By Hannah Goozee
More than twenty years after the conclusion of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), survivors of apartheid violence in South Africa continue to struggle for justice. On 28th October 2020, members of Khulumani Support Group, a national organization of over 100,000 members, gathered outside the Union Buildings in Pretoria demanding overdue reparations from the government. The 112 individuals held placards and banners, while singing during daytime and sleeping on the grass at night. Many of these members are elderly suffering from health conditions, and yet refused to leave until they received an answer: where are the reparations for apartheid? In this piece I reflect on time spent with Khulumani Support Group in 2019 and suggest that the failure of reparations is symptomatic of the TRC’s political origins and attention to individuals over structures. This individualization of apartheid has resulted in a continued lack of structural and material redress in South Africa.
The South African TRC is often heralded as one of the most successful transitional justice mechanisms. The product of a negotiated settlement between the National Party government and the liberation forces, principally Nelson Mandela’s African National Congress, the TRC was presented as the healing moment for South Africa. Over the course of several years, victims shared their stories of violence and victimhood in public hearings across the country. Additionally, investigations were undertaken into clandestine apartheid activities and amnesty procedures were held for perpetrators willing to disclose their wrongdoings. The TRC concluded in a seven-volume report, with the first five delivered to the President in 1998 and the last two in 2003, with recommendations for societal, political, and economic transformations. The process, as Mandela declared in the handover ceremony, signalled “the end of one season and the beginning of another”.
For members of Khulumani Support Group, the dawning of a new age was far from a reality. In 2019, I spent six months with members of the East Rand branch of the organization, many of whom were present at the protest in Pretoria. I interviewed nearly forty members for my doctorate, listening to their stories of apartheid, loss, and violence. From my very first interaction, one thing became clear – the pain continues to be lived: from unhealed wounds inflicted by apartheid forces, to lost and damaged properties, not to mention the death and disappearance of loved ones. Not only do they continue to reckon with the legacy of apartheid, but their pain has been exacerbated by governmental promises of reparations, which never materialized. Often, it was during discussions of the TRC and reparations that members became distressed, more so than when describing their apartheid experiences.
Reparations were a prominent feature of the 1995 Promotion of National Unity and Reconciliation Act, the legislation which formally established the TRC. In addition to uncovering gross violations of human rights and the granting of amnesty in exchange for full disclosure, it was also recognised that reparations would be necessary for a peaceful transition to be achieved. The Act defined reparations as including “any form of compensation, ex gratia payment, restitution” and distinguished between urgent interim reparations and a long-term reparations policy. The TRC’s Reparations and Reconciliation Committee was tasked with implementing the former, and making recommendations for the President on the latter. Crucially, the Act also provided for the creation of a President’s Fund to hold the reparations payable to victims.
While the TRC identified Urgent Interim Reparations as a priority once it was established in late 1995, governmental delays and logistical challenges meant that payments only began in 1998. By this time, much of the Commission was wrapping up its work. These interim reparations were designed for individuals identified as victims and in need of urgent support. By 2001 the process was complete, with payments made to merely 14,000 individuals, a fraction of those in need of support in the aftermath of apartheid.
The final report included recommendations for much more substantial reparations, including further urgent reparations, but also higher amounts for individual grants, symbolic reparations, community rehabilitation, and institutional reforms. The President’s Fund was identified as the means to provide the payment of individual grants, which the RRC estimated to be R23 023 per annum and to continue for six years. These grants were to be paid to victims identified by the TRC, and the relatives and dependents of victims.
However, the TRC classified only 21,000 victims during its process. The TRC defined victims narrowly: individuals or the relatives of individuals who suffered gross violations of human rights. Through individualizing victimhood, the TRC made invisible the everyday violence and abuse experienced through apartheid laws and society by millions of South Africans. Those I spoke to the East Rand emphasised the context and everyday life of apartheid; violence was structural and endemic. However, even working within the TRC’s definition of victim, Khulumani Support Group projects that reparations should be paid to 120,000 individuals or their next of kin. The group also rejects the cut-off date imposed by the TRC, which meant that only those who had self-identified as victims by 14th December 1997 are entitled to reparations. This overlooked the communities which continued to experience violence late into the 1990s, such as the East Rand. Most fundamentally, the group argues, is the continued lack of an inclusive and comprehensive reparations policy from the government.
What came of the RRC’s recommendations? In short, very little. Instead, in 2003, President Thabo Mbeki announced a one-off payment of R30 000 for victims identified by the TRC. This is about a quarter of what was recommended by the TRC, and did not include any access to medical, social, or educational services. Despite the fact that contributions from both South African and foreign governments to the President’s Fund have amassed to approximately R1 billion, no further reparations have been made.
The failure of reparations is reflective of the restrictive mandate to which the TRC was bound. Scholarly critiques of the process recognise that the mandate severely curtailed the TRC’s ability to reflect on the daily reality of apartheid, and the structural violence that was imposed through laws and regulations. The impact of this mandate translated into both its identification of victims and its lack of enforcing power. The TRC could only make recommendations, it had no powers of implementation beyond the Urgent Interim Reparations. The failure then is more a reflection of the political context in which the TRC emerged – a struggle between the outgoing apartheid government and the incoming ANC-dominated democracy. Political compromise meant that attention was deflected from the structures which protected and even entrenched white supremacy in South Africa. The system of apartheid was never questioned. Beneficiaries of this system were notably absent from the TRC debates and forums. Moreover, the focus on actionable gross violations of human rights meant that those in positions of responsibility escaped from prosecution. As scholar and political commentator Mahmood Mamdani has asked “why was the leadership of apartheid not held responsible for it? The answer is political, not ethical.” Where the TRC focused on both individual perpetrators and individual victims, it made invisible the structural violence of apartheid. The individualization detracted from the socio-economic and political drivers of violence. The continuing reluctance of the South African government to engage with and provide redress for apartheid is evidenced by their intentions to use the remainder of the President’s Fund for vague community development programmes rather than reparations.
From this neoliberal understanding of justice which dominates the international human rights agenda – that is a focus on individuals – ideas of social justice and transformation are silenced. In South Africa, the consequences continue to be felt today. Reparations is just one, albeit crucial, example. As a recent statement from Khulumani’s central organizing committee explains, “for Khulumani and for the country, reparations remain an unpaid debt. The delays have augmented the impacts of the unaddressed wounding of thousands of our people. We have an obligation going forward to finally help people to recover so that they can move forward into a life in which they can avail themselves of opportunities as they arise.” Until then, the struggle continues.
Hannah Goozee is a PhD Candidate in the Department of War Studies, researching the role of trauma in conflict and peace. Hannah holds an MA in International Conflict Studies with Distinction from King’s College London, and a First Class MA (Hons) in International Relations from the University of St Andrews. During her MA she held a research position at the International Centre for Security Analysis (ICSA), and has also undertaken research for the International Policy Centre for Inclusive Growth (IPC-IG) in Brazil.