Wednesday, December 16th, 2020 marks the Day of Reconciliation in South Africa – a momentous day that seeks to foster reconciliation and promote national unity. The day came into effect in December 1995 to mark the end of apartheid. It was a day that held meaning to both Afrikaner and African communities and was thus chosen in a bid to find common ground and build solidarity in an increasingly fractured and unequal society. Nonetheless, while the day prevails and the holiday is celebrated, the meaning of truth and reconciliation in the country remains a contentious issue, especially with regards to gender and its exclusion thereof.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission and Continued Gender Inequality 

TRC Hearings, 1996

The TRC hearings began in April 1996 and were based on the promotion of National Unity and Reconciliation Act, No. 34 of 1995. They sought to redress the wrongs of the past by uncovering various horrors of apartheid and creating a culture of accountability. This aimed to offer the families of the victims’ closure and enable a sense of national healing. However, despite the good intentions of the commission, many agree that the brutality of apartheid was never adequately addressed. Many perpetrators did not have to account for the violence that they had inflicted and, in consequence, many families did not get the closure they deserved.

When we look at the TRC through a gendered lens, many shortfalls prevail. A significant number of gender activists agree that the TRC had a “gender-blind mandate”, despite specialised commissions such as the Special Hearings on Women. The findings illuminated a culture of women reporting as “secondary victims, about others”, rather than of themselves. Although 54.8 percent of TRC statements were from women themselves, only 43.9 percent of these accounts reflected their personal stories. However, 85 percent of testimonies by women highlighted severe abuse as direct victims, and 446 of the statements pointed to sexual violence. While the TRC had intentions of including gendered violations into its mandate, the reality of the hearings was not as inclusive. Many believe this was twofold – yes, their stories were deeply personal and perhaps too painful to share in a public forum, but it also spoke to the systematic silencing of women and minority groups such LGBTIQ+ persons. Rape, despite often being used as a political tool to exert terror and abuse, was not classified as “political violence.” As such, the hearings created a “hierarchy of human rights violence.” Graeme Simpson divulges:

‘[P]rivileging’ certain acts of political violence, and seeing race, class and gender as subsidiary to party-specific political motivations, had the ironic effect of shrouding, rather than illuminating, them as intrinsically political and self-explanatory characteristics essential to any understanding of the dominant patterns and experiences of violence under apartheid.

The narrow definition of ‘political violence’ also hid acts of everyday violence and, as such, the “structural, systematic, and ideological background of gender relations, especially apartheid’s structural abuses against women” was often missed.

We cannot ignore how the failure to address the culture of gender-based violence during apartheid has impacted our contemporary climate of extreme violence against women and minority communities. Dr Helen Scanlon from the University of Cape Town’s Political Studies department reflects on how this failure to address gendered experiences has impacted the huge levels of gender -based violence that we experience today:

“While the South African TRC’s achievements cannot, and should not, be dismissed, it is important to also reflect on whether its failure to investigate the structural impact of apartheid has, in some ways, allowed acceptance of the ongoing violence in the country and, in particular, gender-based violence.”

Failure to Pay Reparations 

Members of Khulumani Support Group campaigning for justice and redress

Khulumani Support Group – a leading social movement formed in 1995– continues to campaign for redress and accountability, noting the “unfinished business” of the TRC and governments acknowledgement of their recommendations. Only 16 100 individuals received reparations from the commission and “the amount paid out has been a quarter of that recommended by the TRC commissioners.” Many women at the time did not have their own bank accounts and thus payments could not always be made directly to the victims, if they were women. Financial inclusion was, therefore, a contentious issue, and remains one to this day across the globe. In fact, The New Humanitarian estimate that “42 percent of women around the world do not have bank accounts.”

While the Day of Reconciliation is a pivotal occasion for many and speaks to the hope of a more inclusive society, it is imperative to remember that inequality and numerous divisions still loom large in South African society. As long as racism, gender inequality, sexism, xenophobia, homophobia, transphobia, crippling socio-economic divides and other exclusions continue, we fail to build an inclusive society and thus, reconciliation remains an unattainable ideal. May the day be a reminder to us all to do our bit and be a part of the process of building more inclusive societies.

Images courtesy of Khulamani Support Group, JSTOR, Traces of Truth, and Mail & Guardian.