Unfinished business

Mail & Gaurdian Logo

A decade after the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) started its work, many South African communities are still recovering from the brutal conflicts it tried to cauterise.

Victim advocates insist real reconciliation will not happen while the practical concerns of survivors and perpetrators remain unaddressed.

“This is quite close to the surface of the national psyche and is present in communities up and down the country,” says Piers Pigou, a former TRC investigator.

The victim support group Khulumani estimates that 120 000 people suffered gross human rights violations — more than five times the testimonies recorded by the TRC. Nationwide, 14 000 people were killed in political violence between 1990 and 1994; many more “disappeared”.

Interviews with victims on the East Rand, torn by years of conflict after 1990, highlighted the profound effect that the violence continues to have on residents’ daily lives.

Take 37-year-old Lindelwa Ngxamngxa, paralysed from the waist down after being shot, she says, by a known Inkatha Freedom Party supporter.

She lives in Thokoza, south-east of Johannesburg, where communities were plagued by clashes between African National Congress-supporting residents and IFP hostel-dwellers allegedly in cahoots with the security forces.

Ngxamngxa says she was not political herself, but that the ANC was popular in her neighbourhood. In 1993, her assailant forced his way into her home and shot her in the chest, arms and head before he, and others, robbed her.

Thirteen years later she has some manoeuvrability through her wheelchair, but needs help from her teenage daughter, who shares her rented one-room shack.

They survive on her disability grant of R1 000 a month. Of this, she spends nearly R300 on catheters and the rubber gloves she uses to empty colostomy bags.

“My life is so terrible,” Ngxamngxa says. “And it is so painful the minute I think about the fact that I’m in this situation because of somebody else.”

But she says that the psychological suffering of seeing her assailant living freely in her neighbourhood is worse than the physical harm. Though she reported him to police, charges were dropped almost immediately — arranged, she says, by police who supported the IFP.

Now she stays home alone for fear of what he may do if he sees her.

“When he comes, I have to hide because he knows I’ve identified him,” Ngxamngxa says. “I’m still alive, and that is a problem for him.”

Most survivors called to give evidence at the TRC’s human rights violations committee received a single reparations payment of R30 000. But many remain mired in poverty.

“Although I got the compensation, even today that reconciliation has not happened,” says 76-year-old Sarah Sithole of Katlehong.

Sithole still knows very little about the murder of her daughter, one of five commuters gunned down in a taxi. She was the family’s sole breadwinner, and after her death, Sithole raised her two children on a pensioner’s grant of R720 a month.

She says “not a cent” is left of her reparations grant; the money went to pay for school fees, food or to pay off debt. “The pain is still in my heart, and the money too little for the work I had to take on after my daughter died,” she says. “I struggled to raise those children.

“When the government gave us the grant they were just wiping away our tears, but we need something more.”

The men of violence were offered conditional amnesty in exchange for TRC testimony. One East Rand man whose slate was wiped clean was ANC member Michael Pama, who claims responsibility for 20 deaths.

Now 63, Pama became a commander in the armed militia of Phola Park. He says he and others returned fire to protect homes and allow women and children a chance to flee the shooting.

“As I was protecting the community, I knew some people on the other side were dying,” he says.

Arrested in 1992, Pama served a seven-year jail sentence. Despite receiving amnesty, he says he thinks about what happened “each and every day”. He still lives on the fringes of his former community and fears revenge.

“Even when I am just going around the neighbourhood, I need protection because I can still be killed,” he says.

Pama, who was shot during the violence and considers himself a survivor, says he feels slighted by the TRC process and the new government. “I fought for democracy and to get rid of apartheid, but the TRC didn’t even look at that side,” he says bitterly.

Oupa Makhalemele, researcher at the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation, suggested the government should have targeted programmes to cater for survivors and perpetrators.

“This is the unfinished business of the TRC. What is the government doing in areas where resources are very limited, where people have real physical and psychological effects or the breadwinner was killed?”

Khulumani’s acting director, Marjorie Jobson, says a recent conference in Cape Town commemorating the TRC suggested a fresh commitment to victims of violence. “This next decade has to be about survivors,” Jobson says.

Like thousands of others, Ngxamngxa says she didn’t hear about the TRC until after public testimony ended in 1998.

She still wants her attacker prose-cuted, but in the meantime wants the means to move to another neighbourhood. She also dreams of enough money to see a medical specialist and to cover her medical bills. She hopes the government will help.

“I would tell President Thabo Mbeki, ‘You didn’t finish with the TRC,’” she says. “Even the president himself benefited from the time of violence and by those fighting. Even today, the leaders of the country are enjoying the fruit of the victims’ blood.”

All reporting by Gretchen L. Wilson, © 2006

Mail & Guardian   South Africa   stories   truth & reconciliation   writing

Comments are closed.