Violence still haunts South Africa a decade after reconciliation efforts

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JOHANNESBURG, 28 April 2006 (IRIN) – South Africa’s brutal apartheid regime was officially dismantled 12 years ago, with the nation’s first democratic election. But in many communities, the violence of those years is hardly forgotten. In the early 1990s, as government officials and liberation leaders negotiated a peaceful transition of power, many local communities were de facto battlefields; politically-motivated violence increased and neighbourhoods deteriorated into no-go areas. Townships in South Africa’s East Rand, 35 km southeast of Johannesburg, were at the heart of this violence. Some 14,000 people died between 1990 and 1994; many more “disappeared”. The violence was often a result of the regular conflicts between the state’s security forces and local communities. Sometimes, though, it was perpetuated by local residents in complicated political rivalries, particularly between the African National Congress (ANC) and the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP). In 1996, South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission launched its public hearings in an effort to expose the violence of the apartheid era. It was to be among the first steps of a national unification, and hopefully forgiveness. But a decade later, communities such as the East Rand are still recovering, and the violence continues to have a profound impact on the daily reality of local residents. Their stories reflect the nation’s past and present, and illustrate the challenges of achieving true reconciliation.

Living in Fear
One of these stories is that of Lindelwa Ngxamngxa, who is still afraid of the man who shot her 13 years ago. Though Ngxamngxa wasn’t political herself, she lived in an area of the Thokoza township that was dominated by the ANC. The man who shot her, she said, was an IFP supporter. At the time, she was 24 years old and a new mother. One day, while she was watching TV at home, the man came into her living room and shot her repeatedly in the chest, arms and head. As she lay on the floor, she saw him and others steal her belongings – from clothing to furniture. Today, Ngxamngxa, 37, is paralysed from the chest down. She can deftly manoeuvre her wheelchair over the potholed streets around the notorious Khumalo Road, which used to be considered no-man’s-land, but at home she needs assistance from her teenaged daughter, with whom she now shares a rented shack. They survive on Ngxamngxa’s government disability grant of $166 a month. Of this, she has to spend $33 on catheters and the rubber gloves with which she must remove her own stool. “My life is so terrible, and it is so painful the minute I think about the fact that I’m in this situation because of somebody else,” she told IRIN. Worse than the physical damage is the psychological torment of knowing the man who shot her still lives freely in her neighbourhood. Though she reported him to the police after the incident, his case was dropped almost immediately – orchestrated, she said, by police who supported the IFP. Now she’s scared of what he might do if he sees her again. “It’s not safe with the perpetrator is still looking for me,” Ngxamngxa said. “When he comes, I have to hide because he knows I have identified him. If I am still alive, it’s a problem for him.”

Reparations Insufficient to Escape Poverty
The TRC process was the government’s broad initiative to foster reconciliation. It offered survivors and perpetrators of the most egregious human rights violations – such as murder, abduction, and torture – a platform to share their stories. In exchange for testifying, perpetrators were offered a chance at amnesty. Most survivors called to testify before the TRC’s Human Rights Violations Committee received a single reparations payment of $5,000, well short of the TRC’s recommendation of a multi-year payment totalling nearly $17,000. It often was not enough to make a significant impact on the lives of survivors. After the racialised oppression of apartheid, many who experienced the extreme violence in the East Rand remain marginalised by poverty. “Although I got the compensation for testifying, even today that reconciliation has not happened,” said Sarah Sithole, 76, of the East Rand’s Katlehong township. Sithole still knows very little about the murder of her daughter, one of five people gunned down while on the way to work in a commuter taxi. With the death of the family’s sole breadwinner, Sithole raised her daughter’s two young children on her pensioner’s grant of $120 a month. “I struggled to raise those children,” Sithole said, adding that nothing changed after receiving her belated reparations grant. Today, “not a cent” is left; she said she used the money for basic costs of living, including school fees, food, or to pay off debt. “When the government gave us the grant they were just wiping away our tears, but we need something more,” she said.

Despite Amnesty, Problems of Reintegration
One man granted amnesty by the TRC is Michael Pama, who said he was responsible for 20 deaths during the East Rand violence. An ANC member in Phola Park in the early 1990s, he had long experienced the brutality of the apartheid police. Pama, now 63, said he was moved to fight when the violence escalated in 1990, when gangs of IFP supporters began violent raids of his neighbourhood. “We started to say that it was enough, that people in our community were dying,” Pama recalled. Pama became a commander in the community’s armed militia. He said that when gunmen from nearby areas raided Phola Park, he and others ran to the “front line” to protect their homes and to allow women and children a chance to run away from the shooting. “I knew that as I was protecting the community, some people on the other side were dying,” he said. Pama was arrested in 1992, and served a jail sentence until 1999. The experience has affected him spiritually, and he thinks about what happened “each and every day”. But though Pama was granted amnesty, he still hasn’t been reintegrated into his community. “Even when I am just going around the neighbourhood, I need protection because I can still be killed,” he said. Pama, who was himself shot during the violence and also considers himself a survivor, said he feels slighted by the TRC process and by government officials.
Sarah Sithole, 76, testified before the TRC about the murder of her daughter, the family’s only breadwinner. She received a one-time grant of $5,000, but said it wasn’t enough to raise her daughters two young children.
“I fought for the lives of the people. I fought for democracy and to get rid of apartheid. But the TRC didn’t even look at that side,” he said. “I was there to die for democracy, so today I am humiliated. The government is ignoring the poor people who fought.” Pama added: “I feel like a dog that has fought to get prey, but the prey has been eaten by others, and there is not even a bone left for me.”

Carrying a Nation’s Untold Stories
Advocates say the concerns of survivors and perpetrators alike must be addressed in order to lay a solid foundation for a nation in transition. “This is quite close to the surface of the national psyche and its present in communities up and down this country,” said Piers Pigou, a former investigator for the TRC and consultant to other international restorative justice projects. Nationwide, countless survivors of gross human rights violations never testified to the TRC. Khulumani, a support group for survivors of apartheid-era violence, estimates that 110,000 individuals were victims – more than five times the number of testimonies recorded by the TRC. The organisation has so far documented the accounts of 48,000 people with supporting evidence, affidavits and police records. In the East Rand alone, more than 2,000 individuals have documented their stories with the local chapter of Khulumani, according to East Rand regional coordinator NomaRussia Bonase. “The majority of these survivors didn’t know about the TRC,” said Bonase, 40, herself a survivor. “Since 1998, we have been calling on government to hear their stories.” Yet some point out that sharing their stories won’t be enough to support individuals who have been unalterably affected by violence and who remain on society’s fringes. Hugo van der Merwe, a project manager in the Transition and Reconciliation Programme at the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation, said the symbolic value of the TRC process often hasn’t been enough to support survivors and perpetrators within their own communities. “Those dynamics are ones which stay with society, and that require further engagement by government and civil society,” he said. But van der Merwe said the government has not put forward a clear framework for engaging communities and individuals in that process. “It shouldn’t be up to civil society,” he noted. “There needs to be a more systematic response by government.” Khulumani’s acting director, Marjorie Jobson, said that may be changing, and that a recent conference commemorating the 10th anniversary of the first TRC hearings marked a turning point for survivors’ concerns. “It was the first meeting where survivors were made the core issue,” Jobson told IRIN. “I think people were convinced during the meeting that this next decade has to be about survivors now.”

Wish for a New Beginning
In the meantime, Ngxamngxa hopes the government – or anyone – will intervene on her behalf. Sitting in her wheelchair in Phola Park, she said she’d like to see a medical specialist, and wishes for basic medical needs. She also wants to live in a house in another neighbourhood – anywhere she won’t be found by the man who shot her. Poor and isolated in Phola Park, she is depending on government to help her – and wants leaders to demonstrate their political will. “Even President Thabo Mbeki himself benefited from the violence and by those fighting,” she said. “Even today, the leaders of the country are enjoying the fruit of the victims’ blood.” Though she said she didn’t know about the TRC until after it stopped taking public testimonies in 1998, she wants justice from the man who paralyzed her. “I am hoping that the government, through the TRC, can call the perpetrator and ask his purpose of doing this to me,” Ngxamngxa said.

All reporting by Gretchen L. Wilson, © 2006

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