12/06/2012 11:10 am ET Updated Feb 05, 2013

A Sojourn to Truth and Reconciliation

Visiting South Africa had been a dream of mine since the 1990s, when the late W. Haywood Burns invited me to visit. He was helping South Africans draft their new constitution following the abolition of apartheid.

I was not able to visit South Africa then, but I longed to make the trip. When I had the opportunity this summer to fulfill that dream, my admiration for Burns' work and for what I saw there made me more determined to share his legacy -- the struggle for human rights, against injustices, and to achieve equity.

I traveled to South Africa as part of a delegation organized by Shared Interest, a New York-based nonprofit organization that guarantees bank financing to sustain subsistence businesses and affordable housing in remote areas of South Africa and Mozambique.

We were inspired by people in the rural areas. We also found inspiration at the museums on Constitution Hill, a complex of government buildings in Johannesburg. There, we saw the architecture of contrasts.

The Old Fort, prison buildings and rolled barbed wire remain as they were under apartheid. It was chilling to see the women's prison where Albertina Sisulu and other African National Congress stalwarts had been confined; to be on the site of the treason trials of dissidents Tambo and Mandela; and to realize how recently -‒ within my life time -- apartheid had been the law of this land.

Just yards away from the prison cells, stands the new constitutional courthouse, constructed on one side with bricks salvaged from the prison to memorialize the injustices and brutality of the apartheid past. On the other side, its design and materials are modern, open and inviting, to honor the present and shape the future.

However, the self-governance that led to the transformation of Constitution Hill and so many other aspects of life in South Africa came at a terrible price.

I was moved to tears as I read accounts made to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, on display in the Hector Pieterson Museum in Soweto, outside Johannesburg.

Pieterson was a 13-year-old boy protesting with other school children when police fired on the students, killing many. The students were protesting the required use of the Dutch-based Afrikaans language in non-white schools and teachings that promoted servitude, and prohibited students' native languages in school.

Reading the news reports and accounts from Hector's mother and sister, I was reminded of my mother, and other mothers and students, who took part in dismantling segregated schools in my hometown in 1965.

I learned at an early age that violence doesn't know boundaries -- but, fortunately, neither does compassion. A deeply disturbing photo of Hector's bullet-ridden body in the arms of a classmate was seen around the world, and the protests-turned-slaughter became a turning point: The Soweto Children's Uprising awakened international opposition to apartheid.

Our tour guide, Refilwe, a South African woman in her late 40s, spoke with composure about the apartheid era; however, she gave way to tears describing her grandmother's grief at never finding the body of the grandchild who went missing during the uprising.

Without the child's body, the grandmother refused to testify before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Refilwe regretted that her grandmother had passed away without a chance to heal and Refilwe carries that sadness as her own. Even after 35 years, the pain is still potent.

Refilwe's story points to something powerful in the concept of truth and reconciliation

In my opinion, this process of airing accusations, acknowledging wrongs and condemning actions taken in the name of supremacy helped open wounded places so that healing -- psychological, physical and economic -- could happen.

The South African Constitution mandates equality: the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was a process for preparing old enemies to atone for injustices, accept the mandate and live in harmony. Its efficacy is still a topic of debate.

I believe our country could benefit from such open and unequivocal acknowledgment of the impact of slavery and racial segregation. As a nation, we have not held our public institutions accountable for righting those wrongs.

We claim the principle of equality, but in reality, we have not demanded it. Children of color, in disproportionate numbers, attend underfunded public schools, African-American men disproportionately populate prisons and we tolerate disparities in access to health care, asset accrual and employment, to name just a few inequities.

Today, a person's citizenship can be called into question because of his or her name or color -- whether it's a mother registering her children for school, an elderly voter asked to show state-issued identification or even the president of our nation.

Both South Africa and the U.S. must honor the stories of apartheid and slavery told by their people. By acknowledging the wrong and committing to make it right, we help ensure that no race can ever again succeed in elevating itself at the expense of others.