Human Rights, Reconciliation and Democratic Consolidation. A case study of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission
The starting point of this essay is the problems of democratic consolidation in the new African democracies. Lack of reconciliation can be a hinder for democratic consolidation in cases that has experienced gross human rights abuses under previous regimes. Some authors claim that the majority of poor Africans want democracy to be an instrument to improve their living conditions. They argue that lack of delivery in the field of economic and social human rights can can undermine belief in democracy and be a hinder for consolidation.
We question how we can address former gross violations of human rights after democratic transitions in ways to promote reconciliation and whether institutional means, such as the South African Truth and Reconciliation Comission (TRC), is sufficient to promote reconciliation in cases that have also experienced massive repression of economic and social rights.
We discuss six roads to reconciliation after human rights abuses that are suggested in the litterature. Criminal justice, oblivion, uncovering and acknowledging the truth about the violations and restorative justice are roads focusing on dealing with gross human rights violations. Prospective justice has a stronger focus on rebuilding and creating a fair future by reform after political repression. Cross-racial contact is suggested as a possible non-institutional road to reconciliation in cases where race has been the main political cleavage.
We use experiences with different approaches around the world to illustrate that no strategy is superior under all circumstances. While criminal justice is the road demanded by international law after gross human rights violations, it is not always possible to achieve. Restraints on the new democratic regime, such as guarantees of amnesty after pacted transitions, fear that trials might lead to coups, lack of economic or institutional recourses or even commitment to human rights have hindered national trials. We discuss the potential role of international ad-hoc tribunals, trials in foreign countries and the newly established permanent international tribunal in promoting reconciliation.
As the justice system serves several functions adding to promoting reconciliation, we discuss to what extent other roads to reconciliation can fill these functons when criminal justice is ruled out. We argue that restorative justice (reparations to victims), uncovering and acknowledging the truth about former abuses and prospective justice (reforms) can to some extent compensate for lack of criminal justice. Truth commissions and restorative justice shift the focus from punishing the perpetrator to restoring the dignity of the victim and are often combined.
We particularly look into the South African case. It is often regarded a success case in democratic transition despite a history of widespread gross human rights violations. Generalrepression of all main categories of human rights resulted in extreme inequality and widespread poverty. Many argue that South Africa is moving towards democratic consolidation in spite of a transition form, pact, that put restraints on the choice of reconciliation strategy (how to deal with former abuses). South Africa gave up criminal justice by granting amnesty for gross human rights abuses as part of the negotiated transition. To compensate it established the TRC, often regardes as a potential model for other truth commissions. But as tentions remain high and South Africa is stuggling with reducing poverty and inequaliy we questioned whether the TRC was sufficient to promote reconciliation. We particularly point out that massive abuses of economic and social rights were not addressed by the commission, and the legacy of these abuses lives on in terms of widespread poverty and gross inequality between the racial groups. This suggests that the new democracy has been unsuccessful at delivering in the field of econcomic and social rights, and solving the main conflict in South Africa today.
South Africa adapted several reconciliation strategies including truth and restorative justice to address former gross human rights violations by the establishment of the TRC. But the government seems to have moved away from these strategies and adapted a reconciliation strategy based on social and economic reform (prospective justice). This strategy incudes redistibution of wealth through taxes, economic growth, building out of infrastructure, health care, houses ect. in former disadvantaged communities, but seems to have failed at creating more jobs and reducing income inequality between racial groups.
We question to what extent South Africa is in fact reconciling at different levels in sociaty and what are hinders for reconciliation and democratic consolidation. We found that at the national political level the reconciliatory compromises with amnesty and truth commission made the transition to democracy possible in the first place. We found movements towards political reconciliation, the form of reconciliation considered most crucial for democratic consolidation. But the TRC's actual work seems to have had limited effect at promoting reconciliation at the political elite level and the government failed to implemet TRC's recommendations on reparations to victims and thus undermined the commission's work.
At the mass level amnesty remains deeply unpopular, but reparations and sincere apologies from perpetrators had a potential of making amnesty more acceptable for the general public. The limited implementation of recommendations thus underscores this potential. Even though the TRC was fairly successful at uncovering a rough picture of former abuses by making amnesty contingent on individual revealing of the abuses, overall commitment to human rights remains low. There are also indications that the TRC's work has worsened cross-racial relations. Particularly white people are unconvinced they played a role in former abuses and that the abuses were morally wrong. This made us question why the group benefiting from the abuses rejected the TRC findings, and what could have been done to involve this group in reconciliatory attempts.
As most research on the TRC focus on the national level, we did a community study to see if local communities could offer new insight on why the TRC had limited success at promoting cross racial reconciliation. In a town dominated by the Afrikaners (the group most notable for their support of the former regime), that had experienced harsh oppression of all human rights and gross violations in particular, we traced the work of the TRC. We quetion to what extent TRC promoted reconciliation between diffrent racial groups, within sub-communities, between ex combatants, and helped people reconcile with their own personal histories.
We found that the TRC process had been particularly painful within the white Afrikaner community. The TRC scratched the surface of local abuses by holding a public victims hearing and established that politiclly motivated torture, killings and severe ill treatment had taken place, which had not been publicly acknowledged by the white population in town. The white population was split over how to deal with revealed perpetrators within their own community, and thereby sent mixed signals to the other communities about whether the Afrikaners distanced themselves from or supported the abuses. National accusations of bias in favour of the liberation movement seem to have been a convenient excuse to look away from painful revelations of gross human rights violation. This probably made it easier to avoid notions of guilt or responsibility (individually or collectively). Involved groups, as the security police and the army, closed ranks and did not appear before the commission. They thereby gave up an opportunity both to acknowledge that violations had taken place and accept responsibility, but also give input on their version of the truth about the past conflict.
The TRC tried to get input in the work for reparations as well as starting a local debate on how to promote reconciliation in the community by establishing a community programme. But the white people felt alienated by the TRC and withdrew from its initiatives, and limited its potential of starting a cross-racial dialogue. Lack of a local implementation body severely limited the local impact of the programme in terms of reconciliation and development. The government’s hesitation to implement reparations limited the potential effect on reconciliation in the community.
We look also into how other national reconciliation strategies affected this community, and whether contact as a suggested non-institutional path to reconciliation, had the intended effect. We found improvements in terms of infrastructure and housing, but unemployment and poverty remain widespread. Although a minority of blacks and coloureds have climbed into the middle class, little has changed for most of the black and coloureds. The general overlap between race and class still hinders cross-racial contact. Inequality in social status is also a hinder for this contact to be positive for cross-racial reconciliation. Many pointed out that it is easier to reconcile for the people that had experienced improvements in living conditions, but for most people little have changed. This hampers the suggested non-institutional road to reconciliation by contact, and shows that lack of change at the community level can undermine national reconciliatory initiatives.
We document that South Africans have an instrumental view of democracy. But even though the South African Constitution is one of the most progressive in the world when it comes to recognising economic, social (and cultural) human rights, the government is struggling with delivery. Against this background, with the main social and economic conflict unresolved after almost 10 years of democratic rule, it seems that the TRC's work was too limited to deliver strong, long term reconciliation.
We argue that we can distinguish between two understandings of democracy: Minimalists understandings mainly focus on formal civil and political rights, while maximalist understandings also highlight the need for econcomic and social rights to secure everybodys ability to exercise the civil/ political rights and therebt secure the quality of the democracy. South Africa is still struggling with violent crime and widespread poverty, making reconciliation hard. Even though white South Africans had to give up exclusive political power, they still benefit from better access to the economic recourses as a result of the human rights abuses from the past. We found that South Africa is moving towards consolidation of democracy if we understand democracy in a minimalist way. We found that South Africans have an instrumental view of democracy: They want democracy because they hope it will lead to delivery of economic and social rights, not because it is seen as a good thing in itself, independent of performance. We found that the problems in delivering economic and social rights are threatening to undermine the democratic consolidation.
This shows that reconciliation after human rights abuses, despite it being put on top of the political agenda during the democratic transition, is still difficult because the legacy of the abuses lives on. We conclude that economic and social human rights also count in consolidation of democracy: Not only can we distinguish conceptually between consolidation of minimalist and maximalist democracies: In South Africa problems of delivering economic and social rights, are hampering reconciliation, which in the long run can undermine democratic consolidation.