South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission Closes Its Doors

Moment of Truth

Eugene Terreblanche, leader of the right-wing Afrikaner Resistance Movement, speaks under amnesty to a judge at South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 1999. (Photo: AFP)

Since its foundation in 1995, South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) has become a model for countries all over the world that are seeking to come to terms with dark periods in their recent history. In March 2003, after seven years of hearing testimony about the apartheid era, the TRC formally closed its doors and recommended that the South African government pass laws obliging the corporate world to make restitutions for the wrongs of the apartheid era. Immediately, the South African government found itself torn between two political constitutencies: Big business—still largely dominated by whites—and the victims of apartheid, who are mostly black.

President Thabo Mbeki’s response was two-pronged. On April 15, the government announced that it would make a one-time payment of reparations; it also made some symbolic gestures, such as announcing the foundation of a national memorial day and the construction of some monuments to liberation. On the other hand, Mbeki rejected the TRC’s calls for a corporate tax to fund wider-scale reparations, and criticized lawsuits that had been filed against multinational corporations based in the United States. His refusal to support the tax and lawsuits was seen as a victory for South African business interests.

The TRC was born out of compromises made during negotiations between the apartheid government and South Africa’s liberation movements from 1990 to 1994. Negotiators agreed that in exchange for testimony, amnesty would be granted to those who had violated human rights under apartheid. This clause helped break a political deadlock, paving the way for the African National Congress (ANC)’s victory in the 1994 elections and the establishment of the TRC.

Charged with investigating past human rights violations in an attempt to bring a sense of closure to victims, the TRC was also instructed to draw up guidelines on reparations, with an emphasis on restoring victims’ trust in their society. In 1996, under these guidelines, it began the process of healing the nation through truth-telling and forgiveness.

In widely televised public meetings, the nation broke the silence that had surrounded its 34 years under apartheid. Perpetrators confessed their deeds; victims recounted their stories of abuse. Over seven years, more than 22,000 people testified; more than 6,000 applied for amnesty, and more than 1,000 missing people were accounted for.

When the TRC presented its final report on March 21, 2003, South African commentators saw it as a test for the government. In the report, the commission recommended that the government pay roughly US$375 million in reparations, and that businesses that had benefited “financially and materially from apartheid policies” make reparations through a special wealth tax. Unsurprisingly, there was fierce opposition to this proposal from a broad spectrum of South Africa's largest businesses.

In an April 4 cover story in the weekly financial newsmagazine The Financial Mail titled “White Man’s Burden,” Carol Paton wrote that the TRC’s report has “annoyed business leaders who feel that their efforts to date are going unnoticed.” Paton argued that most corporations oppose reparations partly because of the “distaste business has for the notion of ‘guilt money,’ ” and because corporate South Africa has “donor fatigue.”

On April 15, as he addressed the TRC’s report, Mbeki said he had authorized a one-time payment of approximately US$74 million—$300 million less than the sum recommended by the commission—to more than 19,000 victims whose need was characterized as “urgent” by the commission. Rather than impose a tax on businesses, Mbeki said, he would encourage those who had benefited from apartheid to contribute voluntarily to the reconstruction and development of the country.

Mbeki also spoke angrily of class-action lawsuits filed in U.S courts against major South Africa corporations, saying, “We consider it completely unacceptable that matters that are central to the future of our country should be adjudicated in foreign courts.” But his refusal to fully support the TRC’s recommendations means that a series of court battles is now inevitable.

Khulumani Support Group, an apartheid victims advocacy group based in Gauteng, is currently suing 21 foreign corporations for their alleged support of apartheid. Last November, the group filed charges in a U.S. Federal Court in Brooklyn, New York, claiming that the defendants “acted with deliberate indifference to the well-being of the African population.” The organizations being sued include U.S.-based companies JP Morgan Chase, IBM, Caltex Petroleum, Ford, and General Motors.

The case is being heard in New York under the U.S. Alien Tort Claims Act of 1789, the same law that allowed Holocaust survivors to successfully sue Swiss banks and German and Austrian companies that had used slave labor during World War II. Ed Fagan, a U.S. lawyer who brought some of the Holocaust cases, has launched a US$6 billion lawsuit on behalf of South African plaintiffs against mining giant Anglo-American and De Beers, the world's leading diamond producer.

The South African government says it will not endorse such litigation or impose a tax on businesses lest it jeopardize investment and destabilize the economy. In an interview with the Pretoria-based government news agency BuaNews (April 16), Justice Minister Penuell Maduna warned that if the lawsuits succeed, the money would come from shareholders, meaning that companies might have to shed jobs and “the same people that you pretend to be so concerned about will pay the price.” 

Commentators in the South African press were divided on the question of the lawsuits and reparations. Writing in Johannesburg's conservative Sunday Times (April 13), Mathatha Tsedu suggested, “There is reluctance on the part of the ANC government to force white business to cough up for its past sins.…Declaring themselves innocent does not mean Anglo and De Beers are innocent. It just means they refuse to accept the consequences of a past they now want to forget. But it will not, cannot, and should not go away.”

Prominent economist Sampie Terreblanche, writing in the Sunday Times (April 20), agreed that the ANC had sidelined its grassroots base in favor of business interests. “Unfortunately, the poor were let down again,” wrote Terreblanche. "It is indeed a pity that the president did not use the TRC debate to announce a comprehensive ‘War on Poverty’ to be financed by additional taxation...It is unbecoming for the ANC, as an erstwhile liberation organization, to neglect the impoverished majority—who are also the real victims of colonialism, apartheid, and the struggle—so profoundly.”

But Nick Borain, a political analyst with international bank HSBC, told Johannesburg’s daily online financial news provider Moneyweb (April 16), “I think… [Mbeki’s presentation is] enormously respectful of those who’ve suffered… I think he managed to complement the TRC, to fix the historical purposes of the TRC, and then condemn the opportunistic processes that are taking place outside the country.”

The day after Mbeki’s rulings, the rand gained value, reaching its highest levels against the dollar in more than two years, a move that earned praise from the financial press. Bruce Whitfield, a columnist for Moneyweb, wrote (April 15), “A key factor in the currency’s strength was the strong stand taken by President Thabo Mbeki.”

In an April 18 editorial, Johannesburg’s liberal Mail & Guardian wondered if there were better ways of creating a legacy for the TRC than awarding reparations on a case-by-case basis. “Should billions more be spent on individual apartheid victims or, in a planned and targeted way, to spur growth and job creation to the benefit of all South Africans?” the paper wrote. “Are the poverty-stricken millions who do not qualify as victims in terms of the TRC process really less deserving? Of course business has not done enough to redress the past. But additional resources need to be invested in the country’s future, in jobs, skills, health, and housing.”

While the battle over reparations took center stage, the historical significance of the TRC closing its doors did not pass unnoticed. The Natal Witness’ Colin Gardner (April 24) took a moment to applaud the nation for its success with the TRC. “The outside world watched all this with astonishment. The worst-case scenario suddenly became the best-case scenario. People began to wonder if the long-standing (and still-continuing) conflicts in Northern Ireland and Palestine-Israel couldn’t be solved by using South African approaches. We became an example and an inspiration. Nelson Mandela became the world’s most admired statesman.”

Others wondered whether the vaunted “closure” that came with the TRC’s final report was more illusory than real. Notably, even Joel Netshitenzhe, the head of the communications and policy units in the presidency, expressed some doubt. “By granting amnesty to the tormentors, society made the hard choice to suspend these victim’s civil rights," Netshitenzhe wrote in the Sunday Times (April 20). “To crow about ‘closure’ is premature and insensitive. The search for the truth and lasting reconciliation continues. Many hard choices still have to be made, so that as partisans of a better tomorrow, we can all escape the legacy of apartheid.”