Reconciliation in South Africa

by Michael Patrick O'Leary

This article appeared in The Nation on Sunday May 27 2012.

The South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), which was established by the Promotion of National Unity and Reconciliation Act, No. 34 of 1995, has provided a model for other countries and generated a vast bulk of scholarly literature. Although there had been truth commissions before, the TRC was different in that its mandate was to go beyond truth-finding to promote national unity and reconciliation.

Peter Storey was past president of the Methodist Church of South Africa and of the South African Council of Churches. He was a member of the selection committee for the TRC. He wrote optimistically about it in 1999: “Perhaps other nations with wounded histories may find in South Africa a model for hope. As the international community comes to recognize that there is no peace without confronting the hurts of history and without the healing of national and ethnic memories, one nation’s attempt to do so may inspire ways in which God could bring newness in those lands too.”
In the April 30 2012 issue of the New Yorker there was an article by Philip Gourevitch entitled Unreconciled. This was a review of a novel called Absolution by Patrick Flanery. The novel is built around the TRC. Gourevitch writes that for the South Africans in the novel “the past is largely a source of anguish, and its torments are most acute when the facts are most elusive”.

In his description of South Africa in the 1980s, Gourevitch reminds us that Nelson Mandela was not always the cuddly secular saint that everybody loves now that he is 93. The guerrilla force of the African National Congress, MK – Umkhonto we Sizwe (Spear of the Nation), was founded in 1961. Mandela was one of its founders and before he was imprisoned he was its commander-in-chief. MK’s main aim in those days was sabotage and they tried not to kill anyone. However, two decades later, Wimpy bars and amusement arcades were targeted. Mandela did not object and refused to repudiate the armed struggle in 1985 when he was offered his freedom. Even when he was released in 1990 he said that MK was formed as a “purely defensive action against the violence of apartheid”. He said that the struggle had to continue. So the defensive armed struggle included killing children in burger bars.

Story we believe today
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 upon. There would be no punitive justice. According to Gourevitch the purpose of the TRC was not retributive justice but to “extract from its witnesses a collective history with which to reconcile a divided country” .Of the TRC, Gourevitch writes: “But what if the truth is not comforting? What if the truth is useless? What if too much of that truth is irretrievably lost to the past, because the only people who knew it were killed by it?”

The effectiveness of the TRC was measured In a survey study by Jay and Erika Vora. They examined its usefulness in bringing out the truth of what had happened during the apartheid regime, the feelings of reconciliation that could be linked to the Commission, and the positive economic and political effects both domestically and internationally. Some said that the proceedings only helped to remind them of the horrors that had taken place in the past when they had been working to forget such things. Afrikaners perceived the TRC to be less effective in bringing out the truth than the English participants and much less effective than did the Xhosa. Some viewed the proceedings as inaccurate as many people would lie in order to keep themselves out of trouble or to get an amnesty. There was a feeling that ordinary victims were discriminated against in favour of high profile victims. The view was expressed that the hearings did not always capture the stories of ‘ordinary’ victims. It became apparent that many communities felt that they were left out and other communities were favoured over them. The TRC was perceived as having done good work elsewhere in the country.

Back in 1999, Storey had been optimistic: “The TRC has a number of unique features. First, it gives priority to victims rather than perpetrators. The Gross Human Rights Violations Committee hears the stories of victims across the land.”

Political expediency
Victims did not all see it that way. 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. There were strong feelings that perpetrators must be made to contribute materially and financially toward the reparation and rehabilitation of victims. Justice and punishment was still preferred to amnesty as a way of dealing with perpetrators. Steve Biko’s family described the TRC as a “vehicle for political expediency”, which “robbed” them of their right to justice. John Pilger criticised the TRC for allowing the easy transition from white exclusive capitalism to multiracial capitalism, and for avoiding trying criminals, including murderers.

William Kentridge, director of Ubu and the Truth Commission, (a multi-media play by Jane Taylor) said, “A full confession can bring amnesty and immunity from prosecution or civil procedures for the crimes committed. Therein lies the central irony of the Commission. 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.”
Amnesty was always controversial. Some victims’ families challenged (unsuccessfully) the amnesty provisions in South Africa’s highest court on the grounds that they were denied due process and justice. Defenders of the TRC responded that these critics showed a basic misunderstanding about the TRC’s mandate, which was to uncover the truth about past abuse, using amnesty as a mechanism, rather than to punish past crimes. However, people are coming to see that that there is a difference between impunity, implying escape from accountability, and amnesty, which carries profound inward and social consequences.

It has to be remembered that although apartheid had been defeated, its minions still dominated the police, army, and civil service. Transition had to be handled cautiously if a coup or civil war was to be avoided. The majority of whites refused to acknowledge the systemic nature of the torture, maiming, and assassinations to which individuals had been subjected for more than 30 years by the secret police. In the words of Archbishop Desmond Tutu: “It’s very difficult to wake up someone who is pretending to be asleep.”

Flowery language
Although repentance could not be guaranteed, sometimes it seemed to be genuine. A police officer admitted the slaughter of many people in an attack on a rural village and faced his victims’ surviving relatives: “I can never undo what I have done. I have no right to ask your forgiveness, but I ask that you will allow me to spend my life helping you to rebuild your village and put your lives together.”

The Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation & the Khulumani Support Group made a number of recommendations that could be useful in other country contexts. Among them: “New national symbols not be built around representations of heroism and courage of a few individuals. Rather these should be oriented towards recognising the dignity and strength of the many who have suffered and sacrificed for the realisation of a free society.”
Did the TRC succeed? A book edited by Audrey R Chapman and Hugo van der Merwe, was published in 2008. The title was Truth and Reconciliation in South Africa: Did the TRC Deliver? As coordinators of a huge research project that ran over eight years, Chapman and van der Merwe had access to a wealth of quantitative and qualitative data. Van der Merwe, project manager with the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation, wrote: “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.”

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