Unfinished Business: South Africa, Apartheid and Truth
by terry bell, with dumisa buhle ntsebeza
London, Verso, 2003 (second edition). 385 pages
Hardback: UK £19, US $26
The miracle story of South Africa’s transition from apartheid to democracy is an enchanting one, with two of the most widely read accounts being Nelson Mandela’s A Long Walk to Freedom (1994) and Allister Sparks’s Tomorrow Is Another Country (1995). However, since the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) submitted its major report in 1998, works such as Country of My Skull by Antjie Krog (1998), and Unfinished Business by Terry Bell with Dumisa Ntsebeza, former head of the TRC investigations unit, have helped to restore a sense of disquiet.
Unfinished Business demands that the world break its trance-like acceptance of the miracle story, in which lingering problems are drowned out by the good will bestowed on the new South Africa. Many embarked on the transition with every expectation of failure, and therefore clung so desperately to its success that they were happy to gloss over unfinished business from South Africa’s apartheid past. Yet, argues Bell, there is “a huge amount” of such business, and there is bigger danger in ignoring it than in acknowledging and dealing with it:
Corruption and pockets of poisonous racism remain embedded deep within our society. Many of apartheid’s most senior agents—within the army, the police the secret services and the civil service—remain in place. Some, as this book demonstrates, were even drafted in after the fall of apartheid, to conduct investigations into their former colleagues. There are also thousands of compromised individuals, many in prominent positions, whose still secret betrayals and abuses leave them open to blackmail and manipulation. (P. 1)
Bell’s project concerns the atrocities never investigated by the TRC, which he considers to have had too limited a mandate.
Although the book makes many complex analytical points, it does so in an accessible, non-academic style. While it should be considered compulsory reading for every scholar of South African history, it also serves as an appropriate introduction for the uninitiated. Broader arguments are embedded in narratives and anecdotes that carry the reader through what would otherwise be dense material. The detail of these accounts also establishes an important truth: while it is easy to understand apartheid as abstract machinery, Bell shows it to be the responsibility of human beings. Social science often reduces history to a series of causal explanations—e.g., that apartheid was the result of Afrikaner Calvinism or the need for cheap labour. These explanations indeed provide crucial contextual understandings, yet certain events are better understood in relation to the personal ambition or even sadism of individuals.
Since it is about people, as opposed to abstract constructs, Unfinished Business is a great read: tales of astonishing spy stories and conspiracies, of bravery and heroism, of a history that seems at times too strange to have been true. With a sharp eye for contradictions, and careful archival research, Bell uncovers the flaws in the claims of apartheid officials.
The book is divided into three “files”. File One, “A Crime against Humanity”, reviews the ideology and assassination (in 1966) of apartheid’s architect, Hendrik Verwoerd, followed by accounts of the leadership of apartheid presidents B. J. Vorster and P. W. Botha. Besides this formal leadership, Bell outlines the creation of the Afrikaner Broederbond—a secret society “to which every president, prime minister, senior parliamentarian, military and police officer belonged, together with most senior church and education leaders”. The Broederbond “was the primary think tank of the system and the major influence on policy”. Yet, says Bell, it “was never investigated by the TRC. Nor were any of its officials called to account” (p. 3).
Other major themes of File One are South Africa’s Cold War involvement elsewhere in Africa, and the origination of secret state projects by intelligence agencies. One such project was “Operation Daisy”, an attempt by the secret police to infiltrate resistance networks in South African universities and then, through operatives such as Craig Williamson, to infiltrate the African National Congress (ANC) abroad. Information gleaned via spies, notably Williamson, was used in dirty campaigns such as the 1982 murder by letter bomb of the anti-apartheid academic Ruth First in Maputo.
File Two, “End of the Apartheid Road”, focuses on the Transkei, the first “homeland” given nominal independence in the apartheid experiment to parcel off territory to different “nations” for their own self-government. Its leader, Kaiser Daliwonga Matanzima, was a despotic puppet of the apartheid regime, and so-called independence did not preclude intrusive involvement in Transkei by apartheid security agents. Events are told primarily through the biography of the family of Dumisa Ntsebeza: we see the role of police intimidation of activists who were arrested, banished and tortured. Where other means failed, death squads gave the government a more permanent solution to its problems. Most hauntingly, Bell reveals how President F. W. de Klerk in 1993—at the very time of his being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize—ordered a hit squad to attack a home in the small Transkei town of Umtata. The squad missed its target and killed five teenage boys watching television. De Klerk freely admitted to and justified authorising the raid but never applied to the TRC for an amnesty.
File Three, “From Cul-de-Sac to Compromise”, looks at what Bell calls “the bloodiest decade” of apartheid, the 1980s, and at the circumstances leading to the transition compromise and the creation of the TRC. Despite the fact that the government was attempting to find an exit from the impasse of international illegitimacy and ostracism, it managed to commit some of the worst atrocities of white minority rule. This section of the book names other spies from Operation Daisy, recounts the huge anti-apartheid protests that greeted the Springboks during their 1980 rugby tour of New Zealand, and describes the complicit role in apartheid of foreign corporations such as IBM.
Bell’s final discussions are reserved for the TRC and its limitations. He illustrates his argument with biographies of three individuals never called to account for the atrocities they committed. He also demonstrates the influence of sinister forces which attempted to undermine the TRC process.
Unfinished Business presents an excellent case for the revision of South Africa’s history—and it is not only former supporters of apartheid that have something new to learn. Many opponents of apartheid were diligent lay or professional scholars of South Africa’s history, taking a great interest in what led the country to racist minority rule and in the key events of that rule. Many have assumed that a reasonable understanding of what happened has been arrived at, and that further enquiry is unlikely to shed startling new light on South Africa’s past. Yet the need for revisions of South Africa’s history should be obvious given the firm control the minority government had over what people knew. Propaganda and various other strategies built up a powerful scheme of legitimation which still needs to be unpicked.
In many instances, we will never know what really happened. Bell’s project is greatly frustrated by the wholesale destruction of records of state agencies in the late 1980s and right through the early 1990s. Yet there are many other available records that can completely transform our understanding of key events. It was widely believed, for example, that Verwoerd’s assassin, Dimitri Tsafendas, was insane, and that he had explained in interrogations that he believed he had a giant tapeworm living inside him which had instructed him to kill Verwoerd. But the actual transcript of his interrogation, analysed in 1999, revealed that the tapeworm reference was a matter-of-fact statement that he had once been infested, and that he killed Verwoerd because he didn’t agree with his policies. Bell finds significant the fact that Verwoerd was set to make a major departure from apartheid in a speech in parliament the day he was killed. As this example shows, our knowledge of the past needs to be updated in the light of new archival and oral evidence that has drifted to the surface since democratisation.
As its cover description says, Unfinished Business “prompts questions about how long, without the necessary and proper confrontation of its past, South Africa’s miracle might be expected to last”. Bell argues that
embedded within the new democratic dispensation are the agents of past treachery and deceit, compromised individuals often in powerful positions who constitute potential toxins in the body politic. (P. 83)
At times he seems to be suggesting that white supremacists are still able to operate levers of power in state bureaucracies. I wonder if this isn’t something of a red herring. While it is certainly possible to find pockets of white supremacists willing even to wage bombing campaigns with a view to rendering the country ungovernable, it is a mistake to consider this the chief threat that past racisms represent in the democratic era. One might argue rather that if racism continues to be a fundamental threat to democratic South Africa, then it is important to focus the spotlight on “ordinary” white South Africans who never spied, tortured, murdered or even professed a particularly strong commitment to white supremacy. There is a danger here of ending up with a somewhat restricted definition of “the badness of apartheid” in which the human rights atrocities are taken to represent the sum total of this “crime against humanity”. By extension, we arrive at a restricted sense of the moral accountability of white people. It is not uncommon to hear white people justify their privilege on the grounds that they’ve worked hard for what they’ve got. Many complete fail to recognise the role of the employment colour bar and numerous other legislatively inscribed, and repressively enforced, pillars of white material privilege. Indeed, it is an effect of the TRC that many whites associate racism with the violent crimes and abuses the commission examined, and believe that since they did not participate in or condone them, they are not guilty of apartheid racism.
Bell would surely acknowledge that his project is a particular element within what needs to be an expanded effort to understand the injustices of apartheid. Even if the TRC had been given infinite resources, there are many who stood outside the process it represented of either claiming to be the victims of an atrocity, or conversely of applying for amnesty for an atrocity they had committed. The issue of human rights abuses has essentially drawn attention from the question of material inequality and allows the middle classes to claim a position of blameless neutrality. In the endnote to Unfinished Business, Dumisa Ntsebeza observes that the TRC failed “to interrogate the role of big business, of the transnational companies, for their part in sustaining and perpetuating the apartheid order” (p. 349). However, partly in response to the first edition of the book (2001), class action lawsuits for reparations against corporations that allegedly profited from apartheid have now been launched in the United States and may go some way to highlighting the economic dimension of apartheid’s injustices.
In the year since the second edition was published two high-profile stories in the South African media indicate how the unfinished business of the past continues to cast its shadow on public life ten years into democracy. The first concerned allegations that South Africa’s director of public prosecutions, Bulelani Ngcuka, had been a spy for the apartheid regime. The allegations were made by supporters of the deputy president, Jacob Zuma, who was being investigated by Ngcuka for alleged corruption in an expensive arms deal. President Thabo Mbeki set up the Hefer Commission to investigate the spy allegations against Ngcuka but they were dismissed. These allegations are being widely interpreted as attempts to influence the succession race for the next president.
The second story concerns the amnesty application of Gideon Niewoudt, responsible for the death of four people in 1989. The story captured the public imagination when a television documentary showed him going to the home of his victims to request forgiveness. In dramatic fashion, a relative of the deceased smashed a vase over Niewoudt’s head. He was expelled from the house by disgusted relatives who were clearly in no mood to make up.
Bell’s vital contribution in Unfinished Business has been to warn against the danger of assuming all is forgiven. While South Africa, via the TRC, went further than any other post-conflict society in addressing the past, Bell has shown that it would be foolish to assume that such a vast and complicated crime against humanity as apartheid can be healed and dispatched by a limited, and at times poorly executed, legal process.