By Thakira Desai
Being raised in an activist family, former South African ambassador to Libya, Syria and Saudi Arabia, Mohamed Dangor and his siblings joined the struggle at an early age. Five of the nine siblings actively took part in the struggle, one dying as member of the Azanian People’s Organisation (AZAPO), another banned by the Apartheid state, another a former member of uMkhonto we Sizwe and his sister, deputy secretary general of the African National Congress (ANC), Jessie Duarte. The Dangor family, through their activism, is a familiar tale of solidarity within the struggle against Apartheid.
I recently sat down with the former ambassador, who told me his activism came at a price.
Seated in a meeting room at the Hilton Istanbul Bosphorus, Dangor spoke candidly about the two attempts that were made on his life during his running of an underground branch as part of the ANC and the subsequent impact the Truth and Reconciliation Council (TRC) process has had in his life.
“They shot at my house, which was one obvious way. And at another time I had to pick up Winnie Mandela at the airport, the year she broke her banishment order…they shot at the car. I thought they wanted to shoot at Mrs Mandela. In fact, when the person confessed at the TRC, he confessed to wanting to kill me,” Dangor explained.
While he understood the process of the TRC, Dangor said that in having to come face-to-face with the ‘hired gun’, he momentarily froze. He was subsequently “challenged” by Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu to forgive the individual and reconcile.
“I intellectually understood the process of the TRC and I understood the necessity for it; the necessity was to heal the nation, to take forward and get us to a point, but when he came to ask me for forgiveness I froze.”
In speaking of his personal experience, the struggle stalwart constantly mitigated the difficulties that he encountered, shying away from placing too much focus on any suffering he may have endured.
“I don’t mitigate it. I recognise that we had to go through that healing process – it was absolutely necessary,” he urged.
Commenting on the moment he forgave the ‘hired gun’, Dangor explained that despite having had to be encouraged to step forward and forgive, he believes that he genuinely forgave the individual; an action that he asserts freed him.
The process of forgiveness he noted meant freedom from the burden of a broken nation. But, when asked whether he truly healed himself, Dangor was unable to fully comprehend his emotions on his personal process.
“[That is a] difficult question. Yes I did – I think I did. Do I actually need counselling for that, I don’t believe that I do. I’ve lived through worse thereafter.”
When probed about why he has not requested to meet with the parties who instructed the hit on his life, Dangor said he believed that the guilty parties still need to be brought to justice, a feeling he said was ignited following the Ahmed Timol inquest.
The impact of the Timol case
Drawing on the Ahmed Timol case, Dangor said he was reminded of the modus operandi of the Apartheid regime, which he described as having to “kill people if necessary.”
Judge Billy Mothle on October 11, 2017, ruled that Ahmed Timol did not meet his death by suicide. In his judgement, he said there was a clear intent to cover up Timol’s death, claiming suicide. Timol was murdered through dolus eventualis.
Dangor said despite the case opening up old wounds, the Timol case deserved the necessary attention, describing it as not having been adequately dealt with in the process.
“There are other cases; there is the case of Imam Haron. All of those cases need to be looked at and to bring about a sense that yes justice was done. But, the truth really be told, even if nobody is found guilty or sent to jail.”
The truth about individual cases he stated provides not only communities, but the families of victims with a sense of closure.
“Nobody slipped on a bar of soap, nobody committed suicide jumping out of a window and I think the family want to prove that that did not happen and I think that is what is imported.
Did the TRC with the wording of ‘I forgive you’ truly heal South Africa?
Dangor said the TRC was a necessary experience “for the period”, without which he says South Africa would have a “Nuremberg situation.”
“A Nuremberg situation would not have taken us forward collectively as a nation. I look at what I have seen in the Middle East, this sense of not forgiving, this sense of an ‘eye for an eye’, is a disaster that does not allow people to come together,” he elaborated.
Given his experience working in Libya, Dangor said the situation in the North African country has resulted in the withdrawing of tribes, language groups and clans. An outcome fought against within the South Africa peace-building process.
“You need to recognise people’s right to be different and not only tolerate; because, if I don’t really like you and I’m just merely tolerating you, then just ‘I’m tolerating you’. But, if I recognise your right to be different and interact with you on that basis then that is important.
“Take Libya for example, 98 per cent of the population is Muslim, and 90 per cent of them are maliki – what are they fighting about? They are fighting about resources.”
Discussing his TRC case, Dangor said that if he were granted the opportunity to meet the individual who instructed his murder, he believes he will be courteous toward him.
“If I understood his confession, his reality and the fact that he owned up to it – he would probably be 95 or 98 by now – I’d offer him a seat [and] I’d be courteous to him. I would try and point out the errors of his ways to him.”
When asked whether his actions would be a true reflection of his emotions, he asserts that “holding onto anger can only bring destruction.”
“I think we have gone past the question of whether we needed to reconcile or not – yes it was absolutely necessary.”
Dangor further stated that reconciliation is a strategic means in the peace-building process that is intrinsic in the Islamic tradition.
“In Baghdad I was invited by the United Nation to speak on the South African process. As I sat and listened I realised that the officials did not believe that Sulukh was a Muslim tradition, that it was only Judeo-Christian, until one of the shaykh’s sitting there started to point it out there was Fathul Makkah, and what did the Prophet Muhammad (may peace be upon him) do in Makkah when he came in, he forgave.”
While the work of the TRC is largely completed, he said the TRC needs to address the issue of compensation of victims.
Dangor added that those who chose to remain silent about crimes they committed or instructed during Apartheid should be brought to justice.
“I think that South Africa’s process of unity by and large has been successful if you take it to the world. Of course there are things we could have done better, [but] By-and-large what we did was the correct thing, by-and-large the leadership what they did with the wisdom that they had was important. I think that needs to be recognised; in fact it is more recognised in the rest of the world than by South Africans.”