Posted on October 24, 2013
Many of the deep-seated social and developmental problems facing South Africa today link back to the transition processes of the early1990s.

The issue is not that we should not have had the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) or Convention for a Democratic South Africa (CODESA). Rather, the problem is that we saw these processes - adopted as political necessity - as 'end points' rather than the beginnings of far reaching changes. And the concern is that we are not openly discussing the flaws of these vehicles of transition.

The TRC explored reconciliation not through punishment, but through trying to build a story about gross crimes against humanity and political reform. As far as individuals went, the TRC sought to combat impunity and rebuild a culture of accountability. For victims of gross violence it aimed to uncover hidden truths of what happened and assist families in getting 'closure'. As part of the process, commitments were made to victims of gross violence about reparations and, at least in recommendations towards the end, regarding broader reforms and changes.

Yet because it could not bring itself to examine wider exploitation and systematic oppression, the TRC's work was inadequate. The government has also failed to follow up and prosecute the perpetrators of violence who did not apply for amnesty. In addition, it has not fully implemented recommendations for reparations for victims of gross violations. Government has paid reparations - a pay-out of R30,000 - to less than a quarter of victims of gross human rights violation.

But the TRC's bigger failure is that it failed to address the more collective loss of dignity, opportunities and systemic violence experienced by the oppressed. No hearings were held on land issues, on the education system, on the migrant labour system and on the role of companies that collaborated with, and made money from, the apartheid security system. As Mahmood Mamdani puts it:

'The TRC held individual state officials criminally responsible, but for only those actions that would have been defined as crimes under apartheid law. It distinguished between the law-driven violence of the apartheid state - pass laws, forced removals, and so on - as legal if not legitimate, and the excess violence of its operatives, as illegal.'

CODESA played a vital role in bringing the new South Africa into being. Since no side could claim victory, adversaries were forced to negotiate. CODESA focused on the restoration of political rights. And there were significant outcomes: restoration of democracy and dignity for all as well as the founding of democratic institutions to secure and advance democracy and human rights into the future. But CODESA did nothing to rearrange economic power. It was silent on the need for ownership changes in major corporations. It sent no message about the need to reverse injustice in land ownership.

Generally, for the liberation movement and activists in the struggle, the political transition was meant to create a platform for further transformation. They would use democratic space, as well as measures such as a land reform, to create a critical mass in favour of on-going and far-reaching redress.

Twenty years on, there have been some socio-economic improvements and small dents have been made into poverty. More people have been employed, even though unemployment remains high. And government has significantly rolled out services such as piped water and electricity.

But economic inclusion of the majority has not taken place. Inequality is rife. The stock exchange reflects the continued concentration of economic power in white hands. According to Duma Gqubule, the black majority directly owns less than 10 percent on the Stock Exchange. Furthermore, less than 10 percent of land has been transferred into black hands. Mazibuko Jara has argued that with the current rate of transfer, it would take a further 30 years to reach government's target of 30 percent of land transfer to black people.

And so, twenty years on, South Africa is at another stalemate. Although we have a legitimate government and levels of violence in no way match the early nineties, we are once again witnessing scenes of well-armed policemen facing off against protestors. The country is rocked by a wave of strike action and there are on-going service delivery protests. Much of the community level mobilisation is around bread and butter issues - but there is also growing mobilisation around bigger issues such as demands for ‘return of the land' and nationalisation of the mines. The emergence of the Economic Freedom Fighters is no accident - it is riding on the deep sense of injustice felt by many regarding exclusion from land ownership as well as the negative impact of mining companies on nearby communities.

In this context, Abba Omar, writing in The New Age, has asked whether we need another TRC. At the same time, some experts are asking whether an official TRC such as ours actually shut out additional voices from below and made it difficult to advance other, more citizen-driven, reconciliation initiatives at sectoral or local levels. Some spokespersons in the business community, recognising the conflicting agendas of key stakeholders and partly to advance the pro-business agenda, are calling for an economic CODESA. Sampie Terreblanche and has recently reminded us of his support (in the past) for a wealth tax and noted that such a move would have contributed to redress and reduced polarisation. And voices such as those of Dumisa Ntsebeza and Yasmin Sooka continue to remind us that unless the high levels of poverty and inequality are addressed, 'a successful TRC legacy' and true reconciliation will evade us.

This article is not a call to return to Codesa-type negotiations or to re-start a TRC process. Too much time has passed and the political game has shifted. Rather, it is a reminder to those seeking national solutions or trying to broker shared agendas among major stakeholders that any proposal that hopes to capture the imagination of the masses must take account of the 'unfinished business'. They should know that for significant numbers of marginalised South Africans, discussion of a better future begins with the historical view - and with robust discussion of the transition process itself.

Frank Meintjies is an independent consultant and a Visiting Research Fellow at Wits School of Public & Development Management.

Source: South African Civil Society Information Service website