Friday, October 28, 2011

Storytelling (Van der Broek and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission)

The more astute among you will have recognised that this blog originally started as a venue for my short stories. If pushed, I'll jokingly refer to myself as a failed writer.

Still, stories are important. They enable us to share our understanding of this world, impart important lessons and simplify topics to convey important details. Sometimes artistic licence is used. Sometimes some facts are sacrificed to make the story more memorable, or to take students to a more accurate picture of real world phenomena.

One example is atoms. In school I learned that electrons orbit the nucleus in much the same way as a planet orbits a star. This is a very useful way of thinking about atoms, but it's also wrong - the electron is more of a fuzzy cloud.

I've spoken to many biblical inerrantists, but I've yet to encounter one who thinks that the parable of the prodigal son involved an actual son, father, fatted calf and brother.

We can look at stories that are fiction, but intended to convey an important message. We can also look at stories that are thought to hold factual accuracy in the highest regard. Today I'd like to look at a story that seems to have jumped between the two categories.



In a court stands Officer Van de Broek (aka Vanderbrook, Van Der Broek) who tortured and killed both the husband and the son of a nameless South African woman during apartheid. We are in a sitting of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission; the officer has just admitted his crimes, including shooting the widow’s son, burning his body and holding a party nearby.

The judge asks the grieving woman “How should justice be done to this man who has so brutally destroyed your family?”. She asks to be taken to the site where she witnessed her husband’s murder so she can gather the dust for a burial. She tells the officer that she wants for him to visit her twice a month so she could be a mother to him and share her love. Finally, she asks to hug him so he can know that God has forgiven him through Jesus. Those assembled break into a rendition of Amazing Grace so rousing that officer Van de Broek faints.

Heartrending, and inspiring on some levels, but is it true? After apartheid there was a Truth and Reconciliation Commission which functioned to decide on amnesties for those facing criminal charges for political activity. This included murder. Amnesty was not automatic. It was a famous process, widely seen as successful and well documented. Translators and interpreters were available for all 11 indigenous languages and Polish. (I’m unsure why Polish was included.) Transcripts of all proceedings are freely available here:

http://www.justice.gov.za/trc/amntrans/

By going to http://www.google.ie/advanced_search you can search within a specific site or domain (bottommost field) and I invite you to do so. You will not find a variant of the officer’s name, nor references to Amazing Grace or an officer fainting during proceedings. I whiled away an afternoon reviewing every hit for ‘Jesus’ and ‘forgive’ / ‘forgiveness’ – there are many interesting stories, but none that share any of the distinctive features of this tale.

But is this fair?

I have no immediate reason to doubt the accuracy of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s record keeping, but for the sake of confirmation let’s try a control group.

Long Night’s Journey into Day is a documentary on the subject with four case studies. I searched for supporting records and found the following:

Amy Biehl
Brian Mitchell
Eric Taylor
Robert McBride

All were found easily, on the first page of search results.

Some additional thoughts:
  1. No legal professional would utter the phrase “How should justice be done to this man who has so brutally destroyed your family?” before a legally binding decision had been taken. It’s prejudicial and would result in a rapid career change and the equivalent of a mistrial.
  2. I’ve never met anyone who would issue an invitation to their ‘ghetto’. Township, maybe.
  3. Given the high standard of transcripts it’s unlikely the woman’s name would be lost.
  4. When one witnesses the murder of a loved one, one does not forget the location easily.
  5. This was a time of violence and unrest on both sides. It seems improbable in the extreme to think that white officers would enter a ‘ghetto’, shoot a man in the face, burn his corpse and then drink beers nearby. (They would have been easy targets for reprisal.)

 The story is widely available, so for brevity I've limited myself to 10 links.


Those that cite sources refer the interested reader to Rumours of Another World by Philip Yancey.

So, has he been economical with the truth? I haven't purchased the book so I don't want to assume too much. It may be clear from the context that it is intended as a work of fiction, although many seem to have misread it as truth.

Let's try to put ourselves in the shoes of those who initially presented this as hard truth. Undeserved forgiveness is a theme that permeates Christianity. There are many Christians in South Africa. We have the aforementioned example of Amy Biel's parents which is truly inspiring forgiveness, but without a strong Christian element. (I've been unable to find details of Amy's beliefs, bar a reference to her coming from a Roman Catholic family. I found it interesting that she was not described as Catholic.) Unfortunately the well-documented transcripts did not contain a story which gave a suitable example of the forgiveness they wished to portray. Perhaps, fully confident that such forgiveness must have occurred, they judged it reasonable to invent such a tale?

Christian apologists are fond of quoting A.N. Sherwin-White, who said that "...even two generations are too short a span to allow the mythical tendency to prevail over the hard historic core".

I respectfully disagree.

12 comments:

hargaden said...

Does this blogpost itself not demonstrate the impossibility of an evolved myth going without challenge?

Geoff said...

I hear what you're saying. It's a good point and one I should have addressed.
I'm only in a position to challenge this specific evolved tale because it takes place in the highly unusual context where all conversations are recorded and freely available. If, say, 10% of conversations went unrecorded, my challenge would have been unconvincing to some. Also, I'm sure we can find some people who'll disagree with my findings.

Chris Malan said...

You will notice that this story was never reported in any reputable publication. I tracked it down. It originated with a Presbyterian churchman, Maake Masangu. He told it to Americans. It seems to me he was on a tour of the USA. The Mennonites had it on their site. I told them it was false. The woman, Melanie or Melody, knew Maake Masangu and told me that was where they got the story. She contacted him for verification and sent me his response. He claimed there were too many documents to send on. The Mennonites deleted that story from their site.

As the Americans are suckers for cheap emotion, they swallowed it hook, line and sinker.

It has other non sequiturs in addition to the ones you mentioned. Where was the father kept between arrest and "burning?" No prison would have turned him over without a good, documented reason. Did Van de Broek keep him in his garage?

I have written to the TRC years ago and they denied that such a case was ever heard. Search their site for "van de broek," "van den broek" and "van der broek." Closest you will get are clearly unrelated results.

PT Barnum was right. The world is full of suckers.

Chris Malan said...

You will notice that this story was never reported in any reputable publication. I tracked it down. It originated with a Presbyterian churchman, Maake Masangu. He told it to Americans. It seems to me he was on a tour of the USA. The Mennonites had it on their site. I told them it was false. The woman, Melanie or Melody, knew Maake Masangu and told me that was where they got the story. She contacted him for verification and sent me his response. He claimed there were too many documents to send on. The Mennonites deleted that story from their site.

As the Americans are suckers for cheap emotion, they swallowed it hook, line and sinker.

It has other non sequiturs in addition to the ones you mentioned. Where was the father kept between arrest and "burning?" No prison would have turned him over without a good, documented reason. Did Van de Broek keep him in his garage?

I have written to the TRC years ago and they denied that such a case was ever heard. Search their site for "van de broek," "van den broek" and "van der broek." Closest you will get are clearly unrelated results.

PT Barnum was right. The world is full of suckers.

Geoff said...

Thanks for the local information Chris!

LongJnSilver said...

Greetings, all. I first came across this story while teaching a group of missionaries in Niamey, Niger. It was a moving story, and came to me as well documented by Rev. Mase Masengo of the Presbyterian Church of South Africa. I personally contacted James Kraybill, the then editor of the Mennonite publication in the USA who published it and verified the facts of the story. He would not have published it had he suspected in the least that it was fiction. I then published the story in a discpleship course in Kenya, having been assured of its veracity. FYI, all Christians are not suckers for emotional tales. TRUTH is supremely important. And, there are MANY similar stories from Rwanda - accurately documented by the American workers who were involved in the reconciliation process between Hutus and Tutsis. Too, check the biography of Corrie ten Boom, the Dutch national whose family harbored Jews during the Nazi occupation ("The Hiding Place"). Corrie was put in the position of being asked for forgiveness by the Nazi guard responsible for her sister's death at Bergen Belsen. Chris and Geoff, we APPRECIATE being corrected. Thank you both! But... Chris, regarding your negative attitude toward Americans or Christians--or both? Learn how to state truth without vilifying those with whom you disagree. You'll gain a far greater hearing - and perhaps respect as well.
- Dr. John Wade Long, Jr.

Geoff said...

Hi John,

Thanks for taking the time to comment. To summarise my evidence I showed that it had not been transcribed, unlike any other hearing, and that it contained statements that could not have been made in a legal setting. I also pointed out several other incongruities and inconsistencies that make it quite certain this event did not happen.

I don't feel you've given anything in your response to explain how these facts jar so strongly with what one would expect if the tale were real.

You say it was "well documented by Rev. Mase Masengo of the Presbyterian Church of South Africa" - why did the commission not have access to this documentation? You say that James Kraybill "...would not have published it had he suspected in the least that it was fiction", but can you understand how your faith in another man is not a convincing counter to what I feel is quite damning evidence? On your final point in favour of considering it to be true you say "I then published the story in a discpleship course in Kenya, having been assured of its veracity", I do not feel that this adds to your case.

I do appreciate you taking the time to comment. My apologies for my rushed response, it's been a rather long day.

Emily said...

In any community, there are false stories or facts that are circulated as truth. This phenomenon is not unique to Christians. But thanks for checking out this story — I appreciate it.

Simon C said...

I am a Christian preacher and have published a couple of books of stories for use by other preachers and teachers, and I try and make sure that they're true and accurate (unless they're clearly apocryphal and used for humour!). So I was checking this one out and came across your blog. My problem with your conclusion is that there seem to be other gaps in the testimony which likewise cannot be filled, but which appear nonetheless to be genuine. The one I found was mentioned by Bishop David Berege before the Commission in April 1997: he referred to "the woman who was asked by Archbishop Desmond Tutu at the end of her testimony, ‘What do you want the Commission to do for you?’ and replied, ‘I would like you to enable me to meet the man who killed my son so that I can look him in the eye and tell him that I can forgive him.’" I could not find that reference in the reports, but it's pretty evident that that DID happen, as the bishop could hardly refer to it in front of the commission as true if they knew it was not! So for me the jury is still out on the story you mention. And from studies of journalism and history we know well that while details in the report may be inaccurate (eg the use of the word 'ghetto') the fundamentals of the story may nonetheless be true...

Geoff Shorts said...

Hi Emily, thanks for commenting. I agree it's a human trait and not a uniquely Christian one by any means.

Hi Simon, my thanks both for your comment and the time you took to look in to the matter. I've read Bishop Berege's address at the commission and you're correct, he does mention a story that shares some elements with the one reported.

You say that "it's pretty evident that that DID happen, as the bishop could hardly refer to it in front of the commission as true if they knew it was not!"

I'm not sure I agree. There were over seven thousand separate hearings held in front of different members - it would seem unlikely that any one person would be familiar with all cases enough to challenge the accuracy of Berege's statement, or would feel it appropriate to do so. I also do not feel Berege intended to mislead the commission. I'd see it as most likely that he believed the story to be true.

Berege does not seem to have had any prior involvement with the commission so we can likely rule him out as an eyewitness. He also does not list the source of the story - to my mind it seems most likely he picked up on an early version from an external source.

All that said, thanks for giving me the nudge to read through some more of the transcripts. There's much value in them.

John Smith said...

I don't understand the drama unfolding over this illustration. It's childish. Even if this was complete fiction, which obviously there are those who would agree or disagree with this basic premise, it would still make for a great parable on love, reconciliation and forgiveness. The central theme of this story is human compassion, which is always needed. I say, leave the inspirational stories alone. There are many works of fiction that inspire and touch on aspects of the human condition and soul, and are very relevant and timely.

Geoff said...

Hi John,
Did I not touch on this in the second paragraph?
I do feel that parable and fiction can be enriching. I also feel truth is important. I don't see a conflict.
Best,
Geoff