South Africa


A living memorial for the invisible victims of apartheid

A woman breaks down at a Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearing in 1996. (Photo: Gallo)

Until last week the TRC Victims database was off limits to the public and even accredited researchers couldn’t easily access or use the database effectively. With its launch on Thursday last week, SA History Archives director Dr Geraldine Frieslaar hopes ‘South Africans will wake from collective amnesia and that the database will be a living memorial for those who were casualties of apartheid’.

There are an invisible 15,000 people of an estimated 25,000 killed in political violence between 1960 and 1994 in South Africa. Their names may never make it on to a memorial wall or into a history book.

But matching names to victims and ensuring access to victims’ stories and circumstances of their deaths, is essential to tell the fuller picture of apartheid history. It remains the goal of the South African History Archives (SAHA) that has finally been able to present the reconstructed TRC (Truth and Reconciliation Commission) Victims Database after years of fighting with the Department of Justice to have the database released.

The TRC Victims Database hold records of around 22,000 cases that came before the Commission. Just under half are of victims who were killed. The other half are of people who were tortured and abducted.

Till last week the TRC database was off limits to the public and even accredited researchers couldn’t easily access or use the database effectively. It took over nine years of dogged effort from the South African History Archives (SAHA) to finally compel the Department of Justice (DoJ) through litigation and an eventual out of court settlement, to release the database in 2016.

Since then SAHA has cleaned the raw data and worked to turn the database into a searchable archive that will be made available to the public – as the TRC intended when it handed over the database to the DoJ in 2003.

With the launch of the reconstructed TRC Victims Database on Thursday last week, SAHA director Dr Geraldine Frieslaar hopes “South Africans will wake from collective amnesia and that the database will be a living memorial for those who were casualties of apartheid”.

She adds: “The reasons it’s taken so long for the DoJ to release the database is because of a lack of political will. Also from the mid and late 1990s there was an emphasis on reconciliation and a discourse of moving forward even though South Africans hadn’t dealt with the wounds of apartheid. It’s meant that for many people there hasn’t been closure even at 25 years of democracy,” she says.

Nobukhosi Zulu of SAHA’s Freedom of Information Programmes is critical of the government’s lack of co-operation and deliberate stalling tactics. Zulu says SAHA first made PAIA (Promotion of Access to Information Act) requests in 2006 and then again in 2009 to the Department of Justice and Correctional Services. This led to intention to litigate and the out of court settlement that saw a set of CDs with raw data eventually handed over to SAHA.

You’d understand that under apartheid the State ran on secrecy but you would think that in a post-apartheid era with our Constitution and access to information laws it would be easier to access the TRC database. You wouldn’t think the post-apartheid government would work so hard to protect apartheid state information. It leads to questions and doubts from the public. It delegitimises the TRC and makes people judge the TRC not on fulfilling its role but for not being able to fix all of South Africa’s problems today,” says Zulu.

Madeleine Fullard, a former TRC researcher agrees that a usable, open TRC database will correctly re-cast the role of the TRC in history and temper the present-day critique of the TRC hearings and processes of having “sold out” and failed.

The TRC database is the broad net that catches every victim across the political spectrum, across a range of atrocities, even those who sit awkwardly in today’s memorialisation space. It also can help researchers find the patterns and the modus operandi of perpetrators, and this can start to piece together victims’ stories,” she says.

Fullard, who spoke at the launch, recalls how during the TRC hearings having the information even in its raw form showed up important patterns. She says for example, that researchers could pick up in an area in the southern Cape a pattern of victims being tortured by having their genitalia and breasts slammed in drawers. It’s graphic and specific information that reveal locations, pinpoints possible perpetrators and also stands as a reminder of the horrific nature and extent of torture and atrocities that were committed.

Fullard hopes the database being made public and interactive is a way to finally gather the names of the dead as a first step to restoring dignity and to bring closure to surviving family and friends.

We still need to create a composite database that brings together the information from the TRC’s database as well as those from other NGOs who were working at the time. But the launch of the victims database is an important starting point.”

The reconstruction of the TRC database into a searchable, user-friendly archive has been the work of Gerald O’ Sullivan. O’Sullivan was involved in collecting and collating data during the TRC hearings that got underway in 1996.

O’ Sullivan recalls that notes from original testimony was sometimes handwritten and had to be analysed and verified and corroborated so that TRC commissioners could make their findings. Most of the collected data though was not searchable and not effectively usable.

At this phase of development, the victims’ database has six searchable fields and will be further developed to be interactive and its source code will be released under open source license. SAHA expects the site to go live by the end of the month and for the database to be developed and added to as an on-going initiative. DM


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