Social Cohesion, the TRC and Justice

Posted on September 7, 2014
Social cohesion is a major talking point in South Africa at the moment. (There's a conference on the subject going on at the Nelson Mandela Foundation as I speak.) It is often linked to trite notions of reconciliation without some of the hard questions about the limits and failings of the reconciliation project, especially the TRC, being brought into the frame.

I speak as someone for whom the TRC was little more than snippets showing weeping people in the evening news on TV when I was a teenager. There's a confusion of memories, stories, impressions and feelings inside of me that I am trying to order and make sense of. I have been compelled for years by this confusion to ask many questions about truth, justice and reconciliation which remain half answered. These questions have surfaced anew during the Mandela Dialogues.

The question of limits of reconciliation in weaving anew the social fabric of our society has been injected sharply into public debate recently. On 27 June the Daily Maverick published an op-ed written by Jane Quin titled 'De Kock ordered my sister's killing - and no, his debt is not paid'. Quin was responding to the matter of Eugene de Kock's potential release on parole after serving 20 years of a 212-year sentence for some of the crimes he perpetrated as commander of a notorious apartheid-era hit squad based at Vlaakplaas. Her sister, Jacqueline, was killed along with her husband Leon Meyer, who was an MK member, and seven other people (4 SA and 3 Basotho) and in a raid in Maseru by members of Vlaakplaas in December 1985.

In the piece Quin says, 'There have only been three white South African perpetrators of apartheid crimes convicted: Eugene de Kock, Clive Derby-Lewis and Ferdy Barnard. For all those whose lives were deeply damaged and destroyed... only three people among the perpetrators are paying some sort of price.'

'Do I object to the release of Eugene de Kock? Absolutely. As I do to the possible early release of Clive Derby-Lewis. Chris Hani is still very dead. No compassionate grounds will ever change the deep harm and hurt of Hani's loss for South Africa and his loved ones.'

'But ultimately, my concern is much broader than just De Kock's life, incarceration and/or potential release. My concern is the lack of commitment to seeing justice done as a result of the TRC process'.

Quin goes on to say that for all the different ways the TRC is seen in retrospect, she thinks it was amazing. She and her family got to tell 'the horror and sadness and fury' of their loss and hear the names of those who were responsible for her sister's death, she says.

She then goes on to articulate a hard-hitting indictment. She writes, 'We as a country failed to prosecute the named and admitted perpetrators who didn't get amnesty... to fail to carry through the hearings into punitive practice through the [expedient?] loss of political steam is a travesty of justice. It diminishes the TRC and erodes its value for our present and future.' Later, she asks: 'So how dare we as a country spend precious resources of time, money and energy considering the release of the killers who are captive when we haven't even bothered to bring the others to book?'

I don't want to comment on the merits of de Kock's parole application. Instead I want to share a brief anecdote before ending off with some questions about the TRC and justice.

One morning in1994 when my boarding school was closed ahead of the elections my friends and I decided to go fishing in the Mbilane river 500m from the houses at the edge of our township. As we were fishing away and my brother and others were swimming a little way downstream we heard a singing and toyi-toying crowd approach. We scrambled to try and hide under the bridge. But our attempt was in vain. Two or three men who had peeled off from the group came running towards us brandishing sjamboks and perhaps even a machete. Very quickly they splashed water on themselves and then ordered us to run after and join the mob. They ran behind us and made sure we joined. We had to learn the songs quickly as we toyi-toyied down our street and past some of our homes - something about 'Nelson Mandela is a terrorist. He is no match for our Shenge' and 'Who wants to be led by a prisoner, by Mandela?'. The mob ran all the way to the house of a family that had moved in hardly a year before. Somebody threw a petrol bomb and the house went up in flames. Somebody else fired a few shots into the house.

I knew the boy from that house. We had played soccer together a few times. The family had vanished in the dead of one night a week or so before. They were never seen in the area again. What happened to the boy I played soccer with? What hurts does he carry with him to this day that make him rage, not against de Kock and his ilk like Jane Quin, but against his former neighbours, members of Inkatha, the Zulu Police?

I find myself agreeing with Quin. I have come to understand over years of trying to make sense of my impressions of the transition to democracy that indeed the TRC was meant to give us a start. Much more was supposed to follow, including further reparations, investigations and prosecutions. Instead, as Quin says, there has been very little follow through on the recommendations of the TRC. The truth and reconciliation project has been allowed to wither except for the work of the MPTT, some NGOs, and a few scattered individuals.

It is not too late to take up the question of justice again - to investigate and prosecute perpetrators of apartheid-era crimes and human rights violations. In fact, I think it is imperative for the project of social cohesion. It took Argentina 25 years after the dictatorship and Cambodia more than 30 years after the Khmer Rouge. It has only been 16 years since the last TRC hearing. We must begin the discussion in earnest before more of the perpetrators are dead.

This piece was presented as part of a panel discussion organised by the Nelson Mandela Foundation on the topic "Escaping from the past: Securing a Just Future." at the Institute for Security Studies (ISS) conference "National and international perspectives on crime reduction and criminal justice" held in Johannesburg on 14 August 2014. For more details see the ISS website.

Mbongiseni Buthelezi is a senior researcher at the Centre for Law and Society, University of Cape Town

This piece was presented by Mbongiseni Buthelezi a Institute for Security Studies Conference last week. It is very affirming! Mbongiseni was participating in