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South Africa: Memorialisation as Transitional Justice

By: Fadumo Mumin


The policy of apartheid in South Africa institutionalised racism against black people through segregation cemented in white supremacy.  Introduced in 1948, apartheid lasted for five decades and imposed on almost every aspect of personal and public life.

In addressing the endemic violence faced by a majority of South African’s until 1994, the new ANC government pursued a restorative form of justice in achieving a peaceful state. In serving justice related aims, the new government adopted a broad truth and reconciliation process through the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Inaugurated on 16th December 1995 it subsequently held its first hearing on 15th April 1996.

One transitional initiative was the integration of the opposing parties’ armed forces thereby creating a new national defense force (DDR). Seen as a preventative technical measure the integration would reduce an otherwise threatening sum of military populace to the democratization process.

A condition for reintegrating the liberation parties and the previous government was amnesty for past violations. As one of the three committees of the TRC the Committee of Amnesty would determine who qualified. As opposed to complete amnesty, a truth telling program was adopted in which perpetrators had to provide full disclosure and evidence that acts of violence committed were politically motivated.  In cases where applicants had committed gross human rights violations, the committee held hearings to determine whether or not to grant amnesty.

Additionally, the Committee on Human Rights Violations oversaw a truth seeking process which involved collecting some 22,000 statements. Despite the TRC’s efforts in documenting the nature and extent of abuses from all sides of the conflict, only 1,973 cases out of 7,000 amnesty applications went to public hearings.

Furthermore prosecutions of human rights violations have been sluggish since the closing of the TRC in 2001.Consequently the truth and reconciliation process equated to perpetrators benefiting instantly from the amnesty granted whilst those victims recognized by TRC had to wait considerably longer. Thus as well as discrediting the TRC this caused further distrust and anger.

The avenues pursed by the ANC government in 1994 did not serve comprehensive justice related aims, but instead were party politics focused and lacked human rights contributions. ‘It must be stated that the demise of apartheid was not the outcome of a conclusive revolution in which freedom fighters were victorious. It was a political settlement, which was negotiated by all parties concerned’.

Apartheid permeated the national identity South African’s. The damaged social context of South Africa necessitated restorative justice initiatives rather than traditional punishments required by retributive systems in achieving the peace and stability required for democratisation. However, despite the government’s conceivable efforts the TRC was focused on the short term aim of stability and neglected long term social healing and human rights considerations.

Consequently the truth-telling initiative of the TRC proved to be inefficient and limited. In a nation scarred by decades of state sponsored abuse, it is imperative that the social make up is delicately and sincerely restored, for a common discourse which would create a national identity to take shape

How can a state seek justice in a circumstance in which the majority of the population had been victims of gross human rights violations?

In addition to being statistically unsuccessful, the truth commissions focused primarily on the direct perpetrators-victims violations rather than the indirect social consequence of fifty years of apartheid. Furthermore the controversial amnesty granted to perpetrators, though in context a rational solution, detached victims from the government and to some extent discredited the TRC.

‘The everyday violence of poverty and racism-and consequently the ordinary victims and beneficiaries of apartheid-were placed in the background of truth and reconciliation’1

Though truth recovery is imperative for a nation in transition amnesty does not obliterate the past and significantly nor does it empower victims. A memorial however, in preserving the memory of victims publicly acknowledges their suffering and serves victims rights.

Furthermore, since apartheid in South Africa was state sponsored abuse, memorialisation serves as an apology and recognition on the part of the government in promising such atrocities are never afflicted.

The social consequences of long-term anguish needs to be addressed in achieving national reconciliation amongst previously scarred and  divided citizens and thus should be considered an equally significant factor to achieving a stable and peaceful state.  Memorialisation off course cannot compensate for history and nor does it seek to. However for healing to occur the past must be confronted and a greater emotional understanding of decades of suffering can improve civic interaction and thereby serves transition. It is in this sense that memorialisation then can be considered as symbolic reparation

Memorials as a record of history can help develop a sense of sameness overtime since memory is innately linked to issues around identity, a common social narrative required for the reconciliation of societies in transition can develop. ‘While what is remembered and forgotten can create a positive group identity, competing claims to, or the contestation of memory, can also create various conflicts’.2

The social repair which is encrypted in human rights considerations encompasses the legal and political foundations of the TRC, demonstrating the specific role memorialisation has in South Africa within the context of Transitional Justice. In serving the memory of victims memorialisation confronts past repressions and thereby facilitates transition into a peaceful state.


Mumin has a BA in Journalism and Communications with Media and Cultural Studies  from Middlesex University and a MSc in International Relations from Kingston University. She is currently interning with Justice Africa.

1. Nagy, R. 2008 Transitional Justice as Global Project: critical reflections. Third World Quarterly, 29 (2), p. 284.

2. Nagy, R. 2008 Transitional Justice as Global Project: critical reflections. Third World Quarterly, 29 (2), p. 284.

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