University of Cape Town: Post-TRC: Students explore hard questions on justice and healing

South Africa is one of many countries to have embarked on a truth and reconciliation process to effect justice, restoration and healing – ours, after the fall of apartheid. But how successful are these fora? And what more can be done to realise transformative justice? These were questions put to University of Cape Town (UCT) students participating in the Global Citizenship Programme (GCP).

The programme was co-facilitated by lecturers Janine Carlse and Kim M Reynolds, assisted by Lulama Linda.

Now located in the Dean’s Office in the Centre for Higher Education Development (CHED), the GCP is a free, voluntary course for students. Its four modules deal with critical debate, voluntary service activities and reflection. The aim is to nurture responsible global citizens able to engage in international working settings by developing their critical thinking skills and actions on a range of social justice issues, said Carlse, the programme lecturer and course convenor.

This year over 100 students have participated in at least one GCP co-curricular course.

The latest group participated in the “GC1: Racialised Trauma and Justice (Global Debates, Local Voices)” course. The final session of the six-week course saw guest contributor UCT MPhil Justice and Transformation scholar Luvano Ntuli present her work on the limitations of transitional justice in the context of former ‘settler’ colonies.

Ntuli explained: “Transitional justice is a field of theory and practice concerned with redress in the aftermath of conflict and massive human rights violations under authoritarian rule, and is mainly concerned with transitions that accompany the move from authoritarian regime to democratic rule.”

TRC limitations

South Africa’s 1996 Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) was launched by the Government of National Unity after the fall of apartheid in 1994. Its mandate was to investigate human rights abuses committed between 1960 and 1994, and suggest ways of effecting reparation, rehabilitation and reconciliation among South Africans.

It became a model for many other countries trying to move from their oppressive history to a hopeful future.

“Those who benefited from democracy were not actually the victims, but rather the stakeholders in the negotiation room.”

But the local TRC was flawed, said Ntuli. There was too little focus on socio-economic issues, and little acknowledgement of settler colonialism (with its very long history), the land issue, and other forms of dispossession. There were also many unanswered questions about the nature and terms of forgiveness, healing, and reconciliation. The restorative justice envisioned did not reach far enough to provide the healing sought by so many families and communities.

“The TRC came about as part of a negotiated settlement,” said Ntuli.

And there’s the rub.

“Those who benefited from democracy were not actually the victims, but rather the stakeholders in the negotiation room. These limitations mean that the legacies of injustice remain prevalent and on the rise in contemporary South Africa.”

Settler colonisation and the unresolved land issue remain bound up in the socio-economic injustice that people of colour in this country still live with, said Ntuli.

It’s hard to talk about reconciliation, she said, “because we haven’t really had an honest conversation about our history”.

“The denials of the settler colonial project have rendered claims to justice nearly impossible. It’s difficult to talk about our past, because we shy away from the issue. If we look at today’s legislation, structures and institutions, it’s very clear that democratisation came at the expense of black people.”

What does justice look like?

Given the TRC’s omissions, Ntuli asked the students to consider whether they thought justice was still attainable.

“If so, what does it look like? What more is needed to move the country forward, 25 years after the TRC was formed?”

The first lesson is that there’s no one-size-fits-all answer, Carlse reminded them.

“The relationship between trauma and healing is as complex as the country’s history. But it’s through asking these questions around justice, truth and healing that we can begin grappling with the legacies of injustice in this country and find ways we can push back against them.”

“Sharing perspectives is vital to this process,” said one participant, a Canadian student from the University of Toronto’s Hart House Global Commons, which partners with UCT’s GCP. Participation in the GCP course had broadened her own understandings, she said.

“It’s good for people who have different views to actually come together and talk.”

She also discussed examples from Canada’s own history, including the lengthy oppression of the country’s indigenous people by colonial settlers.

“The 2008 Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada ended their report in 2015; it took them seven years to decide [how to move forward],” she said. “They made 94 calls for action … and studies show that on average, depending where in Canada you live, maybe 10 to 12 of these recommendations have been implemented.”

“Is it about awareness and advocacy – and acknowledging that healing is difficult to achieve?”

If restorative justice is not achieved, she asked, what is the purpose of these commissions?

“Are these processes healing nations? Are these achieving the goals they’re set up for, or perpetuating trauma? What are they achieving? Is it about awareness and advocacy – and acknowledging that healing is difficult to achieve?”

Following on from these questions, student Lucy Wills said that research had yielded interesting insights. One reading said that truth had no significant impact on the victim’s sense of justice or feelings of revenge and retribution, or the psychological effects on them of trauma. But there is evidence that truth helps alleviate shame.

“So in the context of the TRC, it could be argued, who is benefiting? Is it benefiting the perpetrator, because they can alleviate their shame and receive forgiveness? Or is it the person, [the victim] it was meant for?”

And why have adequate post-TRC structures not been put in place?

“When you open a conversation like this … you force someone to relive a basic, deeply traumatic experience … and then, as the TRC did, you don’t leave long-term structures in place to hold that person and hold that experience,” Wills commented.

Accountability and forgiveness

Barbara Karanja asked whether forgiveness could survive without accountability.

“Africans are still playing catch-up after years of independence; still trying to catch up with white people who have had decades of economic and social protection, and are still enjoying institutional favours … Can you ask for healing, when you continue to inflict pain on the same people [but] in different ways?”

Student Nyasha Mpani said the lifespan of the TRC had been too short to deal with the gamut of injustices.

“[It] was not enough for people to out their issues … A lot of technical and structural issues are not yet out in the domain for these people.”

He also highlighted the limitations of the TRC’s top-down approach to effecting justice.

“One of the problems is that we don’t think local people have the solutions to their problems. I’m a firm believer in the fact that when you want a solution to a local problem, if you activate grassroots action you will definitely get a solution. The people feel they want a sense of ownership [of the process].”

“That’s where the commission failed. It was too philosophical. And it completely missed the economic justice part of it.”

He also questioned the use of English in the TRC hearings. There were translators, but translations are limited.

“Some communities could not speak English; they could not even get themselves to where the courts were being held.”

Jonathan Matolla said the commission had been too one-dimensional when dealing with reparation.

“Reparations should have been paid, such as child support and helping the victims become economically viable, sustainable and independent. That’s where the commission failed. It was too philosophical. And it completely missed the economic justice part of it. I also think a lot of voices were left out … the ground-up voices.”


UCT medical student Ubuntu Hlatshwayo said the course has been an eye-opener.

“There are so many historical concepts that I was not aware of, even as a young South African, and this broadened my perspective on how racial trauma affects us all.”

Jonathan Matolla said he had also welcomed the interaction.

“I’m writing my master’s thesis, which is a very, very lonely process … I’ve learnt a lot from the different perspectives – that’s the beauty of an online course across different continents and contexts.”

The participants’ last project is to work their learning, thoughts and conclusions on racialised trauma and justice into a personal manifesto. This is a vital part of the learning process, envisioning an alternative and just future.

“In addition to collective healing, we must do individual healing; and that’s why spaces like this are so important. And that’s why inviting young voices – young black voices – into this space is important. And coming up with our own ways of healing.”

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