For nearly a week and in deepening cold more than 70 activists demanding reparations for apartheid crimes have occupied the steps of the Constitutional Court in Braamfontein, Johannesburg. The mostly elderly activists, who all suffered great personal loss at the brutal hands of white minority rule in South Africa, say the country’s mechanisms of redress for apartheid atrocities, particularly the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), have largely failed to secure the dignity of the victims of those crimes.
The activists, who mostly come from Gauteng’s East Rand, though some are from elsewhere in South Africa, are organised under the banner of the Khulumani Support Group, a non-governmental organisation that campaigns for redress for the victims of apartheid crimes.
The road that has led them to the Constitutional Court has been a long one. Neither local government structures nor Parliament responded to their many memorandums. Now they say they will not leave the steps of South Africa’s apex court, which they call the country’s “biggest house” and “our assembly place”, until either Minister of Justice and Correctional Services Ronald Lamola or President Cyril Ramaphosa addresses them directly.
Many of the activists, including Dineo Makhura*, a woman in her 60s, are veterans of the TRC. “For 28 years, we have been knocking on the door of the Department of Justice to fix this unfinished business of the TRC,” said Makhura, who now believes that the commission was set up “for the perpetrators, not the victims” of apartheid crimes.
Her mother attended the TRC hearings seeking justice for her son, who was abducted from the family’s home by a gang coordinated by apartheid police. She and Makhura later found his half-burnt body in a state mortuary after he had been stabbed to death in a Vosloorus hostel.
Every victim counts
Stories of atrocities similar to those Makhura’s family endured are standard among the activists huddled outside the court. They claim that more than 100 000 victims of apartheid crimes are still owed reparations and say they will demand that none of them receives less than R1.5 million. “We need the government to pay, from the first victim to the last,” said Nomarussia Bonase, Khulumani’s Gauteng provincial chairperson.
The nature of any further TRC-recommended reparations will likely require wholescale government cooperation. Lamola’s department would have to work hand in hand with a host of others in order to oversee the provision of decent housing and education, for instance, or the implementation of community and cultural projects intended to heal apartheid’s symbolic scars – all hallmarks of TRC-style reparations.
Lamola’s spokesperson, Chrispin Phiri, who met with the activists over the weekend, said he “understands the issues they have marched for” and added that the minister was “open to meeting them at his earliest convenience”. It had so far not been possible owing to “a scheduling issue” and Lamola being “unable to drop other commitments”, said Phiri, who claimed the activists had “reneged on [earlier] commitments to meet”.
Meanwhile, the activists continue their Constitutional Court vigil, sleeping under thick blankets on makeshift beds of cardboard under the court’s famous façade. They are subsisting largely on bread and tea and have no access to toilets or running water between 5pm and 7am. Many have fallen ill and at least one has been hospitalised while they wait to hear from Lamola.
*Not her real name.