The South African No Torture Consortium (SANTOC) was launched on 26 June 2008, International Day in Support of Survivors of Torture. The Consortium aims improve the impact and effectiveness of the torture rehabilitation sector. SANTOC is working to build a strong advocacy movement to pressure the South African government to criminalise torture and to adopt and ratify OPCAT, the Optional Protocol on the Convention Against Torture.
The overall message at the launch was: "We don't tolerate crime. Don't tolerate torture. Torture is a Crime". The focus on crime aimed to draw attention to public sensitivity to and outrage about crime as a threat to South Africa's democracy. One consequence of the public obsession with crime is a growing tendency towards police brutality and the use of torture to extract information from suspects. These practices undermine the ethos of South Africa's constitutional state and are a threat to democracy. SANTOC challenges what it believes is a muted and ineffectual response to use of torture by officials in South Africa. The Consortium believes that there needs to be a public outcry against these practices, without which they will continue in a climate of silent acquiescence and consent.
Although the South African government ratified the UN Convention Against Torture (CAT) in 1998, the same year that the human rights hearings of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) concluded, it has not yet criminalised torture. Criminalisation would provide for strong sanctions against the perpetration of torture including the prosecution of perpetrators of torture. Without an absolute prohibition on torture, situations like those at Abu Ghraib and Guatanamo Bay emerge with torture being used as an instrument of interrogation in the name of preventing terrorism. While SACTOC welcomes the international condemnation against the abuses being perpetrated by officials of the United States government, there is concern over the apparent blind eye on the ongoing use of torture in many places of involuntary detention in South Africa. A recent annual report of the Independent Complaints Directorate (2007) highlighted that 698 persons had died in police cells in the course of one year, suspected victims in many instances of police assaults. Clearly the prohibition of torture has not yet changed the everyday practices of the South African Police Services.
Speaking at the launch, Fadlah Adams of the SAHRC, reported that the South African government had been requested to respond to questions by the United Nations Committee against Torture after its submission to the Committee in November 2006. Government's official response is now long overdue. This reflects a failure on the part of government to give the matter the seriousness it deserves.
Of greater concern to SANTOC, however, is that the concept and definition of torture and its prohibition is noticeably absent from the regulations and operating procedures of many places of involuntary detention where torture is most likely to occur, often masked as forms of punishment, discipline and behaviour correction. These places of involuntary detention include prisons, psychiatric institutions, industrial schools and places of safety for young people in conflict with the law, substance abuse treatment centres and immigration detention centres. A great deal of advocacy is required ensure that torture is eradicated from such places because those detained involuntarily are at greatest risk and are presented with very real obstacles to the lodging of formal complaints for investigation. Research has shown that the understanding of torture and the necessity of its absolute prohibition is completely absent from the operating procedures of military detention barracks and private security companies.
While the public is aware of torture that happens in the context of political oppression, such as the systematic abuses happening in Zimbabwe, there is an urgent need to end the silence around the torture that continues to happen on a day to day basis in the private spaces we have described.
"So much has been said about torture and so little has been done to date," was the opening statement of Nomfundo Walaza, director of the Desmond Tutu Peace Centre, speaking at the launch. She asked, "Where is the public outcry?" Why do we choose to remain so unaware of the reality of the ongoing practice of torture in our own society? Is it because we failed to hold accountable the many officials involved in torturing detainees under apartheid? While thousands were tortured by local police officers in police stations across the country, the TRC was presented with very few amnesty applications from perpetrators of torture. There was a relative immunity from prosecution for torture. This reality has not served us as a country."
As Walaza noted, "Torture was and is practiced by law abiding citizens who were and are just doing their jobs. Has the prohibition and eradication of torture in South Africa, become a "pipedream"? She asserted that the development of a clear definition of torture and advocacy for its inclusion in legislation and regulations would assist in preventing torture and supporting the recognition of the right to dignity and bodily integrity of everyone.
The launch of SANTOC included the sharing of personal testimonies by survivors of torture, belonging to the Khulumani Support Group. These testimonies made real the unimaginable human suffering and its consequences caused to individuals and their families as a result of torture. While the state has a duty to protect its citizens, in the case of torture survivors, it is most commonly state agents who are perpetrating the torture, turning a blind eye when it occurs or failing to take effective measures to prevent it.
A participant from the Holocaust Centre reminded the gathering that torture happens in situations where the basic human rights of every person are not upheld as inviolable. She called on everyone present to build an ethos in which torture would never be tolerated and where awareness of any incidence of torture would evoke a public outcry.
The International Rehabilitation Council for Torture public service message for 26 June, captured the fact that while we cannot do anything about a tsunami or a hurricane, collectively, we can eradicate torture. SANTOC endorses this assertion.
The launch of SANTOC was the outcome of a year of collaborative work between five civil society organisations providing psychosocial services to survivors of torture. The organisations are the Institute for Healing of Memories, Khulumani Support Group, the Southern African Centre for Survivors of Torture, the Trauma Centre for Victims of Torture and Political Violence and the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation, which has been leading the formation of this umbrella body.