Skip to main content

South Africa Seeks Peace in Truth and Reconciliation

Priscilla Hayner, a Senior Fellow at the World Policy Institute, New School for Social Research, has been studying truth commissions. She is the author of numerous articles on the subject and is now working to complete a book. She will discuss the importance of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission.


Other segments from the episode on May 29, 1997

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, May 29, 1997: Interview with Priscilla Hayner; Interview with Mark Behr.


Date: MAY 29, 1997
Time: 12:00
Tran: 052903np.217
Head: South Africa's Truth Commissions
Sect: News; International
Time: 12:06


South Africa is one of the new democracies that is trying to uncover the truth of its repressive past. Like several other new democracies, it created a truth commission. The commission has offered amnesty to people who honestly confess to their politically-motivated human rights violations.

The period for requesting amnesty expired earlier this month. Approximately 8,000 people have applied. Those who confessed to gross human rights violations are given public hearings. The Reconciliation and Truth Commission will wrap up the public hearings phase of its investigation July 1st.

My guest Priscilla Hayner is writing a book about truth commissions around the world and the questions they raise about the relationship between justice, truth, and reconciliation. She's a senior fellow at the World Policy Institute. I asked her why South Africa's truth commission is granting amnesty instead of prosecuting those who have committed human rights violations.

PRISCILLA HAYNER, SENIOR FELLOW, WORLD POLICY INSTITUTE, NEW SCHOOL FOR SOCIAL RESEARCH: Originally, this was very much a political compromise, to have an amnesty that would be part of this new government, this new government that was a government of national unity but certainly led by the African National Congress, the ANC.

Over time, as that amnesty came to be written into the truth commission, and it was set up that for someone to receive amnesty, they must give something first -- they must tell publicly the full truth of their involvement in the acts that they're applying for amnesty for.

It has become much more broadly defended and enthusiastically promoted in South Africa by many levels, certainly all political levels, that the truth commission was the only way to go for the country, that massive trials were not possible for a number of reasons.

There weren't the resources. There was not enough information about many of the key players. Some of the information coming out now just wasn't known, and there wasn't the documentation to take people to court.

At the same time, so many people were implicated. I mean, not only in running the apartheid state, but the many abuses behind that, and of course abuses also that took place on the ANC side. So, the truth commission has filled the void of needing to confront what has happened in the past. And it has turned into a hope for a national reconciliation.

GROSS: Now, if you apply for amnesty, do you necessarily get amnesty?

HAYNER: No. And that's important to know. You actually have to, you have to fulfill certain requirements when you apply for amnesty. First, of course, you have to tell the full truth about the acts that you were involved in.

The amnesty, if it is given, is given not as a broad amnesty for the person, but for the specific acts that they apply for. Now, that will include telling who it is that gave you orders to take part in or carry out the acts that you were involved in. So in other words, it goes up the chain by each amnesty applicant pointing to others.

You also have to show that the act was a political act. In other words, if you're a white racist under the apartheid regime and you killed a black person because you didn't like him, or maybe because he stole something from your business or because maybe you thought he was doing something you didn't, you weren't in favor of, that's not enough.

You have to prove that you killed the person for political reasons, that that person was a part of a political organization, and you also were acting as a political, as for example, representing a political organization.

The third thing is that you have to show that your act was proportional to the political objective that you were trying to pursue. In other words, if you killed 10 people, you know, a whole family, let's say, because you're trying to stop the distribution of leaflets of one member of that family, that's not proportional.

So, it's hard to say what "proportional" actually means. And actually that's one of the aspects that's been quite controversial in South Africa, because some of the amnesty applications that have been approved have been questionable as to whether they were proportional in that sense. That's something that they are constantly struggling with.

GROSS: Say Mr. X is confessing to his crimes, and he implicates Mr. Y. He says Mr. Y gave him the orders to do it. But Mr. Y hasn't applied for amnesty. Mr. Y hasn't confessed. What happens to Mr. Y? The person who gave the orders?

HAYNER: Well, what's interesting is that if this had been a month ago, Mr. Y could then apply for amnesty. He would be notified in advance of the hearing that his name would be mentioned. This happens in any public hearing of the truth commission, that if someone is to be named as a perpetrator, they must be notified in advance. This has been a court order now.

But now that the amnesty deadline has passed, there is a very interesting dynamic, because people will be named. In the process of the hearings, other names will come out. And no one knows yet what all those 8,000 amnesty applications say and who they do name.

So presumably, there will be many people that are implicated, who chose not to take that step of applying for the amnesty. They bargained that they could get away with not applying. And they will probably, some of them may well feel the consequences for it. And that person could then be prosecuted.

GROSS: What do you think have been some of the most important revelations that have surfaced through the Truth and Reconciliation Commission?

HAYNER: The revelations actually have come out on a number of levels. There of course have been a number of well known cases, certainly in South Africa, there's a dozen or two or more of very well known cases, that have now, publicly, information has started to come out from them, from the truth commission process.

And that itself has been very important. I mean, the headlines are literally daily there, in terms of who's saying what about who and exactly what cases are being dug up by the commission, or what cases are being dealt with at the hearings.

But on another level, the combination of the commission and a couple of high profile trials that have gone forward over the last year has outlined in a way that we have not seen before the structure of the violence and the structure of the repression of the apartheid state.

For example, the violence that has engulfed the eastern part of the country, Kwazulu Natal it's called, was, you know -- and has long been either assumed or then documented to be as -- rooted in basically a campaign by the white government to foment black-on-black violence. Now that -- many people had accepted that to be true.

But it wasn't until a very high level trial of the former minister of defense, Magnus Malan, and 19 other people, as well as some of the hearings in front of the truth commission, including the questions put forward to former President de Klerk a few weeks ago, that has really made very clear exactly what that structure of violence was about, and how the state was behind that.

Now, I should say that that is true despite the fact that there is still denial going on. Former President de Klerk himself denies that he knew about any of this, that he was involved, even though the commission has said to him that they have very clear evidence of his, of certainly his government's involvement and that it would be highly unlikely that he wouldn't have known about it.

The former minister of defense, Magnus Malan, continues to deny his involvement. And he was acquitted in that major trial, he and his 19 co-defendants were acquitted.

GROSS: When former President de Klerk said that the government didn't authorize murder and torture, Desmond Tutu, the head of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, said that de Klerk's answers were unacceptable. Then de Klerk said that his party, the National Party, would boycott the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. What does that mean?

HAYNER: No one seems to know exactly what that means, actually. On a practical level, former President de Klerk has already come forward to the commission representing his political party, the National Party, which was in power for so many years, to answer questions of the commission.

At this point, his involvement -- since he has not applied for amnesty -- his involvement perhaps would be to be subpoenaed to the commission to answer further questions, and that's not an optional response. If you're subpoenaed, you can serve three years in jail if you don't respond, or be fined.

So it's not clear on a practical level what the political party's statement that they will pull out will mean. On a more social or moral level, it could take away some of the legitimacy certainly from those quarters that support the National Party.

GROSS: We're talking about the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission. My guest is Priscilla Hayner, and she has been studying truth commissions around the world and is currently writing a book comparing them. Let's take a short break, and then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.

We're talking about South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission. My guest is Priscilla Hayner, and she's been studying similar truth commissions around the world and is writing a book about them. She's been to South Africa and sat in on hearings from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

Priscilla, one of the most, I think, important revelations to have come out during the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to date is the story of Stephen Biko's murder. Stephen Biko was a young, charismatic leader of the anti-apartheid movement.

And he was arrested, and he died while he was arrested. Everybody, well, a lot of people assumed he was murdered by the police. But the police and all government authorities denied that and said it was an accident.

The police who were responsible for the murder confessed to that, as part of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings. Now, Stephen Biko's widow, though, was very upset because she doesn't want these people to get amnesty.

She'd prefer that there be a more formal prosecution and that they be punished. So I guess in a lot of ways the Biko case really epitomizes the debate over prosecution versus amnesty.

HAYNER: It does. That case, of course, is one of the cases that's better known both there in the country and here and elsewhere in the world. When the commission began its work, as you say, the widow of Stephen Biko joined with members of two other families of victims to sue the commission -- to stop the provision of the amnesty.

They said that the constitution of South Africa holds that they should be allowed due justice in the courts. The Constitutional Court of South Africa ruled against those families. And the amnesty provision of course is still in effect.

Now, this is really, I think, representative of some of the sentiment that is quite strong in the country. Not everyone is in support of the process, and certainly not everyone is in support of the amnesty provision.

Is it enough for people to only know the truth? Is that what they want? I think often they do want to be able to take someone to court, and not only to possibly punish the person, but also for civil claims, for example, to sue for damages.

Both of those are wiped out by an amnesty that would be granted by the truth commission. So, it's very difficult. I mean, it's hard to get a sense, and I'm not sure if anyone there knows sort of how it breaks out in terms of how many people are supportive and not supportive of the process and of the amnesty provision, but there is controversy still, and some families are unhappy.

Now, it's also to say that Stephen Biko was a very well known case. There are other either well known cases or cases that come from more privileged families that would have, you know, reasonably expected to have their day in court.

Most others, that is not a reasonable expectation. The numbers just do not allow for the vast majority of victims to have their chance to prosecute the person, even if they know the identity of the perpetrator.

GROSS: There's one very well known case that's proceeding on two tracks at the same time, the criminal justice system and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. I'm thinking of Derek Coatsey (ph). Tell us who he is and about these two parallel tracks.

HAYNER: Sure. In brief, Derek Coatsey was for many years a killer and a murderer for the state of South Africa. He killed many people. In 1989, he left the country for complicated reasons -- in part for his own interests -- he left the country and turned over his information to the ANC.

In the last few years he's come back and has always, since 1989, actually, and at that time some of the stories came out publicly, what he was saying, and he has since never denied what it is that he's done. He's sorry for it.

He, as he said to me when I interviewed him in South Africa, you know, he said you carry these corpses around with you for the rest of your life. I mean, you can feel his sense of agony.

But he did do a lot of quite horrible things. One of the stories that he tells is sitting around a campfire, not exactly a campfire, a bonfire, with a number of his security force colleagues with several ANC dissidents that they had picked up, roasting on the fire, I mean, literally.

And Derek Coatsey and his colleagues sat and had a barbecue and drank beer while these people were roasting over the fire. I mean, quite gruesome stories. Now, he has applied for amnesty for many of the acts that he has publicly admitted to many times.

In the meantime, he was also indicted by one of the attorneys general in South Africa. That case has gone forward. He has been convicted as of a few weeks ago. And he now stands convicted while his amnesty application is still pending.

This case, I think, shows how complicated the relationship is between the truth commission happening on one side, which is not a court body, it's not, it doesn't represent the courts -- it's an independent government commission -- versus the trials that are going forward in a way that they should.

Now, what's complicated is that when he was indicted he tried to stop the trial before or until his own amnesty application could be considered. That did not happen. His trial went forward nonetheless, and his amnesty application will be considered relatively shortly.

People presume that he will probably get amnesty, because people pretty much know what he's done. They were political acts. He was working for the state, et cetera.

GROSS: So, he won't serve a sentence until the amnesty is decided on, and if he gets amnesty, he won't serve any sentence? If he doesn't get amnesty, he will be sentenced?

HAYNER: Exactly.

GROSS: Have most people been apologizing when they confess to the truth commission? An apology isn't essential to getting amnesty, just confession.

HAYNER: That's right. Some people have and some people haven't. And it's disconcerting, actually, I think not only for a neutral observer, but also certainly to the families, to see a perpetrator confess to the, very much the details of what they did, and not to apologize, or not even to look as if they feel sorry for what they did.

GROSS: Remorse?

HAYNER: Remorse. That's not required. You can't require remorse, really. If you did, of course, you know, when to judge whether it's really real? But it's difficult. It's difficult to watch people in some cases tell full and quite horrific stories about what they did without a sense of compassion for the victims.

GROSS: You've studied similar truth commissions in other countries. And I'm wondering how some of those countries have used the information that's emerged from the truth commissions?

HAYNER: The ideal scenario is that the commission is not only a process but, of course, also a product, and a product in the form of a report that is put to use.

Most truth commissions end with at least one good solid chapter of recommendations for the state, reforms that should be implemented, judicial reforms, political reforms in the police force, mechanisms to prevent these kinds of abuses from taking place in the future.

Now, there is a mixed record in the 20 or so cases of previous truth commissions around the world as to how far these recommendations that are left behind have been implemented. But the commission, even leaving that aside, the commission's report has in many cases provided a written record of the country's history that otherwise doesn't exist, and can very quickly be either erased or manipulated for purposes of the political leaders.

If you look at a place like Argentina or El Salvador or even Uganda or Sri Lanka, which is now finishing up its truth commission this month, the reports serve to officially acknowledge what it was that this state has been responsible for, and unsilences that part of the past that previously has never been easily talked about publicly.

In other words, for victims, especially if you look at countries such as, often in Latin America, the practice that has been common is the disappearance of persons. They are taken away. Never seen again.

And, if this is under a military regime, for example, it is common that talking about such events is impossible. I mean, if you talk about what's happened, you yourself are put at risk.

By having the state print a report that says 9,000 people disappeared in Argentina, there are 20,000 documented victims of either killing or torture in El Salvador, et cetera, that can change the dynamic about, change the dynamic of people being able to speak about their own past and about their own family's experiences.

GROSS: I want to thank you very much for talking with us.

HAYNER: Thank you.

GROSS: Priscilla Hayner is writing a book about truth commissions around the world. She's a senior fellow at the World Policy Institute at the New School for Social Research in New York.

Dateline: Terry Gross, Philadelphia
Guest: Priscilla Hayner
High: Priscilla Hayner, a senior fellow at the World Policy Institute, New School for Social Research, has been studying truth commissions. She is the author of numerous articles on the subject and is now working to complete a book. She will discuss the importance of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
Spec: Africa; South Africa; Truth Commissions; Apartheid; Trials; Courts

Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright (c) 1997 National Public Radio, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by Federal Document Clearing House, Inc. under license from National Public Radio, Inc. Formatting copyright (c) 1997 Federal Document Clearing House, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to National Public Radio, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission. For further information please contact NPR's Business Affairs at (202) 414-2954
End-Story: South Africa's Truth Commissions
Date: MAY 29, 1997
Time: 12:00
Tran: 052902np.217
Head: The Smell of Apples
Sect: News; International
Time: 12:32

TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

One year ago, white South African Mark Behr made a public confession. When he was a college student during the days of apartheid, he was paid by the South African police to spy on students who were anti-apartheid activists. Behr not only succeeded in infiltrating his campus' activist movement, he became a leader of it.

One year ago, Behr submitted a written confession to South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission. His confession caused quite a stir. People who assumed he was a long time opponent of apartheid were shocked that he once worked against the movement.

He had also already become famous for his novel, "The Smell of Apples," which condemns the way the Afrikaner system indoctrinated young boys. Readers assumed Behr's hands were clean. He's currently living in the states working toward his doctorate at Notre Dame, and says he plans to return home after his studies are completed.

I asked Mark Behr why he decided to confess.

MARK BEHR, AUTHOR, "THE SMELL OF APPLES": I would say that over the years, particularly since 1990, when -- when I first spoke to the Liberation movement about my political past, I -- I have really wanted to speak. At that point, the Liberation movement felt that it was not a good time for a white informer or a spy -- whatever word we want to use -- to -- to speak publicly in that the very notion of non-racialism, which is exploited by white trait in a black -- in a black struggle, was very problematic in the pre-election period.

I think from the moment I heard last year, or towards the end of the previous year, that there was going to be a Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa, I felt that there was a sanction, a progressive political sanction, on me speaking publicly, or for me to speak publicly. So politically, that was the -- the environment which informed my decision.

Psychologically, I have felt guilt, remorse, depression, anxiety, and have known that unless I actually articulate this past publicly and take responsibility for it, leaving behind narcissistic guilt to -- to -- to take this onto the plane of language out of one's own mind, I wouldn't be able to live comfortably with it.

So all of those sorts of things -- you know, it isn't possible for me to give you one easy answer. But those sorts of things.

GROSS: Now, let me back up a minute. You said politically, your friends in the Liberation movement didn't want you to go public earlier. So that means you had friends in the movement who knew that you had been a spy.

BEHR: I, at a certain moment, knew that I couldn't comfortably continue being a spy for the South African government. At that moment, I went and spoke with the African National Congress in Lusaka, in Zambia, and said clearly then that I was willing to go public with the information.

Then at the behest of the Liberation movement, or the representative of the Liberation movement with whom I was dealing, I became what was called a double agent, and gave the ANC whatever information I had access to, and then continued to -- to be a double agent for two years.

But beyond the -- the Liberation movement and the leaders in the Liberation movement, my -- my intimate friends, the people who had been in progressive political organization with me at university, those people did not know. And they only found out about this last year when -- when I started speaking to them.

GROSS: Well, I can just barely imagine what it's like psychologically to have to function as a double agent.

BEHR: Yes, I think one gets into all kinds of knots. And perhaps at this point, I should point out that in this country I frequently come across incredibly naive ideas about what constitutes being a spy or being an informer. And there's frequently a very romantic idea of high intrigue, which is belied by one's experience.

It is an indefensible thing to spy on people. It is a task which feeds on manipulation. And I think it's very important for people to understand that, that there's nothing romantic or attractive about this, which is called the second oldest profession in history.

GROSS: How were you first approached by the South African police?

BEHR: An uncle of mine was a general. I was also from a low-middle class family. I could not pay my university studies to be at university full time. And my uncle, who is a general, thought, I suppose kindheartedly, that he was doing me a favor by saying to me, "Why don't you inform? Why don't you spy for us?"

At that point, I had also just left the South African Defense Force. I had been a Marine officer in the Angolan war. Some of the listeners might want to know that as 18-year-olds, most South African boys were conscripted for -- for two years.

I went into the Army. And I really loved being a soldier, as much of an indictment as that is. I thrived on -- on the life of -- of a soldier.

I never liked being an informer or a spy. It seemed to me wrong really from the offset. However, and to backtrack a little, within the context of me having been a Marine officer, having just come out of this war, when the approach was made by my -- my uncle, I was still very much in a military patriarchal sort of mind set in that I respected the rank sitting next to me asking me this question.

And it didn't seem to me to be incongruous with my ideas at the time of slow ordered political reform in South Africa. It was really only once probably within six to eight months after I had become a spy that I started realizing the magnitude of what I was involved in, the -- the seriousness of -- of what I was doing and who I could conceivably do immense damage to.

GROSS: What information do the South African police want you to give them?

BEHR: I was at a conservative white Afrikaner university. And there was a fledgling progressive organization, which was affiliated with the National Union of South African Students. And their request was -- or the command, whatever I had agreed to -- was for me to write reports on the sort of discussions which were happening within the organization. This would include -- sorry, not within the organization generally, specifically within meetings of the organization.

So I would write reports which would say: "The following people attended this meeting..." Incidentally, these were never secret meetings. They were fairly public meetings in the sense that anyone who was a member of the organization, and it was an open organization, could -- could attend.

So "The following people attended the meeting. These and these issues were discussed. This and this program of action has been decided on." I suppose that if I had remained a committed spy to the extent that I ever was one, the expectation would have been for me to -- to befriend specific people with the idea of infiltrating the -- the African National Congress, the ANC -- to get into its underground structures with the aim of undermining the struggle on the ground, particularly the armed struggle, but also to provide the South African police with access to -- to the inner sanctums of the mind of the struggle for justice in South Africa.

As I said earlier, I very soon realized the decrepitude of what I was doing. But I was too frightened, I was too much of a coward. I didn't have the moral backbone to -- to quit.

And I very soon started editing the sort of information that I was giving through. Within a year of being in the organization, I had also become the leader of the organization. I was the chair, the chairperson of the organization. And in a certain sense, could then determine what I wanted the police to know and what I didn't want them to know. So in a certain sense, one really believed in your own invincibility. You know, you were really able to -- to bluff all -- all sides.

GROSS: My guest is South African novelist Mark Behr.

We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: My guest is Mark Behr, a South African novelist. Last year, he submitted a written confession to the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission saying that while he was a college student, he was paid by the South African police to spy on the campus anti-apartheid movement.

What did you believe politically when you were an informer for the police, yet heading the anti-apartheid student organization?

BEHR: I believed absolutely within a year, within a year of being an informer, I believed absolutely that the struggle for justice in South Africa was a struggle for power and that that was the correct and only way to transform apartheid as -- as it had been in place for -- for 40-odd years.

For me at that point, I -- I made a very selfish, and perhaps in retrospect, a very ill-informed decision, and that was to continue being a spy in the hope that I could manipulate the information that the police had access to, in a certain sense, believing that I had the ability to bluff my way around.

I had inquired I believe on two occasions very tentatively from the police how one quits the police and was told that of course I could leave at -- at any moment that I so choose. But -- and this was the proviso -- the danger was always there that I would be exposed as a police informer. And I made the strategic decision then to -- to continue because I felt that it was less damaging to the organization to have what I wanted to believe -- and again, you know, one -- one -- one bluffs yourself ultimately. I wanted to believe that it was better having me there than having someone else there that had a whole number of other skills to offer the student organization.

The student organization was growing considerably under my leadership. You know, and I think then all kinds of psychological things come into play together with the political things and that is the terror of being shamed, the terror of acknowledging the extent to which one was a reactionary, that one was a soldier, that one was a racist and had made a political paradigm shift.

Today, it's very easy for me to do that because I've thought about it a lot. I've had so many public platforms, within which or on which I could deal with some of the stuff. But, you know, at the time, one didn't want to -- to acknowledge where you were coming from.

GROSS: What is the most harm that you think you did, and the most damaging information that you think you passed on to the South African authorities?

BEHR: I've now asked a non-governmental organization in South Africa to -- to assist me in getting what might be available of my police files opened so that both myself and my friends and people that I betrayed directly might have access to, so that -- so that we can actually look at precisely what I wrote.

I think if I did serious harm to people, it would have been in the first six-to-eight months of being an informer. After that, I do think I manipulated information fairly successfully, to the extent that, for example, when I knew of people working for the ANC underground, I never reported that to the police. And in later years when I was asked by the police whether I had known about it, I would simply deny that I had known about it.

You know, so within this very immoral position I choose to place myself, you know, I tried in various ways to -- to make some moral decisions. But ultimately -- and I -- and I want to be very clear on this -- one doesn't know how the information was used. And whilst no one at Stelambash (ph) -- the university where I was -- was arrested or detained or tortured, it's possible that information that I used or that I gave the police was used in other ways, for example, to -- to do personal damage to people, to spread rumors about people, et cetera. You know, and this is part of what one hopes to establish if we can get the files opened, if we perhaps get my hander in the police and the person in the ANC to whom I was accountable to -- to cooperate.

The other problem is that there has been no precedent in South Africa for this. So there hasn't been a route which I could follow to say this and this is how one goes about it. It's really been a process of trial and error with me trying to work out in consultation with the people that I betrayed, how one can establish at least the most truth possible, given the complexities of the information and policing network in South Africa.

GROSS: You first confessed publicly that you'd spied for the South African police at a conference related to the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission. You gave the key note at that conference.

Then after that, you sent a written inventory of what you had done to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. However, you didn't ask the commission for amnesty. Why didn't you ask for amnesty?

BEHR: Firstly, having been at a white Afrikaner conservative university, it seems unlikely that I was responsible for gross human rights violations. Note that I say it seems unlikely. One doesn't know. And one hopes that in the process ahead, we might be able to establish whether indeed I was.

I have committed myself in the inventory that I supplied to the Truth Commission to appearing at the commission if they so wished. And I suppose at that point that I would have to decide whether I would like to apply for amnesty or not.

It seems, and from the advice that I have been given by people both in the Liberation movement, in the ANC, and by legal friends, that -- that I really don't have to apply for amnesty, that the transgression I am responsible for is probably not of the nature that requires an application for amnesty. But then on the third level, I must say that I have some problems with the notion of applying for amnesty and being granted amnesty for crimes that may have, and did in many many instances in South Africa, in tens of thousands of instances in South Africa, caused immense pain to people and immense harm.

I have often thought that were I guilty of causing serious suffering to someone, I would actually prefer to -- to be punished for it, to undertake responsibility for -- for what I had done, legally, rather than simply politically. I think there's a certain danger in the process of -- of granting amnesty to -- to perpetrators of serious and gross human rights violations.

I think whilst there's a catharsis and opened up of space in which both victims and perpetrators can -- can tell their stories, one of the problems with the way in which amnesty has been granted at the moment is that there's no requirement for contrition. People don't even have to feel sorry for what they did. I don't know how victims forgive someone who confesses merely for the sake of amnesty.

I -- I have reservations about it, that I understand the real politics of it. I understand that this is a process aimed at reconciliation. It's a process aimed at creating space in which perhaps more perpetrators will come forward than would if it were simply a legal attempt to get perpetrators to speak. It's also an attempt to give victims a platform to have their voices heard.

And I -- I -- I support the process generally. But the question of amnesty is something I haven't really resolved in my own mind, something I feel too ambiguous about to -- to embrace openly.

GROSS: My guest is South African novelist Mark Behr. Last year, he confessed that while he was a student, he spied on the campus anti-apartheid movement.

We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: My guest is Mark Behr, a South African novelist. Last year, he submitted a written confession to the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission saying that while he was a college student, he was paid by the South African police to spy on the campus anti-apartheid movement.

Now, there's a piece of the puzzle that I think we've left out. Probably a lot of pieces, but one in particular that I can think of. And that is -- and you've discussed this in other settings that you're gay. And you were not out of the closet at the time that you were spying. And the police found out that you were gay. And that was something they could have used against you. How much did that figure into your decision to not tell the police that you were going to stop spying for them?

BEHR: Yeah, I think the whole question of -- of being gay and having bought into the military system and the male system in South Africa is very central to all of this. I think to the extent that one had led a closeted life as -- as a sexual being, it was easy to -- or easier, sorry -- to -- to live the sort of double life that went with -- with espionage.

I, through the people that I was spying on, became increasingly comfortable with my own sexuality. It was through those people that I started envisaging the possibility of living an openly gay life. You know, these were people who were reading Marx, who were reading Hegel and Grumshy (ph) and so forth, philosophers and theorists who exposed the extent to which the world and its morality is a construction that nothing is inherent, that things are frequently a function of power rather than -- than real.

And I think, you know, the paradox of my experience is that if -- if I weren't a spy, I would not have become radicalized. I would not have developed the -- the insights and the political ethics which I believe I know have. And I most certainly would not have been gay and comfortable and very happy with myself as being out of the closet and unashamedly so.

GROSS: Did the police at some point let you know that they knew that you were gay and that they were willing to use that against you?

BEHR: Yes. By 1989, when the political movement at the campus where I was studying had grown considerably, and the police were increasingly seeing me as a force of agitation of radicalization, rather than as a useful informant to them, I was told that I would have to leave the Stelambash university where I was studying.

At that point I made it clear because the organization wanted me to -- to stay at Stelambash because the organization -- the political organization -- felt I was doing a rather good job on campus. At that point, the police then said to me that unless I left, it was probable, even very likely, that my history of closeted gay relationships, which I of course didn't know they knew about, would be exposed. And at that point I think I definitively decided to -- to speak to the ANC, and also to systematically start coming out of the closet so that this could never be used against me again.

GROSS: Well, one last question. Your novel "The Smell of Apples" was a critical unpopular success in South Africa. And you got a lot of publicity for it, as successful books tend to get.

Were you worried when you were getting the publicity that you were going to be discovered because this -- this came before you made your confession? Did you worry that somehow something was going to be revealed about you that would lead to information on your having spied, and that you wouldn't be able to control the information? When you confess, you control it. You explain it...

BEHR: Right.

GROSS: ... you give all the subtleties.

BEHR: Very much so. I think that it's something I want to, and have been, rather honest about, and that is that, you know, the more success "The Smell of Apples" achieved, the more I knew that the rationale, the logic for my remaining silent, was being neutralized, i.e. that you know, we didn't want to make a big scandal of the fact that another white person had betrayed a black struggle.

And I knew that the more successful the novel was becoming, the bigger this issue was going to be. Whereas, if I had spoken in 1990 as I had wanted to, it would have probably been a small scandal and over with, but most certainly part of my eventual decision to confess was to confess on my own terms, to let the truth come from my mouth, as opposed to from somewhere else.

One does know -- and this is very important for me to say -- that it's possible that all sides will defend their traitors or their spies, their informers. I mean, it would have been possible for me to deny this for the rest of my life, as probably 98 percent of spies and informers the world do -- the world over do. I chose not to do that.

GROSS: Mark Behr is now in the U.S., working toward his doctorate at Notre Dame. He's the author of the novel "The Smell of Apples" about a boy brought up in the Afrikaner system.

Dateline: Terry Gross, Philadelphia
Guest: Mark Behr
High: Author Mark Behr talks about his experience spying on his peers as a college student for the South African government and his subsequent public confession of his actions. His novel "The Smell of Apples" is the story of a young boy growing up in South Africa at the time of apartheid and it explains how a person could be convinced that apartheid is a morally legitimate form of government.
Spec: Africa; South Africa; The Smell of Apples; Espionage; Apartheid; Youth; Books

Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright (c) 1997 National Public Radio, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by Federal Document Clearing House, Inc. under license from National Public Radio, Inc. Formatting copyright (c) 1997 Federal Document Clearing House, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to National Public Radio, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission. For further information please contact NPR's Business Affairs at (202) 414-2954
End-Story: The Smell of Apples
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

You May Also like

Did you know you can create a shareable playlist?


Recently on Fresh Air Available to Play on NPR


Rep. Adam Schiff weighs in on the raid at Trump's Mar-a-Lago home

Schiff reflects on the significance of the top-secret documents seized from Trump's residence. He led the first impeachment and serves on the House's committee investigating the Jan. 6 insurrection.


Robin Thede wants her sketch show to open doors for other Black voices

Thede's HBO series, A Black Lady Sketch Show, is the first sketch comedy show solely written, directed and starring Black women. "It is a nonstop job," she says of the various hats she wears.

There are more than 22,000 Fresh Air segments.

Let us help you find exactly what you want to hear.
Just play me something
Your Queue

Would you like to make a playlist based on your queue?

Generate & Share View/Edit Your Queue