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Author(s) of the publication: Phylicia Oppelt

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The world regards my country, South Africa, as a model of reconciliation: Behold the miracle workers who have replaced racial strife, oppressive violence and apartheid with a proud national vision. People across the globe applaud us for our Truth and Reconciliation Commission, established in 1995 to encourage white and black to hold hands and sing hallelujah to our beloved country, to bring closure to the country's apartheid past, to expose the atrocities and human rights abuses committed by all political parties.

As a black South African, I don't believe that South Africa is a "rainbow nation." I don't think there has been true reconciliation either. And I don't accept the validity of the commission. Written into the 1993 Interim Constitution by the political parties that were negotiating the country's future, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was deemed necessary to a new South Africa. It was a pragmatic solution. If leaders from both sides of the apartheid struggle continued to regard each other as killers and enemies, the argument went, how would they become partners in a government of national unity?

The commission operates on various levels. It hears victims' testimony, determines financial reparation and grants amnesty to perpetrators. Its most controversial aspect, the granting of amnesty in exchange for full and truthful confession, has been a bitter pill to swallow. Applicants must prove that their crimes were political in nature and show adequate remorse. With its government-appointed members, the commission then can overturn sentences imposed previously by the courts and guarantee that individuals can never again be held accountable for their crimes. Those who don't cooperate can be, and are, prosecuted.

On a theoretical level, the commission makes sense. It was perceived to be the only solution for a country torn apart by repressive government control and racist policies that subjugated the majority of its people. We could not afford Nuremberg war courts we do not have the resources to hunt down apartheid criminals forever.

Because of the commission's work, we are all supposed to be less angry, less bitter. But I am not. It troubles me most that in this process, the oppressors and the oppressed are treated the same. I grew up in a system of apartheid that permeated every aspect of my existence. For most of my life I was taught to expect racial slurs, to accept as a fact of existence that the rights and privileges available to whites were not available to me. I was taught to be less. For most of my 29 years, my life was preordained. My skin color dictated where I lived, which school I attended, the church where I prayed, the cinemas I entered, the public restrooms I used, the beaches I visited.

It wasn't until I was 17 that I related to white people in any meaningful way. I had completed high school and had been accepted to the University of Cape Town, a historically white elite institution. When I started there in 1987, it still had a majority white student enrollment.

My four years there were the most painful of my life. Suddenly, I was expected to deal with white people as equals and peers. My education at black schools had left me ill prepared for the demands of a university. I lived in constant fear of failure. I was painfully insecure about being perceived as an intruder. I was afraid to talk during tutorials, afraid of my own voice. Speaking might show white people that I was a stupid black. I didn't have white friends and was suspicious of whites. I was sure that, like me, they never had friends from other races. I didn't want to be their trophy black friend.

I could not tell my parents my anxiety. My university success was an affirmation of the sacrifices they had made to educate seven children. When I got my undergraduate degree in 1989, my parents attended the ceremony. Surrounded by white students and their parents, my father put his arms around me and said: "I'm proud of you." I could never tell him that his daughter was a coward.

That was the "old" South Africa. And after two years of truth and reconciliation, my truth is that I'm not reconciled. I, too, have some confessions, however, and they're not easy to make.

I have white friends. But all it takes is one racial slur from an unknown person to turn those same friends into representatives of a detested race.

I raged silently last year after I accepted a transfer to my newspaper's bureau in Durban, in the coastal province KwaZulu-Natal, and went looking for an apartment. I called a white real estate agent who was advertising apartments in the newspaper, and we agreed to meet. When I identified myself in person as the caller, it appeared she had no interest in renting out an apartment.

We held a five-minute conversation on a busy street with the agent remaining in her car while I spoke through a two-inch gap in the window. She seemed barely capable of talking to me and waved her hand at the apartment building next to her car. "So, it's there. Are you still interested?" I felt tears burning in my throat. I didn't know what to do. "No," I mumbled and walked away. I wished I had had the courage to turn around and fight back. I wanted to shake that woman. I wanted to scream. In the end, I did nothing.

It has taken me years to feel confident when dealing with white people. I work in a predominantly white environment as a newspaper reporter, and in this white world, I have learned social skills and assumed certain roles. I have been forced to talk, not to be afraid of my voice and to be confident about articulating my thoughts. I, along with a small group of South Africans, have ascended to the black middle class.

The layer of sophistication that cloaks me now does not mean that I have become colorblind. Color remains a vital aspect of my life. A sly voice always whispers, "Don't trust them." My white colleagues at the paper watch us. I believe they fear us. We threaten the "safe" jobs previously reserved for them.

I don't claim to speak for all black South Africans. These are only my experiences and my feelings. I am not sure how to reconcile these feelings of hostility with the ideal of a new South Africa. All the memories, hurt and anger serve no purpose in present-day South Africa, I'm made to understand.

For me, the commission has one and only one accomplishment and I'm not sure whether it's healthy or not. Until it began, I had never recounted personal incidents as I do now. Nor had I examined the personal cost. There has never been time. But often now, I get glimpses of just how much I've lost growing up in South Africa. Now, more than ever before, am I aware of the chasm that exists between white and black South Africa.

The commission, with its quest for truth, has not healed my wounds. It has opened ones I never knew I had.

Phylicia Oppelt is a reporter for the Sunday Times in South Africa. She contributed this comment to The Washington Post.



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