Former white South African President P.W. Botha died in his home in the Western Cape province on 31 October. Botha had ruled the country with an iron fist for nearly two decades during the apartheid period from 1978 to 1989. Thousands of blacks were detained without trial during his presidency, many of whom were tortured and killed. After the end of apartheid, he was found guilty of gross human rights abuses. However, he refused to apologise for apartheid.
Despite all his wrongdoings, the current black majority South African leadership has shown remarkable magnanimity in its reaction to Botha’s death. President Thabo Mbeki ordered all flags to fly at half mast and the government offered Botha’s family a state funeral for him, which they wisely turned down. The governing African National Congress (ANC), which was outlawed under Botha, was among the first to offer its condolences to his family and friends. Former president and liberation hero Nelson Mandela, whom Botha refused to release from jail, also issued a statement paying tribute to Botha for taking steps towards an “eventual peacefully negotiated settlement” in the country.
South Africa had previously shown the world a wonderful example of national reconciliation through its Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), whereby victims of racist violence during the apartheid era could come forward and be heard at the TRC. The perpetrators of the violence could admit their guilt in front of their victims’ families, seek forgiveness and request amnesty from prosecution. Several other countries have adopted the approach of the TRC in their process of dealing with human rights violations after extensive political change.
The lessons behind the TRC are probably best captured in a touching memoir by the chairman of the TRC, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, titled No Future Without Forgiveness. The world will certainly be a better place if more countries learned from South Africa in this aspect of national reconciliation.