Lessons from the TRC: then and now

25 April 2017 | Story by Kate-Lyn Moore. Photo by Robyn Walker.
Veteran journalist Pippa Green presented a series of reflections by TRC commissioners as part of the ICA’s current focus on the TRC hearings.
Veteran journalist Pippa Green presented a series of reflections by TRC commissioners as part of the ICA’s current focus on the TRC hearings.

It has been more than 20 years since the first hearing of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). It was on that first day, 15 April 1996, that Archbishop Desmond Tutu broke down in tears.

The commissioners knew the hearings would be gruelling. But the TRC process promised hope and a pathway to some sort of healing. Two decades later, however, the process is widely criticised and regarded by many as having been a failure.

In an attempt to unpack the strengths and weaknesses of the TRC, and to generate the ideas and energy required to move forward, veteran journalist Pippa Green presented a series of reflections from 13 former TRC commissioners, on 19 April.

Her presentation formed part of the Institute for Creative Arts’ (ICA) 2017 Great Texts / Big Questions lecture series, with its current focus on the TRC in light of the Institutional Reconciliation and Transformation Committee (IRTC) process taken up by UCT in the wake of Shackville and the 2016 student protests.

Born out of a 13-part podcast series, History for the Future: What we can learn from the TRC, her talk was a retrospective on a critical historical chapter.

It presented a snapshot of the country as it was during the commission, and as it is now.

Dr Khwezi Mkhize, who chaired the proceedings, noted the following: “I think about those protests and the way students have constructed the idea of a TRC to address those protests themselves, as something of an allegory of history. So these lectures are echoing things that are real, visceral and immediate within our own political context.”

How we treat our history

Disillusioned and despairing of the culture of impunity and the demonisation of our independent institutions, the commissioners were nonetheless proud of what they achieved during the TRC.

This culminated in a seven-volume report, which included the recording of 21 000 names of people identified as victims.

Brought into being by the Promotion of National Unity and Reconciliation Act, the TRC had a particular mandate to review a specific period of our history.

Positioned somewhere between the prosecutorial approach of the Nuremberg trials and the blanket amnesty approach adopted in the wake of the Chilean dictatorship of 1973–1999, the TRC was made up of three committees: the Human Rights Violations Committee, which was chaired by Tutu, the Amnesty Committee and the Reparation and Rehabilitation Committee.

“I think the key thing for people who have been critical of the weaknesses of the TRC was perhaps not the TRC so much, but what happened afterwards,” said former commissioner Yasmin Sooka.

It was not within the TRC’s power to make reparations, only recommendations. But of the 300 names handed over for prosecution, not a single case was prosecuted.

“I think to not prosecute makes a mockery, really, of the ones who did come before the commission,” noted Sooka.

Lessons from the TRC: then and nowThe ICA’s current series of Great Texts / Big Questions lectures attempt to unpack the strengths and weaknesses of the TRC process.

The root of the rot

South Africa is saddled with a culture of impunity, said former commissioner Advocate Dumisa Ntsebeza. This is rooted in the reluctance to accept the TRC’s findings and recommendations.

“It began in the unwillingness to take the legal process of the TRC to its logical conclusion. Not only in terms of prosecution, but in terms of actually even accepting the report,” he explained.

The ANC party, led by Thabo Mbeki, sought to interdict the release of the report on the day it was due to be handed over.

“It was indicative of things to come. That is spite of the Freedom Charter, in spite of what was reflected in the constitution as the values for which people had lost their lives and these values were enacted in large measure through the TRC … In spite of that, there was an attempt by government, by those who are in the liveries of power, to muzzle the coming into the open.”

All dictatorships start with a culture of impunity, he noted.

A time of despair

“It was a very difficult time in the country. It still is,” said Green, reflecting on the six-month period between 2015 and 2016 when she interviewed the commissioners. “The student protests were strong, robust and strident.”

There had been outbursts of racism on social media. It looked as if we were pretty far from the South Africa we had set out to be during the TRC, reflected Green.

“I think we have been really disappointed, in the way in which some of our core institutions have been silent in the face of violations. I mean, why have none of them stood up to protect Thuli Madonsela?” Sooka asked.

It is imperative for citizens to be able to trust independent institutions such as the judiciary and the public protector.

Indeed, as Green noted, it is only once we have an accountable and sensitive government that we will be able to have meaningful conversations about policy, education and youth unemployment.

Responding to Green, writer Antjie Krog drew upon the words of a Chilean commissioner who visited during the hearings. He warned that it is the process after the commission itself that is the most difficult. The words had not meant much to her at the time. But she has internalised them now.

It is then when “you can no longer depend on comrades for morality”, she said.

“But what you must demand is accountability.”

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