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In Historical Truths, the Road to an Open Society

by Derek Charles Catsam on Dec 17, 2006

Derek Charles Catsam

In recent weeks the world has seen the passing of two of the most notorious autocrats of the late 20th century: South Africa’s P.W. Botha and Chile’s Augusto Pinochet. Botha and Pinochet shared many similarities. Both were right-wing ideologues who cynically utilized fears of communism to crush opposition to their tyrannical regimes. Both used the apparatus of their military and police security forces to fight the advances of democracy. Both scoffed at their critics with finger-waving obstinacy. And both managed to escape being brought to book for the gross human rights violations carried out under their regimes.

But if the atrocities over which Pinochet and Botha presided will link them to the violent century they outlived, the deceased also share something else: In both Chile and South Africa, their tyrannical regimes gave way to democracies. The leaders of the new governments that emerged in their place in turn established as an important mandate the goal of shedding light on the horrors that preceded them. In South Africa, a new government established the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), the chair of which was Archbishop Desmond Tutu. In Chile the government of Patricio Aylwin established the National Commission on Truth and Reconciliation, also known as the Rettig Commission, after its chairman, Raul Rettig.

These truth commissions served a vital purpose in helping to cleanse their countries of a noxious past by unpeeling layers of obfuscation. They also established a permanent record that men like Botha and Pinochet tried to erase. Both bodies revealed the atrocities that their perpetrators had tried to keep hidden. Pinochet and Botha (and Botha’s predecessors) had devoted considerable energy to assure that the abductions, torture and murders that once characterized Chile and South Africa were concealed behind a wall of deceit.

Neither process was perfect. In Chile in particular an unsatisfactory resolution prevailed because police, military and political officials had already received blanket amnesty. Nor did the commission name perpetrators (though there are provisions for those names to be made public in 2016). South Africans managed to avoid automatic amnesty, but the TRC did provide for an amnesty process that left many victims of apartheid and their families extremely disenchanted with the process.

But whatever their flaws the TRC and the Rettig Commission served a vital purpose in each of their countries: Each allowed truths that otherwise might have disappeared alongside the victims of evil to see the light of day. Each allowed victims, so long silenced, to be heard. And each laid bare the records of men like P.W. Botha and Augusto Pinochet.

One example of the revelatory capacity of these bodies will suffice. In mid-1985 four African men from the Eastern Cape town of Cradock, including a popular teacher and community leader, Matthew Goniwe, disappeared while returning from a meeting in Port Elizabeth. Authorities discovered their charred and mutilated bodies and the burnt-out husk of Goniwe’s car. Immediately, suspicions turned toward the security forces whose members had been active in so much violence in South Africa during the 1980s. And yet even after two full government inquests (the second of which was called after a newspaper discovered and reported correspondence at the highest level of the security force apparatus calling for Goniwe “to be permanently removed from society”), the security forces had walked away with their identities safe.

What had remained hidden for more than a decade was revealed when the police responsible for the killings of “The Cradock Four,” as they had come to be known, applied to the TRC for amnesty. Without the TRC process the murders of Goniwe and his colleagues would have been carried to their graves by the men who had ruthlessly and coldly carried out the murders. Many of those men will be alive for many years.

One of the goals of any closed society is to prevent the depths of its behavior from becoming well known. In Chile and South Africa men such as Pinochet and Botha required a security apparatus that could act irrevocably, like an iceberg, its volume and breadth submerged. But in the end people who demanded freedom overcame the regimes over which these dead men presided. And in the process of demanding freedom, they called for truth. Freedom is not just about the future. It is also about recovering the past.

Governments that try to operate against their citizens in shadows inevitably inspire a citizenry committed to openness and truth. Pinochet and Botha ran into forces pushing for democracy and an open society that they were not equipped to overcome. These men will not be missed. But the lessons we learned from them, and more importantly from those who stood up against them, will endure.


Derek Catsam is an associate professor of history at the University of Texas of the Permian Basin and a writer for the History News Service. He is the author of "Freedom's Main Line: The Journey of Reconciliation and the Freedom Rides"