South Africa

South Africa

Letter to Editor: Is the Catholic Bishops’ call for a new TRC such a bad idea, as Paul Hoffman suggests?

Letter to Editor: Is the Catholic Bishops’ call for a new TRC such a bad idea, as Paul Hoffman suggests?

Paul Hoffman in an opinion piece on 19 October thinks that the Catholic Bishops’ call for a new TRC is a bad idea. But is it? Let’s consider a fresh version – a Truth and Restitution Commission which would offer people amnesty only on condition that they told the whole truth, showed adequate remorse and made restitution in some form. By DIANE SALTERS.

Many people imagine that the Truth and Reconciliation commission for which we are famous was a noble idea put forward for national healing.

It was, in fact a largely pragmatic affair.

Albie Sachs, in his book We, the People, writes:

The fact is we didn’t set up the Truth Commission in some abstract way to deal with the problems of the past. It arose out of three very specific needs: 1. The ANC needed to come clean about its own failures. 2. Some mechanism had to be found to enable the security people to carry on protecting our process. 3. At a purely practical level we needed to avoid having endless trials clogging up the justice system; where would you find the evidence and who would you charge – the one who pulled the trigger, the one who switched on the electric machine, the one who ordered it, the one who made it, the politician in charge, the president of the country? The complicity was so wide that whole sections of the country would be engaged in endless prosecutions. So we had very strong practical motives for producing a process with a defined date of closure.”

I submit that our situation is now not that different. While having some prominent heads on the chopping block may satisfy some aspect of justice and our taste for revenge, it is unlikely to offer a thorough clearing out of corruption, a re-building of national trust and a healing of the ghosts of our past. Many of those ghosts, of the ANC in exile and the apartheid past, still haunt us and have undoubtedly contributed to where we are now. I say that not to exonerate anyone but to better understand the contaminated soil in which our new democracy was planted and the bitter fruits it would almost inevitably yield.

So, suppose we take Albie Sachs’s words (with apologies to the author) and put them into our current context of corruption and State Capture:

1. The ANC needs to come clean about its own part in corruption and state capture. Business people and institutions need to come clean about their role in corruption and state capture, both now and during apartheid.

2. Some mechanism needs to be found that will enable our government and commercial institutions to carry on functioning while all this happens. We want our society transformed, not broken.

3. At a purely practical level, we need to avoid having endless trials clogging up the justice system; where would you find the evidence (we have some but there is certainly much more that would emerge if people felt freer and safer to talk), and who would you charge – the briber or the bribee, the giver of jobs or the one who accepted, the person who stole the money or the one who “held the ladder for the thief to climb in” as the Anglican Archbishop of Cape Town so poetically put it, the person who simply looked the other way when someone put false names on the list of pension pay-outs, the president of the country? (The latter would be good but that is unlikely while the current balance of power holds). The complicity is so wide that if the job is to be done properly, whole sections of the country will be engaged in endless prosecutions – unless amnesty is offered in return for truth and reparation.

It must, of course be acknowledged that the current circumstances are not exactly what they were then. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission took place after apartheid was broken and a significant shift in political power had taken place. A comparable shift would be needed now for a new Truth and Restitution Commission to be viable. Whether that shift takes place within or without the ANC remains to be seen.

As to reparation, this was the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s weakest area. It must be very strong in the case of the Truth and Restitution Commission. Under the circumstances the cry “pay back the money” is unlikely to go away and is indeed a very necessary aspect of the process. In some cases, money will not be returnable and then some other form of reparation should be required. Imaginative ways could be found. In all cases there should be consequences… but consequences short of prosecution for those who meet the TRC criteria of full disclosure and remorse. It should be clear too that all who appear are on “parole”. Any future corruption would be prosecuted with the full force of the law.

What such a process would enable would be a much more widespread discussion of values, actions and consequences, involving many South Africans who wish to come forward and say how they were harmed by corruption and State Capture. It could unite the country and set it on a new path. It would also have a uniquely South African style to it.

Albie Sachs writes movingly, in the same book quoted above, about the value of traditional African law.

As society evolves, so must the rules and mechanisms for defending those (core constitutional) values develop. In the case of traditional law, what needs to endure are the deep principles of social respect, coupled with the all-embracing processes involving listening and hearing, allied to the profound notions of restitution, of re-integration of defaulters and delinquents into the community, of attempting always to restore equilibrium, and based on the pervasive philosophy that something capable of improvement can be found in every human being.”

This is not something that our current system of justice is likely to offer us. DM

Diane Salters, psychotherapist, trainer and community development practitioner, was an ANC local government councillor in the interim structures, 1994-5. She has not been an ANC member for some years, having resigned on matters of principle.

Photo: South African president Jacob Zuma reacts during a question and answer session in Parliament, Cape Town, South Africa, 31 August 2017. EPA-EFE/NIC BOTHMA


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