Reparations still on the back foot

It has been 15 years since the TRC and victims are still waiting for redress and closure. (Reuters)

It has been 15 years since the TRC and victims are still waiting for redress and closure. (Reuters)

It will do so while suffering payment paralysis – and frustration at the lack of redress for past injustice is making a comeback

It started off at just more than R1-billion, then paid out more than half of that to about 17 000 individuals in a process that was not without controversy. But thanks to compound interest and an inability to figure out how to manage further payments, the major vehicle for direct apartheid reparations will breach R1.1-billion during the course of 2013. There will still be little hope that the money will be spent in a way that is acceptable to all, nearly 20 years after the advent of democracy and 15 years after the completion of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

The President's Fund was established under a 1995 law to make good on the promise of the TRC to show due care for those who suffered immediate harm under apartheid and was intended to be a symbol of reconciliation.
Increasingly, however, it has become a measurable symbol of the multiple failures of the post-transition period.

Victims' groups continue to lobby for the prosecution of people who were responsible for human rights abuses under apartheid and have identified more than 100 individuals they believe should pay the price for their actions and failure to take advantage of the TRC bargain of immunity in return for truth. This process has is effect stalled, leaving the crimes of the past unaddressed and some families without closure.

Plans for the rehabilitation of traumatised communities through everything from recognition of their pain to systems for dialogue and counselling have seen little implementation beyond the construction of monuments such as Freedom Park, which some deride as an empty token.

Yet it is the inability of indigent survivors and dependents to access education, healthcare (especially mental health services) and support that causes the most anger, especially because at least part of the money is ready and waiting, requiring only an administrative framework for its payment.

The President's Fund was established with the sole purpose of making reparations for apartheid as part of the broader reconciliation drive that also included the TRC. The R800-million it received from the treasury and a R200-million grant from the Swiss government was widely considered inadequate, but a start nonetheless. More money would follow from governments, foreign anti-apartheid allies and private donations, it was hoped, once it started operation.

In 2003 the fund started making what would be its only significant payments for another nine years, with once-off payments of R30 000 to about 17 000 people identified through two sets of TRC processes.

Like the initial funding, these payments were considered a stop-gap while more meaningful spending was under consideration. The expectation was that the fund, through a sunset clause, could complete its objectives by 2012. That was not to be. In its last financial year the fund earned nearly R62-million in interest on its remaining unspent allocation and paid a grand total of R330 648 to recipients, most of it to cover exhumations and burials as the undertaking of tracing bodies continues. This gap between income and expenditure has already seen the President's Fund outstrip its original value.

The last attempt at creating a system for spending the money came to a halt in mid-2011 when the South African Coalition for Transitional Justice, a group established largely to do battle with the justice department about post-TRC reparations, promised legal action should it go ahead.

Cash payments were called for and would be effective, the body argued, but handing out money to a small group of those affected and calling it a day would not be good enough.

The coalition had problems with draft regulations that were published for comment, including confusion about which dependents of victims would qualify for assistance, time limits on educational bursaries and onerous administration. But its overriding concern was the "closed-list" approach adopted; in practice, only those identified by the TRC as victims would qualify for cash or help. This, the coalition believes, could make up as little as 16% of the eligible group.

Some people, the coalition says, could not access the TRC process because of a self-imposed cut-off date to consider submissions. Others still feared retribution, or were ashamed to go public (in cases of sexual abuse, for instance) or were simply not aware that they could qualify.

Outstripping the resources
"If justice [the department responsible for the fund] tries to go with a closed list, there will be a court case and they will lose," said Marjorie Jobson, national director of the Khulumani Support Group, which acts on behalf of apartheid victims and a founder of the coalition.

Under a Khulumani proposal for reparation payments, victims would receive R2 000 a month for five years (or R1 500 a month if they were part of the group paid the once-off R30 000) through the system used for social grants. That would come at a cost of about R2-billion a year, far outstripping the resources of the President's Fund, but would restore a measure of fairness to attempts at reconciliation.

"It should be noted that the process of providing measures for amnesty and other benefits for perpetrators has not been balanced by an equal focus on the provision of redress for victims," it wrote to the department of justice in raising its objections. "Victims have not experienced the equal protection of the law in post-apartheid South Africa."

Various civic organisations have gone further, accusing the government of a "dismissive approach to victims", failing in its constitutional duty and giving preference to those with political connections.

Those frustrations will gain a new voice in early December – just a week before the start of the ANC national conference in Mangaung – at a "national dialogue on reparations" organised by the Coalition for Transitional Justice. Transitional agreements had turned out to be a flawed springboard for reconciliation, the group said, and it was time to figure out how to recommit to redressing past injustice.

Reparations by numbers

120 000
Estimated number of people who could qualify for reparations

R30 000
Reparation payments to date: once-off to a list created in the TRC process

R2 000/month for 5 years
Proposed payment per recipient

Total expected cost of individual reparation payments

President’s Fund payments in 2003

R330 648
President’s Fund payments in 2011

Value of the President’s Fund in 2013

Phillip de Wet

Phillip de Wet

Phillip de Wet writes about politics, society, economics, and the areas where these collide. He has never been anything other than a journalist, though he has been involved in starting new newspapers, magazines and websites, a suspiciously large percentage of which are no longer in business. PGP fingerprint: CF74 7B0F F037 ACB9 779C 902B 793C 8781 4548 D165 Read more from Phillip de Wet

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