A defining document

Published : Sep 12, 2003 00:00 IST

THE publication of these two concluding volumes of the Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) comes over four years after the release of the first five volumes of the Report on October 29, 1998 (Frontline, December 4, 1998). As required under the Promotion of National Unity and Reconciliation Act, 1995, (hereinafter the Act) that gave birth to the TRC, these two volumes too were formally presented to President Thabo Mbeki on March 21, 2003, and released the same day.

While the political and legal wrangles that accompanied the release of the first five volumes of the Report, intense and highly contentious as they were, did not last long and did not delay the release of the report, the release of these two volumes was a rather prolonged process. The TRC had to overcome several complex challenges before formally bringing its task to a closure - assuming that there can be any closure to the history of a people, the true domain of the TRC process.

Although the five volumes released in October 1998 were described at the time of their release as the `Final Report' of the TRC, they were nothing of that sort. The release of the five volumes then, before the TRC on its own admission had not completed its task, was necessitated by the prescription of deadlines in the Act both for the completion of the Commission's work and for the release of the Report. That deadline (after the application of the provisions for its extension) was October 31, 1998.

However, the `Final Report' presented to President Nelson Mandela was far from complete, since the work of the Amnesty Committee, one of the three Committees of the Commission (the other two were the Committee on Human Rights Violations, and the Committee on Reparation and Rehabilitation of the Victims) structured by the TRC to facilitate the work of the Commission as a whole, was far from over. Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the Chairperson of the TRC, explicitly acknowledged this in his Foreword to Volume One of the Report: "[B]ecause the Amnesty Committee has not completed its statutory responsibilities and will not have done so until it has considered every application for amnesty before it, this report cannot, strictly speaking, be considered to be final".

It was thus that even after the presentation of the `Final report' the Commission remained alive, in suspended animation as it were, pending the completion of the work of the Amnesty Committee. In the event, the Amnesty Committee whose life span was extended beyond October 29, 1998 could complete its work only at the end of May 2001. The release of these two volumes took almost another two years.

Of these two volumes, Volume 7 is a most valuable, almost archival, record of the over 20,000 `victims' recognised and acknowledged so by the Commission, though only a very small number of these actually appeared before it. The list is an enlarged version of the list first published in Volume 5 of the Report, which itself was taken from a database as of August 30, 1998. In the introduction to that listing (Volume 5, Chapter 2), the Report had said that a more complete list, to be published at a later stage, would "include not only names but a brief summary of the finding made in every case".

Volume 7, a truly massive endeavour, fulfils that promise. However, the Report also acknowledges that these summaries do not always convey a full picture of the tragedy encapsulated invariably in a few lines, though one can also see and imagine even in these brief summaries the immense human tragedies with complex and unexpected follow-ups that many of these entries bespeak. As an illustration, the Report cites the story of the fatal shooting by personnel of the South African Police of Mzoxolo Sogiba, an 11-year-old boy, in Nyanga, Cape Town, on October 12, 1976, as he stood with a group of children watching a garage burning, one of the several such children killed during and in the prolonged aftermath of the Soweto uprising, and the consequences of that killing including, the fleeing into exile of a brother who never came back.

"My little brother Mzoxolo was shot dead by the policeman while he and other boys were watching the garage that was burning in Nyanga East. One of his friends Neo came crying telling me and my mother that the policeman had shot Mzoxolo and they took him to the back of the police van. When we asked the policemen what he had done they said they found a lighter in his pocket, so it's he who burnt the garage. We asked them where the lighter was. They didn't show us. It was impossible for a 12-year old boy to do that. We went to Salt River mortuary and found him with a bullet hole in his chest. After we buried Mzoxolo my elder brother Zamabuntu, who was an ANC member, was very upset about what the policemen have done. He crossed the border to the ANC camps. He never wrote even a letter. We never saw him again, even until today. Our mother died in 1980 crying for him."

Although the report identifies these 22,000 plus persons as `victims', not all of them, in particular those militant fighters, black and white, who fell fighting in the battles and the war inside and outside South Africa against an enemy regime only whose most repelling public face was apartheid, would have considered themselves as `victims'. Indeed, not even all those who appeared before the Commission viewed themselves as `victims'.

However, the ideology of the TRC was deeply informed by this very perception applied universally to all South Africans, that all the people of South Africa, across the race and class and other divides, the oppressor and the oppressed, had been deeply wounded by apartheid and were therefore equally victims, and equally requiring the healing touch that the TRC was ready to provide. Indeed, this description is applied even to those who led the TRC process who, the report describes, as `wounded healers'. In one extraordinary initiative, mediapersons who regularly covered the proceedings of the TRC were encouraged to take part in special therapy sessions organised for them, for they too required `healing'.

Hence the imploring of leaders of the apartheid regime who derided the TRC process as a `weepy spectacle' to `please come before us', holding out to them both blandishments and unimplementable threats, neither of which had any impact on persons like former President P.W. Botha.

Victims of whom? Victims of what? The TRC never tackled these questions except within a moral-religious framework. Thus, apartheid became an evil, an anathema, not a well-thought-out ideology devised in the context of the need of a class of overwhelmingly English- and Afrikaans-speaking white settler community to dominate and marginalise and finally `de-nationalise' the majority of South Africans, with an assigned role of slaves and service providers, with a view to accumulating profits and build capitalism in South Africa. Of course, now that apartheid is history, it is politically correct to argue that apartheid was detrimental to the growth of capitalism in South Africa. Revisionist histories of South Africa began facilitating this thinking when the regime appeared to be firmly entrenched and the whites never had it so good, nostalgically recalled even now by a mindset that yearns for the days when `one rand fetched over two U.S. dollars'.

Craig Williamson, an apartheid security spy (he is now a thriving businessman based in Johannesburg) who successfully penetrated the ANC and wreaked much havoc on the liberation movement in the mid-1970s, is a truly repulsive character. He was granted amnesty in the cases of the murder of Ruth First, (Maputo, August 17, 1982) and Jeanette Schoon and her daughter Katryn (Lubango, Angola, June 28, 1984). The application for the review of the amnesty decision, made by the children of Ruth First and Joe Slovo, is pending before the Pretoria High Court. Nevertheless, this admittedly self-serving passage (note the bland reference to `majorities' won by his `political masters') from a memorandum he submitted as part of his amnesty application highlights how deep and abiding the links between the apartheid regime and its instrumentalities, especially the security forces (SF), and every section of organised (white) society including its `civil society' were, how each knew fully well what the other was doing.

"Our weapons, ammunition, uniforms, vehicles, radios and other equipment were all developed and provided by industry. Our finances and banking were done by bankers who even gave us covert credit cards for covert operations. Our chaplains prayed for our victory and our universities educated us in war. Our propaganda was carried by the media and our political masters were voted back into power time after time with ever increasing majorities."

Volume 6, with its six `Sections', is in a sense the final volume of the Report proper, for Volume 7 is simply a record of `victim findings'. Five appendices in Section Five of this volume (not Section Four as wrongly printed in the Foreword), broadly reiterate the findings that it had made earlier in respect of the State, the ANC, the Inkatha Freedom Party, the Pan Africanist Congress and assorted `right wing groups', holding all these `accountable' though not in equal measure. The appendices include a schedule of changes and corrections in the initial findings on the IFP, and the IFP's own statement in respect of these findings - something the IFP won by taking recourse to the courts.

The Report of the Reparation and Rehabilitation Committee (Section Two) reads a bit like a stuck record, repeating all the familiar arguments in favour of reparation and rehabilitation of the victims, the modesty of their expectations, the contributions that business and industry can make with their immense resources. The Budget for 2000-01 had allocated R500 million to the President's Fund for payment of reparations, augmenting the R323 millions it already had on that account. Referring to the `unfinished business' of the TRC's recommendations of reparations, the Finance Minister Trevor Manuel had said in his budget speech that payment of reparations would be `one-off settlements', which would get going when the Amnesty Committee completed its work and the TRC completed its report.

NOW that these tasks have been completed, what is the status of the reparations and rehabilitation of the identified victims of gross human rights violations? Budgetary allocations for reparation and rehabilitation fall substantially short of the R2.8 billion that the TRC had recommended in the Report released in October 1998. According to a formula worked out by the TRC, the approximately 22,000 identified victims of gross human rights violations were to receive annual individual reparation grants, twice a year over a period of six years. `Based on the given policy and formula, and estimating 22,000 victims, the total cost of this policy will be R477,400,000 per annum, or R2,864,400,000 over six years." However, these funds of over R2.8 billion were to be mobilised not merely from the national fiscus but also from `international and local donations and earned interest on the funds'.

But little of this has been forthcoming. References to this `unfinished business', which once provoked sullen indifference from South African big business, which benefited immensely from apartheid - something South African business is even now not ready to acknowledge - now provokes more hostile passions against `weeping bleeding hearts'. As Duncan Innes, the historian of the Oppenheimer empire in South Africa and worldwide, noted in a recent article (`Reparations debate puts cart before horse', Mail & Guardian, Johannesburg, April 18, 2003), "the recent Truth and Reconciliation Commission proposal that business should pay reparations for profiting from apartheid must have left the sector wondering whether it will ever be allowed simply to get on with doing what it thinks it is supposed to do: make money for its shareholders." While admitting that business leaders may have a point in accusing the TRC of adopting "a one-eyed monochromatic vision of the past that does not get to grips with the complexity of the issue", Innes says that the leaders of business still cannot dispute the main thrust of the TRC's argument on the relation between business and apartheid.

"This is that South Africa's modern economy was built historically on the denial of basic human rights to millions of black South Africans, which made them vulnerable to gross exploitation by white farmers, mine owners and business people in general over the better part of a century (and longer in the case of farming). The hovels that were home to millions of farm workers, the single-sex compounds on the mines and in the towns, the migrant labour system, the appalling wages paid to generations of black workers, the pass system that denied black people freedom of movement, the undermining of black trade unions - all these institutions and practices were in place long before the National Party came to power in 1948 and began perfecting apartheid. And virtually all sections of business in South Africa profited out of these perverse practices."

As long as these self-evident truths are not accepted by South Africa's capitalist class, the cry for a fair contribution, in rands and cents, from this class for providing reparations to and rehabilitating the victims of human rights violations will remain just that, a cry.

Finally, irrespective of how one views the Commission's process and its findings, irrespective of the more fundamental disagreements with the dominant ideology that informed the process that one might have, no one can ignore this defining document encapsulated in these seven volumes running into slightly over 4,500 pages and weighting 10 kilograms. The Report, along with the Commission's archival records running into millions of words, almost all available on the Commission's website and connected links, constitute an immensely valuable record of a complex and still contested phase of South Africa's history, both painful and ennobling. Any future writing on this aspect of South Africa's history will have to be continuations or departures from the path charted by the TRC.

Truth and Reconciliation Commission of South Africa Report: Volumes Six and Seven

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