The truth be known


This year 2016 marks the 20th anniversary of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings at a time of great change in the economy and society. The latest results of the Afrobarometer survey in South Africa shows divergence on many levels.

South Africans interviewed said the economy is headed in the wrong direction and Government is failing to manage it, and a majority believe there has been no change or there has been a deterioration on a range of indicators since 1994, according to the Afrobarometer survey.

A significant proportion of minority race groups believe the government discriminates against them based on their ethnic background. And a majority of South Africans said courts and employers discriminate against them based on race, whilst a plurality said the same of potential landlords.

Kenneth Lukoko, senior project leader of the Community Healing Project in the Building an Inclusive Society (BIS) Programme at the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation in Cape Town, talks to us about this very important topic.

Firstly, take us back to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) hearings; did the aim of the hearings materialise?

Firstly, the hearings did not manage to reach every person who was defined as a victim of gross violations of human rights by the commission or its Act. We all know for instance that almost twice as many people who would have qualified only became known after the cut-off date, according to the victims/survivors’ organisation Khulumani Support Group. Secondly, the hearings had another expectation that it would be the platform for victims and their perpetrators to possibly engage in ways to explore reconciliation, forgiveness etc. and that too happened to a limited extent, although it was very powerful symbolically whenever it happened. Thirdly, the actual hearings and testimonies of particularly the perpetrators (for amnesty) also lead to uncovering of previously unknown facts and exhumations of human remains of the murdered. It also revealed that other recoveries of truth also took place and set in motion powerful discourses that began to glaringly prove the evil nature of Apartheid to even those millions who had previously supported it for decades.

What impact would you say the TRC had in building the country after Apartheid?

It established a critical moral compass for the country to know before establishing itself among the community of nations again. Right and wrong was shown for all to see and also how effectively the system that kept wrongs happening had been kept in place through political narratives. These developments drew together a whole industry of knowledge and practitioners to carry forward the narratives of truth-seeking, accountability, forgiveness, apologies, social justice and so on. We now have many organisations in that field and the disciplines around transitional justice have become better known and interest in them is still sustained to this day. The South African TRC model is also a strong example in such truth seeking or transitional justice mechanisms used world-wide and many countries emerge with more learnings from it.

It is reported that South Africans have mixed feelings about the progress that have been made since 1994, some are pessimistic—whilst others are optimistic; how much progress has the country really made?

The country made critical progress in establishing commonly accepted truth across all political persuasions for the first time ever in the its history. There is now also a strong understanding or vigilance about what must not happen again in South Africa, even if that standard is not always kept by many of us from time to time or most of the time. The issues of reparations, disappearances that have still not been resolved, pardons of remaining prisoners understood to have committed politically motivated crimes, etc. are now referred in our civil society as the ‘unfinished business of the TRC’ and much work is going on behind the scenes to try and resolve these together with a departmental desk in the Department of Justice, that is known as the TRC desk. There is also the TRC Report, composed of many volumes that can be and is often consulted by researchers and key decision-makers across the world. It is hoped that that helps to deepen understanding and impact of the transitional justice concept and in general our global understanding of morality.

What more need to be done to redress the injustices of the past?

The economic dimension to the Apartheid crimes and colonialism needs to be also properly attended to. This is a great sticking point and it is related to the fact that seemingly, the actual concept of apartheid, in relation to its economic dimension of excluding certain races from the central drivers of economic development and growth, was never fully interrogated or fully engaged with. Hence practices that undermine the redress measures for it, such as BEE, EE, etc. are continuing.

It has been alleged that most South Africans are sceptical about voting due to varying reasons; with local government elections coming soon, how can the discouraged voters be encouraged and have their faith restored?

I think more important than the outcomes of the vote, is the more long-term issue of social justice and reconciliation. The issue of voting patterns has become so much unpredictable that we have to find other means of trying to convince the populace to contribute to reconciliation and social justice in general than the simple vote.

Many movements, in that regard have become very active and that for me shows that people are more committed to working in-between elections. There is a bit of a schizophrenia, in that it seems we are only really interested in building a harmonious country in the election years and the rest of the time we enjoy destroying and tending to be negative.

Politicians also seem to be ready and willing to communicate effectively about everything only in election years.

What else can be implemented to further rebuild South Africa into a faster progressing country?

Education, education and more effective education. The weakest point in our chain towards development is in my view the destruction of the little that is there by communities in times of anger. In Cape Town, even the “MyCiti” bus service in the CBD has now been affected by an anger that developed in communities on the outskirts of Cape Town, when its services in the CBD were disrupted as a result of that anger. The railway train services have also lost millions in infrastructure in the space of a few weeks, not mentioning the human or social cost in work hours lost. The media is central in this particular challenge. The burning of schools in Vuwane is another critical example of this. Even before we can build the economy more creatively, if we so easily destroy, then it’s like we take very slow and difficult steps forward but so quickly then take twice the number of those steps backwards again. Investor confidence then suffers and our ability to build that economy becomes even more difficult.

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