Reparations for victims of apartheid should not be the sole responsibility of the state and should include the corporations who profiteered under the system, the beneficiaries of apartheid as well as the beneficiaries of the transition, writes Yasmin Sooka.
Twenty-five years ago, the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) was established through the Promotion of National Unity and Reconciliation Act 34 of 1995, to deal with the atrocities of the apartheid era and to build national unity and reconciliation.
Apartheid South Africa was the richest country on the continent, sadly with one of the most unequal societies on earth. Under apartheid, mass removals of millions of black people made room for white cities, white suburbs, white farms.
By 1913, the theft and pillage of land was complete.
In the building of modern South Africa, black labour was utterly indispensable and black lives utterly expendable: more than hundred thousand workers were killed, and over a million injured, in South African mines from 1900-1994. White racist supremacy was buttressed by laws and policies which disenfranchised and dehumanised black people who became migrants in their own land.
Horatio Verbitsky, a distinguished Argentinean journalist and human rights activist, visited South Africa in 2005 to participate in a conference on prosecutions for political crimes of the past. Verbitsky, together with the Mothers of the Disappeared, known as the Madre de Plazo de Mayo, assisted by the Centre for Legal and Social Studies (CELS) in Argentina, won a landmark ruling in 2001 setting aside the amnesty laws in Argentina. It paved the way for the conviction in Argentina’s domestic courts of senior military officials for gross human rights violations under the past dictatorship.
A challenge on reconciliation
Verbitsky challenged us South Africans on our notion of reconciliation, noting that in Argentina “reconciliation is a dirty word – do you expect those who are tortured to forgive their torturers and reconcile with them?”.
We defensively argued that “Nuremburg” style trials in our context had just not been possible and that we had opted for survivor’s justice which focused on the joint survival of all South Africans eschewing criminal accountability. As Mahmood Mamdani, the Ugandan scholar noted: 
“The idea was not to avenge the dead, but to give the living a second chance.”
We rebutted Verbitsky’s assertion on reconciliation, pointing out that Codesa symbolised the crafting of a new constitutional order based on the values of human dignity, freedom and equality and that reconciliation was about truth and justice given the denial by our oppressors – the TRC was therefore instrumental to the transformation of our society.
The achievements of the new democratic state were spectacular in the first 10 years of the transition.
Millions more South Africans had access to water, electricity and telephones; more children attended school and university; citizens travelled more freely across the land and we enjoyed a free and robust press; a transformed independent judiciary and more than a million RDP houses built.
We translated the constitutional dream of freedom for millions of previously disenfranchised citizens and restored the belief that the state could work for all of us, irrespective of race, colour, sexuality, gender, status and ethnic or tribal identity. Black lives mattered.
The Mandela and Mbeki years gave us hope as a democratic government showed that it had the capability to govern and rule and reverse the legacy of centuries of structural violence and systemic racism.
Shattered dreams
Twenty-five years later, we are disillusioned as our dreams have been shattered at the failure of our state to deliver transformative justice.
South Africa remains unenviably one of the most unequal societies in the world with structural spatial legacy of apartheid still mostly intact – fault lines which the Covid-19 pandemic has laid bare.
Young black South Africans in particular are extremely critical of the vision of the Rainbow Nation and reconciliation.
Our dreams for a non-racial, non-sexist society have evaporated, with the stench of corruption tarnishing the institutions established by the Mandela government. This is all the more reason not to have an ahistorical perspective of our past particularly the compromises necessitated by the transition, including the amnesty deal.
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The TRC revealed the horror of apartheid-era crimes – the bombings, assassinations, torture, enforced disappearances, mutilations, and the necklacings.
The truth-telling process provided victims with a safe space to speak about their violations, and perpetrators with a generous opportunity to escape prosecutions provided they made full disclosures about the crimes they had perpetrated. Truth recovery without acknowledging the continuum of structural racism diminishes any hope of reconciliation.
The TRC has justly been criticised for not dealing with the structural dimensions of the apartheid system.
The focus on individual systems crimes, while critical, obscured the link between racialised oppression and white privilege.
Consequently, the failure of the beneficiaries of apartheid to acknowledge either their benefit or privilege, despite the victims of apartheid crimes baring their souls at the Truth Commission, embitters our society.
Antjie Krog, one of South Africa’s greatest writers stated bluntly that “it’s impossible to acknowledge that the central truth around which your life has been built is a lie” and: “Who among us can confront the brutal fact that the moral narrative of our lives – not just what we do, but who we are – is a fraud, that our goodness was simply obedience, that our normality was perverse, that our respectability was purchased with cowardice? And who among us can confront the fact that this fraudulence, which is closer to a moral fracture than to a moral lapse, has caused unimaginable suffering to others?”
Archbishop Desmond Tutu emphasised that reconciliation is a process and requires critical self-reflection, a capacity for remorse, guilt, grief, and shame.
While the TRC affirmed that reconciliation is intrinsically about justice and redistribution, on the justice front, victims have been shamefully let down by our government who failed over the last 17 years to prosecute apartheid-era perpetrators.
Nyameka Goniwe, one of the Cradock 4 widows died this year without seeing the killers of her husband held criminally accountable and, like many other victims, felt betrayed by the state’s failure to ensure justice and meaningful reparations.
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The lack of justice, coupled with corruption and the state’s failure to ensure the radical redistribution of resources, makes it exceedingly difficult not to believe that we are living through a dystopian nightmare in which little has changed, with the gains of the first 10 years reversed.
A 2019 World Economic Forum report tracking social mobility placed South Africa at the bottom of the list noting that it would take nine generations for most Black South Africans to escape poverty.
Iraj Abedian, the economist, who assisted in crafting the TRC’s reparation policy, recently said that corporations implicated in state capture should be liable for reparations commensurate with the economic damage they have wreaked on South Africa.
At this juncture, reparations should not be the sole responsibility of the state and should include the corporations who profiteered under apartheid, the beneficiaries of apartheid, as well as the beneficiaries of the transition. Such a reparations fund could primarily be used to transform the lives of all South Africans who live below the poverty line.
Reconciliation in this context would be about our redeeming our dignity and humanity and echoing the words of the late Steve Biko:
“Until black people asserted their humanity and their personhood, there was not the remotest chance for reconciliation in South Africa.”
– Yasmin Sooka is a human rights lawyer.
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