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Reparations on agenda of apartheid victims

They are all members of the Khulumani Support Group and the Galela Campaign two groups fighting for financial redress for the victims of white minority rule under apartheid.

Reparations on agenda of apartheid victims

Protesters demanding justice and reparations for abuses suffered under apartheid.

Martina Schwikowski

The voices of some 50 elderly protesters are heard echoing in song across the grounds of South Africa's Constitutional Court in Johannesburg, the commercial heart of South Africa. They are demanding justice and reparations for abuses suffered under apartheid 30 years after the country became a democracy.

They are all members of the Khulumani Support Group and the Galela Campaign two groups fighting for financial redress for the victims of white minority rule under apartheid.

The protesters say that since they weren't identified as victims of human rights abuses during apartheid by South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), led by the late Archbishop Desmond Tutu 28 years ago, they haven't benefited from any reparations paid out by the government to date.

While the group have protested in front of the court intermittently for years, their permanent camp outside the Constitional Court only started in November 2023. One of the protestors is Thabo Shabangu. He was shot in the back by police officers in 1990 during a demonstration against the oppression of the majority black population by the white regime just as the country was warming up to the idea of equality and democracy.

The 61-year-old told DW that he has never received any compensation for his injuries. He feels abandoned, he says: "I am so very, very disappointed. We are the revolutionaries, we are the people that formed this democracy, we are the first democracy people. It is us that fought for the reparations that today we are not eating the fruit of."

Shabangu wants reparations for the suffering he experienced during the struggle against apartheid, as well as greater medical and social support. Like around a third of all South Africans, he is unemployed, and money is scarce. "We thought the TRC would bring us justice," he says about South Africa's democracy project.

Those protesting with him outside the Constitutional Court say despite their role in the fight for South Africa to become a democracy three decades ago, they won't vote in South Africa's upcoming 2024 elections in May if reparations aren't paid: "No reparations no vote," says Shabangu.

Formal hearings before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission began in April 1996 and ended in October 1998, with then President Nelson Mandela personally appointing Tutu to chair the commission. Its aim was to promote reconciliation and forgiveness, rather than retribution, between perpetrators and victims of apartheid. During this period, the commission focused on evidence of killings, abductions and torture of people, as well as other human rights abuses. Victims and perpetrators often sat opposite each other in community halls and churches across the country.

Perpetrators who gave a full account of what had happened were granted amnesty a painful compromise for many victims. But the promise of impunity brought to light the truth about the fate of many people who had disappeared without a trace, those who had been abducted, killed and buried somewhere.

Thus, just two years after the African National Congress (ANC) came to power in the first democratic elections in 1994, the atrocities of the past were in the public spotlight. To no one's surprise, the vast majority of those who had suffered at the hands of the apartheid state were found to be black South Africans, although some cases also involved white victims as well as others.

In 2003, when the truth commission eventually published its delayed recommendations for repatriations, it recognized 21,000 victims and recommended paying them a monthly allowance administered by a special presidential fund. This list was later cut down to 17,000 people eligible for reparations.

However, then President Thabo Mbeki arranged for a one-off payment of 30,000 rand (worth $3,890 at the time) instead.

As well as the one-off payments, the fund was also supposed to be used to support victims' housing, education and healthcare but in June 2023, it still had around $100 million in unused assets.

The protestors outside the Constitutional Court say that is should be opened up for new payments.

However, there is still the issue of who is and who isn't officially recognized as a victim of apartheid. Calls for the Department of Justice and Constitutional Development to reopen the investigation into who qualifies are mounting.

The national director of the Khulumani, Marjorie Dobson, says the group has tens of thousands of members who were unable to make a claim when the TRC was holding its hearings in the 1990s.

For one, the government failed to give sufficient notice of how victims could make their declarations to the truth commission, she tells DW. But many victims also lacked money to travel to attend hearings. "We have documented this all for the Department of Justice because we think it's completely unjustified to just close the doors when all this work has been documented and the flaws are actually on the side of the state," Dobson says.

Danisile Mabanga, whose family was forcibly displaced during apartheid, is among those still hoping to receive compensation.

"We knew about the commission, but we didn't manage to go there," she tells DW. "Times were hard and we were scared."

Justice Minister Ronald Lamola meanwhile says he sees no reason for the people to stay protesting at the court: "They should go home," he told DW in an interview.

"There is nothing that we can do. The parliament has the [victims'] list, it's closed. And it would be an irregularity to for us open the list."

DW Bureau
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