Speak Out on Poverty: impunity, inaudibility and structural violence

This set of little-known hearings after South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission took a wider appreciation of apartheid violence and the incredible tensions released in the new terrain of political transition. From States of Impunity.

Nicky Rousseau
19 May 2015

Soweto township in Johannesburg, one of the enduring legacies of apartheid. DocDee/Wikimedia. Some rights reserved. 

Over a period of almost three months in 1998, Speak Out on Poverty (Speak Out) convened ten public hearings across South Africa. These hearings took place shortly after the South Africa Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) completed some two years of highly publicised, nation-wide hearings, in which deponents provided dramatic testimony of violations committed during the political struggle to end apartheid. Speak Out addressed what was regarded as a ‘blind spot’ in the TRC mandate: its focus on a narrow band of violations–torture, killing, enforced disappearance and the ill-defined category of severe ill-treatment–was seen to occlude the larger violence central to the policy and practice of apartheid itself. 

According to Speak Out, “[nearly] 600 people made oral submissions and over 10,000 people participated in the process either by making written submissions, attending the hearings or mobilising others to participate.” But despite the success of the hearings, and a veritable industry of scholarship, art, literature and music concerning the TRC, Speak Out is barely remembered, even by scholars and practitioners of transitional justice. This is doubly ironic given the widespread poverty: South Africa continues to rank as one of the most unequal countries in the world and recent government statistics suggest that in 2011, 54% of South Africans lived below the poverty line, of whom 22% (10.7 million) struggled daily to procure adequate food. Indeed, the failure to address legacies of poverty and structural violence is widely regarded as the key fault line of South Africa’s transition. By extension, the TRC itself is seen to have failed.

Speak Out and the TRC

There was and continues to be considerable debate as to whether the TRC’s failure to address wider legacies of colonial and apartheid pasts, and in particular, the structures of poverty and inequality, lay within its mandate, or its interpretation thereof. This debate is part of a much wider critique of human rights and transitional justice, and its assumed (neo)liberal political projects; it is also a debate within rights circles themselves.  Some have argued that the TRC could have interpreted its mandate more expansively, providing ‘as complete a picture as possible’ (including ‘antecedents’) offered an opportunity for a more substantive engagement. For example, “severe ill-treatment”, a violation specified in the TRC’s mandate, could have encompassed a range of violations associated with apartheid policy: violations arising from laws forbidding inter-racial sex and marriage, forced removals, arrests associated with the pass laws, and so forth. For that matter, in a similar vein, as Talal Asad argues, even torture could have been re-inscribed outside the discourse of liberal human rights.

Space does not permit a more extended discussion of this debate, which in any event has been repeatedly rehearsed. Suffice to say that, while the TRC declared apartheid to be a crime against humanity and organised a series of institutional hearings, including one on the business sector, its gaze remained firmly focused on the narrow range of violations perpetrated during a particular segment of the apartheid past. This began with the events in 1960 that led to the banning of key liberation movements, and those movements’ subsequent turn to armed struggle, and concluded with the installation of South Africa’s first democratic government in May 1994.

Nonetheless, a careful read through much of the TRC’s seven-volume report (perhaps with the exception of those volumes and sections focusing on political violence itself) would suggest that it was haunted by its narrow mandate.

The business sector hearings, which took place just four months before the Speak Out hearings began, sought to understand the role of the business sector during the apartheid era. It was part of a wider enquiry into the role and accountability of various institutional sectors in creating a climate conducive to the commission of human rights’ abuses.  To this end, the TRC listened to a number of submissions from business, trade unions and experts over three days, and subsequently found that apartheid had been “central to the economy that sustained the South African state during the apartheid years’ and that most businesses had ‘benefited from operating in a racially structured context”. In addition to a once-off wealth tax, the TRC recommended that business contribute to reparations through the establishment of a business trust.

This is not to suggest that this was a powerful or radical engagement; few have read the TRC’s report, and the perception of the TRC within the public sphere is predominantly based on its victim and perpetrator hearings rather than the single business hearing. The point, rather, is to suggest that the question of structural violence, especially pertaining to poverty and inequality, was dealt with wholly inadequately. And although a blind spot within the mandate, it nonetheless worried the boundaries of the TRC’s hearings and its report. Deponents themselves frequently transgressed the boundaries of political violence, ande spoke to wider landscapes of harm in both statements and testimonies. Nonetheless at both public and scholarly levels, the TRC is viewed as having been exclusively concerned with “spectacular (political) violence”, and having been blind to the long histories of colonial and apartheid violence.

It was this blind spot, which Speak Out aimed to illuminate. In particular, Speak Out sought to assert unequivocally that the TRC had not fully accounted for apartheid violence and violation, and sought to make this assertion both visible and audible. Archbishop Ndungane, its nominal head, put it this way: “Poverty is the greatest legacy of apartheid. I want to make it clear, because sometimes people get confused, we are not the TRC.” In seeking to reposition the grids through which the TRC made the past intelligible in order to constitute a ‘new’ South Africa, Speak Out pointed to realities marked more by continuities than ‘newness’. Yet curiously, it did so in ways that replicated the TRC’s practices, procedures and symbols, even as it sought to draw a sharp distinction between the two institutions.  

Understanding the past: between activism and law

The organisers of Speak Out were from the South African Non-Governmental Organisation Coalition (SANGOCO), as well as the statutory bodies South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) and the Commission for Gender Equality (CGE). Thus Speak Out was constituted of both unofficial and official bodies. While some draw on professional expertise, historically a significant number of NGOs affiliated to SANGOCO have more activist or community-based roots. A number had been politically aligned to the United Democratic Front (UDF), the largest, ‘above-ground’ internal resistance movement in the 1980s in South Africa.

The profile of participants varied from hearing to hearing: in Johannesburg, an unusually large proportion of submissions were from NGOs; in a small rural town, literally hundreds of township residents turned up to find out about pensions after misinterpreting a radio announcement advertising the hearing. Considered across the hearings, a significant proportion of those who testified were members of local community organisations; in some instances members spoke on behalf of wider community initiatives or groups.

This was in contrast to the TRC, where overwhelmingly the majority of persons were not, political activists, as is sometimes assumed, but rather civilians caught up more contingently in violence, as occasional participants, deliberate targets or bystanders. But Speak Out did not saw itself as a commission. Hearings were conceptualised as the public start of a campaign to make poverty the nation’s priority. In doing so, it appeared to choose a path more directed towards activism than the law.

The Speak Out hearings seemed to share much in common with the proceedings of the TRC. The material space of the hearings looked much like those of the TRC. The procedures of the meeting also seemed familiar from the TRC: a formal opening, at least in some cases a prayer, followed by testimonies from deponents. Those testifying were ‘instructed’ in the procedures of giving testimony. ut at the same time, these technologies were also intended as material symbols of voice and audibility, intended to constitute a public and individuated rights-bearing citizen in place of apartheid’s designation of nameless non-citizens.

In the face of all this, how then may one account for the peculiar deafness that surrounds Speak Out? Poverty and other forms of structural violence in many settings are so normatively embedded that they have been thoroughly depoliticised. This was, and is still not the case in South Africa, where poverty and race did not only coincide, but was actively held in place by a web of apartheid laws. As Jan Rooi told the [Northern Cape] hearing: “We were broken down. We suffered injustices… today we are bitter when we think back on those days. I could have been a strong and rich stockfarmer today, but instead I am filled with hate.”

The question of inaudibility is one that requires more thought and research. Here I offer some tentative observations that may enable further thinking about transitional justice and structural violence.

Inaudibility and structural violence

In the first place, and surprisingly similar to the TRC, Speak Out tended to treat apartheid as something of a backdrop rather than as its central focus. The mandates of both the SAHRC and the CGE were directed at the present rather than the past; perhaps like the TRC, both chose similarly to interpret their mandates narrowly. The Speak Out hearings began shortly after the TRC had completed some 18 months of public hearings, which were accompanied by wall-to-wall media coverage. Given the TRC’s narrow focus, the past had by no means been exhausted by these hearings, but perhaps Speak Out felt that the public had been exhausted by the past.

Transcripts of the minutes suggest apartheid was rarely directly mentioned in the opening comments of the hearings except as “legacy”; opening comments tended to focus on the present, and signal some of the first organised public expressions of disappointment in South Africa’s ‘miracle transition’. For example, Human Rights Commissioner Faried Esack opened the hearings in the rural town of Ceres, Western Cape, with these words: “We have a black government, a good president, a constitution, and many promises. But the experience of suffering and oppression is the experience of the majority of the people.”

An important criticism of the TRC, especially by activists, was the way in which its account of the struggle against apartheid was overwritten by a discourse of victimhood. In contrast, Speak Out, although it replicated many of the features of TRC hearings, engaged with deponents in a ways that sought to displace the TRC’s victim subject, invoking instead the more familiar-sounding agent of struggle.  Thus Speak Out commissioners placed considerable emphasis on “the ingenuity and creativity of people who survive against all odds”, and praised “inspiring stories of how people–mainly women–had come together in groups to engage in income-earning and other activities.” 

Yet in many instances, Speak Out’s desire to refuse victimhood encountered deponents who either cast themselves as victims or provided testimonies in which the odds were so overwhelming that some form of victimhood seemed hard to deny. Arguably, this tension tended to construct a discourse of thwarted self-help and empowerment, which required the agency of government, effectively positioning the post-democratic government in the driver’s seat, and returning Speak Out to the modalities of nation and state. Thinking about the subjectivities that Speak Out produced, one would conclude that, like those of an official commission, they continued to be narrated through the law–rights were first and foremost narrated through legal obligations ,evoking a rights-bearing ‘new’ citizen, rather than an agent of political struggle.

If this is a harsh assessment, providing a rather flattened and ultimately instrumentalist reading, a more productive line of enquiry may be to think about Speak Out in relation to the politics of transition. Both SAHRC and CGE were post-apartheid structures without institutional histories and cultures, charting new territory within South Africa; SANGOCO itself, although it included a number of battle-hardened NGOs, was also relatively new and many of its most experienced affiliates were not just trying to re-position themselves in the new politics but many had lost key personnel to government.  Given this relative weakness, organising Speak Out was a considerable achievement but may have stretched it to the limits.

Here, rather than seeing the ‘transition’ in transitional justice as a stage ushering in a desired democratic and more just future, it may be preferable to mark transition as a moment of extraordinary tension, shot through with contingent possibility and risk. Within such a view, a politics of the transitional would think less about ‘mechanisms’ and ‘toolkits’ and more about the tensions and energies that are released as old political projects and allegiances give way to new alignments and positions in a frequently intensified struggle on new terrain, the outcomes of which are always uncertain.  Speak Out should be read as a manoeuvre on that terrain, one that is certainly worthy of more attention. 

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