The image from a recent newscast sticks in my mind.
Desmond Tutu, resplendent in the red vestments of his recent office of Anglican archbishop of South Africa, is leaning forward, his head on the conference table of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which he chairs. He is sobbing audibly over some particularly awful atrocity newly disclosed by an officer of the old apartheid government.This gentle man, who thought he knew the worst of what his erstwhile oppressors had done, is temporarily overcome at the enormity of the newest disclosure, and he weeps.
Then he rights himself and, as the camera rolls, resumes his extraordinary work.
It is extraordinary.
The very idea of granting amnesty to agents of what was the world's most universally hated regime - requiring only that they tell the truth about their role in the atrocities - is extraordinary.
And only extraordinary human beings, like Tutu and the truly astounding President Nelson Mandela, could have any hope of carrying it out in a way that produces a decent amount of both truth and reconciliation.
I am an unabashed Mandelaphile - no less so for having seen a week ago the new Showtime docudrama, ``Mandela and de Klerk,' starring Sidney Poitier and Michael Caine.
Few human beings now living could have undertaken so bold a plan for bringing closure to years of virulent, bloody racism and moving forward to build a democracy.
What keeps the Tutu image in my mind, though, is that it reminds me that this is no simple forgive-and-forget soap opera we are witnessing, no weak-sister irresolution masquerading as Christianity.
This is awful stuff the commission is hearing - worse, as I say, than even its most cynical members may have imagined: The government-sanctioned slaughter of African National Congress activists carried out in a way to make it look like black-on-black killing.
The arming of members of Mangosuthu Buthelezi's thugs to do battle against the ascendant ANC.
The open-pit burning of a murder victim while his killers feasted on beef barbecue.
The murder of Steve Biko, the Black Consciousness philosopher whose disdain of apartheid's power made him its enemy.
The Biko affair shows how enormously difficult is the work the Truth and Reconciliation Commission is attempting.
Few doubt that Biko, who died in police detention in 1977, had been killed by his captors.
But there was still some thought that the death was less than fully deliberate - that perhaps they hit him harder than they intended, or broke his skull when they knocked him down stairs.
The official version - an unexplained brain hemorrhage - convinced no one.
But now four apartheid-era cops who were there have confessed their role in Biko's death and in at least nine other political murders-stabbings, burnings and mutilations carried out in behalf of the white minority regime.
The hemorrhage that the official report attributed to an injury from a scuffle with police may, it turns out, have been poison designed to mimic the effects of a brain hemorrhage. Biko's wife says she will oppose the killers' application for amnesty. I'm not prepared to say she is wrong.
Surely from her point of view confession without punishment - without even requiring an assertion of remorse - is no justice.
But what would be? What would be justice for the survivors of thousands of black South Africans who were killed or savaged by the regime during the period the commission is investigating?
A South African version of the Nazi hunters who, half a century after the Holocaust, are still seeking to bring soldiers and officials of Hitler's government to justice?
After a while, it all seems to be pointless.
But is the amnesty the Mandela government is offering so easily achieved as to be equally pointless?
I don't think so - and for two reasons.
The first is that without some such arrangement, most of the murderers would never have been known for sure. The offer to come forward to own up to their official bestiality in exchange for a possible amnesty will at least solve hundreds of unsolved murders.
That must be worth something.
Mandela himself, in signing the bill creating the commission, offered the more salient rationale:
``We can now deal with our past, establish the truth which has so long been denied us and lay the basis for genuine reconciliation. Only the truth can put the past to rest.'
It is, to repeat, an extraordinary gesture, and, it needs to be said, one that may not work.
But surely nothing else will.
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