it do for the effort of integrating a people still divided by visible barriers like, in the case of Belfast, the Peace Line?

The advice from a South African is, tread cautiously.

Acknowledge the past but build on the gains achieved since the Good Friday Agreement, no matter how insignificant they may appear.

The black cab driver left this South African with some food for thought that could be of use back home.

He told me he had become resigned to never seeing full integration in Northern Ireland during his life time, but he knew his children and their children would find a way.

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