Opinion Piece

Magda Wierzycka: We need another Truth and Reconciliation Commission

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission saw victims and perpetrators come together to express their regret and confess their sins. Many were forgiven, even if their sins can never be forgotten. This was done in the interest of allowing South Africa to move forward. Is there a chance that, perhaps, right now, South Africa is ready for another TRC?

The recent revelations spilling over from the #GuptaLeaks have highlighted, in technicolour, just how corrupt the public sector has become. From Cabinet ministers to boards of directors and managers of state-owned enterprises, there seems to be no limit to the plunder that has taken place and continues to take place.

But let’s also not forget the private sector. For every action by a public-sector employee, there is a private sector beneficiary who paid. Not all those involved are the Guptas, who, in many cases, play more of the role of “rent-seekers” in many of the deals than the counterparties to the deals themselves. One can safely assume that there are some well-known companies which are implicated in paying bribes for rigged tenders, in influencing government policy in their favour and in turning a blind eye and facilitating blatant abuses of state power to fill their coffers.

Corruption has become so endemic in South Africa that it is difficult to see a happy ending. As much as most average South Africans are baying for blood, perhaps one needs to give a thought to another solution, a solution which can bring a swifter end to the economic collapse facing South Africa and allow us to heal, albeit with a bitter taste in our mouth, and move forward in a constructive manner to grow the economy, create jobs, fix our education system, address economic exclusion, attract foreign investment, motivate domestic companies to invest, maintain our infrastructure, focus on renewable energy and a myriad different action items that we so badly need as a society. The solutions, policies and efforts required will necessitate a strong public sector, labour and business partnership, a partnership based, at least, on mutual respect, if not on complete trust.

A solution that has been whispered about is another Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). The original TRC was set up in 1995 by the Government of National Unity to help heal South Africa by uncovering the truth about human rights violations that occurred during the period of apartheid.

To quote the Honorable Dullah Omar, former Minister of Justice:

... a commission is a necessary exercise to enable South Africans to come to terms with their past on a morally accepted basis and to advance the cause of reconciliation”.

The TRC saw victims and perpetrators come together to express their regret and confess their sins. Many were forgiven, even if their sins can never be forgotten. This was done in the interest of allowing South Africa to move forward.

Is there a chance that, perhaps, right now, South Africa is ready for another TRC? A commission which allows both the public and the private sector to come together and confess their transgressions with no fear of retribution on anyone’s part. All that would be required is that restitution is paid. Where bribes were paid, plans would need to be made to repay those bribes over time. Where companies benefited, some of the benefit would be passed back to the entities which were disadvantaged by the bribery and corruption. This would be a once-off cleansing process which could eradicate the cancer that has eaten away at the moral fabric of South Africa’s society. There would be a deadline beyond which any further acts of corruption would be subject to most stringent criminal sanction. But all those involved to date who confessed would ultimately be forgiven, if not forgotten.

A TRC of this nature, given that it would largely deal with financial crimes, would carry none of the raw emotional distress of the original TRC. Some brutal truths might emerge, some reputations would be tarnished, but ultimately the society could heal much faster than it did post-apartheid.

Who could call for the set up of the TRC? We would need to see Business SA come together will all political parties and labour movements, and agree to the process. The agreement of the current government, including the President, would be crucial.

Is there an incentive? I am beginning to believe that the incentive is growing every day. The #GuptaLeaks of emails have acted as a catalyst. A boil has been lanced and the puss is spilling out. Most important, more leaks from different sources are taking place every day as every honest South African feels emboldened to share what they have been exposed to. This will not stop – more leaks will follow; more people and companies will be implicated and compromised.

Eventually, the civil society organisations, supported by investigative journalists, and an unbiased judiciary system will bring all those involved to justice. It might take years to do so. But it will not take years for reputations to be ruined. It will only take an article. Once the wheels of justice turn, there will be no mercy – just vengeance. Vengeance of 55-million South Africans who have been robbed of a prosperous future.

And hence, as different political parties concentrate on tearing themselves apart, as South Africa’s economy burns and another generation of youth is condemned to unemployment, spare a thought for a more constructive way forward. For all those involved in plunder, this is your elegant way out. For all South Africans, it gives us a chance at a future. It is a solution worth debating, even if only behind closed doors. DM

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