Reconciliation is not enough

We need to pay attention to the unfinished business of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. It isn’t just because, like every process, it ended. It is also that much was promised and some of it was not delivered—not because of Pumla (Gobodo-Madikizela) or Archbishop (Desmond Tutu), but because of us as South Africans.

We did not come to the party. I also think we were timid in our formulation of the terms of reference of the truth commission.

I was one of those usual critical voices saying “I understand the focus on crimes against humanity in terms of political crimes and what is related.” But knowing what one knew, having worked with poor people all over the country, leaving out the crimes that were perpetrated in socio-economic terms in our country was a grave mistake because the majority of people in this country continue to bleed. Their wounds go completely unrecognised. Their pain is totally unacknowledged.

But interestingly and sadly, the majority of people who were part of the offering of themselves so that we could be healed also happen to be people who were deliberately impoverished, not only because their loved ones—many of whom were great leaders—were taken away, but because of the circumstances in the country, which was an active impoverishment process for the majority of black people.

And to just walk away from that and to have a lukewarm reparations process, after so much was given by people who could least afford to actually give it! They were materially poor but spiritually rich, and they enriched us. And we can’t even say “thank you” by providing dignified reparations to them.

But we go even further to add salt to that wound. Some of our leaders were heard to say that we didn’t struggle in order to get rewards. I happen to differ. Many people got rewards. All of us standing here as middle-class, upper middle-class people, have had our rewards.

The leaders who are today in empowerment and everywhere else in the private sector have all got their rewards. So to argue that freedom somehow should not have come with material benefits for the majority of poor people in the context of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission process is really to be dishonest—and to further wound people who are wounded.

And the very same people don’t have any problem talking about how they didn’t struggle to remain poor. So somehow it’s okay to get rewards for some people, but not for the majority of people who have given so much. They didn’t give in order to get material rewards. But when we talk about reparations, it’s like what Vlok is doing. Vlok is not trying to pay back by washing those feet: that’s his way of trying to demonstrate how sorry he is.

South Africa is not a poor country. For us not to have placed priority on the issue of reparations as a way of restoring dignity to people who were so deeply wounded, and yet who were so generous as has been demonstrated this evening—the level of generosity defies any description; it’s actually rude to even refer to it. And yet we found money to do a whole lot of other things, including things that have got us into trouble, like the arms deal.

But we don’t have money to allocate, to just symbolically say “thank you” for the kind of work these mothers have done and continue to do.

The least we can do is to move out of denial and recognise that we made a mistake in terms of addressing the socio-economic injustices with the same vigour that we addressed the political injustices.

We have to acknowledge that, because it is out of acknowledging a mistake that we learn from it, and you can then move on to doing better. We have paid the school fees for that mistake. Are we going to really take the learning and find a way forward?

There isn’t much we can do to turn back the clock in terms of the last 10 or 12 years, but there is something we can do to make the future better. And that’s acknowledgement, because that will restore the dignity of the people who are hurting, but also to do something that shows that we mean what we say when we say “we’re sorry”.

And that in my view would involve focusing on the one thing that is the route to prosperity everywhere in the world, which is education. The majority of the children whose fathers died during the struggle—or who themselves were involved in the struggle—are today walking the streets. They are linked. By walking away from socio-economic injustice, we mustn’t be surprised at the level of anger, rage, brutality that is sweeping out streets. We need to think about how we can make amends.


The young people we have nurtured in this country are torn between the needs of survival and the reality of living in a society that is not divided between those who hope and those who don’t hope, but that is divided between those who have opportunities and those who don’t.

We have dealt admirably with our political wilderness, and thanks to uTata and the A-Team that led us through that process. But we need to think very seriously as a nation about how we are going to heal this growing divide between those who are poor, who are getting poorer, and those who are wealthy, or comfortable, who are getting more and more comfortable.

And this is not about someone deliberately having it in for the poor. It is about the reality of a modern society in which, as an uneducated person or poorly educated person, the opportunities are very limited. And yet we are a society that is wealthy enough to have people flaunting their wealth on every corner.

I just want to appeal to us—and I don’t think it helps to blame the government, to blame Parliament, to blame other people—to think about what you can do to make a difference in the lives of other people that you come across.

I believe so much in this country, that we’ve got so much going for us. But we’re not going to make it by pretending that we can gloss over this chasm of wealth and poverty.

And the instruments we have chosen to use, those who are wealthy are using them all the better. Black economic empowerment is a great policy approach, but it’s being exploited not by poor people who are meant to be empowered, but by those who are already empowered. The traditional private sector is getting more out of BEE in a lot of ways than black people who were supposed to be empowered. The banks, which you wouldn’t have thought needed to be empowered, are extremely empowered. Lawyers are the people who are winning.

And we need to stop and think about this.

I’m not saying people should stop being wealthy. I’m just thinking about how we respond as a nation that has been gifted by God in so many ways—beautiful country, wonderful natural wealth, wonderful people. Can we make a difference in the lives of all those young people who are driven by desperation into crime?

Mamphela Ramphele is chairperson of Circle Capital Ventures, former MD of the World Bank and previously vice-chancellor of the University of Cape Town. This is an edited excerpt of her remarks to a conference held at UCT last week marking the 10th anniversary of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and celebrating the life of Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Ramphele’s remarks followed those of several women whose relatives were killed in various circumstances under apartheid, including two mothers of the Mamelodi 10

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