Did the TRC and political elites shape our confusion of truth, justice and reconciliation?


On this Reconciliation Day, 20 years since the Truth and Reconciliation Commission concluded and handed its report to the democratic state we pause and look back to appreciate our current conversations on the said topics and what these means.

Wolfram Kistner reminds us, “The society and religious or ideological community or cultural group which has contributed towards shaping the mind of the offender shares in the responsibility of the offence and is in need of repentance on its part and forgiveness on the part of God and the victims with the view of facilitating a process of healing and taking precautions against religion of the offence”

I thought of this as I tried to make sense of Reconciliation Day 2018 and an opinion piece penned by Professor Nico N Koopman as published in the News 24 platform.

The South Africa we talk of dream about and envisage is not as uniform as we often protest. The SA we live in attests old and new anomalies, the latter which I will advance emanates from the hashed 1994 Consensus that many of us have commented on as problematic, if not a political and particularly economic power cul-de-sac. A compromised TRC process aids a set of new anomalies, be it in our articulation of history, our engaging of truth or our prism of justice and reconciliation as the key pillars that must define our society. 

It becomes positively necessary to categorically assert that to some extent what we have today as an outflow of a TRC process was overshadowed by the personality of Archbishop Desmond Mpilo Tutu. It then as some of us claimed a long time ago became the farce, where truth was sacrificed for reconciliation at any costs. Justice was never attained for SA rushed to be one, to play rugby in green and gold, to be called a Rainbow nation when the society never engaged or endorsed what rainbow means. Despite our admiration for a Tutu, we warrant proving honest on his role in shaping the outcomes of that process.

I have elsewhere argued, if former President Thabo Mbeki almost singularly in Kantian sense eternalised the uncritical apartheid borrowed SA race-based identity formulations for a post-apartheid common citizenry, then Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu gave us the uncritical frames and linguistic handle of what reconciliation, forgiveness and to some degree truth means. Our sin was that we failed much earlier to publicly engage these leaderships on the said subjects. A possible reason for that was the blind admiration a generation I make part of had for these that we failed to critically engage what we admired.

We have rightly seen the veneer of Tutu’s less consulted ‘rainbowism’ that some of us outrightly rejected from the start, fade and tear as the real ramifications of the 1994 Consensus began to emerge in full colour. These anomalies are further exacerbated by our constitutional democratic consensus that uncritically appropriated race (a discarded enterprise) as a means for their human agency if not the totality of our collective political identities.

I disagree with my colleague and friend, Professor Nico Koopman when he asserts, “To blame Tutu, the TRC and the language of forgiveness is to blame those millions of us who make forgiveness cheap, who adhere to forgiveness without repentance and restitution.”

It cannot be that the blaming of cheapened forgiveness (we never engaged) is automatically passed on to the citizens.  If forgiveness is cheap for millions today can we ask what was the role of the TRC and the political elite in this? Perhaps the resultant effect of a cheapened forgiveness; attests an orchestrated process in which a veneered justice resides in the ontology of that process. I dare argue a cheapened forgiveness was birthed by the TRC, and the public merely adopted if not became ingrained in this political theatrics of personality, group and urgency of proving reconciliatory which ultimately ruled. If our discourse today depicts the cheapened forgiveness as advanced, it can and must be traced to its genesis and that beginning is the TRC and its forerunner a negotiated settlement. We must dispense of the uncritical praise singing of political and clergy figures and critically engage their inverted and concave roles in what we have as a society. It is not right to absolve Mandela and Tutu of the language of these constructs when we want to take collective responsibility for what the elites introduced without consultation.

 To place the TRC separate from pre – and CODESA Talks is to misunderstand the TRC. To confuse the TRC with a unique moment that can be dislodged from a political philosophy of reconciliation buoyed by an assumed Christian ethic that manifested in deformed ‘white’ benefit-forgiveness as brow-beaten from the time Mandela walked out of Victor Verster is to misunderstand the TRC. The TRC, therefore, is an integral extension of the negotiated settlement, the freedom of political leadership and the unbanning of the liberation or as apartheid defined ‘terrorist’ movements. To fully appreciate the TRC in its ontology is to understand the negotiated settlement. It makes logical sense to appreciate the TRC against that umwelt.

It then becomes natural for a generation of people who either objected while others may have not necessarily participated in the negotiated settlement to 25 years later ask fundamental questions as to what it means for identity formulation, economic emancipation and meaningful life. When our children rose up over three years ago and asked for the fruit of the negotiated settlement, they unequivocally said Mandela failed us. We as an older generation cannot deny the youth their analysis of their experiential reality because we are hypersensitive to write our legacies as mini- Mandela and Tutu legacies. In that context the TRC cannot escape its own womb (a negotiated settlement), it cannot shed its own cradle of CODESA talks and a Christian faith-led clergy dominance that confirmed an obsession with reconciliation and a truculence to engage the gambit of the truth of what apartheid stood for. It goes without saying that questions will be raised on the TRC and those who became its face.

On another level, it is almost natural to accept that the legacies of Archbishop Tutu and South Africa’s first democratically elected president Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela are intertwined, interwoven and grossly interrelated to the subject matters of truth, reconciliation and the elusive justice that is now eternalised in an abbreviation of the TRC. I, therefore, want to also remonstrate it is more than correct to label Tutu and Mandela with the good, bad and ugly of a TRC and we dare not prove soluble to fail to engage the manifestations of our current spaces devoid of the intrinsic roles, actualised, afforded, claimed and extended by these prominent SA leaders as it relates to the subject of truth, reconciliation, forgiveness and justice.

We appear to have come full circle, somewhat symptomatic of a Biblical Writ’s account of wandering Israel in the Desert. We are back where we started in a different epoch when time and moment threaten to exact judgment on our choices yes, the choices of the elites (however defined) choices made for us which still fails to produce the meaningful life we dreamt off, we all yearn for and is constitutionally entitled to.  That beginning point is to ask what does truth, reconciliation and justice mean? What did it mean back then, did the meanings altered of the aforementioned and if so why?

It is here that I wish to postulate, what came of a TRC process square-pegged the victims of colonialism and apartheid as owing a debt of forgiveness to apartheid benefactors. This fundamental error spans a disturbing arched thread through our democratic sojourn. You see it time and again rearing its head. Again, permit me to cite the TRC Chairperson Archbishop Tutu. You will recall long after TRC, the retired Arch bemoaned the fact that we in public discourse referred to Dirk Kotze as the Modimolle Monster. The premise for Tutu’s objection came as relayed in his claim that Kotze who instructed his workers against their wishes to rape his wife and ultimately murder his stepson, was a ‘child of God’ as Tutu reminded us. Now there is nothing wrong to assert Kotze as a child of God, yet there is no record that Tutu ever pleaded for any black criminal of similar proportions the way he is recorded of Kotze. You hear the same white – identity benefit of forgiveness and mercy as extended to South Africa’s apartheid beneficiaries.

You hear it again when former caretaker president Kgalema Motlanthe bewails the fact of ongoing incarceration of a Clive Derby-Lewis, co-conspirator on the death of Chris Hani, as that which troubles him. The ambivalence of this claim of Motlanthe resonates in this that Motlanthe is not troubled at all about APLA members still languishing as prisoners in jail 20 plus years into democracy, yet he is troubled by Derby-Lewis.

It is this questionable interpretation and meaning of reconciliation always underwritten by apartheid’s victim that by the mouth of black elites defines, recasts and concretizes in the claim of cheap reconciliation.   We understand the cheapness of this forgiveness which manifests in the entitlement of a Johann Rupert to be as arrogant as he is because the new South Africa has left him wealthier and his claim on economic power more prominent especially because the very black elites be it for research work or their personal foundations rely and depend on his benevolence.

Forgiveness is never a right, it is never demanded it remains an extended privilege, the perpetrator is not entitled to be forgiven. Forgiveness is not something anybody is entitled to but is extended by the victim. Reconciliation has terms and those terms are directly informed by how radically different we seek to be with each other where equality is not a word but the essence of content for justice.  What we have in SA is a situation where the elites continue to speak on behalf of the poor in the mouth of forgiveness and is handsomely rewarded for their arrogating such right to define what forgiveness should be in a post-apartheid SA. They often do so from the comfort of their proximity to apartheid benefactors. Hence, they cannot address a Johann Rupert,

Koopman is right for asserting “In this sense, there is no future without forgiveness. Forgiveness is the pathway to justice, to reconciling justice, reparative justice, redistributive justice, restorative justice, restitutive justice. The truth of no future without forgiveness is the basis of the truth that there is no future without justice.”  He is right because there never was a time in the history of humanity when a future was ever possible without forgiveness. Yet that forgiveness demands the truth as its premise.  However, in order to arrive at a future made possible by forgiveness, we must hurdle the subject of truth.

When we speak of truth here it’s the truth that never made it to the TRC, the truth of the negotiated settlement and its role players who in a scripted sense also scripted the TRC, the very future then which today is the present. The truth as that which was sacrificed from inception plausibly marred the sincerity of a forgiveness, we all should subscribe to as conscious citizens in pursuit of a future. That forgiveness undergirds by an unequivocal justice conviction not as a potentiality but as a natural conclusion. Hitherto forgiveness in SA protests being that which was done for apartheid benefactors they remain the wrongful centre measurement if not the erroneous axis around which such forgiveness and reconciliation find meaning.

The Codesa talks, TRC process, accompanied by the role of a false embarrassment of the black elites across all spheres of our societal expressions, be it religious, academic, business, civil sector, political, media etc revolted us into a paradigm of cheapened justice. A justice that continues to be measurable in access to wealth not the equality of inalienable common humanity.

There is another misconception doing its rounds that we must just move on and celebrate what the Executive Director of the Institute for Race Relations Stanley Henkeman call those who work for reconciliation in this epoch. The error of this view is the gross assumption that we departed from an equal and agreed common footing as to what we understood with reconciliation and forgiveness.  This stance is again the elites dictating that we are doing very well while we know this is not the case.

We, therefore, must ask again what we meant with justice?
The subject of reparations a critical aspect remains an issue, among the many things we ask today in the aftermath of the TRC process.   Some of the issues the TRC ran roughshod over while emphasizing others include among others Things like the “Coloured Boys of Bird Island” injustice that never made it to the TRC, the same that today purports another agreement between apartheid bosses and an ANC then leadership immanent in  (Cyril Ramaphosa) then SG and (Mosiuoa Lekota) head of intelligence who inadvertently back then he made these victims collateral damage not to scupper the negotiations.

Perhaps the biggest contribution Koopman’s musing makes is his irrevocable plea understood in the following words, “We need to critically and constructively expose the negligence of justice as the fruit of forgiveness in our country.”  It is here we must pause to ask what forgiveness (the one that has come to define post-apartheid SA confirms broad shades of ‘white interest’ as its fulcrum.

Thus, Reconciliation Day has and will always have this ambivalence of meaning when the experiential reality of what we produced violently confronts our make – belief world of being reconciled in truth, reconciliation, forgiveness and justice. We must dispense with a uniform claim of what these convoluted constructs mean in a polarized and multi-faith society context that remains uncritically shaped and concretized in debunked race descriptions albeit as advanced by an ANC led government with the objective of redress.  Economic justice, therefore, evidences itself in a radicality and that radicality imbibes a drastically changed environment that confirms meaningful life. What reconciliation can be celebrated when we 25 years on continue to depict an apartheid control of the levers of the economy, What justice when we are in perpetual powerlessness to own the discourse which remains also hijacked by the same historical powers of apartheid.

Our awareness of the anger of our fellow citizens for whom meaningful life is a mirage warrants us not to accelerate justice as if we can, but to pause and pensively seek to hear them on their prism of justice, forgiveness, reconciliation and truth.

We dare not let the thin layer of elites who are benefactors of a post-apartheid context in agreement with apartheid beneficiaries in BEE description be it academic or otherwise define the narrative and dictate the meaning of reconciliation. Our obligation is to listen and communicate the true frames and prisms of the ongoing victims of apartheid brutality no different to how the Holocaust is kept in our collective memory.  The elites must stop assuming they dictate the conversation but in typical practical liberation theology fashion first hear the people and try and capture what they say, feel, express and think as honest as possible.

I differ vehemently with Koopman when he asserts, “We also need to reconsider the unfair criticism that Madiba had made morally wrong compromises. A compromise was indeed made at the birth of the new South Africa, but it was not a wrong compromise. A compromise without which we cannot go forward together was made. Compromise literally means to promise (promissio) together(com).”

I think the challenge of over-eagerness to defend a Madiba is perhaps what blinds him to appreciate when some of us critique Mandela its less in person but in the party or group, he led. Equally so if anything, remotely good is accredited to Madiba on the same scores of reconciliation and forgiveness we must also allow accompanying warts to stand as his leadership. We again may argue why Koopman chooses to consider the criticisms against Madiba as “unfair”. While we may not assume, we know what he means with unfair we may surmise that many who have been part of the negotiated settlement deal regardless of their spheres, often in the blindness of celebration of personal legacy find the criticism unpalpable because it cuts too close for comfort. When we, therefore, address Madiba we address those who made up part the thinking, the agreement those who then arrogated a right to speak and act on the behalf of the apartheid abused.

Indeed, we were led to settling for a second or third prize, that was not the people’s choice but that of the political elites and we cannot burden the people with the responsibility when they in 2018 question the complete settlement that to this day have worked for apartheid beneficiaries.  It cannot be that when citizens express their disdain with what was a settlement, we inadvertently also must navigate what I elsewhere have termed “the buffer zone of black elites’ who are highly sensitive to their personal legacies and wants to gloat in success when they want to turn a deaf ear for the perpetual and now constitutionally entrenched economic disparities that define the canvas of our society.

In conclusion, we in a democracy owe it to afford citizens and our children to question, critique, tear apart and blatantly tell us we made a bad deal that they today have to contend with. We warrant freeing our discourse from all holy cows of Mandela and Tutu sainthoods but allow us as citizens to engage their legacies for how we see it in a bigger and at times narrower frame of a contradictory South Africa where many essential things remained the same. We must equally accept we have not engaged the constructs of truth, reconciliation, forgiveness and justice exhaustively to agree what it means for the various race classifications and class definitions of a South African populace. Pretending we can use our faith dictate frames for these may prove helpful yet it equally introduces a set of vulnerabilities that becomes part of the new equation. Let us continue to probe free from iconic statuses and let us find the future we claim to build on the foundations of truth, forgiveness, justice which will afford us to be live in reconciliation less forced but as the natural end – product.

Kistner thus asks that we also keep our ‘heroes’ and the political elite accountable for their conjoined role in where we are today as those who share in the offence on its part and equally must seek forgiveness through repentance from God and the apartheid victims with the view of facilitating a process of healing and taking precautions against a perpetuation of what has happened the last 20 – 25 years in SA.

Bishop Clyde N.S. Ramalaine is a political commentator and writer.