THEN AND NOW - LEST WE FORGET
Determined survivors of apartheid-era atrocities describe their anguish of being forgotten and ignored
For more than two decades, survivors of human rights violations have been protesting, petitioning and even sleeping outside government buildings for days on end out of desperation for their plight to be recognised and addressed. Despite the Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings, many victims have been abandoned. We profiled some of these determined protesters — these are their stories, with visual portraits by Leon Sadiki.
Each year, senior victims of the apartheid era have petitioned, sent memorandums, appealed to meet with government officials, marched, demanded and pleaded, but to no avail, for reparations. They have also spent nights outside prestigious buildings such as the Constitutional Hill precinct in Johannesburg, the Union Buildings in Pretoria and the National assembly in Cape Town for their struggle and need for reparations to be heard.
In May 2022, after spending 13 nights sleeping outside the Constitutional Hill precinct, elderly campaigners finally met the Minister of Justice and Correctional Services, Ronald Lamola. However, the campaigners say they came away with nothing again. They allege the minister told them that the department could only pay reparations in line with existing regulations and processes and, to this point, all Truth and Reconciliation Commission-identified beneficiaries had already received various reparations.
The elderly campaigners are disappointed and still believe they are eligible for reparations.
The backdrop to their demand is the statement of former president Nelson Mandela almost 24 years ago, on 29 October 1998, when he received the initial report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). He promised that:
“It is for those who have suffered losses of different kinds and magnitudes to be afforded reparation, proceeding from the premise that freedom and dignity are the real prizes that our sacrifices were meant to attain.”
Daily Maverick has interviewed some of the victims of apartheid, who represent thousands of victims nationwide, to learn more about what reparations would mean in their lives. They are part of the Khulumani Support Group (KSG), a civil society organisation in South Africa, campaigning for truth, healing, and redress for those who suffered injustices during the apartheid era. These are their stories.
‘Apartheid pain and trauma has not gone away even after so many years.’ — Vusi Buthelezi (62)
The dilapidated Mshayazafe “beat him till death” hostel in Thokoza, Ekurhuleni is where Buthelezi — a father of six — has found a home since relocating from KwaZulu-Natal during apartheid.
While the name Thokoza connotes feelings of happiness, the township on the East Rand is synonymous with the cruelty and suffering endured by black communities during the Struggles — given the horrors that unfolded there shortly before the first democratic elections.
Buthelezi was born and raised in Vryheid, in northern KwaZulu-Natal. He, along with his entire family, worked on provincial farms, from as young as the age of six. Buthelezi said work on farms also provided a place to live and food. For this reason, he never completed school.
Recalling life during apartheid Buthelezi said: “It was sad to see my father whom we looked up to as our protector and provider being beaten to a pulp in front of us and called sorts of ugly names such as K*****. A cow branding iron was also used on my father and we had to watch him scream in pain while pleading with the white farmer to stop… We were helpless and that killed me, even mentally.”
Even though many years have passed, Buthelezi says the pain and trauma and vivid images of his father’s torture do not go away.
“Sometimes I act like a mentally challenged being — see things and hear things that no one else can hear or see. I now survive on tablets for mental illness for calmness and my sanity. Life is hard because I don’t work. I live on old-age pension money (R1,780) and before then I was surviving on a mental disability grant that has to serve at least nine people.”
Buthelezi says reparations would enable him to build a proper and safe home for his family, and also access an adequate healthcare system and education for his children.
‘Reparations cannot adequately compensate for the pain and suffering we endured, but they can improve the quality of life for many victims and their dependents.’ — Khethani Mbatha (61)
“Everyone who knows me knows the life I lead is not that of a human being — ngiphila okwesilwane (I live like an animal). I can barely afford anything or food for my family to eat. I am unemployed [as] are my children. We live in squalor at Mshayazafe hostel in a little box room I made which always needs repairing after heavy rains. Not even a pig can live in that place. I am not staying at the hostel by choice but I have nowhere else to go.”
These were the words of Khethani Mbatha, explaining her family’s dire need for reparation in order to afford a dignified home.
Mbatha who was born and raised in Stanger, KwaZulu-Natal, says she started working on white-owned farms at the age of 10. She says she lost her older sister through the apartheid abuse, never to be found nor her body to be buried. According to Mbatha, her sister is still a missing person.
The disappearance of her sister is just one of a multitude of abuses stemming from the era. Mbatha recalls a near-deadly encounter when she was cut on the neck with a handsaw by the farmer’s child where her parents worked.
At a later stage, when she had relocated to Gauteng, Mbatha was subjected to more violence in Thokoza. She alleges she was raped by five apartheid soldiers when returning home after being out with a friend.
For Mbatha, reparations cannot adequately compensate for the pain and suffering she endured, but she says they can improve the quality of life for many victims of gross human rights violations and their dependants.
‘Apartheid killed many of us not just physically but mentally and emotionally.’ — Beatrice Thembeka Khombela (64)
“I died my first death when I lost my son at the height of apartheid. I am alive because I breathe…apartheid killed many of us not just physically but mentally and emotionally,” said Beatrice Thembeka Khombela.
Born in Cala in the Eastern Cape, Khombela left the province for Gauteng — regarded as South Africa’s economic hub — as a young woman for work purposes. She found a job as a domestic worker in the Johannesburg northern suburbs but this didn’t excuse her from the abuse of the system.
Khombela recalls being raped and beaten up several times simply for being black. She says she spent most nights in the velds, hiding from apartheid soldiers who would come every night, where she stayed in Alexandra, and shoot people indiscriminately.
Khombela’s son went missing – never to be seen again – after yet another shootout. This remains an open wound for Khombela, who says her son’s disappearance left her sickly and unhappy.
She says reparation would allow her to hold a memorial for her son, put her hurt at ease and improve her life in general.
Khombela currently lives in Katlehong with her two other children and two grandchildren. Altogether they survive on her old age pension.
‘TRC process did not serve justice, so is the government by delaying our reparations’ — Gladys Siawela (67)
Gladys Siawela is one of the 21,000 victims who benefited from the TRC out of about 3.5 million Black South Africans who suffered under apartheid rule. She was born and bred in Lady Frere, in the Eastern Cape and currently resides in Katlehong.
Siawela alleges she received R30,000 through the reparation process but had been promised R120,000. She says she was meant to receive R30,000 every year for six years.
For Siawela, the TRC process neither provided justice nor improved the lives of victims of the apartheid system.
“We received part of the reparation but our lives as victims have not improved. We are homeless, can’t afford proper medical health, and we are not receiving the promised specialised counseling services, mental health care and educational support for our children. There are children, whose parents were violated and have since passed on, who are displaced, hooked on drugs and without a promising future because there has been no support or fulfillment of all things promised.”
Siawela lost her entire family, to apartheid-era abuses. She says she was also raped by apartheid soldiers in front of her husband and children.
Siawela’s plea is that all victims of apartheid should receive reparations accordingly.
‘All the TRC identified beneficiaries have received various reparations’
Chrispin Phiri, spokesperson for the Ministry of Justice and Correctional Services told Daily Maverick that all the TRC identified beneficiaries have received reparations in various forms.
“Whilst the department is considerate and sympathetic to the plight of victims excluded in the reparation process, it is not in a position to pay the recommended and approved reparations to people who have not been identified by the TRC as victims of gross human rights violations.”
He says this is because his department is obliged to implement the decisions of parliament and has not received any mandate to deviate from these decisions.
Phiri said they have since requested that the KSG provide the department with the list and details of individuals identified by the TRC who have not obtained the reparations, so the department may redress the unintended exclusion of potential beneficiaries.
Phiri further said his department has consulted with the Department of Human Settlements and Department of Health regarding regulations that relate to housing and medical benefits as far as reparations are concerned.
“Since our meeting, we confirm that draft regulations on housing assistance have been developed and will on finalisation of the relevant internal processes be promulgated for public comments,” said Phiri. DM
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