The TRC and South Africa in 2015: The violent legacy of a peaceful transition that hasn’t served the ordinary person

By Thato Magano (@ThatoMagano)

After hearing a friend’s personal experience of apartheid brutality which occurred in the very same town in which they continue to frequent for work, Thato Magano begins to wonder about the countless numbers of black South Africans who  did not testify in the Truth and Reconciliation Committee’s public hearings and, as many have concurred in the past, believes that it did not serve the ordinary person. He argues that a process for justice needs to be re-initiated in order for the country to ‘move on’.  

A couple of weeks ago my friend and I, who is sixteen years my senior, were winding down our work day and were talking about grandparents and in particular the life of her 104 year old grandmother. True to form of these types of conversations, we suddenly found ourselves in apartheid South Africa. After telling my friend that even though I had spent the first ten years of my life in the former homeland of Bophuthatswana, my experience of apartheid was only felt as far as it related to the systemic control of space and the black body and didn’t extend to the really violent personal experiences that a lot of other people experienced as a result of growing up in a bantustan, she shared stories of the personal violence that she had experienced in her own ‘homeland’ of Venda.

She shared of how, while still a primary school student on a trip, the bus they were using had broken down and meant they found themselves in the town of Makhado (formerly Louis Trichardt) after night had fallen and the curfew had set in. Soon they were initiated into ‘the system’ by sjambok lashings from the white people of the town who did not take kindly to these ‘trespassers’. She spoke about how after that experience, she had grown to hate going into town for the family’s monthly grocery shopping and how she started to hate white people and how she only reconciled with that ‘sjamboking’ experience in her adulthood when she started working in Johannesburg after life forced her to seek employment (as many migrants workers from the homelands did in the past and continue to do).

But, of all the stories that evening none left me as distraught as the one she told of the violence her uncle was subjected. She detailed a story about her uncle, who one day found himself on the wrong farm on the wrong day when the ‘white master’ caught him and decided that it would be ‘fun to each him a lesson he would never forget’. This involved doing the following to him: undressing him, tying him to a tree with barbed wire and then proceeding to chop off his toes with an axe and leave him tied to the tree to die or to be found, whichever happened first. Luckily, the family found him near dead after a day and half’s search mission.

I spent a couple of days with this story in my mind trying to understand what such stories mean for this ‘sensitive, carefully orchestrated’ nation building project that continues to be South Africa. In the course of our key milestones, we convened as a country and held what the world continues to herald as a miracle of a ‘peaceful transition’ into a democratic country through the processes of the Convention for a Democratic South Africa (CODESA) and later the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC).

These processes were designed to ensure that as a people, of all colours, we would find common ground and a vested interest in this new nation. The TRC, in particular, was created as a forum where victims of apartheid violence could find a space for public cleansing and could face the perpetrators of the legislated brutalisation of black bodies.

From 1995 until 2002, we witnessed the horrific retelling of what was in the majority state sponsored violence, either through the actions of the Special Branch the police or the likes of ‘Eugene ‘Prime Evil’ de Kock. We witnessed with great sympathy as the TRC commissioners broke down in tears as they heard some of the sadistic acts black people were exposed to by this system.

After hearing my friend’s and that of her uncle – who continued to live in a new South Africa without his toes and a daily reminder of the power a white man had once had over his life until he passed on in 2010 – I wondered about the extent of trauma that ordinary black South Africans, who didn’t have the opportunity to participate in the TRC processes, are walking around with.

Andile Mngxitama, in his piece “I feel sorry for Eugene de Kock”, does well to remind us that apartheid was declared a crime against humanity by the United Nations. This means that all of the perpetrators of violence (READ: every white South African) and not just select individuals should be doing time for their explicit and implicit participation in that system. But we know that the white farmer who tied a man to a tree with barbed wire and chopped off his toes did not seek pardon for his actions and that there are many like him who continue to assault black people.

What makes it worse as we continue to build this new country, we continue to be forced to engage with those same spaces that set the stage for this violence on the terms of the perpetrators. My friend, for examples, continues to go into Louis Trichardt for work and since hearing those stories, I often wonder what narratives she navigates as she engages with the town. I also wonder how people like her uncle continued to Iive as ‘free’ people while carrying the physical scars with them.

Perhaps, because the Commission, which heard approximately 21000 testimonies from victims, was a product of the negotiated settlement, we should not be surprised that that it was not able to meet the expectations of black South Africans. A 1998 study by South Africa’s Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation & the Khulumani Support Group, which surveyed victims of apartheid human-rights abuses, found that the majority felt that the TRC had failed to achieve reconciliation between black and white South Africans. This is because most believed that justice was a prerequisite for reconciliation rather than an alternative to it, and that the TRC had been constructed in favour of the perpetrators of abuse.

The South African Institute of Race Relations’ finding in 2014 that over 54% of white South Africans do not believe that apartheid was a crime, should also not come as a surprise. It makes sense that that would be the case as a significant part of that 54% must have witnessed the horrors their grandparents and parents subjected black people to with impunity. The situation where many have seen how their grandparents and parents have not had to serve time or even be forced to apologise to their victims, can easily be linked to how the ‘baas-seun’ power dynamic is still particularly endemic in the small towns of South Africa.

If we were to be honest as black people, we would talk about how this ‘peaceful transition’ and especially the TRC did not serve ordinary South Africans. It robbed many, especially those not amongst the 21,000 who testified at the Commission, of their capacity for anger, to mourn the years of violence they endured and to then decide what needed to be done in order to ensure that the perpetrators were atoning for their crimes but that is not our reality. We continue to bleed and suffer alone, while those who murdered and tormented us have continued to live their lives without a moment’s concern for our humanity.

The public display of gratuitous violence that was the TRC did not help my friend’s uncle and did not bring his assailant to book. How many of these stories are out there and how many of our uncles, aunts, mothers, fathers, brothers and sisters live with those scars? In 2015, it might be about time more of us told the truth about how the TRC has not enough and shan’t be enough for a while until all of our wounds have been laid bare. They must be laid bare because those guilty of these acts still need to do the time before we all can happily participate in the construction of the new South Africa.

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