Article by Max du Preez in the Pretoria News:
I still believe that it was a remarkable process which contributed greatly to the stability and social cohesion we have today.
But the TRC was just a first step. We were supposed to walk further along that road of truth and reconciliation. In many ways we have made progress, but there is one stumbling block we didn’t remove or overcome: the massive inequality in society, largely along racial lines.
True reconciliation can be achieved only once we have dealt with that inequality substantially; once poverty, unemployment and indignity has been reduced significantly.
The TRC only failed if you thought it was going to be the magic bullet that would instantaneously end all resentments and fears, says Max du Preez.
Pretoria – The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) had failed, I heard a radio presenter declare last week. It is a statement on the same level as “South Africa has made no progress since 1994” and “the poor are poorer today than under apartheid”.
We South Africans seem to like these denigrating statements about our country. We’re also the most crime-ridden country in the world with the most rapes and corruption and we’re the most unequal society on earth, we hear often.
All of the above statements are patently false. It seems if we can’t be the champions of achievement, we insist on being the champions of failure.
A part of this phenomenon of diminishing our achievements could be that we expected much more progress since 1994 and this is a way of expressing our disappointment. But mostly the explanation is that we use caricatures of our society to blame each other across racial and political party lines.
The tragic part is that we start believing our own myths and now we fear – and some threaten – a new revolution, a popular uprising by the poor and downtrodden that would turn us into a Libya or an Egypt.
I often wonder what goes on in the minds of these preachers of doom when they drive past row after row of new RDP houses, most of the recent ones with solar geysers on top, all over South Africa – around three million of them.
What do they think when they see long queues of people lining up –there are about 17 million of them – to get their social grants; when they use our brilliant infrastructure, roads, airports and public transport in particular?
We all, the government included, underestimated the rate at which rural black people were going to move to the cities after 1994. Almost two-thirds of South Africans are now urbanised, by far the biggest figure in Africa. It was never going to be easy to keep up with providing houses, services and jobs to millions of new arrivals.
The truth is hard to swallow for those with an axe to grind: the vast majority of South Africans are much better off now than 10 and 20 years ago, also the poor. Our rapidly growing middle class has more spending power than those in most, if not all, developing countries. More than half the world’s population can only dream of the personal freedom and opportunity South Africans take for granted.
And no, our TRC did not fail. It only failed if you thought it was going to be the magic bullet that would instantaneously end all resentments and fears, restore all lost dignity and turn us magically into a just and equal society.
The TRC came just two years after our liberation election. It was part of the settlement of 1994. It thus also had its limitations: it had to include amnesty for political crimes; it was limited in the amount of truth it could extract; and it could focus on violent acts perpetrated against individuals only during the period 1960 to 1994. The worst part of apartheid was not the number of people tortured and killed, it was the damage done over generations through humiliation, oppression, pass laws, forced removals, bad education and exclusion from economic opportunities and activities.
But the TRC did give thousands of victims, survivors and their families the opportunity to tell their stories to the nation. Through radio, television and newspapers, these stories were taken to others who had similar experiences but did not appear before the commission.
The TRC also gave victims and survivors – in fact, all South Africans – the chance to look into the eyes of the apartheid perpetrators who had applied for amnesty and had to confess to their actions.
My intimate experience with the TRC hearings and those who gave testimony told me that, to many black people, the TRC had pulled the sting of the worst resentment and anger about the assault, torture and murder of the apartheid era. White South Africans were forced over almost three years to confront the awful truth about the past almost every day.
I was in charge of a small team that made 90 hours of television documentaries about the TRC process. I still believe that it was a remarkable process which contributed greatly to the stability and social cohesion we have today.But the TRC was just a first step. We were supposed to walk further along that road of truth and reconciliation. In many ways we have made progress, but there is one stumbling block we didn’t remove or overcome: the massive inequality in society, largely along racial lines.True reconciliation can be achieved only once we have dealt with that inequality substantially; once poverty, unemployment and indignity has been reduced significantly.
* Max du Preez is an author and columnist.
** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Newspapers.