Is South Africa’s TRC an example to follow?
by Michael Patrick O'Leary
This article was published in Ceylon Today on April 9 2011.
I was interested to read in the March 30 2014 issue of Ceylon Today that “senior lawyer, Gomin Dayasri is to head TRC”.
President Rajapaksa had told the South African High Commissioner in Colombo that he was planning to set up a Sri Lanka Truth and Reconciliation Commission along the lines of the South African TRC. South African High Commissioner, Geoffrey Quinton Michael Doidge, promised President Rajapaksa South African expertise and technical assistance. The President invited suggestions for a head of the TRC and eventually plumped for Gomin.
At the CHOGM in November last year South African President Jacob Zuma offered his country’s support if the Sri Lankan Government decided to appoint a TRC. A Sri Lankan delegation led by Minister Nimal Siripala de Silva visited South Africa to discuss the proposed Commission with the South African authorities.
The South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) captured public attention, provided a model for other countries and generated a vast bulk of scholarly literature. TRC hearings started in Cape Town in 1996. The mandate of the commission was to bear witness to, record and in some cases grant amnesty to the perpetrators of crimes relating to human rights violations, as well as to promote reparation and rehabilitation. South Africa’s TRC seemed to break new ground in that it went beyond truth finding to promote national unity and reconciliation.
To avoid victor’s justice, no side was exempt from appearing before the commission. Apartheid’s servants still dominated the state, so Nuremberg-style trials were not an option if the country was to achieve democracy without a coup. The commission heard reports of human rights violations and considered amnesty applications from all sides, from the apartheid state to the liberation forces, including the ruling African National Congress. Perpetrators had to face the individuals they tortured or the families of those they killed. There had to be some acceptance of the ostrich tendencies of the white middle class who did not want to admit complicity in systemic torture. Archbishop Desmond Tutu remarked, “It’s very difficult to wake up someone who is pretending to be asleep.”
Did the South African process live up to its reputation? Hugo van der Merwe, project manager with the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation was not enthusiastic. “Despite all of its flowery language around reconciliation, it really had very limited impact in terms of providing healing and justice for survivors and providing reintegration into communities for perpetrators. Those dynamics are ones which stay with society and that require further engagement by government and civil society.”
Together with Audrey R. Chapman, van der Merwe edited a study of the TRC entitled, Truth and Reconciliation in South Africa: Did the TRC Deliver? Chapman and van der Merwe spent eight years compiling this and had access to a wealth of quantitative and qualitative data. Most of the contributors concluded that the TRC did not deliver. Chapman contends that truth commissions are best suited for establishing “macrotruth,” which involves assessing contexts, and patterns of human rights abuses with a view to identifying structural causes and intellectual authors of political violence. Nearly all truth commissions take this as a central goal. Many also seek “micro-truth.” – to gather evidence on individual cases. A number of commentators have observed that the TRC’s final report down-plays and even obfuscates the question of how apartheid operated as a system, focusing instead on extreme acts of violence committed by individual actors.
A study by Jay and Erika Vora indicated that the TRC proceedings reminded people of the horrors that had taken place in the past when they preferred to forget such things. Some viewed the proceedings as flawed because many people lied to get an amnesty. There was a feeling that the process discriminated in favour of high profile victims. A 1998 study by South Africa’s Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation & the Khulumani Support Group found that most believed that justice was a prerequisite for reconciliation rather than an alternative to it, and that the TRC had been weighted in favour of the perpetrators of abuse.
William Kentridge, a South African lawyer and director of Ubu and the Truth Commission, said, “As people give more and more evidence of the things they have done they get closer and closer to amnesty and it gets more and more intolerable that these people should be given amnesty.” Steve Biko’s family described the TRC as a “vehicle for political expediency”, which “robbed” them of their right to justice.
The story we believe today is that South Africa became a democracy in a peaceful transition. The violence on both sides has been airbrushed out of the picture. This was part of the deal agreed. There would be no punitive justice.
John Pilger criticised the TRC for allowing the easy transition from white exclusive capitalism to multiracial capitalism, and for failing to cause the trial of criminals, particularly murderers. In 1994, South Africa chose a neoliberal path. There was no redistribution of resources. The white minority still controls 80 percent of the best agricultural land and owns the country’s mines. Racial inequality has grown since 1994. An OECD report says: “South Africa faces a number of long-standing economic problems that still reflect at least in part the long-lasting and harmful legacy of apartheid”. A report by Statistics South Africa shows two-thirds of young people live in households with a per capita income of less than 650 rand a month (around £47). White South Africans still take home six times more pay than blacks do.
A survey covering 1998–2000 compiled by the UN, ranked South Africa second for assault and murder per capita and first for rapes per capita in a data set of 60 countries. South Africa was tenth out of the 60 countries in the dataset for total crime per capita.
South Africa’s national budget is USD 167 billion. In the fiscal year 2011-2012, USD 103 million was lost to financial misconduct. Only 13 per cent of the money lost to corruption is recovered. While 88 per cent of people tried for financial misconduct are found guilty, only 19 per cent are dismissed. Forty-three per cent get final written warnings. Many escape by resigning and getting another government job offering the opportunity to carry on stealing.
Jacob Zuma made a State of the Nation address on February 12 2014, stressing the high points of his time in office ahead of elections on May 7. An Ipsos poll published on February 12 found his approval rating has fallen from 77 per cent in 2009 to just 46 per cent today. In 2009, 54 per cent of South Africans felt the country was moving in the “right direction” – today just 34 per cent feel the same.
President Zuma was charged with rape in 2005, but was acquitted. He fought a long legal battle over allegations resulting from his financial advisor Schabir Shaik’s conviction for corruption and fraud. Zuma still has allegations hanging over his head that he received 783 corrupt payments totalling Rand 4.1 million (nearly £300,000). Two wealthy Indian brothers known to have close ties to Mr Zuma borrowed the country’s biggest military airport to fly in guests for a family wedding. A report by the public watchdog criticised Zuma for spending £12.9 million of public money on “security” upgrades to his private estate.
This year’s parliamentary elections in South Africa will be the first in which children born after the 1994 transition to democracy become eligible to vote. How has that reconciliation thing worked for them? Children born 20 years after the end of apartheid will be faced with a two-tiered education system — a functional one for the wealthy and a dysfunctional public system for poor blacks. In Limpopo province 1.7m children in were deprived of textbooks for almost a year because of local government corruption.
Emulating the apartheid regime, police killed 34 striking miners and then charged the miners themselves with murdering their colleagues. There is an average of 32 protests each day, mainly over a lack of basic services. The number of police-related deaths in 2012 totalled 797, more than double levels ten years ago, according to figures from the Independent Police Investigative Directorate. Deaths of police personnel on active service totalled 92.
How do you like that for truth and reconciliation? Can Sri Lanka learn from the South African experience? How does the South African experience compare with the Sri Lankan experience? The most obvious fact is that in the old South Africa, the majority was oppressed by the minority. That is not the case in Sri Lanka. Whatever injustices there may be, there is less apartheid in Sri Lanka than there is in Louisiana. Ask yourself, Dear Reader, where you would rather live today – Sri Lanka or South Africa?