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TRC 20 years on: ‘Many, many unanswered questions

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Their stories of brutality were heard two decades ago, but the state has largely left finding out what happened to them to the survivors and their families.

Twenty years after the Truth and Reconciliation Commission started public hearings for victims of apartheid crimes, many of those victims still don’t know who attacked them or why.

Not only has the state failed to prosecute, but apartheid-era records held by the state are locked away, so families can’t do their own investigations.

Imtiaz Cajee wrote a book about his uncle Ahmed Timol, who died in detention at John Vorster Square police station (now Johannesburg Central police station) in 1971. An inquest ruled his death suicide by jumping from the high-rise building, but Cajee and his family regard it as murder.

“The book is basically to preserve his legacy. But what remains are many, many unanswered questions,” said Cajee, who’s now writing a second book, in which he hopes to find and record the answers to those questions. He’s still blocked from accessing official documents.

“The pain that one feels is that there is no political will to make those files available,” said Cajee.

“Why should it be individuals who are running with this process, why shouldn’t it be the state?”

Others are similarly frustrated.

“We have been engaged in a long process to get the National Prosecuting Authority to do what it is mandated to do: investigate crimes,” said Angela Mudukuti of the Southern Africa Litigation Centre.

“Many of the victims asked for nothing more than information about who was responsible. It is a matter of great regret that the commission has only been able to furnish those answers in a few cases well covered by the media or where amnesty applications have been received,” said the TRC Final Report in 1998.

Few took up the amnesty offer and the TRC said: “The spirit of generosity and reconciliation enshrined in the founding act was not matched by those at whom it was mainly directed.”

Catherine Kennedy, director of the SA History Archive, said the state’s failure to follow up and prosecute the cases referred by the TRC “amounted to a de facto second amnesty”.

Mudukuti and Kennedy hope the new attempts to prosecute former police officers in connection with MK guerrilla Nokuthula Simelane’s abduction and killing – initiated only after court action by the family against the NPA last year – will open the door to justice for other families.

MK veteran and survivor Shirley Gunn, the director of the Human Rights Media Centre, has spent years helping those left out of the TRC process or let down by it tell their stories. A key gap, she says, are those who joined the Struggle as children but are too young to benefit from special pensions.

“You realise, we do have child soldiers,” she said.

Gunn expects to spend the rest of her life on such work. “Where do we stand, each of us, in this unfinished story?”

A big stumbling block with prosecutions is the lack of documents. The TRC found there was systematic destruction of documents by the apartheid state during the 1990s and this continued even after 1994.

Even though some collections remain, access is blocked.

“The initial idea was that we needed to understand our history. But then all the files went back into the cupboards… Why aren’t we allowed to see these records?” asked Kennedy.

Researcher Hennie van Vuuren of the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation is determined to access records of apartheid-era arms deals, sanctions busting and tax avoidance by big corporations.

He has brought applications to access documents under the Promotion of Access to Information Act but gets stonewalled and names the SA Reserve Bank, the auditor-general and the Department of Justice as big problems.

“The TRC was never intended to be the end point, it was meant to be just a little bit of the starting point. The great failure was what happened after the TRC,” said Kennedy.

* Louise Flanagan reports for The Star. She previously worked for the TRC.

[Source: The Star]
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