The government has taken a series of self-inflicted public relations knocks recently most of which could have been mitigated, or even avoided, by a more careful approach to the messages it sends out through its actions, and its inaction. The issue of reparations is an example of this.
After promising R800-million for a reparations fund in the February 2001 Budget, the government has disclosed little of what it intends to do in addressing the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s (TRC) recommendations on reparations. Neither President Thabo Mbeki made mention of reparations in his State of the Nation address, nor did Minister of Finance Trevor Manuel in his Budget speech. Thousands have been left waiting to find out whether the government will provide them with relief. Many have severe problems, medical and otherwise, and most live in dire circumstances. For some, it is now almost six years since they testified before the TRC.
It is also almost six years since the Constitutional Court upheld the constitutionality of the TRC’s amnesty provisions, claiming that they could be justified if reparations were made to the victims and the truth was unearthed.
Despite regular attempts from civil society groupings to find out exactly what is happening, the silence from the government has been deafening.
In April last year the Khulumani Support Group sent a letter to the Office of the President requesting clarity on the policy being discussed by a Cabinet sub-committee set up to look into the matter. It also asked for an opportunity for inclusion in the process. It received no response. Also in April last year the justice department official responsible for drafting the policy told Khulumani members at a reparations indaba in Cape Town that the document would be available within weeks, but only after it had been discussed by Cabinet. In August, after several months of equivocation, the Western Cape Khulumani group served papers on the Ministry of Justice and Constitutional Development, requesting access to the draft policy in terms of the Promotion of Access to Information Act. No response was received.
In October last year Minister of Justice and Constitutional Development Penuell Maduna suddenly pulled out of a strategy workshop on reparations, convened by the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation. Delegates expressed disappointment when no replacement was offered. Anger rippled through the gathering when it was asserted that Maduna had cancelled this engagement to participate in discussions about the African National Congress’s political pact with the New National Party.
The government’s failure to communicate its intentions and provide an opportunity for debate has illustrated its reticence to deal meaningfully with the issue. That it has little enthusiasm for the debate on either domestic or international reparations is clear. At the World Economic Forum meeting in Davos in January last year Mbeki dismissed the call for reparations from Swiss banks that had supported and profited from the apartheid government during the height of repression, saying: “That sort of NGO call it’s certainly not part of our planning, we’ve never made any such calls ourselves.” Back in South Africa, several government leaders have scolded those calling for reparations, claiming that the struggle was not for money. Intended or not, the perception created is of an insensitive government and of a leadership that has other priorities.
In mid-November, having received no response within the 90 days stipulated in the Act, the Western Cape Khulumani group instituted an appeal, giving the ministry a further 30 days to respond. By December it had received no response and is now looking at the possibility of legal action. Ten months after sending its original request to the presidency, and after seeking the intervention of the Office of the Public Protector, Khulumani in Johannesburg received a three-line letter from the presidency saying the matter was being looked into.
The Western Cape Khulumani group has now received correspondence from Johnny de Lange, the ANC chairperson of the justice portfolio committee, claiming it has been made clear on a number of occasions that the government would “embark on a process of providing for a policy for final reparations once the TRC has finalised all its work and provided the government with its final report and recommendations”.
The government’s silence on this matter cannot be justified under the excuse that it must wait for the completion of the final report. This is, in the words of a former TRC commissioner, “a narrow and questionable interpretation of the Act”. The government has repeatedly stonewalled Khulumani for almost a year, and in so doing has violated its own regulations in terms of the Promotion of Access to Information Act. In this context, Maduna’s reaction to the potential litigation from Khulumani, claiming that he welcomed it and “would go for the jugular”, is a sad reflection of his feelings towards those who continue to wait for action on this issue.
The government has a clear choice and could prevent the negative perceptions its lack of communication and its apparent indifference evoke. While the shareholders of Angloplaats wallow in R8-billion profits, perhaps the government should be more careful in its approach to the thousands that are not beneficiaries of South Africa’s “miracle” transition. Indeed, much of the cannon fodder of liberation has yet to taste the “sweet fruits” of Manuel’s budgets. In the meantime, the least government could do is talk to them.
Piers Pigou is a board member of the Khulumani Support Group