Race / Violence


The Truth and Reconciliation Commission was a very good idea.

But if a worthy life characterised by the right to human dignity for the greatest number (as opposed to the constant spectre of death, disease, hunger, injury and sense of superfluity), are used as a set of measures of how far we have dealt with the violent oppression and exploitation of Apartheid, then that’s all the TRC was: a well-intentioned idea. 

April 4 - TRC Image

To jog memory, the TRC was established through the PROMOTION OF NATIONAL UNITY AND RECONCILIATION ACT 34 of 1995. Among other things, the Act was intended

To provide for the investigation and the establishment of as complete a picture as possible of the nature, causes and extent of gross violations of human rights committed during the period from 1 March 1960 to the cut-off date contemplated in the Constitution, within or outside the Republic, emanating from the conflicts of the past, and the fate or whereabouts of the victims of such violations;… affording victims an opportunity to relate the violations they suffered; the taking of measures aimed at the granting of reparation to, and the rehabilitation and the restoration of the human and civil dignity of, victims of violations of human rights.

In the Foreword to the TRC Report, that man we can never treasure enough, especially in these times, Archbishop Mpilo Desmond Tutu, goes to great lengths to defend TRC and its work. Among other things Tutu states that

1 All South Africans know that our recent history is littered with some horrendous occurrences – the Sharpville and Langa killings, the Soweto uprising, the Church Street bombing, Magoo’s Bar, the Amanzimtoti Wimpy Bar bombing, the St James’ Church killings, Boipatong and Sebokeng. We also knew about the deaths in detention of people such as Steve Biko, Neil Aggett, and others; necklacings, and the so-called ‘black on black’ violence on the East Rand and in KwaZulu Natal which arose from the rivalries between IFP and first the UDF and later the ANC. Our country is soaked in the blood of her children of all races and of all political persuasions.

2 It is this contemporary history – which began in 1960 when the Sharpville disaster took place and ended with the wonderful inauguration of Nelson Mandela as the first democratically-elected President of the Republic of South Africa – it is this history with which we have had to come to terms. We could not pretend it did not happen. Everyone agrees that South Africans must deal with that history and its legacy. It is how we do this that is in question – a bone of contention throughout the life of the Commission, right up to the time when this report was being written. And I imagine we can assume that this particular point will remain controversial for a long time to come.

But here is why the TRC was good in theory, though in reality it was more of a failure than we care to admit. 

Can we really say the human and civil dignity of victims of violations of human rights been rehabilitated and restored? 

Forget the other banal forms of humiliations and injustices perpetrated under Apartheid. But how long can have we dealt with the Apartheid horrors that turned us into these shells and shadows of the men and women we might have been, into these beasts and monsters that wreak such violations on each other?

Now, to the list of “horrendous occurrences” you can add the Marikana massacre of 16 August 2013. On that day the militarised South African Police killed 34 Marikana platinum mine workers and wounded around 78. All of the dead and injured were black men. Marikana platinum mine is operated by Lonmin. Cyril Ramaphosa, elected as the deputy president of the African National Congress at the party’s 53rd national conference in Mangaung in December 2012 was at the time on the board of Lonmin and called for action against the miners. The African National Congress is former liberation movement and current ruling party in South Africa. The massacre has been said to be the most lethal use of force by South African security forces against civilians since the 1960 Sharpeville massacre by Aparthied forces.

Now, even though we might agree that “South Africans must deal with that history and its legacy”, the question indeed is how.

April 4 - TRC Image from Cape Times  

Before we move on past the past, then, should we not ask whether we have dealt with it? Is the past really gone? How far is it?

It seems the country continues to be soaked in blood, mostly of black men, women and children.  The Truth and Reconciliation Commission has not, I am afraid, set us free. We are not definitely reconciled, not with our own traumas, most of which were excluded from the mandate of the TRC.

Perhaps the TRC was never meant to actually heal us. How could it? Perhaps we expected too much from these good men and women.

In praying for the TRC to reveal to us our new identities to replace the old Apartheid identities, we were surely always cruising for disappointment.

If we thought the TRC would be our road to Damascus, where we would find a new language and see ourselves as something other than Apartheid’s Blacks, Coloureds, Indians, and Whites, well, it was not.

I guess we shouldn’t be surprised that the TRC was only a good idea – that that is all it could be. I am afraid the lesson is no one is going to save you, not even the TRC. You need to do more work. You means each one of us, as individuals, in relationships, within our families, as part of groups, every damn day.

But of course we need support. We need the government to come to the party, say in the way it would if, let’s just say again, President Jacob Zuma was reported by the public protector to have unfairly benefit from taxpayers money. We need a government that will fight with all in its power to restore the dignity of black people, not some, not one man. How to do that is a discussion, no a project, for several decades.    

These are some of the things I think of when I consider what the TRC was. What it was meant to do. It’s not everything I think about the TRC. And I do have favourable to say about the TRC, it shouyld be clear. You will find more of my thoughts and those of Antjie Krog and Nosisi Mpolweni in this book.

Some of that thinking is what I expressed on Monday at the lecture by Simon Gikandi. I was invited by Professor Grace Musila of the English Department at Stellenbosch University. Although I agreed to respond to Professor Gikandi’s talk on the basis of the given title of the talk, After Apartheid: Race and Public Memory, the lecture turned out to be on the subject of the TRC, which as it happens, is something I have troubled myself with.

A terribly learned and quietly cool man, the Kenyan-born Gikandi is Robert Schirmer Professor of English at Princeton University. He gave a fantastic lecture under the title. I enjoyed it, actually.

However, as for the TRC, well, it has not exorcised the death, violence and horror that haunts the lives of poor black men and women. 

Read an informative report by Annel Pieterse on the lecture and discussion here.


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