News agency, Cape Town, South Africa
Monday April 24th 2017

The lessons of South Africa’s TRC for Africa ten years later

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Thembi Nkadimeng was 10 years old when her older sister Nokuthula Simelane, an activist against apartheid, “disappeared” in 1983. Nkadimeng grew up in a family constantly in search of the truth about what had happened to their loved one at the hands of the apartheid security forces. The disappearance was the subject of conflicting amnesty hearings under the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) process held in South Africa during the 1990s. Ten years since the final report of South Africa’s TRC was handed to government on 29 October 1998, Nkadimeng is still without answers about her sister’s disappearance.

“I have chased the prosecuting authorities, the president, everyone under the sun whom I thought had an answer and I still can’t find out,” she told an event held to mark the 10th anniversary of the report’s handover.

The 10-year retrospective of South Africa’s TRC process was convened by The Desmond Tutu Peace Centre, Foundation for Human Rights and Institute for Justice and Reconciliation (IJR) in Cape Town between 28 and 30 October. It marked the handing over of the report by former Anglican Archbishop of Cape Town and TRC chair Desmond Tutu to then president Nelson Mandela.

Nkadimeng’s story goes to the heart of some of the failures of South Africa’s TRC process, failures which hold important lessons for other truth commission processes around Africa.

Since South Africa’s TRC, truth commissions or similar initiatives have sprung up or are being considered in Ghana, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Democratic Republic of Congo, Morocco, Kenya, Mauritius, Togo and Burundi.

The South African TRC was instituted as a way of bridging the divide between the oppressive National Party race rule of apartheid and the democratic South Africa.

But in the aftermath of the TRC, the South African government has been heavily criticised over the way in which it has handled the payment of reparations to the thousands of victims of apartheid identified by the TRC. And follow-up prosecutions of apartheid era security chiefs who failed to apply for amnesty under the TRC process has been notoriously slow.

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Nahla Valji, senior project manager at the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation, who has worked with civil society in Uganda, Sierra Leone, Liberia and Kenya in the field of transitional justice, said following the South African process, many countries had wanted to use the model without looking at the weaknesses and the fact that it had been specifically developed to deal with South Africa’s history.

In South Africa, reparations payment had been “pitiful”, she said, and the amnesty process had been flawed because few security operatives had applied and those that applied had created stories to fit the amnesty criteria.

“Those who gave testimony went home to their shacks and those who got amnesty went back to their homes that they got through what they did. It’s very hard to reconcile when there have been no socio-economic changes.”

However, she said while the lessons were being learnt, truth commissions had a key role to play in terms of their moral justice value and the way in which they could give voice to those who had suffered.

In discussing the security sector – the apparatus through which human rights abuses are perpetrated – it emerged that perhaps one of the problems surrounding TRC’s is the heightened expectations they engender as a fix-all to issues of reconciliation.

But Janine Raunch, an expert on security sector reform, warned that TRC processes could not be expected to solve complicated problems of post-conflict transition all on their own.

Raunch, who in 2007 and 2008 conducted research into TRC’s and security sector reform around the world, which is soon to be published by the International Center for Transitional Justice (ICTJ) , said there were a number of reasons why it was difficult for TRC’s to tackle security institutions.

She said TRC’s by their nature looked to the past, while the transformation of the security sector was forward-looking. Most truth commissions tended to focus on finding the truth about individual perpetrators while security sector reform was about reforming systems.

“Certainly one of the greatest weaknesses of our [South Africa] truth commission recommendations was its failure to grasp the understanding of the systems that operated within apartheid through the institutions.” She said this was a common problem throughout the world.

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The capacity of TRCs to manage and analyse data was a further problem, both because of the volume of data and because TRCs were time-bound.

The TRC model looks set to stay though. In East Africa, both Kenya and Uganda have started exploring the model and Zimbabwe is another country that lends itself to the tool.

Shuvai Nyoni, from the Zimbabwe desk of the Institute of Justice and Reconciliation, said with a level of political violence remaining in the country, the environment was not yet ready to talk about a TRC.
“I think it would be about taking a step back and looking at things that happen before a TRC to begin to lay the framework for something like a TRC.”

While there was a lot to be learnt from the South African example, she said there was also a “lot not to do”. One of the issues Zimbabwe could take note of was the importance of securing documentation that could be used in a future TRC process.

And the lessons are being learnt. Fabius Okuma-Alya, director of the Institute for Peace and Strategic Studies in Uganda, said civil society had been advocating not for a political process but for a community-led process that was “bottom-up”.

This would place a stress on reconciliation “that came from the heart of the individual” rather than reconciliation as a politically imposed concept.

“The South African example to me is a political process which remains recommendatory. We want something that can translate into a legal process that can be binding,” he said.

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Meanwhile, Nkadimeng, who has refused to give up the search for the truth about her sister’s disappearance, will be going to court in late November in an attempt to force government to act on her sister’s case.
In the search for the truth, she said she had learnt to live with the pain of her sister’s disappearance while still making headway in life. She is a senior manager in the provincial government of Limpopo, one of South Africa’s nine provinces.

“I believe a certain chapter has to be closed,” she said. “Bad things might have happened, but tell us where she is and we will bury her and move on. That for me is reconciliation.” — West Cape News

* Reporting by Patrick Burnett.

West Cape News sent questions to the former chairperson of the TRC, Desmond Tutu, but his response arrived too late for inclusion in the above article. His replies are below:

  • Memories of the report handover on 29 October 1998:

“I was upset that the ANC should have sought to stop the handing over of the report through their urgent court application. The report was scathing of the apartheid government and concentrated its strictures on the NP but this court action diverted attention away from the main culprits.One thing it did help to do was to demonstrate that the TRC had indeed been evenhanded!”

  • Most significant aspects of the TRC on South African society:

“The TRC process revealed that we are indeed a remarkable people, yes capable of the most gruesome atrocities, to plumb unspeakable depths of depravity and yet exhilaratingly also magnanimous, capable of the most sublime goodness, all of us black and white without exception. We have become
a beacon of hope to the rest of the world.”

  • Outstanding issues from the TRC process:

“We have as a nation been mean in the matter of reparations given to victims and I think we should do something to remedy our stinginess. And we should revisit the TRC recommendation of a once off wealth tax to try to bridge the gulf between the haves and the have nots. The appalling poverty that strangles so many of our compatriots is a powerkeg and it could devastate us.”

Tags: truth reconciliation

Reader Feedback

3 Responses to “The lessons of South Africa’s TRC for Africa ten years later”

  1. ErvinTW says:

    Thanks! Nice post.

  2. Hassan says:

    thanks for this, maybe you can help me to answer this question:

    “False Promises and Wasted Opportunities” Discuss with Reference to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) of South Africa

    Thanks :)

  3. Nomalanga says:

    The Nokuthula Simelani story brings tears to my eyes. How can amnesty be granted when people are not being truthful.In my opinion amnesty should be granted and those people who are guilty should be charged with crimes against humanity.

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