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Home Activities The paths of Memory Mary Burton: The conscience of white South Africa
Mary Burton: The conscience of white South Africa
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On June 13th, we continued with the program the Paths of Memory, and we had the opportunity to listen in Bilbao the testimony of an extraordinary woman, whom Nelson Mandela refered as "the conscience of white South Africa." She is Mary Burton, one of the most prominent activist of the anti-apartheid movement and a member of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in that country.

With this event, held at the Hotel Ercilla in Bilbao, Idi Ezkerra wanted to highlight a very valid instrument as the truth commissions, which has been used successfully in many countries to investigate and know about the crimes of the recent past. The aim is to know other experiences to be able to implement here that process for truth and reconciliation which has not occurred yet. Actually, a few days earlier, Ezker Batua presented in the Basque Parliament an initiative in this direction.

When the regime was abolished in 1994, Mary Burton was appointed by Nelson Mandela as one of the 17 members of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). The TRC was charged with investigating politically motivated gross human rights violations committed between 1960 and 1994. The intent was to prevent such atrocities from reoccurring and to begin to heal a divided nation scarred by past conflicts. Before that, Burton was an active member and president of Black Shas, an organization of mainly white women which, since the 50s, denounced the lack of civil rights for the majority of Southafricans imposed by Apartheid. Both Mary and her colleagues have suffered multiple agression and prosecution for challenging the regime.

Mary Burton was in Bilbao with Idi Ezkrra exactly ten years since the main body of the report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was presented to then-President Mandela. In her presentation, she explained the lessons learned in that time, and the decisive influence of the Comission in the South African society to be able to look to face the future.

In her presentation, Burton emphasized the need to take into consideration "the recognition of the suffering of the victims, to be able to reach reconciliation. This recognition must come from the direct perpetrators, but also from the state, and from many people classified as white who can be considered to have been ‘beneficiaries’ of the apartheid system, even if they were never perpetrators of any abuses nor even supported the policy. There is a sense in which they need to be seen to acknowledge this, and express it in a way which can be heard and received by the once-disenfranchised majority”.

Also, Barton said that despite the positive feedback that we receive from abroad concerning the results of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa, "this was not perfect, we did what we could, but we would have liked to do much more". In this regard, she noted that "considerable anger is directed by victims and survivors towards the concept of amnesty. The provisions of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission were challenged in court by families of some of those who had been killed, who argued that their rights to justice were being infringed. Amnesty was the price paid for peace. Full disclosure was the cost that must be paid for amnesty. If this does indeed lead to national reconciliation the costs will have been worthwhile, but it is important to recognise that individuals’ rights have been sacrificed for the good of the nation.The Commission made possible the political transition between the old and the new system without violence"

As for the results of the Comission, she said that “the goals of the Commission were the promotion of ‘truth’ and ‘reconciliation’, and it is against these objectives that its achievements must be measured. The exposure of a great deal of the truth will surely be acknowledged. The Commission received over 20 000 statements. The processes of public testimony of victims and survivors of gross human rights violations alone have painted a vivid and unforgettable record of atrocities of the past. The hearings were held all over the country, in small rural towns as well as in the major cities. They were accompanied by astonishingly comprehensive media coverage, maintained over the whole period. Not only the stories told by the victims contributed to this understanding of the past: those who sought amnesty also were obliged to face the critical gaze of the public, and in many cases to be confronted by their victims”.

In these sense, the role of the Comission provided a kind of cathartic effect. “People told us that being enabled to set out their own understanding of events was indeed a relief to them. For some, the exhumation of the bodies of their family members brought much longed-for comfort. The opportunity to observe traditional burial ceremonies brought a degree of closure to the mourning process”.

To summarize, the veteran activist said that "the Commission enabled the country to hear the accounts of many thousands of people who experienced and caused great suffering" but warned that the effects of this process should go further, stating that "being aware of how and why this happened is an important ingredient of creating new ways of looking at our society and seeing beyond the narrow confines of individual or group identities But know, recognize, and even forgiving is not enough, eventually they must enable us to reduce inequality and injustice so that all citizens enjoy access to the socio-economic and civil rights which are enshrined in our hard-won Constitution”. On this field, she considered that “there is a lot of work to do in South Africa to tackle problems such as AIDS, unemployment, and the great inequalities between rich and poor people." This is her cause today. Best of luck in this struggle, Mary.


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