Families in South Africa: The Legacy of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission

by Jan D. Brooks, M.Ed., Department of Human and Community Development, University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign; Sarai Coba-Rodriguez, M.S., Department of Human and Community Development, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
NCFR Report
Content Area
Families and Individuals in Societal Contexts
Family Law and Public Policy

What is life like for families still living in poverty today in South Africa, 20 years after apartheid? Did the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) move the population beyond the conflict and place people on equal footing in the new democracy, or was its creation a useless gesture? Have conditions improved for children and families? How is the TRC regarded in South African society today?

The very diverse population of South Africa includes families living in wealth, some in middle-class circumstances, and many in poverty, who identify with a variety of cultures and religions, speak a variety of languages, and includes more than 5 million illegal immigrants from across the continent. All people of color were separated by race and marginalized under the apartheid system enforced by the government of the National Party from 1948 to 1994, when a new constitution guaranteed equal rights to people of all racial groups, leading to the election of Nelson Mandela as President. The TRC was set up to accomplish three things: (a) expose unspeakable human rights atrocities occurring between 1960 and 1994; (b) enable victims to tell their stories and be awarded reparations; and (c) offer perpetrators amnesty if they convinced the commission that they had offered full disclosure, which meant telling the whole truth and admitting that the crime was politically motivated and did not constitute a gross violation of human rights (Promotion of National Unity and Reconciliation Act of 1995). In his book No Future Without Forgiveness, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who presided over the TRC, wrote of Ubuntu (humanity toward others) as both a reason for and goal of the commission: "My humanity is caught up, is inextricably bound to yours." Proponents of the TRC, like Mandela and Tutu, claimed that the commission had been successful in what it set out to do. It opened the wounds of apartheid so that the country could heal.

Did the wounds actually heal? Did life improve? We posed this question to a friend, Ephraim (pseudonym), who is 34 years old, Black, and lives in the impoverished township of Crossroads near Cape Town. He did not have the opportunity to finish high school, although he speaks several South African languages. He feels fortunate to have employment at a car rental agency, and he works occasionally in the tourism industry as well. He supports his mother, his sister, and her children and contributes to the support of a deceased friend's young son. Regarding the TRC, he said, "Some felt it was not helpful, that it made no difference, that it did not bring justice. Crimes were not punished, and we are not living in better conditions today" (personal communication, January 20, 2015). Another friend commented, "You asked me to forgive, but I still don't know where my son is" (personal communication, January 26, 2015). History professor Terri Barnes at the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign, who previously taught at the University of the Western Cape, South Africa, explained,

One could forgive, but still could not recover losses. . . . The TRC was very successful in bringing up the issues that really harmed people, that ruined people's lives and the lives of their children and grandchildren. That's not to be discounted. . . . I think South Africans look back at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and say it made a start, but it didn't finish looking at many, many, many issues, so what do we do now? (personal communication, February 6, 2015).

On the many occasions that we have taken University of Illinois students to South Africa for historical tourism and service learning we have encountered people who speak of hope: hope for better jobs; hope for education for their children; hope for a future for the Rainbow Nation, as Tutu termed the new South Africa. Government publications claim steady improvement toward better education, health care, children's rights, employment, and more. Unfortunately, delivery has been very slow, and corruption by individuals in power is frequently in the news. Issues are complex, and things are not always as clear as they might appear to Western visitors and onlookers. Child labor has been outlawed, yet there are children who want to work even while going to school so that they might seek higher education, which their families cannot afford. Children continue to live on the street, some to survive, some by choice, and although there are shelters, they are not well funded. There have been notable improvements since the end of apartheid. In regard to the fight against AIDS, there is now country-wide availability of HIV testing and anti-retroviral medications, and the infant mortality rate is dropping. Public health services reach out to people in impoverished communities with basic health care, including mental health care, nutrition awareness, dental care, and drug rehabilitation programs. The reality though, is that 21.7% of South Africans still live in extreme poverty (Nicolson, 2015), and the majority of South African families of color continue to live in racially segregated areas. These families daily face challenges of substandard living conditions and the structural violence brought by inescapable social and economic deficits (Barbarin & Richter, 2001). The crime rate is high. Fathers, considered the head of the family, are often disempowered because they have been the hardest hit by unemployment. Alcoholism, drug use, and spouse and child abuse continue to be problematic, compounded by generations of disempowerment and the frustration of being blamed for the very problems that history forced on the people. This is clearly not the optimal setting for child rearing and family stability.

One confusing and very complex issue affecting families in South Africa is housing. Mandela's new democratic government, led by the African National Congress, which is still in political power today, promised housing to all. The government has been very slow to begin to accomplish this, and it does not have the funding to succeed on a country-wide basis, even while a small number of people in political power, including the nation's president, Jacob Zuma, live lavishly. Families in Cape Town's District Six, divided by race and displaced onto Cape Flats townships in the 1960s and 1970s, were promised that their demolished homes would be replaced.

Two cherished friends of ours have not lost hope. Although they are reaching advanced age and progress has been slow, they and their families will finally move into newly developed housing in District Six by the end of this year, which is a cause for great celebration! At the same time, University of Cape Town anthropology professor Fiona Ross spent years researching the complexities of family life in a shantytown, and her findings about family stability when houses were built were surprising: Although the basic need for shelter was assuaged, family alliances and social support systems were damaged because the government agency providing the housing required specific registration of immediate family members living in each house and placed limits on who could occupy the home. The long-awaited privacy of family housing resulted in suspicion and hard feelings as some family members were excluded, and the community became divided, necessitating that the residents find new and different resources for social support. On a more positive note, over time new community support groups have formed, yet in her 2010 book about her research titled Raw Life, New Hope Ross concluded that families live with extremely limited possibilities for future stability, held in place by poverty and violence. She concluded, "The post-apartheid tragedy is two-fold: that rawness exists and individuals believe that they are solely responsible for it" (p. 211). We must ask, then, has forgiveness without reparations, and the world's habit of blaming the poor for their poverty, led to still deeper discouragement?

Looking through this lens, let us ask again, "Did the TRC succeed, or has it failed South African families?" We conclude that there were necessary, even positive outcomes as a result of the TRC, and perhaps it did keep the country from literally tearing itself apart as the new government of Mandela took leadership. Unfortunately, the reparations delivered did not succeed in bringing to families the resources, pride, and self-esteem necessary to fully participate in building a strong new nation. The history of oppression still grips South Africa today. However, where there are families raising children, there is always hope for the new generation. Today's focus must be on the resiliency that children, parents, and grandparents possess in the face of the legacy left by the past.

Selected References

Barbarin, O., & Richter, L. M. (2001). Rising family and community violence. In Mandela's children, growing up in post-apartheid South Africa (pp. 81–96). London, UK: Routledge.

Nicolson, G. (2015). South Africa: Where 12 million live in extreme poverty. Daily Maverick. Retrieved from http://www.dailymaverick.co.za/article/2015-02-03-south-africa-where-12-...

Promotion of National Unity and Reconciliation Act of 1995, ACT 95-34. Retrieved from http://www.justice.gov.za/legislation/acts/1995-034.pdf

Ross, F. C. (2010). Raw life, new hope: Decency, housing and everyday life in a post-apartheid community. Cape Town, South Africa: UTC Press.

Suggested Readings

Battle, M., (1997). Reconciliation: The Ubuntu theology of Desmond Tutu. Cleveland, OH: Pilgrim Press.

Krog, A. (2007). Country of my skull: Guilt, sorrow, and the limits of forgiveness in the new South Africa. New York, NY: Broadway Books.

Levine, S. (2013). Children of a bitter harvest: Child labour in the Cape Winelands.. Cape Town, South Africa: HSRC Press.

Meintjes, H., Hall, K., Marera, D., & Boulle, A. (2009). Child-headed households in South Africa: A statistical brief. Cape Town, South Africa: Children's Institute.

Reynolds, P., (2013). War in Worchester: Youth and the apartheid state. New York, NY: Fordham University Press.

Zegeye, A. (Ed.). (2001). Social identities in South Africa, Vol. 1. Social identities in the new South Africa: After apartheid. Cape Town, South Africa: Kwela Books.

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