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TRC's unanswered questions

Two weeks ago, the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation, the Foundation for Human Rights, and The Desmond Tutu Peace Centre, hosted a conference in Cape Town. Exactly 10 years after Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu handed over the first five volumes of the final report of the TRC to then-president Nelson Mandela in 1998, the conference asked whether there was need for redress. Had the TRC's recommendations been implemented?

Brian Mphahlele bends forward so that the scars are visible, white stripes criss-crossing the back of his head. He talks very matter of factly about his torture under the apartheid regime, he skims over the 10 years spent on Robben Island as a political prisoner, and he calmly lists the human rights abuses inflicted on his friends, family and associates. The pain is still there, but Mphahlele has learnt to either ignore it or push it to one side.

"I have to live with it, I can't let it ruin my life," he says neutrally. But when he talks about the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) his hands begin to shake, his face darkens and his eyes fill with tears. The pain is raw and very visible.

"I kept banging and banging on doors but it fell on deaf ears," he says, curling his fists and punching the air. "It was a disgrace." He shakes his head and spits the words out like bitter-tasting sweets.

Mphahlele was one of 18 000 people recognised by the TRC as a "victim of apartheid". The "recognised" victims were then allocated a lump sum of compensatory money - R30 000. To date, over 2 000 people are still awaiting payment. Mphahlele received his money, but says that the amount of money he received was "an insult". He also criticises the scope of the reparations and says thousands of victims were not acknowledged.

"Do you want to tell me there were only 18 000 victims? No. That is not true. The TRC did not do enough.

"There is over R850 million left in the President's Fund and I would love to know what happened to that large sum of money."

Two weeks ago, the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation, the Foundation for Human Rights, and The Desmond Tutu Peace Centre, hosted a conference in Cape Town. Exactly 10 years after Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu handed over the first five volumes of the final report of the TRC to then-president Nelson Mandela in 1998, the conference asked whether there was need for redress. Had the TRC's recommendations been implemented?

The overwhelming response and discussion at the three-day conference was a resounding "No". No, the recommendations had not been implemented, no, the government had not done enough, and no, the people were not satisfied.

Set up by the Government of National Unity in terms of the Promotion of National Unity and Reconciliation Act, No 34 of 1995, the TRC was designed to help deal with what happened under apartheid.

Dullah Omar, former minister of justice, said at the time of the TRC that "... a commission is a necessary exercise to enable South Africans to come to terms with their past on a morally accepted basis and to advance the cause of reconciliation".

The TRC provided a forum for victims and perpetrators alike to come and tell their story. They were listened to and either found forgiveness and amnesty, or came face-to-face with those who had killed their loved ones, and forgave.

For the last 10 years the TRC has been hailed both nationally and internationally as a success. That apartheid ended without causing a full-scale war has often been credited directly to the commission.

The TRC's findings condemned both sides for committing atrocities, and both sides tried to prevent the publication of damning material.

In his speech while handing over the recommendations to Mandela, Tutu said that South Africa would show the rest of the world how to deal with post-conflict situations.

"The world sees South Africa as a beacon of hope for those places like Northern Ireland, Bosnia, Rwanda - so different from Sierra Leone where just last week they executed 24 people by firing squad. They see a new way, a better way to deal with a post-conflict, a post-repression period," he said.

But 10 years later, and the murmur of discontent is growing louder. Dr Fanie du Toit, executive director of the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation (IJR), Antjie Krog, author of The Country of My Skull, Tim Modise, award-winning TRC journalist, Tony Ehrenreich, provincial secretary of the Congress of South African Trade Unions in the Western Cape, Max du Preez, journalist, and other prominent South Africans who were involved in the process, are calling for action, and even a new TRC, on issues that have been ignored or that were not fully addressed in the recommendations.

South Africa remains one of the most unequal societies in the world, and as the current Springbok jersey controversy illustrates, the scars of apartheid are still there, still painful for many South Africans.

Fatima Hassan, attorney and prominent Aids activist, received a standing ovation from the TRC redress conference, with her emotionally charged demand for a new TRC to address the government's failure to deal with HIV and Aids over the last 10 years.

Hassan said political issues had prevented HIV and Aids from being mentioned in the TRC's recommendations 10 years ago.

She argued that this, coupled with "policies driven by denialism", meant that South Africans were needlessly dying from HIV and Aids.

Hassan sat on the panel addressing health sector reform. The redress conference included nine sessions, with an expert panel in each session. Each panellist addressed a sub-topic within the broader session theme. The sessions broadly covered the TRC's recommendations - themes included the promotion of a human rights culture, education reform and socio-economic redress.

The conference concluded that the recommendations had not been implemented and the government had failed to implement changes to ensure their success, and that the recommendations were not far-reaching enough, were too cautious and did not deal with certain issues essential to the transformation of South Africa.

Du Toit said: "The sad fact remains today that very, very few of us have actually read the report or even sections thereof. It remains a largely closed document."

But whether the majority of South Africans have read the TRC's report or not, it is clear that certain expectations stemmed from the process, and in many cases these expectations were not realised. A large proportion of South Africans expected the recommendations to transform South African society. But was this part of its mandate?

Advocate Dumisa Ntsebeza said the TRC could never have been expected to reconstruct South Africa.

"It was a way for us to face the brutality of our past, but it was never structured in such a way that its recommendations could fix what is wrong in our country, or to heal the history bequeathed to us by apartheid," he said.

The BBC stated at the time of the TRC that there was a "basic misunderstanding" about its mandate, which was to uncover the truth about past abuse, using amnesty as a mechanism, rather than to punish past crimes.

The TRC was never designed to completely transform South African society. This could not happen overnight and it could not happen without widespread support from all sections of society.

When he handed the recommendations to Mandela, Tutu stated that South Africans must work together to bring about the change recommended by the TRC.

"The commission can make but a contribution to this, perhaps a significant one, but only a contribution. It is up to all of us South Africans to say 'this is our land; we are committed to it. We are concerned about the welfare of all South Africans, not just of my particular section or group'," he said.

An issue raised by the redress conference was the possibility that South Africans themselves did not implement the TRC's recommendations. Former minister of intelligence Ronnie Kasrils said South Africans "did not take the lessons of the TRC seriously enough".

As a government minister, he said, he had never done anything specific to implement the recommendations, nor had he been asked to by the government.

"Internationally it has become a benchmark. In South Africa it is something I think tends to be ignored to a great degree and not dealt with sufficiently," he said.

Modise, who covered the TRC hearings, said that many South Africans still did not understand the importance of the reconciliation process in the new South Africa.

Thembi Nkadimeng, a witness at the TRC hearings, said that many of the TRC's recommendations had been "swept under the table".

Nkadimeng, whose sister "disappeared" under apartheid 25 years ago, said her family felt forgotten by a government in a still-broken land.

"I think had it been implemented to its conclusion it would have made a great difference. It was a process which was meant to be a transition and it should have passed now. But we are stuck here because things were not done right," said Nkadimeng.

But Valdi Van Reenen-le Roux, programme manager for the Reconciliation and Reconstruction Programme at the IJR, said the responsibility of the TRC to transform an entire system was huge.

"We judge ourselves too harshly in terms of the road taken. Change cannot happen overnight.

"If we look back to the days of apartheid, then there has been drastic change. But after 14 years of democracy, the inequalities in society are glaringly obvious," she said.

Jodi Kollapen, of the Human Rights Commission, criticised the government for failing to address issues of inequality.

"You could say socio-economic redress, its absence, is the single most formidable obstacle to advancing our constitutional democracy," he said.

The Khulumani Support group, which represents more than 60 000 claimants for reparations, said that millions of South Africans who helped to end apartheid were "languishing in squalid conditions".

Marjorie Jobson, acting director of Khulumani Support Group, said the Department of Justice has been "held hostage by political principles". She has been lobbying the department for over five years to try to get the reparation money put back into needy communities.

Mphahlele is a member of the Khulumani Support Group. He believes the TRC should be extended to include victims that were not dealt with before it closed its doors.

He wants the R850m allocated to victims of apartheid and still sitting in the President's Fund to be spent on community projects.

"Those who never went to the TRC must be given a second chance to reapply for reparations," he says.

The issue of unpaid reparations was put back onto the political agenda by the new Minister of Justice, Enver Surty, last week.

The new minister's spokesperson, Halton Cheadle, said the minister was doing "everything in his power to bring these regulations and policies into force as soon as possible".

But will this be too little too late?

Krog said the government had missed a "golden opportunity" by not implementing the recommendations.

"If the government followed the recommendations and gathered all South African citizens under the banner of reparation, having them pool their knowledge, practical links, skills and resources, then reconciliation could have become a fantastic mobilising force," Krog said.

At the TRC redress conference, the overwhelming opinion of the speakers and panellists was the need for change and the failure of the post-apartheid government to implement it. But there was also pride in what had already been achieved.

As Tutu said at the time, the TRC was a process of "hearing and reconciliation of our traumatised and wounded nation". It was fundamentally about the past.

Now, perhaps, South Africa must look towards the future and ask what has been learnt by the TRC process. What has changed, what needs to change and, more importantly, how can this change be brought about?

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