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  • Written by  The Times
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Vlakplaas to become centre for healing

Vlakplaas, the notorious farm used covertly by the apartheid state for murder and torture, will be turned into a national centre for healing, the science and technology department said today. "What is happening is that Vlakplaas, which has a history of violating human rights where thousands of people have been tortured in the apartheid era, will be turned into a national centre for healing," said department spokesman Nelvis Qekema.

 

Vlakplaas, the notorious farm used covertly by the apartheid state for murder and torture, will be turned into a national centre for healing, the science and technology department said today.

"What is happening is that Vlakplaas, which has a history of violating human rights where thousands of people have been tortured in the apartheid era, will be turned into a national centre for healing," said department spokesman Nelvis Qekema.

Research on indigenous plants would also be conducted at the still to-be-named centre.

"Minister Mosibudi Mangena together with the National Indigenous Knowledge Systems Office came up with the idea. Research will be conducted at the site. There will be a laboratory where research on these plants will be conducted."

The centre would promote collaboration between traditional healers and practitioners of western medicine, Qekema said.

The intense media attention on prospective prosecutions for apartheid-era crimes provides a rare opportunity to galvanise thoughts on possibilities for constructive and imaginative responses when dealing with these aspects of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission?s unfinished business.

Although the state remains legally obliged to investigate and prosecute, it has largely dragged its heels in navigating these contentious waters and could continue to do so indefinitely. The prosecution policy introduced in December 2005 regrettably allows for an in-camera process of back-door amnesties, plea bargains and negotiations.

There are no guarantees for meaningful victim representation and the policy is now being legally challenged by victims? families and human rights organisations.

At the same time the National Prosecuting Authority has announced its decision to proceed with charges against Adriaan Vlok and former senior police officers, generating predictable objections.

Ultimately, politics will determine whether and what unresolved crimes from the apartheid era are actively investigated and prosecuted.

There appears to be little political stomach to pursue this, although repeated undertakings by the government that there will not be a general amnesty continue to raise questions about what matters will be pursued.

Even if, as expected, the prosecution option is sharply curtailed, continued investigation of cases from the past must continue and is the very least that could and should be offered in return for any further erosion of rights to seek justice through the courts. This is also a practical response, as most cases will not merit prosecution.

South Africans are not marching in the streets for retributive justice, but many seek to know more about why things happened in the past the way they did. And they have every right to be assisted with this.

Most who came to testify to the TRC wanted answers to questions about circumstances of violations and associated responsibilities. They did not seek vengeance or ask for monetary compensation. It was an unprecedented opportunity to put on record their experiences and their requests for assistance.

In the vast majority of cases, the TRC simply affirmed that they were victims of gross human rights violations, and no further light was shed on the circumstances of the incidents described. The TRC?s report attempted to connect individual incidents to wider patterns of abuse.

The TRC generated a remarkable archive, but it remains unprocessed and largely inaccessible, physically located at the National Archives with access clumsily controlled by Department of Justice officials who appear willing to waste public resources in misguided efforts to challenge requests for records.

The efforts of the South African History Archive (Saha) to address these issues over the past six years have been met with recalcitrance, even hostility. There has been no meaningful effort to audit and secure remaining apartheid-era intelligence and security records as recommended by the TRC, and Saha is concerned that security police records identified by the commission have now gone missing.

Of course, there is some evidence of good work being done. The Missing Persons Task team is a case in point, but even that initiative is fundamentally under-resourced. Such problems are indicative of a general lack of commitment to taking forward the work and recommendations of the commission, and have reinforced a reductionist debate that further truth-recovery work is limited to the prosecution arena. It need not be so.

South Africans have a proud tradition of innovation and can surely find some constructive options that really prioritise the needs of survivors and the quest for developing our understanding of what happened.

However difficult and uncomfortable, this can only consolidate our appreciation of where we are coming from and our commitment to building a better life for all. Not doing so will only reinforce a despair that is palpable among so many still seeking answers.

Pigou is the director of the South African History Archive and a former TRC investigator.

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