OPINION: The president lost a golden opportunity to use his eulogy to the Arch and the occasion of the January 8th statement, to restore credibility in the government by matching his rhetoric with action, writes Yasmin Sooka.
Archpishop Desmond Tutu’s death on 26 December 2021 left our nation bereft, feeling the loss of our moral compass. Revered during his life for speaking truth to power, the Arch’s death provoked an outpouring of grief from across the world.
Tributes on his passing lauded his role in the struggle for freedom, justice and equality in South Africa, and his solidarity with peoples’ struggles for freedom across the world.
Sello Hatang, in a tribute he authored, noted that the Arch had a rocky relationship with the ruling party. The Arch himself had protested that he had not survived one tyranny to live under another. In death though, the ruling party paid homage to the Arch’s life.
Nevertheless a moral and ethical disconnect exists between the rhetoric used to venerate the Arch and the deliberate impunity for the apartheid-era crimes, illustrated by the president’s eulogy at the Arch’s funeral. The president recalled the iconic image of the Arch in tears at the first hearing of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 1996, when Singqokwana Malgas testified in a wheelchair, about his brutal torture at the hands of the apartheid security branch.
The president noted that the Arch bequeathed us many things including the importance of having the courage of one’s convictions, solidarity with the oppressed, and delivering on the promises made by the constitution.
The president’s words, deeply perceptive, that stood out however, were that “there were times when he felt let down”. It is a reminder that the ruling party did indeed let the Arch down: first, when they went to court in 1998 to stop the publication of the TRC’s report and from 2003 onwards, when both the Mbeki and Zuma governments failed to implement the TRC recommendations on prosecutions and reparations.
The Arch, in a speech he gave in 2014, said that “healing is a process and how we deal with the truth after its telling defines the success of the process... by choosing not to follow through on the commission’s recommendations, the government not only compromised the commission’s contribution to the process, but the very process itself”.
The president’s January 8 statement exhorted his listeners to draw courage and inspiration from the life of the late Arch to become more humane, principled and to work for a better life for all, by renouncing corruption.
He articulated that these goals could be achieved by building a social compact to decisively address the challenges of unemployment, violence and poverty, omitting to mention the social compact at the dawn of the transition when the families of the victims of apartheid era crimes gave up their fundamental rights to justice, to give birth to the new South Africa.
The commitment in the preamble of the constitution, to honour those who gave up their lives for freedom, saw the establishment of the TRC, under the leadership of the Arch, stripping bare the inhumanity of the apartheid system, endeavouring to restore the dignity of victims.
Although profoundly committed to forgiveness and restorative justice, the Arch was unequivocal in his belief that “there could be no forgiveness without truth and accountability”. Consequently, he advocated a bold prosecution policy to deal with perpetrators who had not applied for amnesty or had been refused amnesty.
He was devastated to learn that the Executive had deliberately suppressed the investigation and prosecution of the apartheid era cases, over a period of 23 years, feeling acutely betrayed by the democratic state’s failure to honour the constitutional compact.
The deliberate stalling of the criminal justice process and the failure to implement the TRC’s reparations policy which could have alleviated the racialised poverty and inequality in South Africa exacerbated by corruption and the Covid-19 pandemic, pained him. The President’s call for a new social compact is therefore ironic, given the prevailing culture of violence, corruption and impunity.
Former TRC commissioners and apartheid victims’ families, the Desmond and Leah Tutu Legacy Foundation and civil society have called upon the president to apologise to the families of apartheid era victims for the betrayal of their rights.
The president lost a golden opportunity to use his eulogy to the Arch and the occasion of the January 8th statement, to restore credibility in the government by matching his rhetoric with action, including an apology to victims’ families, the announcement of the appointment of a special director in the National Prosecuting Authority to oversee the TRC cases and a commitment to establish an independent commission of inquiry to investigate the state’s suppression of investigations and prosecution in the TRC cases, would have gone a long way in honouring the legacy of Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu and matching the empty rhetoric with the recognition that “the commission was a beginning and not an end,” as the Archbishop stated in 2014.
* Yasmin Sooka is a former TRC commissioner and human rights lawyer.
** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of IOL and Independent Media.