‘A Long Night’s Journey into Day’ — distinguishing process and progress of reconciliation in South Africa

‘A Long Night’s Journey into Day’ — distinguishing process and progress of reconciliation in South Africa
by Allan LEONARD
4 August 2022

As part of the Feile programme of events, and supported by the Department of Foreign Affair’s Reconciliation Fund, the award-winning documentary film about South Africa’s truth and reconciliation process, A Long Night’s Journey into Day, was screened at the James Connolly Visitors Centre, followed by a comprehensive discussion with Professor Brandon Hamber, who shared his experience of the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC).


The film covers four stories from the over 22,000 stories submitted to the TRC: the murder of American exchange student, Amy Biehl; the disappearance and murder of Matthew Goniwe and Fort Calata (an incident known as “the Cradock Four”); the death of three women killed by a car bomb detonated by Robert McBride; and the killing of police of “seven terrorists” (an incident known as “the Gugulethu Seven”).

A remarkable scene in the story of Amy Biehl was the uniting of her surviving mother and the mother of the man convicted of her murder. We learn that Biehl’s parents do not oppose the murderer’s application for amnesty; her father supported the TRC process, saying: “The most important vehicle of reconciliation is open and honest dialogue…”

In the case of the Cradock Four, the amnesty applicant was a former police officer, Eric Taylor, who explained that he was moved by the film, Mississippi Burning, and by reading Nelson Mandela’s autobiography: “[The incident] weighed heavy on my soul.”

Robert McBride belonged to Umkhonto we Sizwe (the paramilitary wing of the African National Congress), and justified his violence on being “a product of Apartheid”. He added: “No one has apologised to me yet for the oppression of Apartheid.” Although he was convicted and subsequently released from prison, he sought amnesty “out of the spirit of reconciliation”. He expressed remorse to one of the murdered women’s sister: “It was nothing personal.” She said that McBride came across as “very arrogant”.

In March 1986, local television reported: “Police killed seven terrorists today”, referring to the Gugulethu Seven. Tony Weaver reflected on his role as a journalist and whether he and others should have questioned more the veracity of the information supplied to them. For example, he said that later one of the widows told him that she suspected that the pistol found with her son was planted, as she knew her son had never handled such a weapon. Weaver said that he found it cathartic to discuss this case and his experience in public at the TRC.

In between the stories were short contributions from TRC commissioners and observers. For example, Reverend Desmond Tutu explained that the TRC was not about retributive justice but restorative justice, and that this being done “in the full glare of television lights [is] pretty tough”. Also, journalist Jann Turner (whose father was killed in South Africa in 1978) wondered out loud why some survivors didn’t seek revenge but were willing “to sit with cups of tea and listen”. She quoted a poem that spoke to her:

“History, despite its wrenching pain, cannot be unlived, but if faced with courage, need not be lived again.” — Maya Angelou

Brandon Hamber and Seanna Walsh. Screening of film, A Long Night’s Journey into Day. Feile an Phobail. James Connolly Visitors Centre, Belfast, Northern Ireland. © Allan LEONARD @MrUlster

In response

Séanna Walsh, who manages the James Connolly Centre, introduced this event’s guest respondent, Prof. Brandon Hamber, who answered the first question from the audience by saying that there was a broad buy-in from South African politicians and civil society in the TRC process, which was assisted by a public appointment process. Yet he pointed out that draft legislation stated that the hearings would be in private; this was amended so that they would be in public. Furthermore, there were 200 hours of debate on the bill, in contrast to the rushed timetable for the Northern Ireland Troubles (Legacy and Reconciliation) bill.

Hamber explained that to be considered for amnesty, an applicant had to demonstrate that their crime was “a political act” with political objectives. Ordinary crimes such as burglary or killing committed for personal gain or malice were insufficient and this ruled out many of the “chancers” who applied for amnesty. But was racism itself deemed a political motive? Hamber said that it sounds obvious that it is in the apartheid context, but noted that in the scenario whereby a white farmer kills a black person for trespassing, it would more than likely be ineligible for amnesty, as it was an ordinary crime (trespassing) or racist without political motive. However, this point was debated in the case of Amy Biehl — did her murderers kill her because of her race alone (a young white woman in a black township) or were they motivated politically? The TRC decided it was the latter, citing wider political tensions at the scene of the event, and the applicants were granted amnesty.

An audience member asked whether there have been many prosecutions since the end of the TRC process. Hamber replied by explaining the carrot and stick approach of the TRC: people applied for the carrot of amnesty because they feared the stick of prosecution. In practice, this meant: (a) nothing you disclosed could be used against you (unless the same information was discovered by another means), but (b) prosecutions would resume after the deadline for submitting an amnesty application. In the end, 300 names were given to the prosecution service after the TRC ended, for their consideration, but only about half a dozen prosecutions have taken place. The final TRC report sent to the government was sat on and no action took place for some time; Hamber felt that the public prosecution service should have prosecuted “the day after the TRC ended”, to show the seriousness of the stick element of the process.

So what should we make of the outcomes of the TRC? Hamber said that of the over 20,000 individual statements provided to the TRC, a rough estimate would suggest 10%  found some truth via new information revealed. Although this could be seen as a low percentage, 2,000 is greater than, say, ten families that may have achieved the same via a public prosecution route. Hamber defended the TRC process, as “a real attempt to find truth”, even if it had flaws. In contrast, he criticised the current legislation planned for Northern Ireland, because “there is no design to move to truth”; the intention of the TRC in comparison was truth recovery.

Hamber said that it was important to note that the film mixes separate, individual events with the proceedings of the TRC. For example, the TRC did not say there have to be or should be private meetings or for the applicants to ask or seek forgiveness. Rather, private meetings were facilitated by civil society organisations. 

Hamber added that healing for individuals happens with context and over time; there is no singular formula: “Just because people are crying doesn’t mean that they’re getting better.” He called such portrayals of progress a “McDonald’s of grief” and that healing is more long-term and complicated.

In regard to whether the UK Government has a veto over a truth and reconciliation process in Northern Ireland, Hamber related this to the South African experience. While it was true that a TRC would not have happened without a power shift, at the same time it wouldn’t happen if those seeking amnesty thought that they may be killed by others in retribution for giving testimony. Hamber suggested that the TRC “individualised the past”, rather than attributing ills to “the system” (although systemic issues are covered in its report). He added that there were a set of special hearings that examined the roles of various institutions and their contributions to the Apartheid system: business, faith community, health sector, media, political party, state security, etc.

The testimony of mothers — those of amnesty applicants and victims of violence — was powerful. However, Hamber pointed out that mothers told the stories of men (for example their sons, husbands) and not how the events affected their own lives as women. In this way, a patriarchal, gendered perspective persists. But Hamber also remarked that in South African society there is a cultural stigma about being associated with those who have been affected by violence; many of the mothers presented in the film said that they did not receive any support over the years, whether from the government, friends, or neighbours. The TRC process allowed such support to develop for some, Hamber remarked.

What does “reconciliation” mean? Hamber said that the term “reconciliation” was not defined in the working of the TRC. He also remarked that not only are there interpretations of the word “reconciliation” in English, but that “reconciliation” and “forgiveness” have different meanings in the languages being translated at the TRC. Hamber also noted the “public grand pieces” of reconciliation and forgiveness were spectacular and memorable, while such terms are purposely vague in political documents.

Brandon Hamber. Screening of film, A Long Night’s Journey into Day. Feile an Phobail. James Connolly Visitors Centre, Belfast, Northern Ireland. © Allan LEONARD @MrUlster


A Long Night’s Journey into Day succeeds in presenting a spectrum of political and social opinion in South Africa in a small number of stories. We hear the voices of survivors of those who were set upon in a heat of the moment as well as in premeditation. We hear the testimonies of those who used violence, whether with the force of the state or a self-established militant group. We hear the forgiveness and grace of mothers of the victims of violence.

Such outcomes are not prescribed in the remit of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission; applicants for amnesty were compelled to tell the truth, as much as they knew it, but there was no assurance of compassion. Cups of tea could have been dropped for sticks.

So if reconciliation cannot be predetermined, perhaps there is a case for “constructive ambiguity”, so as not to be hamstrung at the very start of the process. Yet arguably a lesson learnt from both Northern Ireland’s peace process and South Africa’s reconciliation process is that without “grand pieces” demonstrating some progress, a purely technocratic process may yield insufficient inspiration for the tough work. 

Images © Allan LEONARD @MrUlster

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