Focus The South African Experience


Most of the states in the world are faced with the challenge of transitional regime where systems undergo significant changes especially from dictatorial to democratic. The transition is marked by delving deep into histories for the purposes of resurfacing the truth hidden behind events that impacted the society in a wrong way. One of the methods used in handling the past is by granting amnesty to individuals who committed crimes in the recent past. Situations where the democratic process does not yield an unequivocal winner, the negotiation process has been thought as a fair deal in healing the country. However, the transitional struggle in such countries like South Africa has amounted to the exchange for truth, acquiescence and reconciliation to the political order in place. This amounts to transitional justice, which underscores the legal, political and philosophical investigation of the aftermath of an awful event or a war. On the argument of the transitional policies, the lustration policies, truth commissions and tribunal, the discussion will maintain a focus on the violations and state response towards incidents in South Africa, factors that shaped different state choices and the roles of the truth commission in changing the political landscape. Across the discussion, the paper will retain an analytical approach that digs deeper into significant considerations that failed in the process, and reasons as to why transitional justice is more preferable.

Injustices in South Africa

South Africa shares, like any other African State, shares a history of social ills which are perpetuated by the government officials, a group of people or the government itself. The society, at some point, felt more betrayed by the regime in place for ignoring the public voice and an outcry that cites injustices (Gelb et al.). The history shares the bitter bite of racial violence that worked in favour of the white supremacy where force and the physical power favoured the in-group.


Racial and political violence provide proof of a bitter history that hit the climax in the 1990s with the imminent release of Nelson Mandela indicating a beginning point for the reconciliation process. The apartheid policy embodied the damaging contemporary systems of racial classification, political violence and a split of the population into African, coloured, Indian and white (Tambe et al.). Apartheid appraised the racial peace, which amounted to a system of frustrations where the political as well as criminal conduct could not be differentiated. The primitive forms of violence first appeared before 1948 as a result of the influx of the African labourers. The harsh apartheid laws perpetuated and intensified violence as the mines in Johannesburg became energizing grounds for the segregated African population (Verbuyst). The Soweto uprising in the year 1976 marked incipient change as well as change in perception among the whites and Africans.

The inception of tri-cameral system in 1983 sparked the African Revolt. More than 3.5 million people were affected by forced removals that subjected the population to poor health, poor education system, malnutrition and overcrowded schools (McEwan et al.). Based on this, Apartheid is regarded as the main contributing factor to the historical injustices. Between the year 1960 and 1994, history stipulates around 2500 people who had been hanged as a result of the political crimes and 80000 more people who were reportedly detained without trial. During the period, incidents of human rights violation were highly felt in terms of severe ill-treatment, killing, torture and abduction. All these have been cited as crime against humanity as a result of racism that upheld the white minority in a foreign land.

Other injustices include the urban violence, which occurred under government’s watch. The emergence of the Ninevites gang led by Nongozola frightened the inhabitants and administered justice to most of the white employees. The inception of the African males in prisons as a result of the pass laws enhanced the roles of the gap that operated both in the prisons and the community as well. The emergence of the Hard Livings gang in the 1993 was met by a political transition that saw the opposition and the government negotiating indemnity and amnesty as replacement for prosecution (David et al.). However, upheavals and killings were rife and urban violence was orchestrated in the name of freedom. Between 1990 and 1994, media reports in assassination of some of the influential figures, ruinous battles and bomb blasts floated the air as reflected in a case study by David Abrahams. In addition, the 21st century is still marked with injustices said to be propagated by some of the government officials (ibid). The injustices amounted to xenophobic violence heavily characterized by brutal assaults, ethnic cleansing and victimization by police officers.

The xenophobic attacks were witnessed in May 2008 with foreigners being the prime target. The incident prompted the implementation of the international law for the purposes of securing the immigrants. Other realties noted along human rights violations include the vulnerability and marginalization of women in the society (Villa-Vicencio et al.). Perhaps, violation of women’s rights is an issue that cuts across most of the African countries. The violation is a noticeable gap of silence and it is being regarded as a domestic issue that has been receiving a delayed attention. Failure to attend to the outcry will probably lead to escalated rates of sexual violence with effects extended to class, race and sexual orientation. The South African Police Services reported over 69117 rap cases in 2004 and 2005, which is a figure that sends a different message to the human rights schemes.

While raping is downplayed in the society, the impact is increasingly overwhelming with women exposed to more dangers. Sexual violence or injustices attached to women have also been cited along other forms of violence, which substantiate into causes of concern. Over 31% of the pregnant women surveyed in 21st century were survivors of the KwaZulu Natal. Similar cases could also be noted in Mpumalanga and the Eastern Cape. With AIDS and HIV being part of the dangers or risks of rape cases, domestic violence should no longer be regarded as a norm, collateral damage or an inner fight but an injustice in South Africa as far as human rights are put on scale.

Injustice and human right violations

Amid cases of injustices and human rights violations, some of the case studies have focused on what were some of the state responses towards them. The concern resurfaces the insights of the historical efforts that captured both the local and international attention with regards to addressing the human rights violations. However, the study of state responses has always sparked criticisms with some groups blaming the government for being the perpetuator of most violations (Villa-Vicencio et al.). The South African society is one country that has suffered most from injustices fuelled by the white supremacy and even some of prominent persons within the African community. While the government constituted the whites, in the first place, it can be justified that injustices were inflated on racial basis and served as one way of protecting the interests of the white minority. While Weber’s theory raised the notion of competition, the interest of the government was to safeguard the livelihood of a certain group of people described either by race, gender or class. As one way of basing on truth in handling historical injustices, South Africa, in the walk to demography first opted to have the Truth and Reconciliation Commission as a scheme that would respond to institutional violence. The release of Mandela prompted the country in addressing the political democracy, which came after the 1994 elections.

Seeking for truth

Under the leadership of Desmond Tutu, Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) was charged with the responsibility of giving details of the nature, causes as well as the degree of human rights violations that were witnessed during the apartheid era. The TRC served as a court meant to address atrocities witnessed in the country as victims share experiences in public hearings. While the TRC involves a process that can rekindle animosity, it was thought to serve a better deal of sealing the reconciliatory gap between the victims and the perpetrators. Mandela’s freedom has always been used as a reconciliatory platform for both the political as well as the economic environment in the country. The sense of transitional justice started taking shape amid the amnesty provisions where the issue of criminal accountability was raised from time to time. The provisions cited reconstruction and reconciliation granted with respect of the offenses, acts and omissions associated to the political objectives felt across a series of conflicts. However, the amnesty provisions showcased areas of weakness in handling the post-1994 political violence after the process was criticized from all corners of the world.

Secondly, amnesty provisions went against the will of South Africans to forget their bitter past instead of being reminded to narrate the incidents. Both the international and national laws fostered prosecution of violators as one way of meeting the requirements of criminal accountability with regards to human rights violation as indicated in the case study by David Abrahams. Secondly, the state seemed to have ignored gang violence in towns or urban centres with police officers said to have focused more on the repressive legislation and pass laws. Rape and murder dominated the better part of the day with gangsters enjoying the freedom of executing social ills at the expense of the lives of people residing in different locations. However, the formation of the Commission of Inquiry led by Goldstone substantiated into a responsive measure that saw a transition from repressive police to community service.

Role of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC)

The commission played a critical role of delving into the scope of intimidation and public violence, establish recommendations to the president regarding measures meant to contain human rights violations, as well as steps that could stop intimidation. However, gaps in the commission led to the rise of vigilantism due to an incapacitated government that could not fight crime and drugs at the same time. Police welcomed vigilantism in curbing gangsterism. The short-to-kill policy also floated the air at one point with Bheki Cele taking note of the increased cases of armed criminals and increased cases of human rights violations. Perhaps, the policy became one of the measures that surpassed the limits of the liberal social justice theory, which bears the historical and geographical meaning. This came at the time when the state looked worn out in preventing violence as well as protecting victims. The weakness created more loopholes for injustices as perpetuators could freely hold meetings before the attacks in the full glare of the police forces.

In the cause of transitional justice and the structure of the truth commission, a number of factors are thought to have influenced the state choices towards injustices and human rights violations. The first and the most dominating factor is the long period of the apartheid era, which led to inequality matters. Apartheid became part of the impeding factors towards social justice and economic development in the South African society. After independence, freedom was imminent and the state focused on reconstructing social cohesions amid a tattered community due to social ills. The state picked on choices that could rebuild the meaning of the country and its prestige that defined the social and economic sense of the country. South Africa is known for bearing a bitter life of political violence. Notable, the aftermath of political chaos could only be shaped through the liberal theory that checked on fairness and forgiveness among the grieving communities. There are reasons as to why the scope of apartheid could be reasoned before considering any form of responses. First, apartheid had posited a restriction on access to both the social and cultural capital. It had determined durable inequalities in the society, which led to mobilization of resources in favour of the white minority. The version of apartheid could later adopt the political landscape where Africans were only represented through separate legislatures as well as the municipal institutions. The social apartheid could be noted along the racial lines with discrimination being extended to even areas of evidence.

Apart from the scope of apartheid and inequality, the South African state had to further look into the status of the civil society. The civil society was extremely disorganized and the impact spread through the entire country. The aftermath of the apartheid era made most of the NGOs dysfunctional and small groups ended up criticizing the way in which power was executed. Some of the groups included the Anti-Privatization Forum and the Helen Suzman Foundation. The civil society also pointed out the corruption issues within the political and business establishment. It is of note that the anti-corruption space was only dominated by specific NGOs and the think tanks, which indicated that the civil society was less enlightened, which meant that it could take action without considering the lawful actions.

The state responses had to first review the stability of the civil society in informing individuals in the community concerning social injustices in the country, and the right modes of taking action. A few indicators also showcased the fact that the civil society was on the verge of misinformation or being under-informed after the deterioration of the Blue Chip NGOs. Some of the organizations that collapsed include the Institute for Security Studies, which was closed after working in a few corruption issues. Besides, the trade unions and the social movements would end being biased or being influenced politically, which led to balkanization of the South African community. While noting the state of the civil society, the state responses had to focus on the efforts of the society while setting up measures meant to address the social injustices. As far as the white supremacy was dubbed as the prime element of destitute and servitude, the black community still had a fair share in the frustrations after focusing on personal interests instead of pushing for national changes.

The last factor includes the purview of optimism of transition. In 1990s, the period marked a series of settlement and negotiation. However, the country was still facing great instability with the negotiation process only yielding political violence and increased loopholes that plundered the wealth of the country. The imminent presidency of Nelson Mandela was seen as a fresh hope for the people of South Africa (Tutu). The tremendous change saw an opportunity of extra-positive change with a new constitution that marked the right to information and freedom of speech among other rights (Campbell). However, the times were also clouded by instability across the elites who jostled for both influence and power in different capacities. Changes in the way of life and emergence of classes among the black community led to the sense of selfishness and greed that dimmed the course of the struggle (Spreen et al.). The incident seemingly dimmed the essence of the theory of justice, which insists on retaining a specific course of fight that can also be understood by the society (Cakal et al.). Therefore, state responses also desired to incorporate the divisive interests as one way of calming the society after a tough era of apartheid. At some point, amnesty was thought to serve as well as decline the course of action desired or rejected by a section of the society.

The key targets included Chief Buthelezi, ANC leadership, the National Party leaders, Police authorities and the minor players in the respective liberation organizations. The role had an impact of diluting the wrath of the affected side by fostering the human rights culture in the country. In the course of national healing, the TRC played a greater role of extending the apologetic confessions to the community which became a victim of a series of crimes witnessed in South Africa. The third role includes providing public knowledge that created the national memory of the apartheid system. This means that every person is reminded of the bitter past and the truth narrated by the perpetrators and not the ANC. Perhaps, the TRC appealed to the social trust and filling social gaps created through the killings, abduction and rape. Building social trust was meant to facility believability in the course of governance and self-rule marked by freedom for all and equality (Seekings et al.). The fourth role included giving room for reconciliation among families while the last role included the aspect of presenting South Africa as a nation of both law and order.

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To sum up, countries have realized that dealing with the truth helps to address the past, which must have been tainted by social ills. In exploring the social injustices and the truth commission in South Africa, the discussion pointed out the historical incidences that mounted to injustices. Some of the incidents include the apartheid era characterized by discrimination, gang and urban violence as well as domestic violence or injustices to women through violation of their rights. The discussion also noted the state responses including amnesty, shoot-to-kill policy and paving way for vigilantism. Reasons cited along development of responses included the structure of the civil society and the prolonged era of apartheid. The situation in South Africa prompted for transitional justice, which has seen the truth commission play significant roles meant to heal the nation.

The inclination towards social theory points at the failure of the state response in facilitating prosecutions. The state missed an opportunity to prosecute individuals who propagated violence with non-nationals falling victims of the deportation process after the community got angered by government delays in addressing injustices. While this appeared as a communal effort, the action seemingly disregarded the impact of government in avenging the pain people felt in the days of servitude, destitute and oppression in the hands of the white minority. Therefore, it can be noted that the South African government came out soft in handling key issues that had an impact on the lives of people far as social injustices are put into consideration.

The integration of historical incidences and factors that prompted different state responses is likely to question the roles of the truth commission in the political landscape of South Africa. The setup of the TRC provided for amnesty, which became a key tool in negotiating plank behind the National Party with which lack of it, peaceful settlement would not have been achievable. The dead end of the apartheid era brought an end to the human rights abuses as provided in the amnesty provisions. This appealed to the aforementioned approaches that aimed at striking a peace deal instead of sparking rivalry among different parties. The second role TRC played in addressing the social injustices was through creation of a platform that allowed the violators of social justice to confess.


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