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South Africa's Sins Weigh Down Its Father Confessor


ATLANTA — For two years, Archbishop Desmond Tutu listened to account upon account of burning bodies and shallow graves. He forgets many of the names he heard at hearings of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission, but he carries the stories like creases in a cassock.

His gait is heavy as he walks the campus of Atlanta's Emory University, where he will teach theology. Just four years ago at Emory, he bounded into rooms and often ended his anecdotes with boisterous laughter. Today the 67-year-old archbishop enters a room cautiously and sits stiffly, as if bracing for questions about prisons and pits.

"I'm vulnerable. I know I'm fragile," Tutu said, drawing out each word. "I laugh easily and I make other people laugh, but I also cry easily."

He had already spent three decades ministering to a nation under apartheid, and saying eulogies for its victims, when President Nelson Mandela asked him to head the truth commission. The panel, formed to investigate apartheid-era abuses and to grant amnesty to perpetrators who confessed fully to politically motivated crimes, releases its final report Thursday.

His experience might have cushioned him. But it didn't. The 2,000 testimonies of torture, rape and murder were a running narrative of the injustices he had fought his entire life.

Still, he believes a country has to confront the brutality of its history before forgiveness is possible, even if that means asking survivors to relive their trauma and listeners to make sense of the terror. And that includes an archbishop who thought he'd seen everything.

"At home, we thought we knew just how awful the system had been," Tutu said, staring into the distance. "But when you heard accounts of what had happened to people and found them saying--'They stripped me . . . and opened a drawer and shoved my breasts into the drawer and slammed it on my nipples,'--you realize then what had happened.

"When you heard the perpetrators in an amnesty hearing saying, 'We abducted him. We gave him drugged coffee, shot him in the head and burned his body, and then we had a barbecue on the side,' you realize the depths to which we can sink."

He had read the statistics about violence. "Now the statistics were coming alive," he said. "And we were devastated by the extent of the evil."

Coping With Tales of Horror

Tutu became the most public of father confessors. During the early televised truth commission hearings, South Africans watched his every expression. When a former African National Congress guerrilla told from a wheelchair of being beaten and tortured by the police, they saw Tutu hold his head in his hands and cry.

Anglican priest Michael Battle, a former adjutant to the archbishop in Johannesburg, was not surprised. "The truth commission was the final revelation, and [Tutu] had to relive the pain," he said. Nor was his old friend Norman Montjane, an Anglican priest, who said Tutu has always "entered into the agony and tragedy. He himself is part of the sadness."

Tutu considered resigning from the commission. "But people said, 'No, it's good you can cry. Maybe all has gone wrong in the world because men have been told they shouldn't show their emotions.' "

Still, he and the 16 other commissioners took seriously the advice of counselors on how to cope with the emotional impact of listening to hour after hour of testimony.

"We were warned right in the beginning that we ought to . . . have quality time with our families, exercise and recreation. And we should get someone to whom we could unburden ourselves."

The archbishop relied on his Anglican confessor. He urged South Africans to be open to forgiving perpetrators who gave a full accounting of their crimes. Tutu, who received the 1984 Nobel Peace Prize, believed the country could be consumed by bitterness over injustice or be purified through suffering that leads to reconciliation.

Charges and Countercharges

If the hearings were often cathartic, they were frustrating as well.

Facing his old friend Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, Tutu begged her to apologize for her alleged role in kidnapping and murder committed by a gang of youths with whom she was associated. She offered only vague regrets.

"I was devastated," said Tutu.

When apartheid-era presidents Frederik W. de Klerk and P.W. Botha refused to testify, claiming that they were not responsible for crimes committed in the name of white rule, Tutu could not contain his outrage.

"It's an incredible thing that [blacks] who still live in shacks, squalor and poverty come to work in your beautiful homes, and they don't say, 'We're going to murder all of you in your beds,' " Tutu said in an interview with the South African Broadcasting Commission.

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