A peek behind the veil

Unfinished Business: South Africa, Apartheid & Truth is the first publication on how South Africa has tried to deal with its past that does not focus on the workings of the Truth and Reconcilliation Commission (TRC) or the politics and promises of transitional justice. Instead its author, veteran journalist Terry Bell, raises a host of issues that should have received the commission’s attention, but did not. Piecing together “shards and fragments of fact”, Bell has provided us with “a series of interrelated images of the past” that question the wisdom of drawing a veil over “the still vast unfinished mosaic of the times of apartheid”.

Bell’s hypothesis is simple—if we had a deeper understanding of the past, we would have a better chance of appreciating how this impacts on the present. We would also be able to deal with the implicit promise of the TRC’s founding legislation, namely that those who did not subject themselves to the process would face the full sanction of the law. Instead, it would appear that many of those who are complicit in abuses have not only survived the transition, but are in fact beneficiaries of the process.

The book is set out in three “files”. The first examines the early years and the evolution of state dirty tricks, espionage and destabilisation both within and outside South Africa’s borders. In particular it assesses the role of the Afrikaner Broederbond (AB) in determining policy direction on a broad cross-section of governance issues.

The second “file” provides a unique insight into repression in the former homeland of the Transkei, though the experiences of Dumisa Ntsebeza, former TRC commissioner and the head of its troubled investigation unit. The third “file” focuses on the 1980s, examining some of the issues that fed into the negotiated compromise, the influence of foreign interests and the role of state-sanctioned violence in the process. It also deals with the crude attempt by “hidden hands from the past” to derail the TRC.

Bell provides us with fascinating glimpses into the world of Pretoria’s securocrats, and those who struggled against them. This is, as the author points out, only a taste of what was not addressed by the TRC. By and large, South Africans have been able to insulate themselves from further enquiry into the past.

Unfinished Business points an accusing finger in many directions—for the first time, the censored findings against former president FW De Klerk are printed in full. Yet this book does not provide answers to many of the questions it poses. This, however, is precisely Bell’s point—we still do not have the answers. The bulk of “victims” who appeared before the TRC did not receive answers to the questions they posed—why certain abuses occurred and who was responsible? With no organised voice calling for the continued exploration into South Africa’s “unfinished business”, many of those complicit may be breathing a sigh of relief. In an environment of shifting political alliances and with further amnesties on the horizon, political pressure for further official action to investigate the past is unlikely. But for anyone who appreciates that the TRC was part of a much longer journey, Unfinished Business is essential reading.

Piers Pigou

Piers Pigou

Piers Pigou is Crisis Group's senior consultant for Southern Africa. Formerly he was Crisis Group’s Southern Africa project director, overseeing the organisation's research and advocacy activities in South Africa, Zimbabwe, Madagascar and Angola. Read more from Piers Pigou

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