Prosecuting apartheid-era crimes remains pertinent

It has been a few weeks since it was reported that the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) would work on possible prosecutions of the perpetrators behind the murders of anti-apartheid activists. A process that will involve cases arising from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), and should counter failures within the TRC, and the fallacy of a ‘democratic’ South Africa.

The cases range from graphic information on the assassinations of individuals that had to be ‘permanently removed’ from society, as the apartheid government commanded, to the vague details of violence and tampered evidence. Cases that made South Africans shed tears reliving the trauma and brutality of the apartheid regime through the hearings.

There was amnesty granted to the perpetrators considered to have been truthful and shown remorse but some were denied amnesty for the lack thereof.  The TRC recommended about 300 cases to the NPA for further investigation and prosecution but up to this very moment, less than a handful of prosecutions have been made.

Prosecutions, in the functioning of the TRC, were also to some extent considered to be about revenge rather than justice as the commission was centred on social reconciliation and forgiveness.  This, as part of its effects, humanised the perpetrator, normalised violence and in this case, in particular, it provided the perpetrator with an image, that of legitimacy and immunity.

Oppressed groups continued to be violated, whether it is through exploitation, marginalisation, victimisation, aggressive, or covert racism. Such violence has been innate in the South African society, apparent from Afriforum’s recent comment on ‘apartheid not being a crime against humanity’, to the white farmers who forced a black worker into a coffin and threatened to burn him alive and in the domestic workers being called ‘kaffir’ and paid a barely minimum wage.

There is still a lack of accountability for apartheid-era crimes, even with the TRC’s attempt for creating a culture of accountability. Think of Matthew Goniwe, Fort Calata, Sparrow Mkhonto and Sicelo Mhlauli, all of whom we have come to know as the Cradock Four and whose cases are set to be re-opened by the NPA. They were abducted, murdered, their bodies burnt and deserted in a dump at Port Elizabeth in 1985.

The case was brought to the TRC, the perpetrators admitted their involvement and detailed how the assassination occurred.  As the process unfolded, the perpetrators disclosed that they had also murdered two black police officers who were present on the day, as the black officers would have spoken out.

It was revealed that there was an order issued by the office of Justice that said Calata and Goniwe posed a significant threat to the regime, similar to countless other activists who were murdered, for the same reason.

The perpetrators’ application for amnesty was declined, the TRC made recommendations and suggested ‘rehabilitative’ measures as to how to prevent the atrocities from happening again. That was as far as the TRC was concerned.

Since then, it has been the affected families that have been largely pushing the NPA to seek more truth, expressing their need for closure and prosecution of the perpetrators. There has been reluctance on the part of the NPA to act, of which the former head of NPA, Vusi Pikoli linked to the power structures who had imposed their will on the NPA processes.

This prosecution process is one that was reduced to being a ‘witch hunt’ by apartheid leaders. It forms part of a lot of other TRC recommendations that have been disregarded by the government, such as that on reparations. Allocated funds for reparations in the President’s Fund are still not distributed, and victims who received financial reparations payment felt it was as an ‘insult’.

The recommendations also touched on land reform and suggested that an audit is ought to be taken on ‘unused and under-utilised land with a view of making it available to landless people’. Audits taken following the recommendations have come out unclear, inaccurate and incomplete on land ownership patterns prior to 1994 and this has hindered the expropriation of land. The recommendations from the TRC were rich and addressed many of the issues that we are still seeing today.

Apartheid-era crimes remain punishable by law, and prosecution of the perpetrators offers a chance to obtain justice, and some closure for the affected families. A lot more lies ahead such as the economic crimes of apartheid and its systematic violations that still disenfranchise the black majority.

– Siphokuhle Mkancu is a Communications and Advocacy Intern for the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation (IJR). The IJR, over the course of this year will review the TRC recommendations and the failures in taking them up – a process made public through a series of Op-eds.