Stop Shooting The Messenger High Commissioner for South Africa
Following the recent expression of interest to assist in a reconciliation process in Sri Lanka by South Africa, New Delhi based SA High Commissioner to Sri Lanka, Geoff Doidge told The Sunday Leader that while Sri Lanka already had a good base with which to take the country forward in the LLRC where ‘excellent work was done’, there also was the need for another process. “I don’t have a magic answer for Sri Lanka what that process should be but there needs to be one that precedes the TRC,” he added.
Q: The idea of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission as a first step towards reconciliation has been mooted in the Sri Lankan context. What in your opinion is the relevance of such a mechanism here?
A: If you want to know the relevance to Sri Lanka it says to emulate Mr. Nelson Mandela. We have a good example and many can look at him and say I want to be like Mandela. He’s proven to us that it can be done under difficult circumstances. Many speak very loosely of apartheid but if you’ve never been a victim of it you can never really know how inhumane it was. For, a lot of South Africans even used to question injustices being fought. “This is a system; it’s not going to change. So why not live with it”, they said. But when liberation came, some of them had the courage to come to us and appreciate it. But Mandela always held that we will never seek retributive justice in SA; that we had to develop a system of negotiating across a table with the enemy.
I’ve had three attempts on my life and a few years later I could go and purchase a house from the man behind it. That was what Mandela taught us.
If you look at the SA issue, there is a very real struggle that was fought. But our leaders taught us that when the liberation came there was no past.
Q: The concern here is whether such a mechanism of forgetting the past can truly take place?
A: In the TRC hearings there was a white Afrikaans who was a security force member giving evidence to the TRC and he asked Bishop Tutu if he’d be allowed to make a request. He asked if the mother of the person he had murdered was in the audience, he’d like her to stand up so that he can seek forgiveness. Then this woman stood up and said, ‘I forgive you because all I ever wanted was to find out what happened. Now I’m at peace.’
The question for Sri Lanka is what the people want out of a TRC? Retributive justice or take the whole nation forward. In SA the blacks were the majority community so they could decide whether to forgive or not, and it was the capacity of the black South Africans to forgive that moved SA forward. It wasn’t so much the other communities that had that capacity.
Now, given that there has been a request for SA’s assistance, there is role for everyone to play in finding out what the people wanted. I think Sri Lanka has the opportunity of designing its own model of the TRC. Taking the SA model and implementing it would be a disaster. At the time of our TRC, there was no Human Rights Commission or an International Criminal Court, nor any of the international legal processes that you have today; dealing with issues of war crimes, allegations of human rights abuses. Also how we applied amnesty in SA is not necessarily fully legal in the present system. Amnesty has moved on and not all aspects that qualified in the SA system 20-30 years ago are applicable in today’s legal framework.
Therefore the process of a TRC has to be extremely thorough and open to international scrutiny. It cannot be a quick fix. It’s a difficult thing. There have been many TRCs and ours was the one that came out with amnesty.
Q: What aspects, if at all, in your own TRC can be shared in your opinion?
A: The advantage SA had was that they had one regime coming to an end at midnight and the other taking over. So we literally started from afresh. So it was easy but in many countries it’s not so. They don’t have a clear cut end or a beginning. It’s not a simple solution when you have a process on-going when you begin to deal with complex issues as these. It is the responsibility of politics to ensure that these things are not rushed into.
Because SA had a process – when Mandela was released he made it clear that he was going to negotiate with the government, and many times the talks broke down but he remained focused that a solution would be negotiated; one that would be acceptable to all. As difficult as that was, there was a process before an interim constitution; there had to be a new constitution in SA before 1994 that would facilitate the changes that would happen then. What we want to share with Sri Lanka is how those discussions take place and with great adversity. That is what we’re currently sharing with Sri Lanka.
Q: In the presence of coalition parties within the government, who are critical of a TRC process, how optimistic are you that a process will be sought?
A: What people must stop is shooting the messenger, with articles that criticize the process. I don’t think people are sufficiently informed of the TRC – it’s not what a lot of people think it is. Many things about the TRC go beyond the scope of the TRC into issues of transforming society. If anyone wants to sit in judgment of the TRC; first look at the history – the education spending was structured in a way that the message was that ‘blacks don’t get education’.
The history will tell you that the TRC was a very necessary step to put closure to many things that happened, that if you took it to court it would take a 100 years – and the TRC was able to deal not only with human rights abuses but was also an opportunity for people to come and say and hear what happened and take away with them some satisfaction of the process.
A lot of people seem to think that it was a majority that was oppressed there and that it is a minority that is here. But at the end of the day what do you want, retributive justice or transitional justice? We are not prescriptive to the exposure we give the Sri Lankans, because we know the lessons with hindsight. We know what the shortcomings of the TRC are but at the same time we know what it was able to achieve for us – which far outweighs any of the negatives.
Q: Is there a cost of the country not going through that process?
A: Do you enjoy being a national of a country that’s getting a hammering from all organizations? Did we enjoy being SA when our passports were worth nothing? No, I think we must ask what role the citizens’ play in assisting the leadership of the country in taking it forward. It’s important that people say what they want out of a process such as this. You can’t ignore international pressure – it’s very unwise to do so. That pressure is very unpleasant. You must of course, still do things that are conducive to your environment. A country must do the right thing.
There wasn’t of course agreement by all on the TRC then – there were many who opposed it. For some it was their fatherland they claimed belonged to them – they owned SA and on the other side too it was the exact same story, but at the end of the day sense has to prevail. You can’t have a long open ended process. Our process had a time plan.
Q: Isn’t there a danger of politically motivated agenda at work when there is such a strict time frame in place? Wouldn’t it put undue pressure on the process?
A: The time frame must come from within. The time frame in SA came from within. But from where, I can’t tell you. Your domestic situation is complex, but not in a derogatory sense, but I can see the complexity of the Sri Lankan situation. This is not an easy situation. But whilst you have this complexity there is enormous potential. I can see that here. There is a lot that is going right for Sri Lanka.
Q: What then is going wrong for Sri Lanka?
A: Who am I to say?
Q: SA is involved in obtaining the concerns of the GTF as well?
A: I’m not directly involved in talks but our team there is. I’m not sure what their position is with regard to a TRC. We haven’t even asked the TNA what their concerns are. At this point a request has been made to President Zuma and there is an invitation to come to SA and find out what is needed. So until that meeting takes places we can’t really say – whether it’s going to be a modified TRC or whatever. So at the meeting in SA which is expected to happen in January, clearly there will be a better understanding of what Sri Lanka wants SA to assist with. We don’t want to speculate anything, but there is a request in terms of a TRC. We are happy that a request is made and as far as I’m concerned there are areas of potential. But these things don’t happen overnight. But I’ve seen some very positive signs since I’ve come here.
Q: What are these signs?
A: Well, you couldn’t talk about these things in 2011. Today journalists are writing about it – people are talking about it. Things have moved on in a very short space of time. But the window of opportunity doesn’t last forever – it moves on. Therefore there is urgency to what you have to do – and it has to be done for the right reasons and not because of anything happening anywhere else. I think I’m hearing the right things and I’m sensing eagerness from within. But those within must start talking to themselves.
It is a difficult process. Some people said we were selling out – even recently one of our young politicians said Mandela sold out to the whites. So there are these complexities – but one must find how one can add value to the process.