How the TRC failed women in South Africa: A failure that has proved fertile ground for the gender violence women in South Africa face today

Over the past four years, Khulumani Support Group has worked with sociologist and graphic artist, Ms Judy Seidman, to offer workshops to women who suffered gender violence during the liberation struggle. Ms Seidman had been a member of the Medu Art Ensemble in Botswana and had been involved in organising the Culture and Resistance Conference in 1982 under the banner, "Culture is a weapon of struggle". This conference formed the entry to using cultural production as an expression of community perceptions and needs and as a foundation for mobilization. (Tsogang Basadi: Finding Women's Voice from South Africa's Political Conflict).

The workshops give space to women to revisit their own and their communities' trauma and to raise questions about "how at the end of so much digging for the truth in the TRC, so many people found themselves still bleeding from open wounds". Workshop participants contrasted their experiences in these workshops with what they called the "failed TRC".

Every woman who has participated in these Art and Memory workshops had entrenched personal memories of the ongoing violations in the name of apartheid and connected these gendered apartheid violations with the grim consequences affecting women survivors in the post-apartheid era. They explain that black women in South Africa as a group remain mired down in poverty, without resources, without economic security, with no way out.

What were these TRC failures and how did they impact on women:

  1. The TRC did not have a category for gender violence against women. It was simply subsumed under the heading of "serious ill-treatment". When women were interviewed by TRC statement-takers against their list of prepared questions used by the statement-takers, no questions about rape and gender-based violence were asked and if a woman spoke about being raped or experiencing gender-based violence, the statement-taker usually did not record it.
  2. When a woman insisted that their rape or gender violence be recorded in their statement, the statement-takers refused to record these incidents unless the woman had opened a case with the police. This was in a context where women who experienced rape in the political conflict dared not go to the police or even to hospital because injured residents who reported to the hospital were usually turned over to the police.
  3. The TRC processes did not view women as actors in the violence, but only as victims, and no women were cited as perpetrators of human rights violations even where women political prisoners recited violations committed against them by female prison warders.
  4. In respect of the TRC's enabling Act, rape and gender-based violence did not fall within the criteria of a political act as defined by the Act. A perpetrator who had committed rape as a political act, would thus not qualify for amnesty on these grounds resulting in no amnesty applicants admitting in their statements that they had raped.
  5. The TRC further failed women by failing to recognise within its mandate apartheid's systematic and institutionalised violation of women's human rights. The TRC's own report stated that "women were subject to more restrictions and suffered more in economic terms that did men during the apartheid years.
  6. The TRC failed to recognise women as actors and activists in their own right - women who fought to defend their families, defend their lives, and to defend political gains. Khulumani facilitator, Ms Nomarussia Bonase explains that the TRC statement-takers never asked women about their political involvement or their actions within the struggle. "They were not even asked what happened to them except as it happened to their families."

These Art and Memory workshops have revealed that the "silence" around women's stories is not because the stories are too traumatic or too personal for women to tell. Rather these stories have been suppressed. Women, Ms Seidman explains, do want a space and a context where they can address what happened to them so that it can be put into public debate from a positive perspective of recognising women's strengths and contributions and their capacity to find solutions. Women welcome some men as participants in these workshops as long as they are supportive and encouraging and educated, aware and perceptive about the problems women face.

Wendy Isaack in a dissertation written for the University of Ulster in 2006 entitled "Deferred and dismembered? Sexual Violence against women in 'post-conflict' South Africa" suggests that the political compromises made in the South African transition failed to address violence against women and have left women vulnerable and victimized. She writes, "We need to ascertain how political compromises impacted on women who engaged with the transitional mechanism (the TRC); what a transformed society entails for all women living daily with the reality and fear of violence and for women who continue to not only be marginalised but also sexually violated simply because of their sexual orientation and / or gender identity.

As will be evidenced by this work, this transformative agenda of the Truth Commission remains a point of serious contention in numerous fora." She suggests that we must acknowledge that "transitional mechanisms do not address inter alia structural and systemic gender inequality ... in some cases there is not only an omission, but also through this and other actions, mechanisms such as the Truth Commission in South Africa may entrench various forms of inequality and hegemonies by reproducing problematic gender stereotypes." (Reference: Isaack suggests this informs occurrence in the present of South African police officers who regularly "arrest" sex workers on weekend nights, rape them, and then abandon them in highly dangerous, deserted neighbourhoods far from any public transport - a repetition of a pattern of how many women were treated in the 80s and 90s. She points out that no one has established if it is the same individuals who persist in behaviour they got away with in the past; if men who perpetrated gender violence in conditions of conflict now take it as on some level "socially acceptable".

Khulumani activist, Ms Nomarussia Bonase sums up the value to Khulumani female members in the words, "In these workshops, we as women become active citizens, to shape our own lives and our own world; to change the laws and make the country work for our children and future generations,"

Khulumani continues to call on the Department of Justice to allocate a portion of the funds remaining in The President's Fund for the funding of these transformative psychosocial processes. Please refer to the submission made to the Department of Justice on 13 December 2010 that details how the resources in The President's Fund might be used to greatest effect. These are proposals to which the Department of Justice and specifically the TRC unit have yet to give a detailed response. Their continuing failure to become a partner with Khulumani Support Group in delivering real remedies for victims and survivors of the struggle, reflects a government that has failed to understand the power of public solidarity with those who continue to carry the greatest costs of the struggle to realise democracy in South Africa. Most Khulumani members remain as a "group remain mired down in poverty, without resources, without economic security, with no way out."

Khulumani's Reparations Proposals can be downloaded from Khulumani's website:

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