Sweetest revenge

It could only happen in South Africa.

The Delmas Four - Neo Potsane, Joseph Makhura, Ting Ting Masango and Jabu Masina - met and hugged Mr Justice Marius de Klerk amid a cordial atmosphere.

Their mood contrasted sharply with the day the judge sentenced them to death in 1989 on terrorism charges.

Though the judge found extenuating circumstances for a lesser sentence, he was forced then by the vote of two assessors to impose the death penalty. The men were released in 1991 when the old order collapsed.

The reunion happened at the launch of a book about their trial, In a Different Time, by Peter Harris. The moment marked a unique form of restorative justice, given this normally happens when the victim is reconciled with the aggressor to promote closure.

The rare reunion also revived the big question about the oft-raised issue of establishing a truth and reconciliation to help the judiciary from the old South Africa to make a clean break with the past.

It's question that inexplicably elicits a deafening silence on the part of the judiciary and the government - but still dogs both parties nonetheless.

Haunting the consciousness of the majority of this country is the fact that most of the people sent to the gallows during the apartheid era were black.

Suspicion remained that apartheid-era judges were so embedded in the apartheid regime that some pronounced death sentences at the drop of a hat. Not for nothing therefore that some of them earned notorious sobriquets like "hanging judge" or "avenger".

While forgiveness is the sweetest revenge - ask Madiba - the truth still needs to be aired. Questions still persist about the astonishing numbers who were hanged for offences against whites. Yet the same seemed not to apply to whites often accorded lenient justice such as receiving fines for killing black people.

Most symbolic, however, is that the Delmas four do not harbour any grudges against Judge De Klerk two decades later.

That their reunion happened under a dispensation whose ideal had landed the four in trouble with the law then is an inescapable irony.

The human being's capacity to forgive remains a unique strength.