Outside of the funerals of activists either killed by police and army forces in pitched battles or murdered in detention, we did not allow ourselves to experience raw emotion.
That is, not until those first cathartic moments of the human rights violation hearings of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) which began in the East London City Hall in April 1996.
The uncontrollable sobbing of Nomonde Calata, the widow of Cradock activist Fort, of wheelchair-bound veteran Port Elizabeth activist Singqokwana Ernest Malgas, and the image of Archbishop Desmond Tuturay h, with his head slumped in his hands, broke an unspoken collective resolve not to show that apartheid had somehow got the better of us.
Journalist and poet Antjie Krog referred to Nomonde’s “indefinable wail” as “the signature tune” that started off the human rights hearings in East London.
Commissioner Alex Boraine recalled a “primeval and spontaneous wail” that “caught up in a single howl all the darkness and horror of the apartheid years”.
The relatives of the Cradock Four and of Malgas were among the first victims of apartheid atrocities who came to tell their stories.
For well over a year, the nuts and bolts of the TRC had been painstakingly put together in legislation, administration and logistical tasks.
The process ramped up in December 1995, when the commissioners first came together under chairman Tutu.
It was no surprise that the widows and relatives of the Cradock Four were among the first to appear at the TRC in what has been described as a “window case”.
Just a few years before, the country had followed closely the reopened inquest into the deaths of the four activists – Matthew Goniwe, Calata, Sicelo Mhlawuli and Sparrow Mkhonto.
Teachers Goniwe and Calata were highly regarded for their leadership in Cradock where a stronghold of resistance to the policies and practices of the National Party (NP) had developed.
They and their comrades had been brutally murdered by the security police in an elaborate hit in June 1985, after they were stopped at a roadblock while returning from a United Democratic Front meeting in Port Elizabeth.
A sham inquest found in 1989 that the four had been killed by “unknown people” and that no one was to blame.
However, after New Nation newspaper leaked a top secret military signal that called for the “permanent removal from society” of “thorn in the flesh” Goniwe, his cousin Mbulelo, and Calata, a second inquest was convened under then Eastern Cape judge-president Neville Zietsman.
He found prima facie evidence that the security forces killed the Cradock Four but was unable to name specific individuals responsible for the murders.
Malgas’s selection to come forward early in the TRC process to tell his story was less obvious but no less compelling.
He was the last witness to be called on the second day of the hearing, April 16.
Malgas gave a detailed, harrowing account of repeatedly being tortured by security police in East London and Pretoria. They had used the “helicopter” method – he was suspended upside-down, his hands and feet tied, and spun around as the cops hit and kicked him.
Malgas was imprisoned for 15 years, his son Simphiwe died after acid was thrown onto him, and the family home in Port Elizabeth was burnt down.
It was during his testimony that Tutu broke down sobbing, his head slumped in his hands.
It was an image which came to symbolise the pain that the country relived during the more than two years of TRC testimony.
Largely as a result of Tutu’s leadership of the TRC and his argument that 80% of South Africans professed themselves to be Christian, the process was rooted in Christian theology.
This was not necessarily a bad thing as Tutu had often spoken and written of the need for reconciliation to be premised on truth-telling, a basic premise of mainstream doctrine.
But academic Deborah Posel has questioned how an official state institution, the TRC, came to define truth within those circumstances, how decisions were made on which stories to include and which to leave out, and what counted as sufficient evidence to produce “definitive findings about what happened in the past”.
She has argued that the proceedings of truth commissions have usually been framed within the discourse of victimhood. The “inclination to dwell on the past” had to be seen against the failure of societies to set out a compelling future vision.
While South Africa’s TRC was the 21st to emerge since the 1970s from the democratisation of developing countries, she noted that it was “the first to grapple with the problem of truth by installing a public confessional at the heart of the project”.
But the exposure of truth as a means of achieving reconciliation “could provoke pain, anger and further violence just as readily as impulses to forgive”.
She found that the final reports of the TRC are a “rather disconnected compilation of discrete chunks of information” instead of an integrated and synthesised analysis.
And because the commission effectively chose to ignore the highest echelons of state decision-making in favour of the country’s healing, the apartheid system was judged, but the NP apparatchiks were not fingered.
Some of the victims who stepped forward experienced solace as those who had killed their loved ones or tortured them admitted to their roles or were exposed, either during TRC amnesty hearings or later.
The enduring effect is that the TRC hearings which started in East London 20 years ago led to a remarkable achievement in South Africa’s history.
But it also left the expectations of many unfulfilled. Their stories have not been articulated as fully as others, perpetrators have not been called out and reparations have not been made – while the country appears to have continued along a path of ignoring our sordid history rather than accounting for it.