By Hlengiwe Mnguni
Cape Town – The Department of Justice and Constitutional Development says it is taking victim participation seriously in the special pardons process, in which 149 offenders are seeking pardons from President Jacob Zuma for crimes which they say were politically motivated.
Earlier this month, the Coalition for Transitional Justice said the government was not doing enough to ensure that the victims of those who stand to get presidential pardons were aware of the offenders' possible release and that they (the victims) could make submissions about how they felt about that possibility.
This comes after the names of the offenders were published on the department's website and in newspaper adverts on October 19, along with an invitation to victims to participate.
"Relying on adverts to inform victims will not be effective," Hugo van der Merwe of the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation (which is also part of the coalition) told News24 at the time.
He said it was crucial that all victims of the crimes committed by the applicants be made aware of the process, as the possible release of any offender may cause victims to be concerned about their personal safety and the possibility of revenge attacks.
Communication avenues being explored
Now the department says it has stepped up its communication initiatives to include more media platforms than print adverts, so that more people are reached.
"Messages will also be communicated through radio and electronic media as well. A possibility of placing adverts on television is being explored. Information is also available at all our magistrate courts across the country," the department's spokesperson Tlali Tlali told News24.
Asked whether or not the department had considered getting in direct contact with the victims, Tlali said "every communication avenue available is being explored".
"Where information is available regarding the particulars of the known victims, we will make contact with them and inform them accordingly," he said.
"What is at the heart of this campaign is to ensure that the process is as comprehensive as possible so that at the end the president's decision must take the views of the victims into account."
He said it would be a "sheer contradiction in terms if we were to embark on the exercise of this nature while at the same time showing reluctance or unwillingness to make contact with the victims".
Tlali said the 30-day deadline set for victims to notify the department of their intention to submit statements on the offenders' applications for pardons had been extended and would now be 30 days from the day of the last print advert placed by the department.
This was expected to be sometime during the first week of November. Initially the deadline had been 30 days after the names of the pardon applicants were first published.
Other complaints advanced by the coalition on the presidential pardons process included the unsuitability of some applicants. It questioned whether all the offenders' crimes (some of which were bank robberies, multiple murders and racial crimes committed post-1994) were indeed all political.
The justice department said it did not make the recommendations – they were made by a pardons reference group made up of representatives from political parties in Parliament. It has also stressed that the final decision lay with the president, who will take the victims submissions into consideration before granting or denying pardons.
The list includes applicants with political affiliation to the ANC, the UDM and the AWB.
Also on the list is former apartheid police minister Adriaan Vlok and his then police chief Johan van der Merwe, along with former police major general Chris Smit and former colonels Gert Otto and Manie van Staden. They all pleaded guilty in 2007 to the attempted murder of Reverend Frank Chikane by poisoning in 1989.
On November 21 2007, former president Thabo Mbeki announced a special dispensation for pardon applicants who claimed that they were convicted of offences that were politically motivated.
Mbeki said during a joint sitting of Parliament at the time that this dispensation was aimed at dealing with the "unfinished business" of the TRC, including "the question of amnesty for many South Africans who had not participated in the TRC process for a number of reasons".
The exclusion of victims urged the coalition to go to the Constitutional Court in 2009. Earlier this year the court ruled in favour of the coalition.
Meanwhile, the Khulumani Support Group, which is also a member of the Coalition for Constitutional Justice and has been advocating for justice and reparations for apartheid victims and survivors, on Friday launched its Still Expecting Campaign.
The group, which accuses the government of a bias toward perpetrators in amnesty and pardons processes, says the campaign is meant to highlight "the failures of the country and in particular the failures of its post-apartheid government, to ensure that justice is provided for victims and survivors" of apartheid.
"The bias in favour of perpetrators continued (after the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC)) as new regulations were introduced, amongst them amended guidelines on prosecutions of perpetrators of the conflicts of the past and a special dispensation on pardons for offenders who claim political motives for their crimes," it said.
Friday marks the twelfth anniversary of the handing over to former president Nelson Mandela of the TRC report in 1998. The campaign will run until Reconciliation Day on December 16.