van Zyl, P. & Simpson, G. (1994). Reconciliation: From Rhetoric to Reality. The contribution of civil society to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Submission to the Minister of Justice, Mr Dullah Omar, September.


by Paul van Zyl & Graeme Simpson

Paul van Zyl is a former Researcher at the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation.

Graeme Simpson is a founder and former Director of the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation.


One of the most important functions of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (hereafter "the Commission") should be to ensure that the gross and systematic human rights violations which took place under apartheid never occur again. Part of this process is "backwards looking": certain people who committed crimes in the past will be granted amnesty on condition that they fully disclose their crimes; the stories of victims of human rights abuses will finally be heard and reparation will be granted to those who suffered. An equally important part of the process will be "forward looking": state institutions which systematically violated human rights need to be transformed and a culture of human rights and tolerance needs to be developed, both in these institutions and in society at large.

Those who oppose the work of the Commission argue that it will do more harm than good. They contend that it will open the wounds of the past just as they are beginning to heal. Despite reassurances to the contrary, they claim that the Commission will amount to a witch-hunt, which will provoke active opposition from the very institutions upon which the present government so heavily relies. It is for these reasons that the "reconciliation component" of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission needs to be fully developed. We believe that the Commission presents a unique opportunity to launch a programmatic campaign designed to ensure that the work and findings of the Commission are translated into reality. This campaign should focus on three broad areas:

1) A comprehensive human rights campaign which aims to raise awareness about peoples' rights and human rights generally.
2) A campaign which aims to build a human rights culture and capacity in institutions such as the police, prisons, schools and the judiciary.
3) A coordinated initiative to give assistance to victims of human rights abuses and their families.

We believe that should a comprehensive "reconciliation" component be included and developed within the structure and work of the Commission then the most vocal opposition to the Commission will be more effectively countered.

The Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation

We believe that the Centre is ideally situated to assist in managing and/or executing the projects outlined below. The Centre has over the past few years grown into one of the largest NGOs, in this field, in South Africa. We have a strong human rights track record and are widely regarded as independent. Apart from conducting in-depth research into the causes of, and solutions to, violence, the Centre also engages with government institutions in an attempt to build reconciliation by transforming both their structure and modus operandi. The Centre's Policing Research Project is currently managing a Community Policing project in conjunction with the Ministry of Safety and Security of the PWV Regional Government. The Centre also has a Prison Reform project which is currently formulating policy on issues such as penal reform and the structure of correctional services in South Africa. The Education and Training department of the Centre is currently formulating a comprehensive human rights awareness programme for schools which aims to promote reconciliation by allowing school children to understand the causes and effects of violence. Finally the Centre has a well-established Trauma Clinic which provides victims of violence and abuse with a professional counselling service and outreach programmes in order to allow them to overcome their ordeals.

The Centre has established good links with the United Nations Centre For Human Rights in Geneva. The Centre has indicated it willingness to provide technical assistance in the sphere of human rights to South Africa. We feel that the work of the Commission offers a perfect opportunity for South Africa to draw on the skills and expertise of the international community in the sphere of Human Rights. The United Nations Centre for Human Rights has a wide range of expertise and resources on offer ranging from Human Rights documentation and awareness programmes, to training courses for the judiciary and the security forces.

It must be stressed from the outset that the Centre for the study of Violence and Reconciliation does not wish or intend to monopolise the work suggested in this proposal. We believe that many of the projects and components suggested below would be most effectively executed by drawing on the coordinated skills and resources of a range of organisations both locally and possibly abroad. However, the Centre does have particular areas of expertise as outlined above and where it may not be feasible to execute a project alone we would gladly fulfil either a managerial or coordinating function. In particular we see a potential function for ourselves in the development of materials, training and the delivery of victim aid within schools, factories and state institutions. The Centre also views as critical the coordinated involvement of the NGO sector in the exercise of using the Commission as a vehicle for the building of a human rights culture in South Africa.

The Proposal

For purposes of coherence we have divided our proposal into five projects:

A Human Rights Education, Training and Materials Development
B Human Rights and the Judiciary
C Victim Aid
D Human Rights and the Security Forces
E Human Rights and Prisons

A Human Rights Education, Training and Materials Development

If the work of the Commission is to be effective it should reach as wide an audience as possible. If the stories of the victims and the human rights abuses that they had to endure are only covered in the press and television for a relatively short period then the Commission's impact will be limited. Likewise if ordinary people are not fully informed of the dangers of allowing the security forces to operate in a clandestine and unaccountable manner then we may not learn the important lessons of the past. The work of the Commission also offers an ideal opportunity to launch a broad human rights campaign. A campaign, possibly under the banner of "Lessons from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission: Building a Human Rights Culture" could be launched. This project should consist of the following components:

I Publicity/Awareness Campaign Around the Work of the Commission
This component would aim to ensure that maximum exposure is given to the work and findings of the Commission. It could include the publication of accessible pamphlets in all the official languages explaining the purpose and work of the Commission. The pamphlets should include stories of particular victims as well as a section on building a human rights culture in South Africa. This component could possibly include radio and/or television slots covering similar subject matter. A video with accompanying literature could be produced for use as a teaching aid in schools or as subject matter for discussion in the workplace, community organisation, political parties, youth groups etc.
II Human Rights Education in General
Although South Africa has a new Constitution with a Chapter on Fundamental Rights very few South Africans know its contents, and accordingly, are largely ignorant of their rights. Furthermore South Africa is soon to ratify several international human rights instruments covering a range of areas from Torture to the rights of Women and Children. For these documents to have real meaning they need to be popularised, translated and made accessible. In the wake of the interest generated by the Commission, a broad Human Rights campaign should be launched which informs people of their rights. Like the component outlined above, this campaign should use a variety of media to convey its message, however, although linked to the Commission it would have to reach beyond the Commission's work. This campaign should specifically target the youth either through schools or by liaising with youth organisations, sports clubs or religious organisations.
III Human Rights in Schools Curricula
A review of current curricula should be undertaken to discover the extent to which human rights issues are covered either in formal subjects or during guidance or community awareness classes. A section on human rights should be incorporated into the curricula in which human rights awareness is raised and contentious human rights issues are debated and discussed. A section on Human Rights abuses under apartheid, which may draw on the work of the Commission should be included. The generation of new curricula materials, text books, videos etc. will be an important component.
IV Human Rights in Teacher Training Institutions
Human rights issues should be incorporated into the curricula of teacher training institutions. This will equip teachers with a basic knowledge of human rights and equip them to deal with human rights issues more competently during their classes. This component should also include human rights training courses for teachers who are currently teaching and who would therefore not benefit from these curriculum changes.
V Symbolic Acts of Reconciliation
We often forget how powerful and moving simple symbolic acts can be in raising awareness about human rights and helping to remind people of the dangers of racism, sexism and intolerance. A series of symbolic acts should be planned which help to promote reconciliation and nation-building. These could include: days where the community marches to the nearest police station and re-paints it with the help of the police; a day of remembrance for victims where people wear flowers on their lapels or the launching of a Truth Train which travels through the country promoting human rights through the use of street theatre. These suggestions are merely examples, and of the sort of symbolic acts that may be embarked upon should therefore not be confined to those listed above.
The United Nations Centre for Human Rights has considerable experience in virtually all of the five components listed above and its documentation and expertise should be fully utilised.

B Human Rights and the Judiciary

Although we have a new Constitution with a justiciable Bill of Rights, the South African judiciary is still unfamiliar with many human rights issues and concepts. Legislation is currently being formulated to give magistrates a certain degree of constitutional jurisdiction but constitutional issues will in any event impact on their findings and judgements. It is undesirable to have knowledge of human rights issues confined to the few select and interested judges on the Constitutional Court Training courses for Judges, Magistrates and Prosecutors should be organised in which human rights jurisprudence both local and from abroad is discussed. Included in such courses should be a comprehensive review of the International Human Rights system, its various instruments and how they will impact on our legal system.

Again the United Nations Centre for Human Rights has considerable expertise and experience in this regard and has run similar courses in other newly established democracies.

C Victim Aid

An important outcome of the work of the Commission will be the granting of reparations to the victims of human rights abuses. At this stage it is unclear as to what these reparations will entail. Being afforded the opportunity to tell one's story and have it officially recognised does begin to return some dignity to those who suffered. Regardless of what other forms of compensation are offered it is essential that those who suffered themselves (through torture or assault) or who lost family members (through assassination or "disappearance") are given access to Trauma Clinics and professional counselling services to allow them deal with the pain of the past.

I National Network of Trauma Clinics
A national network of Trauma Clinic's should be established in order to provide support to victims and their families. This network should in the first instance rely on existing institutions such as the Trauma Clinics attached to the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation and the Trauma Centre for Victims of Violence and Torture (based in Cape Town). However existing institutions will not have the capacity to deal with all cases and a process of training additional trauma counsellors should be embarked upon. These counsellors could either staff newly established satellite clinics or work in existing institutions which have previously not had the capacity to handle trauma victims.
II Counselling for Perpetrators
It is however not only the victims of human rights abuses, but also the perpetrators who have been brutalised in the process. An essential component of building reconciliation and healing the wounds of the past is to offer those who participated in violent acts an opportunity to discuss their motives as well as their fears. It is fundamentally important that this "violence debriefing" be offered to all perpetrators of human rights abuses, particularly to those who have been granted indemnity.
III Self-help Groups
Another component of the Victim Aid project would be to, develop outreach programmes in order to establish "self-help" groups consisting of either victims or the families of victims. These groups could be established by trained facilitators with a view to eventually allowing them to become self-sustaining. They could offer support to victims or their families by allowing them to share common experiences and solutions. The groups can also serve as a mean of establishing support structures between victims or the families of victims. This may prove particularly valuable in circumstances where people are feeling alienated and isolated from the broader community.
IV Children and Trauma
Children in South Africa have been exposed to extremely high levels of violence and human rights abuse. Children have been exposed to abuses at the hands of the security forces since the Soweto uprisings. Presently a number of children under the age of 18 participate in Self-Defence Units and times find themselves in conflict with security forces. As part of the work of the Commission, trained counsellors should visit schools in an effort to identify and assist those children suffering from trauma as a result of being exposed to or subjected to violence. A programme to equip certain teachers with basic counselling and diagnostic skills in order to assist victims of violence should also be initiated.
V Publicity
This victim aid network should be extensively publicised so that the many people who bear scars from the past are made aware that some form of help is available. The network could begin as a project centred around the Commission but could gradually expand to accommodate all victims of violence whether it be political, criminal or domestic. Such a network could play an important medium-term role in supplementing state delivery of welfare services.

D Human Rights and the Security Forces

If the Commission ends its work and makes it findings and in the process makes no contribution to the transformation of the security forces, then it will have missed a golden opportunity. The findings of the Commission should serve not only as moral lessons, but also as practical steps to prevent such occurrences from ever happening again. Regardless of how the Commission decides to define political crimes, the security forces will, in a substantial number of cases, be found to be the perpetrators of human rights abuses. These findings can either be used as a basis for antagonism or recrimination or as a set of constructive suggestions as to what measures are necessary to rid the security forces of a culture of violence, secrecy and unaccountability.

I Curriculum Reform and Development
We are aware that the training curricula of the security forces are in the process of ongoing review and reform. It is imperative that a strong human rights component be built into the new curricula. For of example, this could specifically include sessions devoted to exploring topics such as: the Nuremburg Trials, crimes against humanity - including torture, genocide and apartheid, international human rights law, the "defence" of superior orders and the role of security forces in promoting and protecting human rights. A specific session which covers the findings of the Commission and the lessons to be learnt from its work could also be formulated when the Commission has made sufficient progress. Particular sessions on the use of deadly force as well as the policing of mass gatherings and assemblies should also be included. These examples are by no means exhaustive, but merely illustrative of some of the critical issues which could be addressed in this process of curriculum development.
II In-house Training
The process of curriculum reform will affect the new generation of security force recruits, but will not necessarily reach those currently serving as members or as security forces managers. In-house courses similar to those suggested above should therefore be developed. One set of lectures should be designed for rank and file members. Additional in-depth seminars should be run for high-ranking officers which deal in greater detail with the subject matter and which also address questions as to the responsibilities of leadership in the security forces.
III Police/Community Forums
At present police/community fora have either been established or are in the process of being established at police stations across the country. One of the central functions of these structures is to examine ways of normalising police/community relations by increasing trust, accountability and the quality of service provided. Workshops should be held in these fora which draw on the work and findings of the Commission. The police and community could jointly explore ways to prevent the abuses of the past from recurring, using the work of the Commission as subject matter for discussion. This is a potentially critical mechanism for drawing the police into the process of building a human rights culture in conjunction with the community, as well as engaging them with the work and findings of the Commission.
IV Seminars for Intelligence Agencies
The various intelligence agencies of the security forces supplied the information and generated the analysis which made gross and systematic violations of human rights possible. It is imperative that the entire ethos of these structures is fundamentally altered. Part of this process should be the holding of seminars which address the function of intelligence agencies in modern democracies. A particular component of these seminars should be addressed to human rights issues both nationally and abroad.
Virtually all of the components in this project would benefit substantially from the assistance offered by the United Nations Centre For Human Rights as well as the United Nations Crime Prevention and Policing Unit. The Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation has substantial experience in this field and is eager to work with other NGOs and new state institutions who have contributions to make.

E Human Rights and Prisons

Many of the acts of torture and assault and other human rights violations that will be heard before the Commission have occurred in South African prisons and police stations. At present the conditions and practices carried out in certain prisons are in violation of the United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners. It is critical that our carceral institutions are transformed into venues where those imprisoned are protected from the abuses of the past. Prisoners need to be informed of their rights while warders should act as the guarantors of these rights rather than either participating or colluding in human rights abuses.

I Human Rights Training Programmes for Warders
The current training programmes for warders needs to include a significant human rights component. Warders should come to see prisoners as people with rights not merely privileges. Warders must be taught that their primary role is to ensure the safety and well-being of prisoners. A comprehensive human rights course modelled on the Human Rights Training for Commonwealth Prison Officials should be devised for use in the training of warders. This course should also be run for those who have already completed their training and are serving as warders.
II Independent Complaints Mechanism
An independent complaints mechanism should be established in all prisons without delay. International experience shows that the existence of such mechanisms acts as a strong deterrent to those inclined to engage in human rights abuses in prisons. This will allow prisoners to channel their grievances through impartial channels without fear of reprisal. It should also provide a means of conflict resolution between prisoners and prisoner authorities. Such a mechanism will assist in the identification of human rights abuses when they occur and provide prisoners with a means of accessing the outside world.
III Human Rights Course for District Surgeons
The torture and assault of those in South African Prisons and Police Stations was allowed to continue partly because of district surgeons who were unskilled, ineffective or unethical. District surgeons play a vital role in identifying torture, assault and ill-treatment in prisons. It is therefore imperative that they act independently according to a strict code of ethics. A human rights course for district surgeons which aims to inform them precisely of this role should be formulated. The course should include a component which will assist the district surgeon in identifying torture or maltreatment. The course should also equip district surgeons or other personnel to identify signs of trauma or psychological abuse.
IV Penal Reform
Added impetus needs to be given to the various penal reform programmes currently underway. Notwithstanding the fact that certain legislative reforms have occurred, certain practices such as corporal punishment, detention in isolation cells and mechanical means of restraint are still permitted in prisons. Such a practice, and potentially many others, may be held to be unconstitutional and therefore need careful reconsideration. The work of the Commission should mark the beginning of a comprehensive and thorough re-evaluation of currently permitted prison practices.


The launch of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission should signal the beginning of a comprehensive process of human rights reform. The Commission can and should do more than deal with victims and perpetrators. It should mark the beginning of a human rights education campaign and a process of institutional change. Both the United Nations and the European Union have expressed interest in projects of this nature. There can be no better time to capitalise on their goodwill. A project of this nature will provide a perfect opportunity for ordinary citizens and organisations of civil society to involve themselves in the work of the Commission. Such an endeavour can transform the Commission from an instrument of division and suspicion to an agent of reconciliation, transformation and nation-building. The proposals contained in this document are neither exhaustive, nor set in stone. However, we believe that the pursuit of some of the objectives outlined here offers the potential for the NGO sector and civil society in general, to capitalise on the work and findings of the Commission in a concerted and coordinated manner.

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