Interview with Mary Burton, Former Commissioner of The South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), 6th September, 2008

The Nordic Documentation Project on the Liberation Struggles in Southern Africa at: has been conducted at The Nordic Africa Institute (NAI) since 2003 and will be concluded with a workshop that will take place on the 26 – 27 November, 2009 in Pretoria, South Africa. The project has been financed by the Swedish Foreign Ministry and has identified archives related to the liberation struggles in the Nordic countries. It has also contributed to the stimulation of further research by extending financial support to an international conference and two workshops that have revisited the history of the liberation struggles. The first conference was held on 11 – 12 April, 2008 in Sigtuna, Sweden, under the theme, Modern Solidarity - what did we learn from Southern Africa’s liberation? Popular Movements’ Meeting and Rally for Solidarity, and was organized by the Swedish Solidarity Groups. The two workshops entitled: The Liberation Struggles in Southern Africa: New Perspectives that was held at the University of Western Cape, Center for African Studies on the 4 – 6 September, 2008 and the Oral history conference: Southern Africa in the Cold War, Post-1974 that was held at Monash University, South Africa Campus on the 30-31 January 2009 in Johannesburg, South Africa were organized by Prof. Chris Saunders of the University of Western Cape,  Dr. Sue Onslow of the Cold War Studies Centre, London School of Economics and Political Science, UK and Dr. Anna-Mart van Wyk of Monash University respectively. It was during the workshop on the theme of The Liberation Struggles in Southern Africa: New Perspectives that I met Ms. Mary Burton.

PS: How successful was the South African TRC?
MB: Well I think that the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) in S. Africa was moderately successful in exposing the truth, not all the truth because we still have many questions unanswered. However, the TRC managed to establish how things happened, how much of the violence was sponsored or engineered by the state and how many underhand tactics were used by the state. I think that all that was made clear so that, it is no longer possible for the previous advantaged community, to deny responsibility for the past. I think that sufficient doors were opened so that in the future, more truth will emerge. However, creating the conditions for reconciliation has been much more difficult.

PS: How were the findings of the TRC disseminated to South Africans and were they adequately disseminated?
MB: I think that some of the major recommendations were quite well disseminated. The TRC was actually very well served by the media in South Africa. This was not only during the time of its report dissemination, but throughout the hearings and so, the country as a whole knew what was going on via television, newspapers and the radio and the broadcasting was in all our languages. But what that then meant was that the country knew what the recommendations were but nothing really happened. One of the recommendations for example was a summit meant to bring many of the actors together to talk about how the recommendations might be implemented. That never happened and the government did not even discuss the report until several years later, in 2003. This was because they were waiting for all the loose ends of the amnesty applications to be tied up and that was the reason President Mbeki gave for not discussing the report before then. So, although the report was in the public domain and was accessible, it was not being debated by the government and there was no idea of how the implementation of the recommendations would be. At the end, after discussions in the Parliament, it was made clear that the government’s decision was an acceptance of individual reparations and the amount agreed on was much less than what had been recommended by the TRC. The government argued that it would offer community and symbolic reparations. Much of it has been done and houses have been built and social grants are much better than they were. So, despite the fact that many steps have been taken, some people deeply feel that they have been abandoned by the government and have been left behind and because of that, reconciliation seems to be very far beyond our grasp.

PS: Now that the South Africans are well informed about the TRC recommendations, do you think individual reparations are realistic given the challenges new governments have at their hands and what should be done to avoid creating a lot of unrealistic hope and further division among the people who are supposed to be reconciled?
MB: Well, I must confess that when the issue of reparations was debated within the TRC I was originally not very much in favour of individual compensation partly because, it is so difficult. How does one make up for somebody who was killed or years of torture? Money does not make a difference to that but, we had a special committee and the TRC was divided into three main committees. One of them was the Reparations and Rehabilitation Committee which made investigations in other parts of the world where TRCs had been held before the South African one. The Committee debated issues with organizations like Amnesty International and others and argued strongly within the TRC, that a degree of financial reparations for individuals was a right, because of the loss of the right to prosecute. So, since we had abandoned the right of people to seek justice with courts through the Amnesty process, balancing that up would require individual reparations. So those of us who were worried about the implications of how the individual reparations would be handled and how they would be allocated, and whether they would create rifts in the communities between those who received and those who did not, were persuaded that this was a matter of justice. In 2000 some of us tried to start an organization that was meant to be the channel for white people to say, “Maybe I did not support apartheid and maybe I was even an activist against it but even then I benefitted from it.” But, you cannot get white people to acknowledge that and the campaign that we started was immediately destroyed by negative press reports and by negative responses.

PS: Was it right for the new democratic government to have accepted to pay reparations for crimes against humanity that it never committed?
MB: Well, I think so because in a way, there was a continuity of the state and one of the elements of reconciliation is when there is an official and formal acknowledgement of the state’s responsibility and its burden even though it is a new state. And I think that in terms of granting dignity and acknowledgement to the victims, there is a sense that when that comes from the state, it carries the weight of a real official acknowledgement.

PS: Do you agree that this enormous burden makes it hard for the new government to deliver the expected reparations and which in turn alienates its people?
MB: I suppose so. I think it is and especially in countries where the economy has also been devastated by years of civil wars which are often the conditions for TRCs. We did not have that because we are potentially a wealthy country. We could afford to have done much better in terms of either financial packages or investments.

PS: What has hindered the delivery of the financial packages?
MB: Well, I think a number of things have. I think that the new government did not anticipate how difficult it would be to take over the reins and how thin the layer of skilled people was in the country especially at the local level. Secondly, although in the first years there was a provision to keep the civil servants in their jobs, there were also offers of very generous retrenchment packages to get the old civil service out of the way.

PS: Are these generous retrenchment packages still being paid out and don’t these kind of schemes make it even more difficult for the government to deliver the direly needed reparations?
MB: No, because the government had to get those people out of the way and create opportunities for the new generation.

PS: Why were the retrenchment packages paid out at the expense of the reparations?
MB: Well, it was not so much pensions but it was a golden hand-shake and a one off payment. It also had a negative effect on some government departments. For instance in the education department, a number of teachers left and the government for some reason closed many of the teacher training colleges. We now have desperate shortage of teachers and we are trying to rebuild our component of teachers but it is not a thing that you do quickly. So, education is one of the greatest needs that we have and it is not a question of money but skills.

PS: When I read the mandates of TRCs, a lot of emphasis is put on the incorporating its findings in the school curriculum. How has that worked for South Africa?
MB: It has not until now. It has started happening and indeed it is amazing how long it has taken!

PS: Why has it taken that long?
MB: I think it is very difficult unless there is some specific plan and we obviously did not have one. We had some ideas and there were some new history books that were introduced but, certainly teaching about the TRC and reconciliation and using the materials that are there is just beginning to happen.

PS: Is that at the tertiary level?
MB: No, it is happening in the schools as well. But at the tertiary level, I sit here at the University of Cape Town, Centre for African Studies and quite often see groups of American students, who are really interested and ask questions on the TRC. But, I very seldom have the same requests from South Africa students.

PS: So, here we see that the schools have a role to play. Was there a follow-up institution that was left in place to carry on the legacy of the TRC?
MB: No, absolutely not and I think that is one of the things I would like to recommend to other countries that are considering TRCs. They must have some kind of provision for a body which should monitor the recommendations of the TRC.

PS: Why do you think that despite all what has not worked out as far as the South African TRC is concerned it still sells as a successful model?
MB: I really think that each country should bring together a team and if it is embarking on the process of reconstruction, it should presumably have some kind of negotiations. The negotiators should be in a position to find out what ought to be done. However, there is a great temptation for countries to rush to the TRC model because it is somehow seen as successful.

PS: Why is this temptation?
MB: Well I think that very often it is the negotiators or the mediators who sell the TRC idea. I know that when the DRC Peace Accord was signed with President Mbeki facilitator, part of the condition was that they should have a TRC. I have been a couple of times to Burundi but both Burundi and Rwanda were also I think pushed by the United Nations where the condition was that, “if we are to help you to have the peace going, you have must establish a TRC.”

PS: Why is this the case, when research shows that earlier TRCs like the ones in South America, in Eastern Europe and now in Africa have not and are not working for the poor?
MB: The people who come to make the statements are the ones who make the process work because if they said no, there would be no TRC. They facilitate everything and then they get nothing. This is a very bad recipe for reconciliation.

PS: I am particularly interested in the documentation process of TRCs and how it is handled in an effort to promote reconciliation and to empower the citizenry, in a way that would enable them to interrogate their governments on the implementation of the TRC recommendations and for research. How was the South African TRC documentation taken care of?
MB: I believe that the TRC report and its archives are a national heritage and they should be available everywhere. The TRC documentation is so rich and that is what is so good about TRCs.

PS: TRCs have a great potential but their work has failed to address the plight of the poor. A lot of focus is put on the reconciliation process and little attention is paid to the follow-up activities which make it hard to attain the objectives of the TRCs. This has become very problematic. How would you as an experienced Commissioner of the prominent South African TRC, advise other countries on the setting up of new TRCs?
MB: I think that it is very important to consult widely in the community as to what people think would be the best. I think it is very important not to impose a model or to make the establishment of a TRC a condition during peace negotiations.

Conflict resolution
Mary Burton
Proscovia Svärd
South Africa
Southern Africa
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