van der Merwe, H., Dewhirst, P. & Hamber, B. (1999). Non-governmental organisations and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission: An impact assessment . Research report written for the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation.
by Hugo van der Merwe, Polly Dewhirst & Brandon Hamber
Research report written for the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation, 1999. A shortened edited version of this paper appeared in Politikon, Vol. 26, No. 1, pp. 55-79.
Hugo van der Merwe is the Manager of the Transitional Justice Programme at the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation.
Polly Dewhirst is a Project Manager in the Transitional Justice Programme at the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation.
Brandon Hamber is an independent consultant.
This report examines the relationship between Peace/Conflict Resolution Organisations and the TRC. Based mainly on interviews with NGO and TRC staff, the report outlines the various ways that NGOs participated in the development of the TRC legislation and engaged with TRC structures. The shape of this engagement was very uneven depending on the stage of the TRC process: the strongest input came at the point of lobbying in response to draft legislation. Different NGO sectors (human rights, conflict resolution, mental health) also had different levels of engagement at different stages of the process. The report evaluates the impact that NGOs had on the TRC (and vice versa), and critically evaluates the general failure of NGOs to effectively mobilise around the principles and strategic concerns raised by the TRC. The constraints on the development of an effective relationship are found to be located both in the structure and processes of the TRC, as well as within the NGO sector as it struggles to redefine its role in the new political context.
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) emerged as a major policy and legislative concern in the post-elections period in South Africa. Over this time, and during its life, numerous Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) engaged with it in one form or another. The level of public interest in this process and the overlap between the work of the TRC with that of many NGOs makes it an appropriate case study to examine the changing role of NGOs in both the development of legislation and engagement with statutory bodies.
This report presents an overview of the various ways that NGOs (particularly those operating in the field of peace and justice) and the TRC interacted. The report traces the process from the conceptualisation and lobbying regarding the TRC legislation through to the conclusion of the TRC, and examines the anticipated longer-term consequences for NGOs after the TRC ends. The report examines the relationships that developed at different stages of the process, the constraints on NGOs in this engagement, and the impact of NGOs on the TRC (and vice versa).
The methodology relied heavily on interviews with NGOs and TRC role players who were part of the activities under examination. Twenty-six interviews were conducted between December 1997 and May 1998.
NGO staff interviewed during the research categorised themselves as human rights NGOs, conflict resolution/intervention NGOs and mental health NGOs. These categories meant different experiences of the TRC process. This issue is explored when looking at particular roles played by different NGOs at different stages of the process.
The term peace organisation is defined by the International Study of Peace Organisations – SA (who commissioned the research) as a 'voluntary/non-governmental organised body within civil society that has been concerned to promote justice and freedom from the violence and disorder generated by apartheid and which in some way has contributed to the building of a non-racial and democratic South Africa.'
The interviews were concentrated in the Gauteng and Western Cape regions. (The list of interviewees is attached as Appendix A.) Nobody was interviewed regarding the TRC activities in the Eastern Cape, and very limited research (one NGO interview) was conducted in KwaZulu-Natal. This is a limitation of the report in some senses as there was regional variation in relationships that developed between NGOs and the TRC. However, the broader observations appear to be valid for all regions.
Documentary sources were also used. These were (1) the submissions by NGOs and NGO coalitions to the Minister of Justice, the Parliamentary Committee on Justice and the TRC, and (2) NGO reports on their involvement in TRC activities. Documentary sources from organisations other than the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation (CSVR) were limited.
The report is also informed by the direct participation of CSVR in many of the activities described. CSVR was involved in the conceptualisation process of the TRC and lobbying for legislation from as early as August 1994. It also played a central role in mobilising NGO interaction with the TRC, both through co-ordinating NGO activities and running educational workshops for many NGOs. CSVR is also engaged in a broader project of evaluating the work of the TRC and assessing its impact on various aspects of South African society.
The conclusions drawn below, as well as the historical overview of the TRC process to date, are based on the sources mentioned above.
The Evolution of the TRC Legislation
The initiative and momentum to establish a TRC in South Africa did not arise as a result of a grass-roots or collective civil society ground swell. The incentive for the TRC was the product of party-political concerns and negotiations. The process was also shaped by ideas within the context of international debates about strategies for dealing with the past. Local human rights and victim perspectives concerning truth commissions and methods for dealing with the past were also considered. In essence, the development of the TRC in South Africa was crystallised by two specific political events, namely the Motsuenyane Report and the post-amble to the South African Constitution.
The Motsuenyane Report was the product of an ANC appointed commission to investigate human rights abuses within ANC detention camps during the apartheid period. While accepting the findings of the report, the ANC argued that there should be a commission to investigate all abuses, not only those committed by members of the ANC. This call for a TRC with a national mandate was particularly promoted by Kader Asmal, a key ANC negotiator during the transition and now a cabinet minister in the new government.
However, the deciding factors in the establishment of the TRC were the debates and finalisation of the Interim Constitution. At the last minute, when all else had been settled, the question of amnesty remained unresolved. The National Party was not prepared to sign an agreement that did not provide for amnesty. Purportedly in the interests of maintaining the peace and securing the transfer to democracy, a compromise was reached. It was agreed and written into the Interim Constitution that amnesty would be granted to those who had committed abuses. However, the mechanisms for implementing this amnesty were left undecided.
Support soon emerged, largely from within the ranks of the ANC, for the possible establishment of a commission that could combine amnesty and truth recovery. Moreover, a precedent had been established by the National Party when granting temporary indemnity to ANC members during the negotiations. These indemnities were only granted upon full disclosure by ANC members of the unlawful acts that they had committed, a requirement that the ANC had found highly unpalatable. As a result it became very difficult for the National Party to oppose such a process when it came to the question of amnesty for its own members.
Certain people in civil society also anticipated this type of political manoeuvring and the differing debates that arose about how to deal with past abuses. A key figure, to emerge at an early stage of discussions, was Dr Alex Boraine, the Director of Justice in Transition.1 Boraine left his post as Director of the Institute for a Democratic South Africa (IDASA) to set up Justice in Transition which was to become a central facilitator of discussion around the establishment of the TRC.
A close working relationship was established between Boraine and the new Minister of Justice, Dullah Omar. This served to link the party-political process and civil society debates that emerged around the question of a TRC. The ANC were, at the time of drafting the TRC legislation, partners with the National Party in a Government of National Unity. They were reluctant to push for the adoption of legislation that may have upset this relationship. Omar thus found it very convenient to have the TRC conceptualisation and drafting pursued via civil society organs.2
Dullah Omar felt that the drafting process should be outside the official justice structures. He did not want to take the issue to cabinet until he had straightened out the sticking points and built sufficient public momentum to carry the process through. He thus wanted to assist civil society in pushing the idea of the TRC.3
Rather than use Department of Justice staff to draft the legislation, funds were channelled from overseas donors to Justice in Transition to contract the necessary expertise.4
While not overtly manipulating the process unfolding in civil society, Omar was kept abreast of developments. He facilitated the establishment of an informal committee to work on drafting the legislation. The committee expanded and contracted out various tasks, drawing on individuals from a range of backgrounds.5
Input on the underlying principles that shaped these drafts came largely from conferences and workshops held by Justice in Transition. These were forums where selected NGOs were formally invited to make an input into the policy process. A wide range of political and civil society organisations were involved in these discussions. Twenty six organisations were on the invitation list compiled by Justice in Transition. National Party, military and police representatives declined invitations to participate in the workshops.
The final draft of the act that established the TRC was then presented to cabinet and it was approved to go before parliament. The Justice Portfolio Committees in parliament and the senate then engaged in another round of public input and discussion. Parties covering the whole political spectrum made substantial submissions at these hearings. Public interest at the time of the hearings also led to some media coverage and public debate about the policy issues raised by the legislation.
Despite attempts to make the process as objective as possible, political negotiations and political 'horse-trading' did play a central role in shaping the final legislation. Within the context of the Government of National Unity, the ANC went to great lengths to ensure that the National Party would support the legislation when it was enacted. The interests of the IFP and PAC in ensuring that their members would also be covered by the legislation also contributed to defining the shape of the final outcome. The time spent by members of parliament on this legislation reportedly exceeds that spent on any other legislation that this parliament has considered. The bill was passed with the ANC, NP, DP and PAC supporting it, the IFP abstaining and only the Volksfront voting against it.
The role of NGOs in this process is fairly complex. While NGO staff were at times crucial role players in the process, they were often drawn in as individuals with particular skills rather than as representatives of a particular sector of society, or even as organisational representatives. However, some lobbying efforts by NGOs were undertaken. These are discussed below.
Role of NGOs in Conceptualisation and Lobbying
Different Roles Played by NGOs
Very few NGOs were involved in the initial conceptualisation of the broad policy concerns around the TRC. Other than those who had specifically anticipated TRC related issues,6 most organisations were called upon for the individual expertise of some of their staff. For example the Legal Resources Centre's (LRC) George Bizos was asked to assist in drafting the legislation.
Most NGOs saw the process of legislative development as being politically driven at a national level and they did not see themselves having much influence. The major countervailing force was that of Justice in Transition which facilitated the input of NGOs into the legislative process. Based on the interviews undertaken in this study, the process facilitated by Justice in Transition was also seen as not sufficiently transparent by many NGOs. Some felt left out of the loop, i.e. not being provided sufficient space to make formal input, not receiving regular report-backs or being kept abreast of developments. Yet, for other organisations, Justice in Transition provided a key linkage to the legislative process.
Religious organisations were one group that was specifically targeted by Justice in Transition initiatives. A Religious Response to the TRC (RRTRC) was launched in October 1994. This structure provided a networking function for a number of NGOs (not only religious ones) to engage with the policy issues raised by the TRC. However, it only became fully functional in 1995, i.e. at the time that the draft legislation was being debated.
Lobbying in response to draft legislation
It was only when the draft legislation was eventually made public that the NGO sector mobilised effectively to put their concerns on the table. This lobbying was, in part, done by individual organisations, but also through regional networks of NGOs.
These networks included the NGO Coalition on the TRC (Johannesburg),7 the Religious Response to the TRC (Cape Town), the Mental Health Response to the TRC (Cape Town), and the Coalition of KwaZulu-Natal Mental Health and Human Rights Organisations (Durban). Peace NGOs were involved in each of these initiatives. Justice in Transition also provided a networking function regarding lobbying. They informed NGOs about the legislative process, urged them to make submissions, and got the backing of numerous organisations for its own submission to the Parliamentary Committee.
These networks managed to pull together the input of a wide range of organisations and present their collective voice to the Legislature. The organisations that were more centrally involved in these networks were human rights organisations and those concerned with mental health services. On the whole, conflict resolution organisations did not participate in these networks and also did not make individual submissions regarding the legislation.
A range of submissions was made once a draft of the TRC legislation had been published. The substance of these submissions dealt with a wide array of issues raised in the legislation. The types of proposals raised in these submissions included the need for the bill (and the operation of the TRC) to make provision for:
- Public education regarding the work of the commission (especially to deal with false expectations)
- Counselling services for victims
- Counselling services for TRC staff
- Training for TRC staff in trauma management
- Victim-offender mediation
- Restricting amnesties to a minimum
- Strengthening victims' role in the TRC process
- Strengthening victims' rights to reparations
- Demanding that all hearings be public
- Punitive measures to be taken against perpetrators
The position of NGOs in these submissions was broadly supportive of the idea of setting up the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, but most were critical of certain aspects of the draft bill. A critical area in the initial draft was the question of closed-door hearings of the amnesty committee. This was particularly strongly opposed. After initial written submissions, a number of organisations also made oral submissions at the public hearing held by the Parliamentary Committee on Justice. At these hearings, NGOs specifically targeted the provision for in-camera hearings as anathema to the goals of truth and reconciliation.8
After the legislation was passed, NGOs also made an input on the selection of the commissioners. While the legislation provided for the commissioners to be appointed by the State President, the selection process had not been stipulated. A selection process drafted by the NGO coalition on the TRC in Gauteng was released at a press conference and then presented to Justice Minister Dullah Omar. The Minister accepted this proposal with only minor changes. As a result, the selection process was one which allowed for significant input by NGOs and the public.
According to the Promotion of National Unity and Reconciliation Act, the criteria considered for the selection of commissioners demanded individuals who had a strong commitment to human rights and people who were not seen as connected to political parties in a high profile capacity. Nominations for commissioners were open to the public and 299 names were submitted. The vast majority of these came from NGOs. A selection committee then interviewed these nominees in public, then forwarded a shortlist to the State President. President Mandela, in consultation with cabinet, then made the final selection.
In this process NGO networks were active in nominating and motivating for candidates. Before the public interviews (in which only selected nominees were interviewed), some NGOs also did profiles of the candidates in order to examine their suitability and assess their role in the political conflicts of the past. The NGO Coalition in Johannesburg was particularly active in this regard and researched the backgrounds of many nominees through examining newspaper archives. Specific questions to ask in the interviews were also proposed to the interview panel to guide them in determining relevant selection criteria.
While this picture is one of broad NGO involvement, the networks that made an input were often essentially driven by one or two more dominant organisations, with fairly limited input by most of the members, particularly those without a specific truth commission focus in their organisation. One quote expressed a common sentiment among interviewees:
We attended NGO Coalition meetings, but did not have a unique role. Our input was mainly just to endorse the collective submissions that had been drafted.9
Some of the individuals involved in these lobbying networks also did not bring an organisational mandate, as many of the organisations involved did not take clear positions other than being broadly supportive of the TRC idea. This was particularly the case among those conflict resolution organisations that did participate in the networks. On the other hand, human rights organisations saw the TRC as an initiative that directly impacted on and overlapped with their work (e.g. monitoring abuses, facilitating access to justice, promoting a human rights culture).
Conflict resolution organisations were however ambivalent about whether the TRC would have much impact on their scope of work. Reconciliation, according to these organisations was never seriously considered as a part of the TRC's role. While some feel that this is a gap that could have been addressed by more concerted lobbying by conflict resolution organisations, others feel that the agenda driving the TRC was fundamentally a political one that did not provide scope for introducing conflict resolution processes.
Mental health organisations anticipated extensive repercussions of the TRC's work, particularly for victims and survivors of human rights abuses. The mental health organisations expressed a deep concern that the basic concept of the TRC was a political compromise arrangement that only addressed individual victims' psychological needs as an afterthought. It was felt by many that while the activities of a TRC could fundamentally impact both positively and negatively on the mental health of victims, the process of victims' recovery was not at the centre of the policy debate that fed into the formation of the TRC. Rather, the TRC was essentially established to deal with the obligation to grant amnesty and build a collective national memory. The focus was on national rather than personal healing, in their perspective.
Constraints on NGO Involvement in Conceptualisation and Lobbying
Organisations interviewed had ambivalent feelings about their role in the conceptualisation and lobbying process. Some saw it as a very transparent and participative process that allowed them adequate influence, while others felt that they had not been given sufficient space to make a contribution. However, on assessment, as a process of developing legislation, the Promotion of National Unity and Reconciliation Act was considerably more open to public input than had been the norm. The development of South Africa's TRC legislation was also considerably more democratic, with significantly broader input from NGOs in comparison to other countries that have established truth commissions.
Some organisations actively pursued a role in the process and found that there was room for their input. However, other organisations felt that they were not consulted and could not make input because they were not kept informed of developments. For many organisations it was also their first experience of directly engaging with the legislative process. It thus presented a steep learning curve. The difficulty and opportunities of the lobbying process was experienced as challenging by most. One interviewee described this challenge as follows:
The process was open, but there are many constraints on one's ability to engage in serious lobbying. It requires sustained energy and resources for you to have any real impact. NGOs are generally not equipped for such a process, and CBOs are even less … . With the lobbying process we learned that it was not enough just to go knock on the door. While it was easy to get the door opened, you had to keep on going back and build a relationship with the gatekeepers. It was an open process for those who had the capacity to keep on coming back.10
A number of constraints limited the capacity of NGOs to engage in such a process. These are expanded upon below.
Shifting the lobbying focus
Given the history of South Africa, it is clear that NGOs are used to operating within a framework of opposition and protest or as community service providers. Lobbying a government whose principles NGOs largely agreed with required a completely new orientation. Some NGOs have struggled to make this shift. According to one interviewee:
Conflict resolution NGOs should have done more lobbying. In this arena we do not have enough confidence. We have something to offer and the state is not aware of what we can contribute. We do not have the skills to make the state aware of what we have.11
Such a strategy required NGOs to envision alternative policy approaches and evaluate what types of arguments and pressures within the parameters of a democratic context, would promote the acceptance of these proposals.
Lobbying in the new South Africa also requires different skills and alternative financial, organisational and networking resources from those functions traditionally served by NGOs in the past. Some NGOs attempted to engage their constituencies (marginalised communities and CBOs) in the process of policy debates but found this extremely difficult. When it came to particular issues (e.g. secrecy of hearings or reparations) it was easier to elicit a clear response and present this to the legislature. However, on broad policy matters that often involved complex legal issues, it proved more difficult to engage communities effectively.
Peace NGOs also generally do not have funding specifically set aside for lobbying activities.
In part this is reflective of a new funding environment where there appears to be a trend towards funders allocating funding to very clearly defined projects. Funders do not look favourably at projects that do not have concrete outputs, and often lobbying work can fall into this category. NGOs have also been pushed to pursue projects that generate income, something that the TRC was unlikely to provide (except in relation to specific limited projects).
Strategic planning by NGOs
Many NGOs became involved in the TRC in a somewhat ad hoc way. They would send representatives to coalition meetings, send staff for statement taking training, or send staff to observe hearings without any clear plans regarding their organisation's role in relation to the TRC. This led to limited engagement with the process that proved to be relatively frustrating for some organisations. Nonetheless, the fact that these organisations supported coalition efforts at lobbying should be recognised as significant. This contribution is discussed in the next section.
There were however a few organisations, particularly in the human rights field that developed clear engagement strategies and a TRC programme. This allowed them to position themselves and build capacity in order to anticipate developments around the TRC. While some of these plans came to naught, the process of engaging in policy research and strategic analysis allowed these NGOs to develop a respected voice in the policy debates.
Scope for NGO/civil society input
NGOs who pro-actively engaged with the legislative development process generally managed to gain access to relevant information and discussion forums. However, invitations to such events were not always inclusive and often invitations would arrive very late. Some NGOs remain resentful that the process was not sufficiently consultative and that they were not invited to preparative meetings and workshops. It is however not just the 'exclusion' of individual NGOs that concerned some interviewees, it was also the broader exclusion of civil society that concerned them.
Those NGOs who did try to build broader community input into the process found this very difficult. They were also frustrated by the fact that this burden was left to them without outside assistance. The legislative development process facilitators (Justice in Transition, the Department of Justice and Parliamentary Justice Committee) were not seen as providing any assistance in empowering community-based organisations to engage in the policy process. The reason for this lack of assistance was seen by some as the political agenda driving the legislation. It was thus criticised as a political deal that allowed little scope for NGO influence, except where it conveniently overlapped with political agendas.
However, on some level, it does seem quite misplaced to expect that the Ministry and the parliamentary system (or a small NGO such as Justice in Transition) could, in a short space of time, build the capacity of civil society to engage effectively in a complex legislative process.
In retrospect though it is clear that, due to its urgency, technical complexity and resource requirements, the policy engagement process was placed beyond the grasp of some NGOs and their CBO constituencies. The result was that only larger NGOs, and those who had the capacity to manage to overcome these problems, were able to engage relatively effectively with the development process of the TRC (e.g. CSVR, LRC, LHR, and Black Sash).
NGO impact on conceptualisation and lobbying
On the whole, it is clear that NGOs played diverse roles in the conceptualising and lobbying process. For those who managed to carve out a role for themselves and their coalitions to access the legislative process, some gains were made and the legislation was shaped by the NGO agendas. However, it does appear that the majority of NGOs saw this process as being steered by a select group of NGOs and Justice in Transition that only mobilised a limited number of people. Some groups were highly critical of the process headed by Justice in Transition, perceiving it as facilitating a deal between the old and the new government that mainly evolved around issues of power and money, with little community focus.
Those who felt that they were able to make an impact were those who worked directly within the political machinations of the time. For example, where the ANC were reluctant to fight very aggressively with the National Party on certain issues (because of their commitment to the Government of National Unity), NGOs that did not operate with the same constraints were able to build public support for their proposals and challenge the legislature quite effectively. The clearest example of this was the issue of public versus in-camera amnesty hearings. The nature of the issue (clear-cut contrast of options) also allowed greater engagement by 'non-experts.' The voices of victims could thus be mobilised very effectively by NGOs and, as was noted earlier, it was this very process that gave the initial impetus to the development of the Khulumani Victim Support Group.12
Another significant impact by NGOs was on the selection of Commissioners, both in terms of the process as well as the individuals selected. The selection process was one for which the NGO Coalition on the TRC was directly credited, while it also presented a process that allowed for effective public input. The nominations, support for candidates and critique of candidates were all seen as effective NGO lobbying that did influence the process. Some of this impact was however circumvented when the names of the shortlisted candidates were given to the State President, and he appointed two commissioners (Adv Denzil O. Potgieter and Revd Dr Khoza M. Mgojo) who had not been nominated, interviewed or short-listed. The NGO impact was thus, albeit to a limited degree, undermined at the final hurdle.
It is particularly on the issues where political and NGO agendas did not overlap that NGOs felt the most marginalised. Time and time again it was noted that the psychological needs of victims and local community dynamics appeared peripheral to the policy debates and political manoeuvring involved in establishing the TRC. A number of people ironically commented that they found it easier dealing with the formal political process of parliament rather than the unclear agendas of the Justice in Transition process, even though this process was supposedly a channel for NGO involvement. One source of frustration was confusion about the relationship between Justice in Transition and the Ministry of Justice. Some respondents built up unrealistic expectations of what Justice in Transition should deliver based on the belief that they were acting on behalf (and with the direct backing) of the Ministry.
Most of the NGOs also only developed a voice at the point where the draft legislation had already been developed, and they felt that their concerns were merely appended to the basic framework, rather than being incorporated as essential principles. Often, these were the tentative gains that became the first casualties of budget and time constraints encountered by the TRC once it started operating.
Conflict resolution NGOs were the ones who expressed the greatest regret at not engaging more pro-actively in the policy-making process. At times, they also laid the blame at their own doors saying that they should have had a clearer TRC agenda:
If the conflict resolution NGOs were more involved in conceptualising the TRC, it would have been more balanced. The TRC would have taken more responsibility to work with and be sensitive to the needs of victims … . The focus was more on the election. When we realised where the TRC was going, it was already too late.13
If there was more conflict resolution involvement in the conceptualisation it would have led to a process that engaged perpetrators more effectively. By addressing their needs as well it would have managed to draw more out of them.14
Despite the significant role that was played by NGOs, it does seem that their involvement in the conceptualisation and drafting process was not as extensive as it could have been, and certainly not nearly what they would have liked it to have been. Some NGOs did manage, often through their own persistence, to shape the process significantly, but on the whole the drafting and conceptualising process could not be said to be mainly a civil society product. This would turn out to have long-term implications. The words of one respondent highlight some of the consequences the limited NGO involvement would have:
The TRC has been good at revealing the truth. The reconciliation side of things appears to be almost an afterthought that was tagged on. The NGO community's involvement at various stages of the process could have contributed to build up the reconciliation side of the TRC's work.15
Role of NGOs in Activities of the TRC
Types of relationships developed between NGOs and the TRC
While the process of conceptualisation and lobbying revolved around NGO relationships with Justice in Transition, the Ministry of Justice and the National Parliament, once the TRC was established, NGOs had to engage with a completely new structure. The legislation that was developed had not set out any parameters for NGO involvement in the activities of the TRC. The NGOs who had engaged in the policy formulation and lobbying process had developed expectations around how they could interact with the TRC. Once the TRC was set up, and its structures and processes became clarified, additional NGOs also identified possible roles they could play. Most of these expectations were however thwarted in the months that followed.
The relationship between the TRC and NGOs was never clearly delineated, and despite numerous attempts from both sides to form more substantial relationships, these initiatives were seldom concretised. The relationships and interactions that did unfold were very uneven among different regions and were often quite informal in nature. Many NGOs also felt that the TRC did not have their interests at heart despite the TRC making public statements to that effect. As a result, NGOs were often left feeling used, excluded or simply ignored:
The TRC approached us because they wanted to access our resources and skills. They were not interested in developing partnerships. They required sailors to come help on their boat.16
The TRC sought NGO involvement because they saw it as a cheap way of accessing social skills. They saw it as an alternative to developing their internal capacity.17
In retrospect, TRC interviewees also expressed regret at their inability to develop strong working relationships with NGOs. While many had the intention of nurturing these relationships, they found themselves with an enormous task to accomplish in a short space of time. The day-to-day deadlines pushed them into a crisis-oriented mode of operation rather the prioritisation of policies, structures and relationships. Alex Boraine admits that this was a problem of insufficient prior planning:
The TRC was thus established without sufficient planning. We started with nothing – we had to learn to run in a very short space of time. Once we got going we also could not slow down to allow others to catch up … . The process suffered because of the quick transition from the legislation to the establishment of a state body. We were often forced to rely on individual consultations with colleagues and friends rather than organisational networks. The relationship with NGOs suffered because they were left behind in this quick transition and the rapid momentum of the TRC.18
There was however also criticism from the TRC that NGOs were not sufficiently pro-active in this process:
NGOs were also at fault in often sitting back and not getting involved. They sometimes were reluctant to take the initiative. In stead they waited to be asked to make an input.19
NGOs needed to take more initiative. They should have realised that the TRC was not going to fall all over itself to work with them.20
Although some NGOs would share this perspective to some degree, their perspectives on the complexity of the problems of the relationships between the TRC and NGOs varied. The specifics of some of these concerns, and how NGOs contributed to the TRC are discussed below.
Strategising and information sharing
The TRC organised a few workshops specifically aimed at clarifying roles and relationships between the TRC and NGOs, and to keep civil society informed of the TRC's systems and plans. NGOs brought a range of expectations to the table, as did the TRC. Each sub-sector (e.g. counselling organisations, legal structures, victim's groups, etc.) had different needs and proposals regarding their potential interaction with the TRC.
While some felt that not enough effort was made to make these workshops sufficiently inclusive,21 there was generally a sense that positive plans were developed. However, the central criticism was that most of these plans did not come to fruition. This, in the opinion of NGOs, was to become a regular pattern of jointly planning extensive systems that never got implemented by the TRC or through joint work. This was, at times, put down to disorganisation within the TRC.
In addition, certain NGOs also organised their own workshops around the TRC either to clarify the relationship between NGOs and the TRC, or to strategise around certain areas of TRC work. The outcome of the wider NGO workshops was similar to those held by the TRC: positive plans that were never carried forward. The reason for this was largely laid at the door of the TRC for not creating sufficient space for NGO involvement in all programmes of the TRC. On the whole, however, smaller NGO workshops were much more successful and pressured the TRC to recreate similar workshops in their own offices.22
Channels for NGO input on TRC understanding
One of the TRC-civil society workshop initiatives that was implemented was a series of research seminars in Cape Town. It was a project in which regular seminars were convened to provide space for joint reflection on a number of critical issues such as truth, reconciliation, economic justice, the appeals court judgement on the procedures, and perpetrator rehabilitation. While it did not engage directly in concrete policy issues it provided the TRC staff with space and feedback to reflect on their work. Similar workshops were run by the TRC on different topics in the other offices. These were, however, more ad hoc in nature, sometimes poorly organised and selective in their invitations.
Elicited NGO assistance
The pattern of NGO-TRC interaction was generally one of NGOs initiating ideas and pushing the TRC to engage in a joint process. There were however a few cases where the TRC identified a need and then approached NGOs for assistance. However, in most cases, these projects were launched or conceptualised by NGOs before the beginning of the TRC.
Examples of this include:
NGOs handed over their records of human rights violation to the TRC to be incorporated in a national database23 – this project was initiated before the TRC and completed solely by NGOs before the TRC began.
NGO staff were trained (and sometimes used) as statement takers and community briefers (emotional and counselling support providers to those testifying at hearings) – again this was a key idea lobbied for by NGOs before the life of the TRC and motivated in various NGO submissions.
NGO staff were called on to provide back-up support to briefers at hearings, particularly in debriefing sessions after the hearings.
NGOs were requested to provide training for TRC and community briefers, and also to develop training programmes for them.
The Religious Response to the TRC was invited to formulate a programme for children who were too young to testify at a public hearing. The children were instead involved in drawing, storytelling and sharing experiences with one another.
Some conflict resolution organisations were requested by the TRC to facilitate internal TRC meetings and workshops. The role was however only to make process suggestions rather than substantive input.
Some NGOs were also called on to provide policy input on particular issues addressed by the TRC, such as witness protection, reparations and rehabilitation policies.
Two staff members from the Centre for Applied Legal Studies (CALS) were repeatedly contracted to give legal opinions on certain TRC legal issues.
Many of these examples however only occurred in specific regional TRC offices. All these NGO contributions to the TRC were made without financial compensation. There were a few instances identified where the TRC contracted NGOs to provide specific services:
Trauma Centre for Victims of Torture and other organisations in other regions were contracted to provide counselling for TRC staff.
The Centre for Conflict Resolution (CCR) was contracted to provided conflict handling training for TRC staff working in communities.
A staff member from CSVR was contracted part-time for three months to assist in setting up the TRC database.
NGO staff recruited by the TRC
Some NGOs contributed involuntarily through the employment of their staff by the TRC. The TRC were able to employ senior NGO staff who had been engaged in many of the policy and lobbying work and were thus very familiar with many of the key issues facing the TRC.
NGO submissions to TRC
One area that some NGOs used quite extensively (and were, in turn, used by the TRC) was the sectoral hearings held by the TRC. Peace NGOs made submissions in a number of these hearings. It is anticipated that some of these inputs will be reflected in the final report and recommendations. Submissions were made by NGOs in the Health Sector Hearing, Legal Sector Hearing, Conscription Hearing, and Gender Hearing, Children's Hearing, and Religious Sector Hearing. The hearings that occurred well into the life of the TRC improved the relationships between the TRC and NGOs considerably. There is an indication that these so-called contextual submissions have been particularly useful in creating a broader picture of the operations of the apartheid system. The submissions received have undoubtedly helped shape the TRC final report. In addition, these hearings have mobilised those within these sectors (media, legal, health, etc.) to engage with the TRC process to a greater degree than in other areas of the TRC's work with NGOs.
Parallel services provided by NGOs
Given the lack of substantial NGO-TRC relationships, and the failure in implementing joint projects, many NGOs did TRC support work independently. Several NGOs took the initiative to implement programmes on their own that were funded by foreign donors. This, in some cases, was done reluctantly, because they had previously anticipated doing the work in partnership with the TRC.
These initiatives, amongst others, included:
- development and provision of counselling and referral services for victims who went to the TRC;
- the development and support of victim support groups and victim support group structures;
- public education for communities on the operation of the TRC;
- victim-offender mediation services;
- the offering of legal services to victims;
- welfare work for victims, e.g. providing blankets, food, etc.
There were also initiatives undertaken by NGOs that essentially duplicated certain activities of the TRC. The NGO approach, however was to extend and deepen the hearings undertaken by the TRC. The TRC was praised by most NGOs for essentially doing the right thing, but doing it too superficially. These initiatives, such as the development of victim-support groups, community hearings, and workshops where people shared their stories of abuses were attempts by NGOs and churches at building on the momentum of the TRC process and allowing those who were not afforded an opportunity to testify publicly to the TRC to participate more fully.24 Church groups were particularly involved in these sorts of activities at the local community level. NGOs have also participated in assisting internal reconciliation processes that were inspired by the involvement of certain institutions in the TRC.25
NGO monitoring of TRC
Some NGOs were also active in monitoring the operation of the TRC to ensure that they remained accountable to communities and to the principles that NGOs had fought for in the lobbying phase. This proved to be extremely difficult. As with civil society's general relationship to the new government, there were inherent tensions involved in NGOs' multiple roles as critic, supporter, watchdog and partner. It was particularly this 'watchdog' function that was not well received by the TRC.26 For example, the Religious Response to the TRC made a submission after the first Cape Town hearing that they thought included some positive criticisms, but received a somewhat hostile response from the TRC to their input.
In a more adversarial line, the Khulumani Victim Support Group organised a picket at the Johannesburg TRC office at the start of the TRC, because they felt the TRC had not adequately informed victims about the work of the TRC or the implications of amnesty for them before it started hearings. The close affiliation between Khulumani and CSVR resulted in CSVR receiving hostile communications directly from some Commissioners. This strained the relationship between CSVR and the TRC thereafter. Similarly, certainly in the early phases of the TRC, the victims' families who opposed the amnesty provisions in court received very strong reactions from the TRC. These sorts of reactions from the TRC did, however, seem to ease up as the process developed.
Ad-hoc research requests and assistance
Many NGOs received phone calls or visits from TRC staff requesting research assistance. Most of these requests resulted in NGOs sending their publications to the TRC. However, there were also many requests which required more work, such as compiling a new set of statistics or drawing together information for the first time. Most NGOs were eager to assist the TRC and set about fulfilling these requests as top priority, despite none of this work being paid. Some saw these ad-hoc requests as the beginning of more formal working relationships between themselves and the TRC research department.
These relationships however never moved beyond informal relationships between individual TRC staff members and certain NGOs. The nature of the requests remained ad-hoc even as their numbers increased as more individual TRC researchers from all four offices started to realise that NGOs often had a wealth of information at their fingertips. For example, the Human Rights Committee received so many requests for information that they ultimately had to designate one of their staff members full-time to fulfilling them. Despite this the HRC felt that the TRC as a structure had never recognised the time and the effort they had put into meeting TRC needs.
Some research NGOs also felt frustrated because they could not see if their efforts were making any impact. Perhaps this will become more apparent in the final report.
Eighteen months into the process, the TRC raised money to pay NGOs and church structures to take statements. Albeit late in the day, this was very well received and was viewed as a creative method of supporting increasingly cash-strapped NGOs, whilst clearly bolstering the work of the TRC. The delay in this process was in part financial, but within the TRC, political differences also hampered the establishment of a civil society or NGO driven statement-taking programme. Some Commissioners were reticent to have NGOs who were traditionally politically aligned (or at least sympathetic to the liberation struggle in South Africa) taking statements, as they felt the TRC may be accused of bias, and some Commissioners probably even felt these organisations may take partial statements. Nonetheless, the programme, when it did start operating, seemed successful.
On the negative side, because the statement-taking initiative by so-called Designated Statement-Takers (i.e. those in communities and NGOs not formally employed by the TRC) was not placed within the frame of a national civic involvement programme, statement-takers often operated as individuals. In a few instances their work was used for personal financial gain, (albeit limited in most cases) and not to increase civil involvement in the TRC process by entire organisations or sectors.
The TRC made extensive use of church and CBO networks when setting up Human Rights Violations Hearings in local communities. Through the South African Council of Churches (SACC) and other religious networks, local ministers and CBO staff were drawn into the process of coordinating meetings, arranging publicity, statement taking and other crucial functions to ensure effective community engagement in the hearings. This process was not always clearly planned and the mandate given to local committees was not always explained sufficiently clearly. While it ensured much greater community involvement, it did at times also lead to confusion and resentment. This was the case where local community actors attempted to take on certain tasks and responsibilities that the TRC would not relinquish.
Constraints on NGOs Engagement with the TRC Process
The inability of NGOs to engage effectively with the TRC was due to a range of factors, some internal to the NGO sector, and others due to the structure and mode of operation of the TRC.
In terms of problems internal to the NGO sector, the main ones were funding, lack of co-ordination, lack of marketing, wariness of loosing their impartial status, and co-option of key staff members. Problems that NGOs experienced with the TRC were its framework of operation, political agenda, internal management structures and political tension within the organisation that affected the relationship between NGOs and the TRC. These problems are expanded upon below.
Interviewees in this study confirmed that NGOs do not have much manoeuvrability in terms of selecting which projects they engage in as their funding is generally tied to specific projects. This does not allow short term re-strategising to address newly emerging issues and priorities. For example:
IDASA could have taken on TRC issues in its work, but the existing projects were already fairly well established, and it would have been difficult to re-orientate them to engage with these issues.28
Many NGOs felt that the TRC did not provide any assistance when they did try to raise additional funds to take on TRC related work. NGOs approached the TRC for letters of support that they could attach with their proposals to funders, but were mostly turned down. The TRC's argument was that they would compromise their impartiality if they supported certain projects and not others. This was a frustration experienced by several NGOs. Hamber, Mofokeng and Simpson (1997) capture this when they reflect on the relationship between NGOs and the TRC:
The unfortunate irony is that these NGOs were probably marginalised because of their past track records of commitment to human rights – a disposition which under apartheid had led to a natural sympathy and affiliation with liberation and resistance movements. This allowed elements within the TRC to easily construe these NGOs as being politically biased, which in turn threatened the already delicate internal balance within the Commission. This also fed concerns over accusations that the TRC may be biased against former governmental operatives who may have been involved in gross human rights abuses. This inhibited the TRC from interacting with various organs of civil society and particularly with NGOs freely for fear of being accused of bias.29
Lack of co-ordinated response by NGOs
As in the lobbying process there was a lack of sufficient strategic planning by NGOs regarding their role, either individually or collectively. The result was a fairly ad-hoc approach of engaging with the TRC when gaps arose, and some organisations committing resources (because of their principled support for the process) without a clear conception of the goals that were being pursued.30 The process was further undermined at the start of the TRC when several key people who had pulled NGOs together prior to the TRC also left those NGOs to work for the TRC. It took time to re-mobilise these efforts and expertise.
The TRC-oriented networks that had been established prior to the TRC also had difficulty adjusting to a new role of critical engagement (especially when this was not welcomed). Many organisations that felt strongly about the lobbying process did not see a clear role in the operation of the TRC. Many had high expectations of what the TRC would deliver and did not anticipate the need for NGO input to make sure these expectations were upheld. This was summed up by some interviewees:
The NGO coalition should have remained active through the life of the TRC. It could have played a strong role in interfacing between the TRC and the public. This would have been particularly significant in terms of developing strategy for any follow-though work beyond the TRC. The NGO Coalition on the TRC should also have maintained a monitoring role to keep the TRC accountable and prevent it from engaging in political compromises. NGOs should, for example, have spoken up on issues such as the blanket amnesty. NGOs should have a voice, but this is only possible through some coordinated body.31
Lack of active marketing of services by NGOs
Staff members of conflict resolution NGOs felt marginalised, particularly after their high profile in the pre-election period and the election process. The TRC further exacerbated this perception, as it did not actively solicit conflict resolution input in many cases. The need for active marketing of conflict resolution skills in the TRC process was not sufficiently anticipated. As one conflict resolution NGO staff member commented:
The conflict resolution field should have clarified to the TRC what skills they have that can be utilised by the TRC.32
Wariness of being too connected to the TRC
Some NGOs anticipated that the TRC process would not be well received by some of the constituencies with whom they worked, particularly IFP and PAC communities and those victims who were critical of the granting of amnesty. They were thus reluctant to be seen to be working too closely with the TRC as this would negatively impact on their image as impartial or politically unaligned. As one NGO worker commented:
We do not want to be seen as too closely associated with the TRC as some of the constituencies we work with reject the TRC as being biased.33
This was not only a political consideration though. Some treated the processes used by the TRC with some wariness, particularly in respect to the contexts or constituencies with whom they worked such as ex-combatants. For some of these groups, the TRC is viewed as a process that is not so much about reconciliation as it is about exposing the actions of certain parties or individuals. These groups thus question the sincerity of the TRC's commitment to reconciliation. One NGO staff member, for example felt:
In doing work on reconciliation, linking too closely with the TRC would be problematic because the TRC also brings up other things in people's minds (that are not seen as reconciliation-oriented). Their actions are also widely contested. It would thus not be a good entry point to deal with the basic concepts around reconciliation.34
TRC staff co-option
The TRC recruited extensively from civil society and many skilled personnel from the NGO sector were employed directly by the TRC when it began and during the course of its work. For example, almost all of the NGO staff that worked on TRC related matters in Gauteng prior to its establishment were employed by the TRC when it began. It was generally those NGO staff with the most knowledge and those with extensive personal networks that were lost to the TRC. While some NGOs anticipated a closer working relationship with the TRC due to their staff having been employed at the TRC, the impact seems to have rather been a reduction in capacity of NGOs to engage with the TRC.
Many NGOs had to rebuild their capacity to engage effectively with the process. Those organisations most involved in the initial lobbying process for a TRC were often the most severely effected. One strong example is the Human Rights Committee, which lost three out of its twelve employees to the TRC, including its National Director. It took them two years to replace their Director and to rebuild organisational capacity to previous levels.
Basic framework of the TRC
Many NGOs also felt that the TRC simply was not interested in rendering the types of services that these NGOs felt should be prioritised. NGOs outside the human rights sector often felt that the framework of the TRC was seen as being based on a legalistic framework that emphasises investigation, and the use of rights-based mechanisms and procedures. In this respect the TRC was seen as acting within a framework that regarded the interests of the NGOs as peripheral, and disregarded the social support work that dealt directly with victims and addressed grass-roots conflict resolution. This is captured in the words of some NGO staff:
The TRC is essentially a legal structure. The healing stuff was tacked on at the end. When funding becomes tight in the TRC, the first thing they cut is psychological services35
The TRC was set up to deal with human rights issues. They are not about dealing with the conflict. It operates within the litigation and punishment framework that has a human rights orientation. It addresses the legal issues such as amnesty but does not deal with psychological needs.36
TRC's political agenda
Many NGOs felt that their input was ignored by the TRC, as it did not fit in with the political agendas that dominated the TRC's work. The TRC was often seen, in the eyes of NGOs, as a 'political game' that was weighted towards dealing with the power dynamics of the broader society, rather than the constituencies whose needs they claimed to be addressing. Several NGOs came away from the TRC process feeling disillusioned. On reflection, many felt somewhat naive in thinking they could make an impact on a process that was ultimately driven by national political agendas.
TRC's management structure
The TRC had a complex internal management system. It was headed by 17 Commissioners, had three fairly independent Committees, different regional management systems and over 200 staff members nationally. NGOs who engaged with the TRC, found it hard to understand with whom they had to talk to in order to have decisions made. This was more apparent in the early phases of the TRC.
NGOs complained that decisions were often referred to higher authorities within the TRC without any clear response being given to the NGO involved. Many decisions were also referred to meetings of the Commissioners that did not happen frequently enough to deal with the multiplicity of responsibilities that were left to this decision-making body. If a decision was blocked or simply never implemented, NGOs could often only speculate about the reasons and the individual(s) responsible. It was never clear with which higher authority the NGO should take up issues. In addition, NGOs – perhaps to their detriment – often built relationships with individual Commissioners. Often relations were particularly good with these individuals and even at times agreements would be reached on joint projects. However, the moment decisions were referred to a broader Commission meeting, consensus would not be reached by the Commissioners and the joint ideas or work would be dropped.
Political tensions within the TRC
TRC Commissioners did, in part, represent a political 'horse-trade' that ensured that Commissioners of different political persuasions were selected. This was a major factor in producing internal political tensions. These tensions also played out in the way the TRC engaged with NGOs. The TRC made great efforts to portray itself as politically impartial and was seemingly willing to compromise its ability to act effectively in order to maintain this image. Some Commissioners were suspicious of NGOs with a strong human rights background or those with experience working with grassroots organisations. Some of the Commissioners were also sceptical of NGOs that were seen as linked to traditionally white universities and where whites were perceived to dominate senior management positions. From another angle, more conservative Commissioners distrusted various NGOs because they were assumed to be too closely linked to the ANC.
As a result, the TRC was generally reluctant to engage with any NGOs for fear of being accused of working too closely with politically aligned groupings. An exception was when the TRC contracted the Freedom of Expression Institute to do some research on their behalf. The TRC was then severely criticised by Africanists and white conservatives for aligning itself with these 'white liberals'. These criticisms and tensions were played out both within the TRC as well as in public debates and in the newspapers. Other political tensions within the TRC were also played out publicly over the course of its work. The result was that the arms-length stance towards NGOs (and others) was re-enforced at times.
TRC's understanding of the conflict
Many NGOs perceived the TRC as approaching the conflicts of the past in a way that was not in line with certain NGO perspectives. NGOs have criticised the TRC's understanding of the conflict as being driven by the statements and submissions that it received. These are the TRC's officially defined primary sources of information on which it decided to base its reports. The result was a number of sources of information being left out. For example, the thousands of records and statements compiled by NGOs over the years have not been considered. Some NGOs are disconcerted by the fact that some sides to the conflict were reluctant to engage with the TRC (e.g. militarised youth have only been engaged to a limited degree) and, as a result, feel that their story will not be told adequately.
Many NGOs felt that the TRC approached the conflict in a very simplistic fashion using broad categories that obscured the complexity of the dynamics. The criticism raised by some NGOs is that the TRC was trying to cover everything but only superficially because of the parameters of its mandate. Perhaps this was unavoidable, but some NGOs felt that the TRC never really appreciate how superficial such an analysis was.
The TRC is also accused of not engaging with the local complexity of particular communities where they held hearings. Perhaps in reality they simply did not have the time and resources to do this. It also squeezed people into pre-defined categories of victims and offenders. This was seen as denying the complexity of how people see themselves and their roles in the conflict. Moreover, the TRC's focus was excessively on the political parties as the main stakeholders and divisions that related to political ideology. NGOs felt that this under-emphasised conflicts around economic injustices and stakeholders involved in conflicts over the distribution of resources. Stakeholders were only recognised when they formed into political parties.
Many NGOs also felt that the TRC's focus on gross human rights abuses of the past was not necessarily appropriate when trying to promote reconciliation within the present context. The narrow focus on only gross human rights violations rather than other more common violations that made up the day-to-day experiences of most blacks was also seen as potentially marginalising these experiences, and thus shifting the focus of attention to abuses that fall within the liberal framework of understanding the past.37
Some expressed concerns that there was not sufficient focus on ordinary white South Africans who benefited, but now do not take any responsibility. The focus on perpetrators rather than beneficiaries, it is said by some NGOs, lets many that should be held accountable off the hook. The TRC began to look at beneficiaries but only towards the end of its mandate.
The TRC's focus on the major divisions of the past, i.e., between blacks and whites – rather than those of the present was also seen as problematic. Their lack of concern for conflicts between Africans and coloureds in the Cape, for example was seen as, in fact, helping to obscure issues of ethnicity that desperately needed to be addressed.
A final concern raised by some NGOs was of a hierarchical body such as the TRC (with its own internally skewed distribution of power and resources) attempting to interpret and critique South Africa's past. They felt that the TRC had so effectively replicated the inequalities of the county's past in its own structure and operation that it would not be able to reflect critically on these broader issues of injustice.
In conclusion, it is important to note that the criticisms raised by NGOs about the TRC's view of the conflict reflects the interpretation that they gained from the TRC process (hearings, public comments, etc.). The TRC may express a more complex understanding of the conflicts of the past in its final report.
NGO Impact on TRC Operation
Engaging with the TRC as a body was found more problematic by most NGOs than the engagement with the lobbying process for the setting up of a truth commission. It seems that, despite initial progress and preparations, many initiatives simply did not amount to much once the TRC began. For example, in Gauteng about 35 mental health orientated organisations had expressed at a Conference their willingness to offer services to the TRC prior to its establishment. However, once the TRC began – despite several meetings being held by the TRC – most of the organisations felt that the TRC has not drawn them into the process or used their largely free services. A similar initiative in Cape Town seemed slightly more successful once the TRC began. On the research front, however, NGO work was used more substantially. NGOs provided support in the form of submissions and research assistance, are awaiting the TRC's Final Report to see if their work had been used (and acknowledged).
Where NGOs did implement projects related to the TRC, these were usually without the support of the TRC. An example of a serious failure at impacting on the TRC was the public education programme headed by CSVR (with several supporting partners like SACC and others) for which they tendered, but failed to get. In advance of the TRC's establishment, CSVR had developed a strong belief in the need for a public education programme that would ensure that the public had clear and realistic expectations regarding the TRC and knew how to access its services. Educational materials were developed and tested in the run up to the establishment of the Commission. A public education programme that involved a broad network of community and media structures was proposed to the TRC. The TRC however opted to engage the services of a professional advertising agency that had almost no direct community engagement component. It thus largely relied on a media profile rather than a public education programme, although a limited number of education workshops were run in communities. The CSVR continued to run a successful public education campaign with donor assistance in communities within Gauteng and neighbouring provinces (running well over 100 workshops during the life of the TRC), though on a much smaller scale than would have been possible with TRC funding. The workshops, nonetheless, have been instrumental in building the Khulumani Support Group.
One successful example of NGO impact on the TRC was in the area of gender issues. In the early months of the TRC, the Centre for Applied Legal Studies held a workshop around issues of gender and the TRC to which many key women's organisations and TRC staff were invited. Out of this successful workshop CALS produced a submission on the role of gender in the TRC which they presented at a larger follow-up workshop organised at the TRC offices. CALS considered their efforts in this area a success, as they were able to empower some TRC Commissioners to put the issue on the TRC agenda early into the life of the TRC. As a result they were able to push the TRC to do its own research in the area of gender, hold women's hearings and create statement-taking protocols which were gender sensitive. Yet even this initiative lost momentum in the last stages of the TRC process. Despite many stated intentions to do so, the TRC failed to bring on key CALS staff as gender consultants. CALS' staff, annoyed with the TRC's hesitance to bring them on board, soon focused on other areas of work. They await the final report to assess whether the TRC has written its report from a gender-sensitive perspective.
A crucial factor in many of the initiatives that did take off was the presence of personal contacts between NGO and TRC staff. Where an NGO person was contracted to provide counselling services to TRC staff, this, for example, also allowed for more effective involvement in other initiatives by that NGO. This was seen as a better channel of influence than other public processes. Many NGOs offered services connected to the TRC's activities (education, victim support, counselling, medical assistance, etc.) which were often perceived by the recipients as part of the TRC's activities, although almost all of these were funded by outside agencies or operated completely independently of the TRC. The impact was, in many ways, one of assisting the TRC in building a more 'victim-friendly' image than it would otherwise have had.38
In conclusion, however, it should be noted that the regional differences between the various TRC offices were also quite stark when it came to certain NGO relationships. Interviewees reported that the Cape Town office was, for example, more amenable and accommodating to NGO input than the Johannesburg office. Similarly, the NGO roles differed from city to city and were largely lacking when it came to rural areas where the TRC perhaps could have made the most of NGO offers of assistance.
TRC's Impact on NGOs
The TRC had a reciprocal impact on the NGOs with which it engaged, as well as more broadly on those that operate in fields related to the TRC. These are discussed in terms of 1) impact on existing NGO work, 2) impact on communities served by NGOs, and 3) impact on the broader context within which NGOs operate.
Impact on Existing NGO Work
While many TRC staff members felt that the work of the TRC had revealed previously obscured events and new potential avenues of healing that would allow NGOs to explore new opportunities in their work, peace NGOs involved in TRC-related work were somewhat less impressed by these new horizons. Most significant for the NGOs interviewed, was the public profile that the TRC received, the victims' hearings and the consequent broadening of acceptance of processes and issues (e.g. human rights) that they have been promoting for some time. Although the TRC did reveal new information, many NGOs felt that the 'truth' aspect of the TRC was limited and often only built on the findings of Goldstone Commission and the trial of Eugene de Kock. This, in retrospect, caused some NGOs to doubt whether the 'truth for justice' model did reveal enormous truths and to what degree this could successfully compensate for the granting of amnesty to murders and human rights violators. These issues remain debatable and expanded upon below.
Re-emphasise certain aspects of existing work
NGOs did not feel that the TRC made a dramatic contribution to developing new or innovative healing and reconciliation processes or techniques – although most were grateful for the public exposure of the process. This is based on the fact that the process of story telling is something that NGOs have been facilitating for some time, and have incorporated in their conflict resolution and therapeutic processes.
The TRC has not brought anything new to the fore. We have not changed our work because of anything new that the TRC has opened up. Mediation is essentially about story-telling. This is however just the start of a process.39
However, by popularising the process of story telling, the TRC was seen as contributing to unleashing a number of personal accounts that have not been given space for expression. As a result, some NGOs found it easier in the post-TRC phase to draw these stories out and build on them:
The TRC contributed to the unleashing of stories of trauma. People are more capable of talking now. It provides a clearer context and framework of meaning for talking about the past.40
It was also positively expressed that the way that the TRC has approached the issue of trauma has also facilitated some NGOs' ability to engage with victims in counselling:
The TRC has individualised the trauma – made it the story of a person, rather than the community. This is good because we (in South Africa) have individualised mechanisms of dealing with trauma and no community mechanisms. It has overcome reluctance of victims to raise their own suffering above others in their community. The TRC helped bring victims to the point where they realise they have psychological needs. Clients who come via the TRC are more focused – they have a context within which to make more sense of the healing process.41
Simultaneously the TRC was criticised for having made many assumptions about trauma. Commissioners, especially those who have had limited (or no) psychological experience or knowledge were criticised for talking about healing and psychological rehabilitation in rather simplistic terms. This, it was felt, obscuring the real issues and complexities of dealing with severe psychological issues. Thus, the TRC was praised for popularising the need for psychological support, which, to some degree is useful, but at the same time have created an expectation that healing is a simple linear process, or something readily remedied.
Public awareness for need for reconciliation
For some organisations the TRC served positively to re-emphasise the huge amount of work that still needs to be addressed in terms of reconciliation. It has made it clear that reconciliation has not yet been achieved and does require extensive further work by NGOs. This has, in the opinion of many, been useful and left the door open for more and necessary reconciliation work in the future. As one NGO worker noted:
The work of the TRC has created waves. They have created greater awareness among churches of the need to look at reconciliation. Churches are now confronted with how they engage their congregations in reconciliation processes.42
It is felt that the TRC, through its existence, has facilitated more extensive networking between NGOs. Some NGOs have developed new partners in the process of doing TRC-related work. These new partnerships have strengthened relationships between NGOs and the state structures, between NGOs and the private sector, and between traditional conflict resolution NGOs and welfare type organisations dealing with traumatised people as well as with organisations representing survivors. Yet, for others, it was felt that the TRC has contributed to maintaining existing networks inadvertently because it was merely the existence of the TRC, and not the TRC itself that was the conduit for setting up new networks.
Many NGOs expressed dismay that the TRC did not help clarify the issue of reconciliation. more extensively. Most conflict resolution NGOs still feel that the TRC does not have any internal clarity about what they mean by reconciliation even though they claim that this is a central area of their operation. This is experienced as frustrating as the TRC talks of reconciliation as a unifying and commonly understood concept. The TRC is criticised for never defining its vision of reconciliation in a public and accessible manner during its existence.
Ironically, organisations who had been able to develop their own conceptual grasp of the topic had largely developed their ideas based on the shortcomings of the TRC as much as its positive contributions. Many organisations are still sceptical of the concept of reconciliation as a useful term in developing theory:
At MPD we have never sat down and tried to demystify the concept. National reconciliation was previously part of our mission statement. We dropped it because it was something that we could not unpack and concretise.43
While one person complained that the TRC has absorbed funding that may otherwise have gone to NGOs doing related work, most interviewees felt that the TRC's activities had created greater possible funding for NGOs to do work in related areas in the future:
The TRC has put reconciliation on the agenda. It has not clarified what reconciliation means but it has identified a definite gap that needs to be addressed. Now that the truth is out, there are two options: drawing a laager44 and revenge, or a facilitation of a new relationship that looks at constructive options of the future.45
The work of TRC has raised awareness among some funders of the work that still lies ahead. We use the analogy of apartheid being like a rock that has been removed and now all the problems that were covered are exposed. The TRC's work validates this understanding. The TRC also creates greater awareness of the less visible aspects of peace and development. It is not just about building houses and stopping the killing. It is about the importance of attitudes and relationships that have to addressed.46
Again these attitudes support the notion that the TRC has opened up a range of fields, possibilities and areas of work, more through its process than through direct support.
TRC Impact on Communities Served by NGOs
While most NGOs felt that overall the TRC was making a positive contribution to social change in South Africa, there were many concerns raised about the TRC's impact on individual communities. The TRC was often portrayed as descending on a community, stirring up emotion and trauma and then moving on without leaving any process in place to deal with the turbulence that it leaves in its wake. It was noted that there was the very real danger that revealing truth can lead to more anger and deeper divisions, for example:
The TRC goes into a community like a circus. They open up the past and then leave the sores open. They do not provide any assistance in healing these sores. Peace organisations are the ones who have the skills to help with this.47
The TRC has helped unleash stories of trauma, but because of their limited time frame and resources they did not put anything in place to deal with these open wounds. There is now a big vacuum. They made no plans to fill this need. They should have communicated with NGOs on developing a coordinated strategy. It is ridiculous.48
The TRC has generated social and political conflict. This was to be expected because, in our circumstances, the goal of truth and reconciliation are often contradictory. Uncovering details of past abuses gives rise to hostility from both perpetrators and survivor communities. This is unavoidable and has to be managed in ways which lie outside the TRC's mandate.49
The TRC used individuals' stories of trauma as a doorway to reveal national truth and trauma, but individuals' needs were not addressed.50
Nevertheless, the process of unleashing the stories, revealing the hidden traumas and uncovering latent tensions was also painted as a positive contribution in that it has started the ball rolling. It is unequivocal, however, that the lack of co-ordination between the TRC and NGOs has not always allowed for effective follow through where NGOs could pick up on the community needs identified through the TRC process. It is felt that there is now a window of opportunity for NGOs to step in and do more effective intervention work with these communities, but the lack of hand-over strategy (that should have been devised at a very early stage), or the question of whether NGOs have the capacity to do this, has still not been addressed.
TRC's Impact on National Context within which NGOs Operate
A number of areas were outlined where the impact of the TRC process has had both positive and negative outcomes for the environment in which NGOs work. These are outlined below.
Breaking the silence
It was positively expressed by many that the TRC helped break the silence about human rights abuses in the past. In South Africa it is indisputable that a large proportion of the population have been exposed to the atrocities of the past that have been brought to the fore by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). The Special Report on the TRC had about 1.2 million television viewers weekly and coverage in the press and on the radio was fairly extensive. Certainly, in the urban areas almost the entire population must have been exposed to the work of the TRC and consequently the stories of victims. This is less certain in the rural areas. It was considered critical by most NGOs that the act of speaking out had been very powerful in breaking the silence of the past. It has made it impossible to deny the systematic and inhuman nature of the repression of the apartheid government. It has also given victimised people a sense of recognition and acknowledgement.
Human rights culture
Human rights organisations were generally positive about the potential contribution made by the TRC in helping to build a human rights culture. While a basic premise of the TRC was that of granting amnesty to perpetrators, its overall operation was seen as something that contributed to a belief in the rule of law, even if only through illustrating what happens when there is no rule of law. While perpetrators were not prosecuted, the amnesty hearings are seen as a process that still held them accountable, making them explain their actions (in terms of the logic of the past) and soliciting statements of remorse and apology from many of them. The TRC has also built greater national consensus around the rejection of such abuses and made human rights a household concept. These contributions were viewed as positive.
This work on human rights is however only seen by most NGOs as a starting point. NGOs are still required to carry the process through:
NGOs still have to take it one step further. They have to take what has come out of the TRC and translate it into human rights terms. The story has to be told in relation to its human rights implications.51
However, the unanswered question is to what degree this human rights knowledge about the political violations of the past transposes to different contexts. In the months April-July 1997 it was reported by the Independent Complaints Directorate (ICD) that 255 people died in police custody or due to police action in South Africa.52 These figures are of grave concern and may point to ongoing levels of impunity in the police service. Vigilantism is also on the increase, the majority of South Africans support capital punishment and frequently you will hear people, and the police, blame the new human rights era for the rise in crime in the country.
In essence, human rights education and knowledge remains appallingly low in South Africa with regard to current issues. The TRC may have, for example, contributed to showing that torturing political dissidents is wrong but it is likely that the majority of South Africans do not see torturing criminals as the same type of violation and probably do not see deaths in police custody as problematic, if the person was a suspected criminal.
This points to one of the central challenges for the future, that is to demonstrate that past political violations are as morally wrong as all types of present violations even if these are more hidden, not politically motivated and less pervasive in the new society. This is, in our opinion, one of the greatest challenges facing those who report on the TRC in the months and years to come, i.e. the impact of the TRC on the broad human rights culture and not only in the political context.
The TRC was, in many ways, despite its successes, an opportunity that was not fully exploited. NGOs failed to effectively mobilise in response to a major new government initiative, and the TRC failed to draw effectively on existing resources that could have enhanced the services they offered to society. The challenge, of course, is to learn from this experience.
As this study has shown, there were crucial junctures at which both the TRC and NGOs could have benefited from each other in terms of resources, access, experience and expertise. At times, the failure to capitalise on these opportunities led to strained relationships, breakdowns in communication and turned potentially creative partnerships into divisive and unproductive ones, thereby jeopardising their long-term goals of transforming society.
Nonetheless, despite these problems, one area in which NGOs played a critical role was in the conceptualisation and lobbying process around the legislation of the TRC. Here, a productive exchange of ideas among NGOs representing various segments of civil society were introduced into legislative debates and the government was forced to engage with a broad range of perspectives. However, it is important to remember that this input was greatly enhanced by a strong relationship between the government, via the Minister of Justice, and specific NGOs (most notably Justice in Transition) that invested a large amount of time and resources into facilitating broader civil society input. Both entities overtly encouraged participation in workshops and conferences where NGOs were given the opportunity to play a significant role in the process. Nonetheless, the initiatives were criticised because involvement by NGOs was limited mainly to those who had the existing capacity to engage with complex conceptual debates and in a complex legislative process. The process was not one that helped build NGO capacity to engage where this was lacking.
Similarly, the overall assessment seems to be that the TRC did not go out of its way to accommodate NGO concerns in its operation. It did not draw on their existing strengths, or help them build capacity with regards to reconciliation, human rights and psychological services to the degree that it could have. Given the recognition by the TRC that their intervention is but a small step in the process of promoting reconciliation and building a culture of human rights, and their insistence that NGOs have a central role in carrying this process forward, this could create problems in the future. The TRC has laid a foundation for a process of reconciliation. It has however not engaged sufficiently or bolstered directly the organs of civil society which are to carry on the more long-term work of rebuilding society. However, the TRC, merely through popularising reconciliation work, has opened some doors for future NGO initiatives.
In addition, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission ultimately proved to be a learning experience for NGOs in which they had to develop a variety of new resources, skills and methods for working with statutory bodies. As the TRC comes to an end, the major challenge for NGOs is to develop these skills further in order to carry the work of the TRC forward through interaction with permanent government institutions. Most NGOs are still struggling to develop a pro-active approach that is not dependent on leadership (positive or negative) being given by government.
The agendas of political parties are clearly not co-terminus with those of NGOs. At times the overlaps between NGO and political agendas were effectively exploited during the lobbying phase of the TRC. However, the failure of NGOs to develop the anticipated close relationship between themselves and the TRC possibly reflects a broader tension between the competing agendas of the state and NGOs. On some level, the TRC, as the dominant reconciliation body, was in competition with NGOs working in the reconciliation sector. Although the TRC may have laid the groundwork for future NGO reconciliation initiatives, much of the capacity of NGOs was undermined during the period as some struggled for relevance and financial survival. It appears as if the full burden of work that NGOs will have to carry forward after the TRC was not adequately anticipated by the TRC in its beginning phase. If it was anticipated, NGOs should have been drawn into the process to a far greater degree.
The TRC experience should also be a lesson for government structures regarding the complexity of facilitating public participation processes. As a result of its short-term focus and politically determined agenda, the TRC struggled to engage sensitively (and in a sustainable way) with communities and victims. This inability arose as a result of structural factors and despite the best intentions of many of its staff. State engagement with civil society requires a much more structured process with a clearer agenda and strategic anticipation of areas of cooperation and overlap. Much of the tension that emerged arose due to expectations that were never clearly articulated by NGOs and never clearly responded to by the TRC.
Appendix: Individuals Interviewed
- Craig Arendse (Centre for Conflict Resolution) – Cape Town – 2/12/97
- Vanessa Barolsky (TRC – formerly from Peace Action) – Johannesburg – 30/1/98
- Barney Beck (World Conference on Religion and Peace) – Cape Town – 21/1/98
- Alex Boraine (TRC) – Cape Town – 25/5/98
- Trudy de Ridder (Trauma Centre for Victims of Torture) – Cape Town – 4/12/97
- Louis du Plooy (TRC – formerly Religious Response to the TRC) – Cape Town – 1/12/97
- Andre du Toit (Department of Political Studies – University of Cape Town) – Cape Town – 3/3/98
- Beth Goldblatt (Centre for Applied Legal Studies – University of the Witwatersrand) – Johannesburg – 20/1/98
- Paul Haupt (TRC) – Cape Town – 2/12/97
- Willie Hofmeyr (ANC MP – Chair: Parliamentary Portfolio Committee on Justice) – Cape Town – 3/3/98
- Abegail Johanessen (Human Rights Committee) – Johannesburg – 24/2/98
- Athol Jennings (Vuleka Trust) – Durban – 16/1/98
- Patrick Kelly (TRC – formerly Human Rights Committee) – Johannesburg – 21/1/98
- Eddie Makue (South African Council of Churches) – Johannesburg – 6/4/98
- Tim Marchant (Human Rights Committee) – Johannesburg – 24/2/98
- Xola Mlandu (Religious Response to the TRC) – Cape Town – 9/12/97
- Laurie Nathan (Centre for Conflict Resolution) – Cape Town – 8/12/97
- Gareth Newham (Institute for a Democratic SA) – Pretoria – 21/1/98
- Bea Roberts (Institute for a Democratic SA) – Pretoria – 21/1/98
- Medard Rwelamira (Department of Justice) – Pretoria – 25/2/98
- Andrew Shackleton (Quaker Peace Centre) – Cape Town – 4/12/97
- Graeme Simpson (Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation) – Johannesburg – 24/3/98
- Alison Tilly (Black Sash) – Cape Town – 10/12/97
- Wilhelm Verwoerd (TRC) – Cape Town – 3/12/97
- Joy Watson (Institute for Multi-Party Democracy) – Cape Town – 1/12/97
- Paul van Zyl (TRC – formerly with the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation) – Johannesburg – 27/2/98
5 Names of individuals mentioned by interviewees included Alex Boraine, C.A. Norgaard (European Commission on Human Rights), Andre du Toit (University of Cape Town Politics Department), Arthur Chaskalson and Albie Sachs (Constitutional Court), John Dugard (Wits Law Faculty), Lourens du Plessis (University of Stellenbosch Law Faculty), George Bizos and Mohamed Nasvat (Legal Resources Centre).
7 The NGO Coalition on the TRC was really comprised of two parts. First, the wider coalition of 30-40 national NGOs who endorsed press statements and attended conferences. Second, the NGO Working Group, which was a much smaller group of representatives from 5-10 Gauteng human rights NGOs who met on a weekly basis. It is also important to note that this group was initially organised not as a lobbying group, but as a group to manage the Human Rights Documentation Project, a national database project funded by Justice in Transition. For more information on the project see Levin, L., Dewhirst, P. and Hamber, B. (1997) The Use of EVSYS for Preparing a Human Rights Database for Presentation to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) in South Africa. Paper presented at the HURIDOCS Conference, Mexico City, 11 – 13 November 1997.
8 CSVR also arranged for victims of human rights abuses to speak in person against the provision for in-camera hearings. Incidentally the initial roots of the Khulumani Victim Support Group, the largest network of victim support organisations in the country, were laid at this time. Staff from the CSVR and the initial victims who presented to parliament on the proposed secret hearing process founded the group on returning from Cape Town after making their submissions.
12 The Khulumani or Speak-Out Support Group is largely a Gauteng based group. They have offered survivors and families of victims some support, albeit limited due to resource problems. This structure – and there are examples of smaller groups elsewhere in the country – has in some cases introduced the TRC to the victims, found indigenous ways to reconcile with the past and lobbied the TRC concerning the rights and concerns of survivors and families of victims.
21 An interviewee in Cape Town complained that the workshop '… had not properly tapped into religious community, CBOs or NGOs – mainly just the most prominent NGOs. Not enough effort was put into contacting organisations and encouraging their input'.(Joy Watson (Institute for Multi-Party Democracy) 1/12/97)
23 This process of co-ordinating all the human rights abuse databases held by human rights organisations in SA and abroad was implemented by the NGO Coalition on the TRC (and funded by Justice in Transition) before the TRC was established. It was done in anticipation of the TRC's role in investigating and compiling a national database. It also provided an early incentive in bringing organisations together in a coordinated fashion to engage with the TRC. It also supplied the TRC with reference information on thousands of cases of human rights abuses. Cf. Levin, L., Dewhirst, P. and Hamber, B. (1997)
26 cf. Hamber, B., Mofokeng, T. & Simpson, G. (1997) Evaluating the Role and Function of Civil Society in a Changing South Africa: The Truth and Reconciliation Commission as a Case Study. Paper presented at The Role of Southern Civil Organisations in the Promotion of Peace Seminar, DHR Seminar. Hosted by the Catholic Institute for International Relations, London, 10 November 1997.
27 cf. Hamber, B., Mofokeng, T. & Simpson, G. (1997). Evaluating the Role and Function of Civil Society in a Changing South Africa: The Truth and Reconciliation Commission as a Case Study. Paper presented at The Role of Southern Civil Organisations in the Promotion of Peace Seminar, DHR Seminar. Hosted by the Catholic Institute for International Relations, London, 10 November 1997.
29 Hamber, B., Mofokeng, T. & Simpson, G. (1997) Evaluating the Role and Function of Civil Society in a Changing South Africa: The Truth and Reconciliation Commission as a Case Study. Paper presented at The Role of Southern Civil Organisations in the Promotion of Peace Seminar, DHR Seminar. Hosted by the Catholic Institute for International Relations, London, 10 November 1997.
30 In what appears an uncharacteristic stance for the sector, Centre for Conflict Resolution (CCR) had internal discussions on whether to engage with the TRC process, feeling that they should do it properly or not at all. The decision was not to engage.
37 See, for example, the submission of a collection of NGOs: Submission to the TRC Concerning the Relevance of Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights to the Commission's Mandate, 18 March 1997. It was submitted by among others the Legal Resources Centre, Black Sash and the NGO National Coalition.
38 The TRC did provide briefing and debriefing to those testifying at public hearings, and at times, also made social and psychological support referrals. For more detailed evaluation see Brandon Hamber (1998) 'The Burdens of Truth: An Evaluation of the Psychological Support Services of the SA TRC,' American Imago, Vol 55, No. 1, 9-28 and Trudy de Ridder (1997) 'The Trauma of Testifying: Deponents' Difficult Healing Process,' Track Two, Vol 6, No 3-4, 30-33.
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