Time to give meaning to the TRC

Winnie Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu exchange words at the TRC hearings in this file picture. Picture Debbie Yazbek / Independent Media

Winnie Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu exchange words at the TRC hearings in this file picture. Picture Debbie Yazbek / Independent Media

Published Jan 21, 2024


Prof Saths Cooper

ON October 29, 1998, our democracy’s founding president, Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela, received the first of the volumes of the report of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). Presented by the TRC’s chairperson, our Nobel Laureate Archbishop Desmond Mpilo Tutu, various recommendations were made on almost all aspects and various sectors of our fractured society.

As we bask in the aura of South Africa’s stellar arguments at the International Court of Justice at The Hague (whatever the outcome), it’s appropriate to look back – not in anger – but with grave concern that the recommendations made by the TRC have largely been forgotten, literally gathering dust.

Our TRC has been a template in the quest for truth arising from horrific oppression and killings elsewhere. In Argentina, for instance, March 24 is “The Day of Remembrance for Truth and Justice” for the thousands who disappeared from 1976 to 1983 through state terror.

Many have been dismissive of the TRC, just as many have blamed our Constitution of 1996, bruited as the most liberal democratic in the world, for most of our ills and misfortune. We so easily fall into the trap of blaming the TRC report and our hard-won democracy’s foundation legislation, instead of those who we have not really held, and ought to hold to account for simply failing to keep the promise of ensuring restorative justice in its broadest sense in this country.

We cannot blame documents. Hold the authors accountable, without letting off those really responsible for creating the conditions that enrage us.

After allegations of political interference in the prosecution of apartheid-era crimes, Justice Minister Ronald Lamola made various announcements on accelerating TRC cases that were in the doldrums.

These included the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) appointing 34 investigators in 2021 and that by the end of 2022 other staff in the Priority Crime Directorate would increase by some 60% to 200 to conclude this terrible chapter of apartheid-era crimes.

Notably, the announcement by the minister on January 5 this month of a new inquest into the gruesome murders of the “Cradock Four”– Matthew Goniwe, Fort Calata, Sicelo Mhlauli, and Sparrow Mkonto – and the postponed trial of the calculated luring of and blowing up of the “Cosas Four”. Eustice Madikela, Peter Matabane and Fanyana Nhlapo were killed in 1982, and Zandisile Musi was seriously injured, serving a sentence on Robben Island and dying in 2021. This latter trial of two apartheid-era operatives will be the first crime against humanity to be tried in our courts.

As we brace ourselves for the frenzied onslaught by the fastest growing, but totally draining and often tiresome sector in our country, politics, trying to make sense of the hundreds of political parties and their inevitable, mostly lacklustre campaign promises, without much substance to back them up, we should also consider the other sectors which have tended to get away from accountability in the TRC.

We have been so consumed by the convenient narrative that has focused on the political sphere, without similar focus on those sectors that were an intrinsic part of apartheid. Hopefully, this will not be viewed as ignoring corruption, greed and malfeasance that have now all but permeated our lives, yet these parasitic destructive practices emulate that which played themselves out during the apartheid era. Indeed, these were foundational to apartheid oppression and exploitation, that survived, was consolidated, and have flourished under democracy.

This country continues having the highest unemployment and the lowest employment rates in the world. Yet we remain the richest country in the most colonised and economically extractive continent, as well as one of the richest globally.

To our shame, we retain the record of the widest gap between rich and poor anywhere, with huge capital flight and domination in all spheres of our life. Seemingly, we are yet to produce a crop of leaders who will take on the might of ill-gotten wealth, refuse to selfishly partake for themselves to the exclusion of most of those around them, and commit to a step-wise programme of changing this unconscionable situation.

Apartheid business was non-committal in the TRC about their benefit from, for example, the pass laws. This form of state terror resulted in them relying on cheap labour in the mines and farms, job reservation in all other sectors and professions, especially our industrial, banking, insurance and financial services sectors. The gross limitations on movement and where the majority could stay without constant harassment, remain a fast-spreading blot in our urban landscape. Apartheid spatial planning and mental subjugation seem to have succeeded.

The active and passive supporters of apartheid have seen exponential wealth during democracy, passing muster through co-opting black partners, who themselves have all but forgotten the life and death struggles that were waged, and that many of them were simply not a part of. The triple burden of inequality, poverty and unemployment is what we confront as we enter the 30th anniversary of our fragile democracy.

While the focus has been on politicians to deal with our apartheid past, we have not put a sustained spotlight on big business as a key contributor to the lack of progress. Some blatantly refuse to really be part of the country – as we see with the flights of capital – while blaming blacks for their manufactured disadvantage, and doing little to resolve these challenges. We cannot endure another five years of putting up with those who have benefited from apartheid, while the victims continue to eke out a miserable existence. If we can’t come together on this glaring fault line, we will suffer terrible consequences.

Cooper is president of the Pan African Psychology Union, a former leader of the Black Consciousness Movement and a member of the 1970s group of activists.