Universities were conspicuously absent from the truth commission

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TEN years ago on Human Rights Day, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) handed its report to then-president Thabo Mbeki. Much has been written about the shortcomings and achievements of the TRC, which tried to fill the gap between Nuremberg-style hearings and blanket amnesty.

Time will tell, but the commission remains a remarkable piece of our democratic history.

There are two matters outside the power of the TRC that should have been addressed. The first is that the university sector never prepared a submission; the second is that the material compensation recommendations of the TRC were never implemented.

If one browses through the multivolume TRC report, stakeholders such as the media, faith communities, the health sector and the legal fraternity appear. The one sector that one would have expected — higher education — is missing.

Why would one expect universities to have played a more direct role in the TRC?

The first and obvious reason is that higher education was for decades a race-based sector like the rest of South Africa. The cruellest face of apartheid was education.

It denied black people with potential the opportunity to advance knowledge or pursue postgraduate studies at the universities of their choice. No wonder so many of the current black leadership hold degrees from foreign universities. That Fort Hare and the University of the Western Cape delivered remarkable intellectuals says much for the resilience of black people, but still does not exonerate the sector for its participation in the apartheid system — including so-called black institutions.

The second reason is that white universities directly benefited from apartheid for decades. The infrastructure and alumni power that former white universities have today were built on hard work, yes, but would not have been possible without a fundamentally unfair distribution of resources over four decades.

The third reason is that one would have expected intellectual institutions to be more vigilant against ideological abuse with a higher degree of critical self-awareness. Yes, there were always minority voices on most campuses, but even so-called liberal institutions were participants in a system they could not escape and against which they did not bravely stand up when it was still dangerous to do so.

There are obvious exceptions, and many heroes of the struggle come from our universities. But as a sector, universities were not beacons of hope in the dark hours of the 1970s and 1980s, and — judging by the current state of public discourse and the relative silence of our professors — I am not hopeful for the future either.

This brings me to the TRC recommendations on material reparation.

One has to see reparation in the context of transitional justice: it should not be the intention to make restitution measures a permanent feature of society. (This counts, by the way, for affirmative action as well.)

That is why the TRC recommended that a small symbol of reconciliation be instituted: pay identified victims of gross human rights violations urgent interim reparation ranging from R2,000 per month for one person to R5,705 for one plus five or more dependants. (This would have amounted to about R3bn in 2003 terms.)

The question is not whether R2,000 is "enough". The material compensation must be real, but its aim is to send a collective message to the victims: "We are sorry for what happened. See this as a small measure of our solidarity to restore your human dignity."

I still maintain that white individuals and business should have grasped this opportunity. The enormous unfair advantages of land ownership, mining rights, educational opportunities and cheap black labour would not have been affected even a tiny bit.

The TRC recommendations of a one-off levy and a one-off "tax" at 1% of JSE value were good. If implemented, these would have dispelled the idea that white people got freedom at a low price, while black people had to carry the burden.

Our democracy has — rightly so — blurred the racial lines in higher education and business. It is now nigh impossible to turn back the clock. But it does not relieve white people of the moral duty to stop moaning and commit with all other citizens to building up this nation with the embedded intergenerational social, educational and financial power so many still have.

A lack of this commitment would make true the popular view that white people in general got freedom at a low price, but were quick to reap its benefits.


Naudé is the former head of the business school and currently deputy vice-chancellor: academic at the Nelson Mandela Metro University in Port Elizabeth. He writes in his personal capacity. This article is to inform and educate, not to advise.

Article source:  Business Day