Remembering the Sharpeville & Langa Massacres: 21 March 2020 – a reflection on how much more has to be attended to

The South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission broke new ground internationally in being the first Truth Commission to provide human rights hearings for victims of the crimes associated with the oppressive apartheid regime. The victims’ hearings were broadcast by the SABC across the entire country. This was important because for the first time, white South Africans were confronted with the truth of the terrible cost in human life, human dignity and human potential that had been made possible by the multiple pieces of apartheid legislation that controlled every aspect of the lives of black South Africans. The extent of wounds resulting from the killings, the torture, the abductions and disappearances, the prolonged political detention and the destruction of properties and livelihoods was no longer hidden from sight as they had been under apartheid censorship laws.

Many media companies admitted that out of fear they had failed to report on what they knew all along had been going on. NASPERS made a formal apology for hiding these truths on its centenary, expressing deep regret for their failures. While expressions of regret are appreciated because they convey a capacity for empathy, they are no longer sufficient. There must be movement beyond apologies to accountability and reparations.

A Tragic Neglect of the Moral Urgency for a Comprehensive Reparations Programme

At this stage in the evolution of our country’s democratic trajectory, the promises made to the thousands of victims and survivors of the worst of these atrocities – those that meet the criteria for being identified as ‘crimes against humanity’, have never been wholeheartedly embraced and honoured. This has left our nation with depths of woundedness to which we are all witnesses – the violence exacted on each other in our homes, schools and public spaces; the degree of incivility with which we live every day most often in our interactions with the public services on which our lives depend; the verbal violence and intolerance we see meted out on fellow Members of Parliament in the National Assembly; and the abuse people are subjected to in their daily interactions especially with the police, who have largely lost the respect and trust of people in most communities in the country. 

Wounded people are easily triggered and react aggressively when they are triggered, handing on their wounding to those with whom they interact. Thankfully a sense of urgency has emerged about the need for addressing the woundedness of the people of this country. Mental health issues can no longer be ignored. Too many have taken their pain and swept it under the carpet, forgetting that every painful experience is stored in our bodies. Our bodies hold and reflect the truth. The anthropologist Dr Rita Kesselring made this explicit in her book of her work with Khulumani entitled Bodies of Truth.

Reparations Need to Address the Extent of Mental Health Issues

Trauma that is not addressed becomes transmitted to the next generation. This includes the trauma of the families affected by the massacres that have taken place in our country – massacres that predate apartheid and that continued through and beyond apartheid. All have left a terrible legacy of injuries that have never been repaired. Unresolved trauma becomes transgenerational. It is reflected in the despair and depression that young people in less-resourced communities experience when they cannot find meaningful work or employment, leaving them unable to provide even for their own personal needs. Many of this generation are inheritors of the disadvantages that accrued to the families of those that chose “liberation before education”. This was a choice that has left them and their next generations in states of continuing social and economic exclusion because of the absence in our country of a well-conceived and effective reparations programme.

Reparations as a Radical Historical Demand

When we reflect on the occasion of the 60th Anniversary of the Sharpeville Massacre this month, we are reminded of the important tasks that were entrusted to the Truth Commission – the double agenda of reckoning with the perpetrators of the worst of the abuses towards preventing impunity for their crimes and confronting the impacts of the trauma of serious human rights violations on the lives of victims and survivors and their families. On both scores in truth little has been achieved leaving the country still deeply scarred. The solutions were to have been addressed in a comprehensive reparations deal for all victims who suffered from the most egregious of apartheid atrocities. But this work remains only in a state of infancy despite the excellent reparations and rehabilitation proposals made by the TRC. There must be substance to a reparations programme that takes us beyond empathy and shallow rhetoric and that ensures accountability – accountability to the citizens who made sacrifices in service of freedom and justice for all in our land.

Filling the Gap in Recognizing Beneficiaries for Reparations

  • Measures for repairing the damage caused by apartheid crimes has been limited to benefiting only 16,800 individuals who have been recognized as qualifying as beneficiaries of the state’s reparations programme.
  • Actuarial projections of number of individuals qualifying for reparations should be expected to be around 120,000 individuals or their next of kin.
  • The work performed by the institution set up to manage this process has limited itself to the 16,800 individuals that the TRC confirmed as victims who meet the criteria of having suffered a serious human rights violation.
  • The failure of the state to provide for the registration of all victims of these abuses beyond the arbitrary cut-off date of 14 December 1997, undermines the overarching purpose of reparations as the means to repair the harm suffered by victims so as to assist them to recover and to move on in their lives.
  • In place of a comprehensive programme of inclusive reparations based on an effective reparations policy for all victims who meet the criteria set up by the TRC, we have a haphazard process in which a fraction of those qualifying by virtue of their injuries, have received the drastically reduced allocation of R30,000 each as well as access to being able to apply for financial assistance for the education of their own children and grandchildren as direct victims, a benefit now extended to the children of their immediate siblings. 
  • The overarching effect of this process has completely undermined the purpose and intention of a reparations programme to heal and repair all those who were harmed.

There is still time! Investing in Completing the Tasks Accepted by the TRC

There is a moral urgency to deliver on a comprehensive and ambitious reparations programme. It is shameful that the country that innovated by creating a platform for victim hearings, has failed victims because there is no comprehensive and inclusive reparations policy. Khulumani sees this need as its foremost priority. All reparations measures undertaken by the state thus far have failed to address the woundedness of the people and their social and economic exclusion. The present structure tasked with reparations does not have the necessary policy or governance oversight to see delivery on this critical agenda. The urgent needs of the vast majority of victims of apartheid crimes will not be addressed with the present state of business as usual. The TRC Unit has no vision for what is needed and no capacity to deliver on what is needed. 

The Incomprehensible Lack of a Comprehensive Reparations Policy

The many countries which have turned to South Africa for assistance in designing their own reparations policies and programmes have been dismayed to discover that no policy for reparations exists in South Africa twenty-two years after the publication of the TRC’s First Report that detailed the TRC’s recommendations for reparations.

The situation in Colombia, a country with a similar population profile as South Africa, is vastly different. Colombia with a population of 49 million people put in place in 2012 a reparations programme with a long-term vision of healing and repairing their nation. 6 million victims were formally recognised in Colombia with hundreds of thousands of victims receiving reparations. We can no longer stall the necessity of finally doing right by the victims of apartheid crimes. How does our government account for the missing 103,200 individuals whose patience has run out, the balance of the actuarial projections of those who would be expected to meet the criteria. The state has failed its people on this moral imperative that should have been welcomed as a critical foundational building block to secure long-term peace and security for all in South Africa. There is a historical demand for reparations that will continue and intensify as long as it is neglected.

A Struggle Remaining to be Won: Reparations for All Victims and Survivors of Apartheid Serious Human Rights Violations

     Khulumani remains the only civil society organisation that has never ceased to campaign for reparations. History will judge us harshly for failing to deliver on this promise with all its consequent legacies. For Khulumani and for the country, reparations remains an unpaid debt. The delays have augmented the impacts of the unaddressed wounding of thousands of our people. We have an obligation going forward to finally help people to recover so that they can move forward into a life in which they can avail themselves of opportunities as they arise.

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