Apartheid victims struggle on for justice

Victims of South Africa's apartheid regime had high expectations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. But seven years on from its establishment they have become increasingly disillusioned by the government's inability to meet the body's recommendations, none moreso

    Archbishop Desmond Tutu is
    chairman of the commission

    “When I went to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, they told me they were going to pay my hospital accounts... big accounts”, recounts a visibly distraught Mrs Truter.

    Her 15-year-old son, Christopher, was shot dead in the 1976 student uprisings against the apartheid regime. Christopher was just an innocent bystander.

    His head was blown away by security police firing into the crowd. None of the perpetrators have so far been brought to book.

    Mrs Truter represents one of numerous victims of the brutal apartheid machinery. Now, after months of waiting and having shared their experiences with the TRC and its investigators at public forums, they are to receive a one-off payment of Rand 30,000 ($3,670) in reparations.

    The award was announced by South African President Thabo Mbeki at a special debate on the TRC final report, which was handed to the government in late April.

    The total amount of R571.5-million to be paid to 19,000 victims identified by the TRC, is far below the commission’s recommended three billion rands.

    The TRC was set up nearly seven years ago to probe apartheid human rights violations.

    “What must I do with R30,000?  I depended on them because I thought they were going to pay it (my accounts). But they’re not going to pay it", said Mrs Truter.

    Mrs Truter was forced to leave her job in 1977, because “she couldn’t think straight". She says her husband also had to give up working of the death of their son.

    Activists also believe the proposed R30,000 payment for apartheid victims, who have appeared before the TRC, is not enough.

    "The R30,000 might buy a few ice-creams. I think it's a disgrace," said human rights activist Professor Fatima Meer.


    To help people like the Truters, the Khulumani Support Group for apartheid victims has teamed up with Jubilee South Africa’s Apartheid Debt & Reparations Campaign to institute a class-action lawsuit against a range of multi-national banks and businesses.

    The lawsuits were filed in US courts last year, since “the corporations aided and abetted a crime against humanity whose persistent social damage requires urgent repair,” Jubilee South Africa said in a statement.

    Also infuriating for victim support groups was President Mbeki’s decision to reject recommendation by the TRC to levy a wealth tax on South African business to help pay for reparations. 

    “We do not believe that it would be correct for us to impose the once-off wealth tax proposed by the TRC, on corporations,” President Mbeki told the joint sitting of parliament. Instead, he said all beneficiaries of apartheid should make contributions to a reparations fund.

    The decision confirmed that South African business successfully lobbied against the wealth tax proposed by former head of the TRC, Nobel Peace Laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

    Even a former TRC Commissioner agrees big business is still in denial about its role in perpetuating human rights abuses under Apartheid. Most have the attitude that they never killed anyone so they are not liable, says the lawyer Dumisa Ntsebeza.

    “The claim that they had to work within the law does not bear close scrutiny. There was no law that forced them to line up African males - young, middle-aged and elderly - naked against the wall and inspect them as if they were slaves on sale”.

    They did all those things because to them, “black people were nothing more than objects to be exploited for profit."

    President 'lacks courage'

    A further blow to apartheid victims  is President Mbeki’s reiteration that his government will not be party to litigation and civil suits against multinational corporations that benefited from the apartheid system.

    South Africa under
    Mbeki is still struggling
    with its apartheid past

    “We consider it completely unacceptable that matters that are central to the future of our country should be adjudicated in foreign courts which bear no responsibility for the well-being of our country”, the President said.

    But Jubilee SA remains adamant, saying “this (the lawsuit) is the only route left open to us to ensure that the truth is known about the extent of corporate complicity in Apartheid abuses and that justice is delivered to those who suffered."

    "The victims cannot be left to pay for their own suffering. Multinational corporations must be put on notice that complicity in crimes against humanity does not pay.”

    Former apartheid spy and self-confessed bomb killer Colonel Craig Williamson admitted to a startled TRC hearing: “Our weapons, ammunition, uniforms, vehicles radios and other equipment were all developed by industry. Our finances and banking were done by bankers who even gave us covert credit cards for covert operations.”

    It is that support from big business which ultimately armed the policeman on the street, those who shot at innocent children, such as Mrs Truter’s son. 

    Thandi Shezi, one of the claimants from the Khulumani Support Group, said: “We lay claim to our right to redress from the banks and businesses that enabled gross violations of our human rights.”

    The R30,000 one-off payment to victims “ sounds like a lot of money. I’m in arrears with my rates and water. If I pay all that and the hospital bills, what am I going to eat?” says Mrs Truter.

    “And when they are going to give it to me, I don’t know. They promised me all these things, but it’s now in vain”.

    A cartoon in a local paper aptly captured the decision to let big business off the hook. The artist depicted a wide-collared executive representing ‘Big Biz’ puffing on his cigar saying ... “now that’s the kind of reconciliation I can live with”.

    The character is shown scrutinising an accounts report on his desk, one column reading “profits accrued under apartheid = 250,000,000,000" and the other column “Reparations payable to victims of apartheid = zero”.


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