Saturday, 2 August 2014

TRC: follow-up action needed to advance accountability and justice

The debate and charged discussion around reconciliation will not go away. As South Africans we are celebrated worldwide for our attempts at reconciliation using the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and other measures, but we have left so many key aspects hanging.

The process is incomplete from a number of angles. The first is that the government has failed to implement most of the recommendations of the TRC, as the organisation, Khulumani, continues to point out.

The government has paid reparations to victims, it has undertaken some memorialisation work, but many recommendations have been relegated to file 13. One of these was a proposal for a once-off wealth tax levied against business and industry. Sampie Terreblanche has argued that group relations in South Africa would have been more harmonious if the government had adopted such a wealth tax.

The second reason is that the government has so far failed to prosecute those perpetrators of gross violations who did not apply for amnesty or were refused amnesty. Such prosecutions will surface further details about what really happened in the darkest corners of the apartheid system.

The third reason is that the TRC process did not allow for examination of structural aspects of apartheid. At the time of its sitting, the late Neville Alexander called on the commission – without success – to hold hearings on issues such as land and education.

All the signs are that we will benefit, even today, from hearings into the migrant labour systems or if we had held hearings to forge a deeper understanding of the devastation caused by bantu education.

A fourth area of incompleteness relates to the problem of victims, including those who testified at the commission. Khulumani argues that the government has paid the reparations amount – R30000 – to less than a quarter of those who should receive them.

“The victims’ suffering remains unalleviated as they continue to lobby the government to open the list and to broaden community reparations. Tragically, many families are obliged to pay for their own investigations to uncover the truth of the fate and whereabouts of loved ones,” says Yasmin Sooka of the Foundation for Human Rights.

A woefully understaffed missing persons task force has only scratched the surface in following up on missing persons reported to the TRC. Through locating burial sites, forensic work and exhumations, less than one fifth out of 600 cases have been resolved.

With these concerns as a backdrop there have been calls to revisit the TRC.

At a panel discussion at the Durban Film Festival, the Institute of Justice and Reconciliation called for the TRC to be “reopened” and Abba Omar, writing in The New Age in July last year, called for a second phase of the TRC.

“The reality is that there is much of our past which still needs to be confronted, so much suspicion of people who may have been part of the apartheid system which remains unresolved, so many families and communities still carrying so many wounds,” Omar wrote.

“I believe that the core result of such a process would be a better healed nation, where we don’t walk around with the feeling that those who served apartheid have not only got away with it but continue to thrive in the new South Africa.”

While I am sympathetic to such calls – a reopening of TRC would certainly lead to better lever of healing and closure – I don’t have much hope that such calls will succeed. There is no political will. As Alex Boraine implied at the Durban panel discussion this Monday, the government has over the years shown little interest in the kinds of issues raised here – it does not want to proceed with a process of “accountability” for the past and surfacing the truth. In the nineties it took the view that it was dealing with all these issues in the main through the redress contained in the RDP programme.

However, we need to continue to create spaces to discuss “reconciliation” in South Africa, including gaps and what has been achieved.

Institutions that promote dialogue, universities and public bodies should create platforms for open and informed discussion of reconciliation.

The government, donors and other institutions should provide sufficient funding for programmes that promote analysis and dialogue on racism and how it continues to operate in South Africa today. This should be accompanied by incentives for major institutions such as universities, schools, professional bodies and media institutions to run awareness or change programmes to address racism.

Interest groups should continue to lobby the government to seriously review the TRC recommendations with a view to implementing more of the TRC’s recommendations.

The government should be encouraged to appoint a joint committee made up of senior officials of the Department of Justice and, for example, specialists like Yasmin Sooka and Dumisa Ntsebeza to advise on the way forward.

There have been several initiatives by individuals or small groups in the white community to set up special funds to assist with redress. Recently these initiatives have sought to mobilise contributions from beneficiaries of apartheid as well as what Sooka calls “beneficiaries of the transition”. The government has usually ignored such moves.

The government should engage with and formally support such initiatives, especially if they could address relevant priorities such as the need to combat gender violence or critical developmental needs such as, for example, support for communities benefitting from land restitution.

For now, lack of political will or wider institutional support means there is no critical mass at an institutional level in favour of a big bang such as the TRC Phase II. But there is wide enough agreement that there is unfinished business to explore a range ways to continue discussions and positive action about accountability, truth and reconciliation.

Frank Meintjies. This article was first published in the press on 25 July 2014.

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