Villains may be forgiven but cannot be heroes

The question of how far we, as South Africans, are prepared to go in the cause of nation building and reconciliation has once again entered centre stage.

The question of how far we, as South Africans, are prepared to go in the cause of nation building and reconciliation has once again entered centre stage.

This question arises in the context of the debate about the inclusion of former members of the then South African Defence Force - who died while defending apartheid - on the Freedom Park's Wall of Remembrance.

The suggestion, coming mainly from Afrikaner nationalist organisations, is that apartheid's soldiers should be given the same treatment as the heroes of the country's liberation struggle.

The argument posited is that they are part of the history out of which the new South Africa emerged.

The government, to its credit, has created a forum where this matter is being debated - with the hope of finding a solution that will be acceptable to all South Africans committed to reconciliation and the building of a new, inclusive, society.

Given the history of this country, the ANC-led black majority government must be commended for taking such a step.

When debating this issue it is important to keep in mind the objective in establishing Freedom Park and the Wall of Remembrance.

The objective, as explained by the Freedom Park architects, was to "acknowledge a nation that recognises the centrality of the past in informing the present which signposts the future - a future that envisages a non- racial and inclusive society".

The question now should therefore be whether including the former apartheid soldiers, who died defending a system that was declared a heresy by the international community, will contribute towards the attainment of this noble objective.

The debate must also be guided by a recognition of the selflessness displayed by those who laid down their lives for the liberation of this country, so that South Africans of all races could enjoy the full rights of citizenship in the new South Africa.

There must also be a recognition of the selflessness displayed by the victims of apartheid who have forgiven the murderers of their loved ones.

This they did in the name of reconciliation.

An important question in this regard is whether reconciling with the defenders of apartheid should extend to elevating them to the level of those who gave their lives for the freedom of this country.

It is indeed a virtue to forgive a villain in the name of reconciliation and nation building, but equating a hero with a villain is a travesty of justice.

The people who gave their lives for our freedom had the choice of remaining docile and allowing apartheid to continue. They chose not to - and for that we must honour their memories.

The soldiers who maimed and killed defenceless people in the townships and during cross-border raids also had a choice.

They could, for example, have joined the End Conscription Campaign (ECC). They chose not to.

Instead most of them regarded ECC members as verraaiers or traitors.

They called them names such as bangbroeke, communists and k***ir boeties.

Most of the soldiers who participated in defending apartheid regarded themselves as heroes who were protecting the white South African nation against black barbarism.

Can we truly say we are building a new South African nation if we treat them like heroes?