Reconciliation Day is a time to contemplate how we put the past to rest

Posted on January 11, 2011. Filed under: Reconciliation, Survey |

An editorial piece recently published in the Cape Times…

Kate Lefko-Everett

This year, South Africans celebrate the 16th national Day of Reconciliation on the ebb of a wave national optimism and bonhomie rarely seen in the country since the first democratic elections of 1994: that brought about by the anticipation of the 2010 Soccer World Cup. Questions about the value and continued utility of new infrastructure aside, around the country South Africans came together in extraordinary ways, in fan parks, along soccer pitches, and clustered around television screens in corner cafes, pubs, and in the homes of neighbours and friends.

Evidence of this optimism is clear in the results of this year’s SA Reconciliation Barometer survey, conducted by the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation (IJR) and released in Cape Town on Tuesday. In 2010, nearly three-fourths of all South Africans agree that the goal of creating a united country across historical divides and inclusive of all of the different groups of people within its borders, remains a desirable one. Evaluations of a wide range of governance institutions, which consistently declined between 2006 and 2009, have begun to recover. Between forty and fifty per cent of South Africans believe there have been improvements in the country across a range of social indicators, including family life, race relations, moral values, and hope for the future.

Importantly, widespread consensus remains intact surrounding the truths of South Africa’s apartheid past, as principally investigated and documented through the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). Nearly nine in ten South Africans agree that apartheid was a crime against humanity, and 80% believe that in the past, the state committed atrocities against anti-apartheid activists. Continued consensus and acceptance of this truth is a crucial precondition for the deepening of reconciliation and improving social relations in democratic South Africa.

Further, the 2010 round of the SA Reconciliation Barometer also finds that a majority of South Africans still agree that they are trying to forgive those who hurt them during apartheid. Close to three-quarters feel that they want to leave the past behind and move forward with their lives.

However, 2010 survey results also reveal some enduring concerns about the delivery of justice that pose challenges to further reconciliation, particularly in a context in which experts, analysts and practitioners have begun to question whether the wounds and traumas inflicted under apartheid may prove to outlast political will to help them heal.

Just over 20% of South Africans still feel that government has not yet done enough to prosecute perpetrators of apartheid crimes. Close to two-fifths are concerned that not done enough to support victims of past human rights abuses. Since the first round of the SA Reconciliation Barometer survey was conducted in 2003, around two-fifths of South Africans (39%) have indicated that they believe those who discriminated against others under apartheid should now experience discrimination firsthand.

Findings that point to a lingering sense of injustice surrounding the events of the past are particularly troubling given government’s recent, and relatively staid efforts to involve victims in deliberations surrounding the recent release of the names of 149 nominees for political pardons through a special dispensation established by former president Thabo Mbeki.

This list includes the names of apartheid minister of police Adriaan Vlok and former police commissioner Johan van der Merwe. It includes Johannes van der Westhuizen, convicted for the Worcester bombing on Christmas Eve of 1996, in which four people were killed and 67 injured. Simanga Dlamini and Mbongeni Mjwara, have been convicted of 21 murders each, as well as numerous attempted murders. Others still have current cases pending against them.

Earlier this year, the IJR – as a member of the group of civil society organisations that together constitute the South African Coalition for Transitional Justice (SACTJ) – launched a successful Constitutional Court challenge against government over the exclusion of victims from political pardons determination procedures.

In its ruling, the Court refers to the crucial participation of both victims and perpetrators in the amnesty process led by the TRC, and as critical to the “achievement of the twin objective or rebuilding a nation torn apart by an evil system and promoting reconciliation between the people of South Africa.” It also concluded that these principles must continue to inform the special dispensation process. The president is now required to consult with victims in any cases of pardons for political crimes.

Yet despite this important ruling, efforts to consult and involve victims in this latest round of pardons nominations appear to have been limited, guidelines for representations unclear and deadlines and procedures poorly communicated.

It is a positive development, however, that the Department of Justice and Constitutional Development has recently hosted a series of consultations on how best to proceed with reparations, at the request of NGO’s. Progress in this regard may mitigate future public concerns over limited support for victims of apartheid human rights abuses.

In the course of our work, it is not uncommon to encounter those who question the longevity of South Africa’s reconciliatory project, and perhaps now with increasing frequency. Some feel that the time has come to make definitive breaks with the past. In a recent interview, IJR executive director Fanie du Toit commented that some South Africans now view the justice process started through the TRC as outdated, and criticise the work of the Commission retrospectively, sometimes without due regard to its mandate. However, du Toit also suggests that unfinished elements of transitional justice processes “have a way of catching up with society if these processes are not concluded efficiently and with dignity.”

Given that 39% among us feel that victim support has been inadequate, and as we celebrate the Day of Reconciliation, the time is right for dedicated work to ensure that these processes proceed effectively and that victim consultation and participation continues, so that the past is ultimately put to rest.

A version of this article appeared in the Cape Times on 15 December 2010.

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