In early May, the African National Congress (ANC) held on to power in South Africa’s general election, with a reduced majority, winning 62% of the national vote. As the country celebrated the 20th anniversary of the first democratic elections that saw Nelson Mandela take office in 1994, many hailed the election as a sign of a thriving democracy.
Despite maintaining the support of the black majority, the ANC has been criticized over issues including South Africa’s growing inequality, corruption, police brutality, as well as poor education and service delivery, all of which has led to increasing protests. Millions of South Africans remain mired in poverty, and unemployment remains widespread.
Just as troubling, perhaps, is the widespread feeling that the party that oversaw the creation of the groundbreaking Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) has walked away from its obligations to the South African people: the level of reparation that was recommended has not been enacted; the wealth tax—designed to re-distribute some of the resources of the very rich—has been ignored; and there has been no prosecution of those who declined amnesty.
Alex Boraine, one of the main architects of South Africa’s TRC, thinks the country is heading down the wrong path. Boraine, who is also the founder of ICTJ, has become an outspoken advocate for the need for serious reform.
South Africa’s political failings are the subject of Boraine’s new book, What’s Gone Wrong? South Africa on the Brink of Failed Statehood. Through personal memories of the transition and current-day political analysis, Boraine’s book explores the question of how South Africa slipped so far from its early years of apparent unity and prosperity following the fall of the apartheid regime.
“I tried to write [the book] in terms of the institutions of the state and where they were failing,” Boraine explained. “Even though it’s 20 years down the line, I would argue that institutional reform should still be part and parcel of the commitment of those who believe in the constitutional democracy.”
Dealing with the consequences of apartheid violence
In 1995, the South African Parliament mandated the establishment of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). The TRC’s final report, published in 1998, included testimony from over 22,000 victims and witnesses, more than 2,000 of whom testified at public hearings.
The recommendations made by the TRC touched on every aspect of life, including addressing the wealth gap, affording victims comprehensive support, and pursuing justice in deserving cases.
The Commissioners recommended that the new government put together a committee of cabinet ministers to look at the recommendations, yet that never happened.
Unfortunately, most efforts to achieve accountability for crimes committed during apartheid have failed, and many South Africans have yet to receive reparations for the harm they suffered.
“The international community is really not aware of the extent to with the South African government’s promises in the wake of the TRC have not been kept,” says South African based Howard Varney, ICTJ’s Senior Program Adviser.
Despite Mandela’s consistent support for the TRC, the majority of the cabinet backed deputy president Thabo Mbeki’s belief that the Final Report did not make enough of a distinction between the violence of the state and the human rights violations committed by liberation forces, and the Commission’s recommendations were not given the priority they deserved.
According to Boraine, the TRC’s recommendations regarding reparations were handled the worst.
“They took so long, and they didn't accept our recommendations as to what should be paid to the victims,” he recalled. “Victims felt cheated, they felt that they had risked a great deal in appearing before the commission, and they waited and waited, and a few of them died while they were still waiting.”
Many of these victims were surveyed in a 1998 report conducted by the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation in association with the victims/survivors organization Khulumani Support Group. The report of the survey outlined a number of criticisms of the TRC, including the idea that justice had to be seen to be done before reconciliation could be achieved.
Varney explained that although every victim formally registered by the TRC received a one-time payment from the government, the reparations did not take into account degrees of harm suffered, nor the scale of hardship endured as a result of the human rights violations.
“Since the official list of the TRC is closed, thousands who would have been considered for reparations were left out and are now denied redress,” Varney added. “A comprehensive needs assessment of the victims has also never been done.”
‘Our soul remains profoundly troubled’
South Africa’s TRC was meant to be the beginning—not the end—of South Africa’s transition. However, Boraine notes that South Africans have expressed their opinion that momentum for the goals of the TRC has been lost.
Many of those who were directly involved in the transition from apartheid are now coming forward to call upon President Jacob Zuma and the ANC to complete the “unfinished business” of the TRC, including Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu: in an op-ed published on the eve of the elections, he warned, “How we deal with truth after its telling defines the success of the process.”
Boraine remains hopeful that the next generation will take up the cause of building trust between the country’s institutions and its citizens, and to help ensure the TRC’s recommendations are implemented.
“My experience is that you really, really have to put pressure on the government to take TRC recommendations seriously,” he said.
Today, pressure on the government is being exerted steadily by victims groups. In early May, the Khulumani Support Group (KSG), a national organization of victims and survivors of gross human rights violations perpetrated under apartheid with a membership of over 90,000, issued an open letter to President Zuma outlining their needs
“We write this as still living citizens who are able to speak out on behalf of ourselves and the ‘voiceless silent’ who were disappeared and killed,” the KSG wrote. “We are dying in shameful neglect and without dignity.”
Citing widespread concern about the direction in which South Africa is heading and the deafening silence that continues to meet their campaign, KSG asked for the creation of a representative Advisory Committee to develop policy to deal with the gaps in dealing with the past and for the suspension of the President’s Fund until such a policy is developed to take care of the unfinished business of the TRC. ICTJ endorsed these recommendations.
Tutu believes the current government has turned its back on Apartheid-era victims, calling the state of the Commission’s business as “scandalously unfinished.”
“Our soul remains profoundly troubled,” said Tutu. “By choosing not to follow through on the commission’s recommendations, government not only compromised the commission’s contribution to the process, but the very process itself.”
Learn more about transitional justice in South Africa here, or listen to an interview with Howard Varney about victims who are still waiting for reparations and justice here.
Photo: ANC supporters cheer President Nelson Mandela as his motorcade passes by during election campaign in Durban, South Africa, 1994