After lobbying around the issue of reparations for the past seven years, civil society found little to rejoice about in President Mbeki's speech to Parliament this week.
Rather than use the opportunity to step closer to the unified rainbow nation visualized in the TRC process, the government appeared more eager to reassure the business community than deal with survivors' needs or foster national healing and reconciliation.
Tuesday's announcement that there would be a R30 000 once-off payment to 19 000+ TRC-designated victims caused profound disappointment amongst victim and human rights groups. Khulumani Support Group stated that they found the amount proposed "embarrassing" and vowed to "continue lobbying the government to extend its payments." Likewise Archbishop Ndungane called the payout a "disgrace."
Overall there was a feeling that the President's proposal was a case of 'too little, too late'.
For years victims, many elderly, have watched as perpetrators benefited from the TRC amnesty process, patiently waiting for their side of the TRC bargain to be met, a bargain that was legally laid out in the AZAPO court case ruling by the Constitutional Court.
Some of these victims have died waiting while many more continue to suffer from physical and psychological traumas brought about by the violence of the past. The R660 million payout falls far short of the payout recommended by the TRC of R3 billion over six years- a recommended amount that in itself is a modest 0.002% of the state budget over that same period. The decision to pay out less than a quarter of what was expected runs the danger of setting a global precedent about victims; namely, that fulfilling the needs of victims is a relegated 'priority' for countries in transition.
Equally disappointing is government's failure to take up the TRC recommendation that inherited apartheid debt be restructured in order to free up money for development and redistribution. It has been estimated that 20% of the government's annual budget goes to servicing the debt of the past – debt that was incurred during apartheid in order to service the state's oppression, and must now be paid by the very victims of that oppression. The government's commitment to fiscal discipline and honoring debt repayments to commercial apartheid beneficiaries has not been matched by a meaningful commitment to victims' interests.
In a similar vein, government dismissed recommendations for a once-off wealth tax to be paid by business and other apartheid beneficiaries. In his address to parliament, Minister Alec Erwin justified this decision on two counts; that government did not need the money, and that this type of 'forced reparations' would negatively impact on national reconciliation. Both justifications are questionable. If the state is not concerned about the financial implications of reparations, then why did the payout to victims fall far short of what was recommended or expected? More importantly, why does the pursuit of national reconciliation by this government seem to focus almost exclusively on the constituency of former beneficiaries, a community that has generally refused to openly engage in any process of national reconciliation? The TRC served as an important bridge from the past to the present, but in building this bridge, the country demanded sacrifices from the very people who suffered under apartheid. Faced with a Commission that set perpetrators of horrific crimes free, as well as a 'new' South Africa that feels very much like the old one in the division of its wealth, victims have acted magnanimously over the past decade. But reconciliation is a two-sided endeavor. Government cannot believe that by pandering only to the concerns of business and the wealthy in this country, that it will be advancing this goal – whatever the market may say.
The failure to meet the recommendations of the TRC Final Report, and the courting of business interests above those of the disadvantaged is a short-sighted strategy. At the end of the day, reparations are not just about accountability and redressing the wrongs of the past they are also about building a politically and economically stable future for this country. The 'miracle' of a new South Africa is hardly sustainable if it is built without restoring the dignity and humanity of the majority of its citizens, nor if it fails to address the economic inequalities which fuel social conflict. The need for an internal Marshall Plan – one that would redistribute the benefits of citizenship broadly, and that would create a more socially just society – is indisputable. The benefits of such a policy were recognized in Germany in the early 1990s as East and West Germany embarked on reunification. The West German state instituted a 'solidarity tax' on its citizens to assist in the reconstruction of East Germany and to ensure that reunification was a successful endeavor. Perhaps it is time that former beneficiaries in South Africa stopped looking at redistribution as rooted in the past and against their own interests, and rather see it as being a solidarity contribution to a strong future.
One can only hope that parliament will treat the initial proposal by the government as a 'first draft' and return with a policy that would restore the integrity of the TRC process and more justly reflect the sacrifices of gross human rights violations victims of the past.
Polly Dewhirst is a Project Manager and Nahla Valji a Researcher in the Transition and Reconciliation Programme at the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation.
Originally published in City Press, April 2003.