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TRC Final Report

Page Number (Original) 24

Paragraph Numbers 1 to 10

Volume 1

Chapter 2

Subsection 1

Volume ONE Chapter TWO

Historical Context


1 Chief Justice DP Mahomed has said:1

For decades South African history has been dominated by a deep conflict between a minority which reserved for itself all control over the political instruments of the state and a majority who sought to resist that domination. Fundamental human rights became a major casualty of this conflict ... the legitimacy of the law itself was deeply wounded as the country haemorrhaged in the face of this tragic conflict ...

2 The Promotion of National Unity and Reconciliation Act (the Act) charged the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (the Commission) with investigating and documenting gross human rights violations committed within or outside South Africa in the period 1960-94. In doing so, it was to compile as complete a picture as possible of these events and violations. In its report, therefore, the Commission seeks to reflect fairly and fully the motives and perspectives of both the alleged perpetrators of gross human rights violations and of their victims.

3 Before starting on the long journey through these volumes, two major points or themes need to be developed in order to place their context in fuller political and historical perspective. The first of these relates to the fact that this report covers only a small fraction of time - although possibly the worst and certainly, in regard to the wider region, the bloodiest in the long and violent history of human rights abuse in this subcontinent. The second point to be made is that the report tells only a small part of a much larger story of human rights abuse in South and southern Africa.

4 In developing these two themes in this chapter, special attention will be given to the role and contribution of two phenomena or factors in the shaping of this country’s history, namely violence and the law, and the relationship between them.

1 Judgement, The Azanian Peoples Organisation, Ms NM Biko, Mr CH Mxenge and Mr C Ribeiro v the President of the Republic of South Africa, the Government of the Republic of South Africa, the Minister of Justice, the Minister of Safety and Security and the Chairperson of the Commission in the Constitutional Court, Case No 17/96.


5 Reference was made in the opening paragraphs to the limited time frame imposed on the Commission. The purpose was to place in historical context what happened in Southern Africa in the period 1960-94. In a continental context, this represented the last great chapter in the struggle for African decolonisation. In a South Africa-specific context, it was the climactic phase of a conflict that dated back to the mid-seventeenth century, to the time when European settlers first sought to establish a permanent presence on the subcontinent.

6 Thus, it is evident that it was not the National Party government that introduced racially discriminatory practices to this part of the world. Nor is it likely that the National Party government was the first to perpetrate some or most of the types of gross violations of human rights recorded in this report. The probable exception is that category of abuse that falls under the general rubric of contra-mobilisation exemplified by the deployment of surrogate forces such as the Caprivi-trained Inkatha supporters, the Witdoeke, the A-team and other politicised gangs, as well as those forces, such as UNITA, that were used to destabilise the region.

7 Hence, the types of atrocities committed during the period falling within the mandate of the Commission must be placed in the context of violations committed in the course of:

a The importation of slaves to the Cape and the brutal treatment they endured between 1652 (when the first slaves were imported) and 1834 (when slavery was abolished).

b The many wars of dispossession and colonial conquest dating from the first war against the Khoisan in 1659, through several so-called frontier conflicts as white settlers penetrated northwards, to the Bambatha uprising of 1906, the last attempt at armed defence by an indigenous grouping.

c The systematic hunting and elimination of indigenous nomadic peoples such as the San and Khoi-khoi by settler groups, both Boer and British, in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

d The Difaquane or Mfecane where thousands died and tens of thousands were displaced in a Zulu-inspired process of state formation and dissolution.

e The South African War of 1899-1902 during which British forces herded Boer women and children into concentration camps in which some 20 000 died - a gross human rights violation of shocking proportions.2

f The genocidal war in the early years of this century directed by the German colonial administration in South West Africa at the Herero people, which took them to the brink of extinction.

8 It is also important to remember that the 1960 Sharpville massacre (with which the mandate of the Commission begins) was simply the latest in a long line of similar killings of civilian protesters in South African history. It was, for example, not a National Party administration but the South African Party government, made up primarily of English-speaking South Africans, that in July 1913 crushed a series of miners’ strikes on the Reef - sending in the army and killing just over one hundred strikers and onlookers. Thrice in 1921 and 1922, this same governing party let loose its troops and planes: first, against a protesting religious sect, the Israelites at Bulhoek, killing 183 people; second, against striking white mineworkers on the Reef in 1922, resulting in the deaths of 214 people3; and third, when the Bondelswarts people, a landless hunting group of Nama origin in South West Africa, in rebellion against a punitive dog tax in 1922, were machine-gunned from the air. One hundred civilians, mostly women, were killed.

9 Thus, when the South African Defence Force (SADF) killed just over 600 men, women and children, combatant and non-combatant, at Kassinga in Angola in 1978, and when the South African Police (SAP) shot several hundred black protesters in the weeks following the June 16 events at Soweto, they were operating in terms of a well-established tradition of excessive or unjustifiable use of force against government opponents. This is not, of course, to exonerate them or the force they employed, but simply to put those events and actions in historical context.

10 Mention has been made of the social-engineering dimension of the policy of apartheid. Again, it needs to be made clear that the National Party was not the first political party or group to have been accused of social engineering on a vast scale in this part of the world. The post-South African War administration of Alfred Milner was, for example, similarly accused concerning its Anglicisation schemes.

2 In his evidence to a Commission workshop on reconciliation, Mr Ron Viney indicated that a similar number of black people was exhumed from British concentration camps. (Johannesburg, 18 – 20 February 1998). 3 Those killed included seventy-six strikers, seventy-eight members of the troops that took them on, thirty African non-strikers who were killed by the strikers, and thirty bystanders.
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