Truth Betrayed


The South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), emerged originally out of a debate over whether the criminal justice process or the truth process was best suited to exposing the many gross violations of human rights that took place during the apartheid years. Clearly, however, truth bas been betrayed on both counts.

Both the criminal justice system and the truth process have failed at full disclosure of the country’s recent past. Instead, we have been subjected to an over-production of “insider texts” in the form of books and other writings by former officials of the TRC attempting to legitimate and justify the TRC process, while there is an absence of published texts from people declared “victims” by the TRC.

Almost without exception, the numerous writings of former TRC officials parrot unquestioningly the musings of Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the driving force behind the TRC, who himself rarely misses an opportunity to sing the praises of the TRC. “What we found with our Truth and Reconciliation Commission”, he recently told New Perspectives Quarterly, “was that it was enormously therapeutic and cleansing for victims to tell their stories (and) the perpetrators had to confess in order to get amnesty … This combination of storytelling and confession put it all out in the open. With full disclosure, people feel they can move on.”

However, the collective experience of survivors is rather different. Many survivors have not moved on. For them the TRC process simply reopened old wounds without providing redress while Tutu and former TRC officials have moved on up their respective ladders of ambition, congratulating themselves relentlessly in their tedious writings laying claim to a new South African social bond. This mythical bond serves conveniently to shift attention from the tremendous waste of tax-payers’ money. Of the nearly 20 truth commissions have been active during the past 25 years, and of which Argentina, Chile, El Salvador, Guatemala and South Africa, are the best known examples, the South African commission was by far the most expensive and the most lavishly staffed. At the height of its work the South African TRC had approximately 400 staff members, significantly more than any of the previous Truth Commissions. Its annual budget also exceeded that of other Truth Commissions at about US $9 million per year, with the work of the Commission dragging on well beyond its planned three years before finally ending in failure as far as many “victims” are concerned.

The creators of the TRC believed that by making amnesty conditional upon full disclosure such a truth would emerge. While 7,060 individuals came before the Amnesty Committee, providing significant information, it is commonly agreed that perpetrators who did not approach the TRC outnumbered by far those who did, and the majority of those who testified failed to reveal information about many of their crimes. Theoretically, the fact that amnesty was conditional upon full disclosure of crimes should have motivated perpetrators to reveal all of the salient information about their crimes. They knew, however, that the threat of prosecution was weak, and where they were confident investigators had no knowledge of offences other than those for which amnesty was sought, perpetrators simply kept quiet. They knew the State was highly unlikely to bring charges against them, because the TRC’s investigative department was grossly inefficient, and this also limited the Amnesty Committee’s ability to determine whether or not perpetrators had completely disclosed their crimes.

Yet reconciliation through truth was supposed to entail a departure from the discredited consciousness of the past towards a new, shared memory of the past. This the TRC sought to accomplish through the invention of a new national biography made up of idioms and metaphors for understanding collective experience – semi-mystical terms such as “forgiveness”, “repentance” “healing”, “rainbow nation”, “remembering and telling” and contrarily, “forgiving and forgetting”. The TRC thus reduced its mandate to a childish level of primness. It tried to create a safe, new imagery that people could identify with, a new social bond, which despite or because of the rhetoric surrounding it, has served to legitimise and perpetuate a state of collective amnesia about the past.

This failure by the TRC is important because the present derives from the past and the future from both; and if we are to understand the past with a view to creating a collective memory, then the full scope and intensity of apartheid’s secret operations need to be known. Such knowledge will dispel our false historical consciousness, and allow us to understand that the myriad covert actions and conflagrations of our recent past were not merely symptoms of the Cold War. They were the very harbingers of growing social, political and economic turmoil that besets South Africa today: unprecedented crime waves, gang wars, chaos and volatility in the financial markets, population pressures, and social and environmental degradation. All juxtaposed against a new South African national “memory”, socially and historically engineered to construct a new national identity informed by political decisions intended primarily to halt the momentum of revolutionary fervour on the part of the masses. Certainly this has helped placate an estimated one million armed, militant, right-wing extremists. But there is a point at which accommodation oversteps the bounds of reconciliation and is seen as collusion, and in what is probably one of the world’s most crime-ridden societies, the TRC has also sent out a message that people can get away scot-free with some of the most heinous crimes imaginable.

Such perceptions have kept many “traumatised victims” locked in the same time warp, repeating their traumatic experience over and over again, and fixating them on their distress, instead of letting them get on with their lives. This is because to be categorised as “victims” invalidates the survivors as human beings and saps their ability to take responsibility for their own lives and actions.

There is a certain irony also in the tendency by the TRC to blame “victims”, through associating them with the psychological term Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). It is the victim who has the “disorder” — not society with all its own guilt, trauma and denial of the huge material, personal, social and political costs of its reactionary endeavours to stem the tides of history and progressive change. PTSD is thus not so much a loose categorisation of symptoms displayed by afflicted individuals, as it is symptomatic of a disordered society. For survivors of torture, armed conflict, political imprisonment and paramilitary violence, their stress arises less from past events than from survivors feeling they are not part of the same world as that of other people around him. Survivors have experienced extraordinary things so outside what those around them know about, that they cannot connect to ordinary people and ordinary people cannot connect to them. Many refer disparagingly to the “Truth Omission”, nor is it difficult to understand why. A majority of “victims” or survivors could not or would not come forward during the TRC hearings. They include those who were too damaged or too scared to do so, and also the transitory ones, ones too distant from the centres of command and of political decision making, and too silent and obscure for coherent classification. There were also untold numbers of askaris – “turned” freedom fighters who were tortured, conditioned or otherwise persuaded to collaborate with the security forces.

Demobilisation of armed forces on all sides has meanwhile affected nearly 100 000 regular and irregular ex-combatants. Their integration into society has largely been a non-event. More than seven years after the demise of the apartheid state, and three years after the TRC disbanded, many of those who made sacrifices in the establishment of a democratic order — former political prisoners, exiles and activists — still await reparation and rehabilitation. Some have gone beyond disillusionment to a desperate, all-consuming nihilism, because waiting produces feelings of powerlessness, helplessness and vulnerability – and all the rage those feelings evoke. Some veterans of the liberation war have joined criminal gangs or, being better trained and equipped than the police, have embarked on armed robberies carried out with military precision — the militarization of crime. There is also compelling evidence to support allegations of their involvement in the long series of armed attacks in the country’s rural areas, which have claimed the lives of more than 1 000 (white) farmers over the past four years.

These and other key aspects of demobilisation, reconciliation and the effects of South Africa’s recent past were ignored by the TRC in its Report, nor have numerous former TRC officials focused on this issue in their copious writings about the TRC. They are thus throwing themselves into un-making the history of South Africa’s recent past with the same enthusiasm they display for projecting themselves as latter-day saviours. Public opinion remains largely uninformed about the drama of a collective past and present that still needs to be heard.

Flying in the face of the country’s recently legislated Promotion of Access to Information Act, important documents emerging from the TRC process still remain under lock and key. And information that was included in the TRC’s five-volume report — approximately 4,000 pages long — is still out of reach for the majority of South Africans who are illiterate. Past censorship and current omission thus represent a major vacuum in the South African collective consciousness, to the extent that it can be described as a false historical consciousness. Large sections of the South African public and the world at large continue to laud the “miraculous achievements” of the TRC in “bringing about reconciliation” in South Africa.

Such praise speaks more, however, about the role of expectations in influencing perceptions than it does of objective reality. It is striking how often people preserve some images in the face of what is clear evidence to the contrary, ignoring evidence that does not fit, and twisting it to make it confirm or at lease not contradict popularly held but groundless beliefs. The success of the TRC is thus largely a matter of individual value judgement rather than of scientific analysis.

Accordingly, South Africans have ended up with two histories: an official TRC-type history and a hidden history, buried and unmarked. Lies and deception are not random and isolated influences in this duality: they are structural and systemic. The linkages between cause and effect have become deformed and as a result, errors of knowledge, judgement and insight continue to be repeated.

The fact that reconciliation has not been achieved in South Africa is evident from the government’s continuing clampdown on what it sees as “sensitive information affecting State security” emerging from the TRC process. Numerous researchers who were unsuccessful in their attempts to access TRC records up until three years ago, when the records were under TRC management, are today still denied access to a range of National Archives records about the TRC. This on the grounds that the records are security classified with National Intelligence Agency involvement. Among these records are transcripts of in camera hearings, a list of informers, and a confidential submission by the ruling African National Congress. These and other factors pose challenges for the intersecting worlds of information, records and archives in South Africa. Although since 1994 the South African legislature has passed laws designed to give expression to freedom of access to information, there are growing strains between those who seek access to information resources and those who create, manage and control them. According to SA History Archives director Verne Harris, there is an urgent need to explore the boundaries between social memory, personal memory and archives, and to position concepts of “archive” and “the record” in relation to various academic disciplines, with a particular focus on the interrelationships between memory, knowledge construction, and the exercise of power. “An examination is urgently needed,” says Harris, “of the processes of constructing memory and selecting records for preservation”.

In the more immediate term, the challenge facing damaged survivors is how to continue surviving with neither reparation nor rehabilitation. They have nothing, whereas perpetrators who received amnesty continue to receive handsome pensions and other state benefits. When those who argued a few years ago that the TRC’s amnesty provisions were unconstitutional, and took the Commission to the Constitutional Court, one of the major reasons for their argument being set aside by the court was that provision existed for reparation in the Act. Reparation was a quid pro quo for the loss of the right to take criminal or civil against perpetrators who applied for amnesty.

The promise of some form of reparation for victims of gross human rights violations was made through an act of Parliament, which more than six years later has still not been honoured. Parliament has only discussed the TRC’s eventual report for half a day, and has not seriously engaged with the difficult issues raised. The silence that has thus far characterised the government’s lack of response has been interpreted by many survivors as an act of betrayal, and has sent a message of hopelessness to the 20,000 victims who gave testimony to the TRC’s Human Rights Committee.

The more radical among these survivors, dismiss the TRC as just another of the many local and international institutions that are geared to bolstering business confidence and attracting foreign and domestic investment by regulating or dissipating potential conflict, instead of affecting any meaningful healing process. They point out that people in post-Cold War South Africa would have us believe capitalism has won the day. What has won the day, survivors declare, is the capitalist mode of truth production, and also a darker side of the new social bond — the side “reconciliation” allows us to keep hidden.

True reconciliation – a genuine balancing of accounts and closing of the books – will need more, much more than monetary compensation for survivors. It will require at least one successful prosecution – and so far there has been none, nor is there likely to be — of high-profile perpetrators of human rights violations identified before the TRC but who declined to apply for amnesty. Clearly, the South African government has lapsed in this regard, nor is civil society entirely blameless. The non-governmental community has itself failed to organize or co-ordinate civil actions against perpetrators who declined to apply for amnesty.

If there is a lesson to be learnt from all this, it might be that writers of books about truth commissions are well-advised to move away from glowing, pie-in-the-sky theoretical perspectives to some rather more mundane, practical considerations on the ground.

The author is a South African freelance journalist who has been covering the TRC story for the past six years.

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