The work of SA’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission needs to continue – with us – Mike Batley


Mike Batley, 12 October 2018

This month marks 20 years that the final report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) was issued. The TRC has been highly criticised for not having gone far enough in its reconciliation agenda. On the occasion of this important anniversary, Mike Batley interrogates this claim and questions whether we have really understood its findings. Have we accepted the obligation that rests on us and checked our privileges?

It is the duty of those who benefited so much to contribute to the present and future reconstruction of our society (TRC Report 1).

It has become politically correct to be highly critical of South Africa’s TRC. 2016 marked 20 years since the inception of the Commission as a functioning entity, and the current month marks 20 years since its final report. The past two years have provided an opportunity for reflection and debate.

At the time of the TRC hearings I was working for the local office of a government department that was still in the early stages of transformation. I remember the critical attitudes then, the tendency to respond with disbelief and fear that it would turn into a witch hunt. But what is its legacy? What does it mean for us in the country today with the challenges we face?

The ways in which countries deal with their past at significant junctures have an enormous impact on the direction they take and the quality of their citizens’ lives. The responses are diverse. They range from Spain’s ‘pact of forgetting’ and Zimbabwe’s ‘let bygones be bygones’ to Canada’s 6-year investigation into the way in which Aboriginal people were dealt with in schools to ‘open new healing pathways of reconciliation that are forged in truth and justice’.

There have been some 45 truth and inquiry commissions. South Africa’s TRC has been hailed as an instructive example and significant development in truth commissions. Former adversaries sought to deal with the past as a basis for creating a better future. One of the solutions that was adopted was the TRC’s understanding of the restorative nature of justice: the restoration of relationships in both personal and socio-political spaces to reflect equal dignity, concern and respect.

A recent comprehensive special report, Justice Delayed, sets out some of the obvious shortcomings of the TRC, such as the wholly inadequate follow-through on payment of reparations to victims and the failure to prosecute perpetrators who were not granted amnesty or who did not apply for it at all. Debates over the past two years have expressed concern about the TRC’s lack of attention to structural issues and the way in which oppression was individualised, leading to the conclusion that a choice had been made for peace rather than for justice. The result has been the apartheid beneficiaries’ ignorance of the cost of their privilege and their unconcern when it comes to systemic transformation.

The report says that a former commissioner, Dumisa Ntsebeza, who headed up the investigative section of the Commission, believes that this line of argument tends to falsely empower the commission with a capacity it did not have in the first place. He thinks the recommendations of the TRC were specific, were seriously developed, and could have made a major impact in the restoration of dignity to apartheid victims. If the suggestions had been followed, South Africa would be a different place today. “There was no political will, the new democratic government didn’t hold up their part of the bargain.” In Ntsebeza’s eyes, the ANC government, not the TRC itself, deserves the blame.

In view of the almost total lack of implementation of the recommendations for reparation and prosecution, it is hard to argue with this view. But the TRC recommendations also recognised the need for social and institutional reparation as an important aspect of restorative justice and the need for a deeper and wider sense of moral accountability beyond individuals in the political and security arenas.

In the process of building a bridge to a new future, the TRC called on “those who have benefited and are still benefiting from a range of unearned privileges under apartheid have a crucial role to play….a great deal of attention must be given to an altered sense of responsibility; namely the duty or obligation of those who have benefited so much (through racially privileged education, unfair access to land, business opportunities and so on) to contribute to the present and future reconstruction of our society.” (TRC Report 1, p. 134)

Much as the criticism of government is justified, each of us, as individuals and within our various institutions, needs to question the extent to which we have recognised our own privilege and have accepted the obligation that rests on us.

Ntsebeza suggests that the TRC should have been viewed, not as an end, but as a beginning. In our current context of economic recession, high unemployment and inequality, there is a renewed urgency to reconsider these questions. Sharlene Swartz’s conception of social restitution provides us with some helpful tools for doing this. She distinguishes informal social restitution from formal and legal restitution. The TRC itself and land claims processes are examples of the latter.

Social restitution is based on the following perspectives:

Injustice damages all of our humanity – we see this in our multiple social ills, as well as in indifference, the normalisation of inequality, blindness and numbness towards need, and an innate feeling of superiority that makes normal human relationships almost impossible on the part of many who have been privileged.
Restitution is broader than a legal issue and extends beyond victims and perpetrators. Swartz expands our understanding of these terms and adds the categories of bystander, resister and beneficiary to reflect how roles become complicated over time and to show that we all have a role to play in a conversation about restitution.
Restitution has the potential to restore our humanity. Multiple possibilities can accomplish this – perhaps the most challenging being the possibility of disrupting the perpetuation of wealth passing from generation to generation through inheritance.
There is something for everyone to do in restitution – this helps us move away from the view that it is all up to the government and formal programmes at the macro level.
Swartz has developed a curriculum for dialogue for use in diverse small groups in a structured way over 10 sessions. Within the safety of small groups, people can begin to acknowledge their privilege, explore perceptions about racism and together look for ways in which to make right. Working across the boundaries of local faith communities it presents practical platforms for such small groups. Dialogue circles are not difficult to implement. They can be run in multiple contexts.

Participating in programmes such as these offer us an important opportunity to accept our obligation to complete the critical work of reconciliation which the TRC began.

© Spotlight.Africa 2018

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