By Njundu Drammeh
Reading a book ‘Reconciliation Discourse: The case of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’ (a book) by Annelies Verdoolaege, Ghent University, and I could not, but be surprised by the similarities of what they said about the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) and what is being currently said about our TRRC…. Take a read:
About the achievements
“……..According to a number of scholars (amongst others Minow 1998: 331 and Mooney 1998: 215) a first positive achievement of the TRC concerned the airing of victims’ personal experiences. For many victims the act of telling about their suffering under apartheid was psychologically very important and a healing experience (Govender 1998; Fourie 1999; Rakate 1999). It was often extremely difficult to relive the past, but most people were very relieved after having opened their hearts to the Commission. By telling their stories, victims realised that their suffering had not been a private matter, but that it had been part of a social experience in which millions of people played a role. In this way it became easier for them to deal with the past trauma and with the powerlessness and humiliations they had been confronted with for so many decades (Minow 1998: 67).
For many of the victims it was not only important mentally to tell their personal stories, but also to hear the truth from the mouth of the perpetrators. For many years they had been kept in the dark concerning the whereabouts of their loved ones and they were often relieved to finally learn the truth (Goodman 1999: 181).
The disclosure of ‘the truth’ was clearly one of the aspects of the TRC highly valued by many victims….It was especially important that through these testimonies everybody in South Africa had been obliged to confront the terrible past. …….
…….For the first time in their lives, their suffering was acknowledged and they felt respected and valued by society. Many of them had wanted the world to know about the past and therefore they greatly appreciated the opportunity given to them to tell their stories in public.
……At the Human Rights Violations hearings, victims sometimes expressed individual feelings of reconciliation or forgiveness. At the Amnesty hearings, encounters between victims and perpetrators took place and also there the audience could witness some amazing moments of reconciliation (see Tutu 1999b: 120). These individual instances of reconciliation were often the result of the actual encounters between victims and perpetrators. A number of victims stated that the opportunity to meet the person who committed the human rights violation was one of the major benefits of the TRC (Picker 2003: 18)…….
About the criticisms
“……..A second major form of critique came from a number of apartheid victims who were convinced that the TRC process was unjust. Perpetrators who appeared before the TRC and who met the criteria in order to be granted amnesty were acquitted from any civil or criminal liability. These individual perpetrators had to confess their crimes in public, which turned out to be a very difficult task on a psychological and a social level. Nor was the granting of amnesty guaranteed and perpetrators who did not come forward could still be prosecuted.
Nevertheless, many apartheid victims were convinced that the TRC process was perpetrator-friendly and that real justice solely involved the judicial prosecution and punishment of perpetrators. A number of victims manifestly disagreed with the TRC and some of them – for example the family of Steve Biko – even challenged the amnesty principle of the TRC before court…….Many victims felt that the TRC robbed them of any sense of personal justice since perpetrators went free, without any moral or material compensation for the victims…….Victims were also convinced that many perpetrators had only told their version of a certain human rights violation, while they doubted that this version came anywhere near ‘the truth’.
With regard to the truth, a number of commentators wondered about the extent to which the TRC had actually revealed the truth about the apartheid past. An ‘objective truth’ had definitely not been revealed, since each witness had talked about reality from his or her own personal perspective (Adam 1997; Henderson 2000)……
The response of high-ranking officials was especially disappointing, and the testimonies of those who did come forward had often been unbelievable (Dunn 1997: 34; Stanley 2001: 532). There was a general impression that while minor officials did come forward for fear of prosecution, their superiors got away……All of these aspects caused critics to argue that the Commission had only revealed a partial truth and definitely not ‘the truth’ about the apartheid past (Mamdani 1997; Pigou 2003). In the words of Michael Ignatieff (1997: 8): “All that the truth commission could achieve was to reduce the number of lies that can be circulated unchallenged in public discourse.”
The failure to realise material changes in the lives of apartheid victims is often seen as one of the biggest shortcomings of the TRC, and more specifically of the Reparation and Rehabilitation Committee…….Many victims and survivors of human rights violations expected the TRC to provide monetary reparations for them in exchange for their participation in the hearings. A first problem regarding this idea was that the TRC could only recommend reparations to the government – they were not brought into effect immediately.
The second problem was that the government was not keen on establishing an effective reparations policy. It was only in April 2003 that President Mbeki ruled that the government would provide a one-off grant of 30,000 Rand to those individuals designated by the TRC (Stoppard 2003). This offer left many apartheid victims – and also people closely connected to the TRC such as Wendy Orr (2000a) and Zenzile Khoisan (2001) – very disappointed; from the start of the process onwards they had expected a much more substantial amount of money….”
When books are also written about our TRRC, we would come judge whether it was worth our money or not. Fact is though, we may never agree on them, just as we are not agreeing now.