The Sunday Leader

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.

5 Comments for “Stop Shooting The Messenger High Commissioner for South Africa”

  1. I know little about the Sri Lankan ‘reconciliation’ plan. However, this article brings up some differences between SA and SL. Doidge states that it is unwise to ignore international pressure, and that his country knows because they committed this error. Sri Lanka has not ignored other countries, but it seems to me that they tend to give unhelpful suggestions (or fish for opportunities to take over). South Africa held on to legalized racism until the 1990s. Sri Lanka may have created laws that were somewhat unfavorable to certain minorities, such as the Sinhala Only Act, but they never placed signs saying, ‘Only People of the Sinhala Race May Use This Beach’. Sri Lanka’s difficulties have been much more complex, layered, and difficult to solve than South Africa’s.

  2. Each country must develop their own system to suit the conditions that prevail now. We all can say we must adopt a system that is very much foreign to Lankans.

    The existing LLRC has done some ground work which will assist in developing a process acceptable to large majority of Lankans. Taking our national problems to International sphere is counterproductive.

    By internationalising we might create some more problems. Then again this my own opinion, and many others may have different views. It is best for all Lankans to get involved & input their suggestions to see what best achieved in & for Sri Lanka.

    Thank you all…….J

    • The differences between SA’s struggle for liberation with that of the LTTE is voluminous. However the just nature of both of these struggles are the same. There lies the confusion and the preoccupation with the TRC processes. The SA struggle for liberation was not won through military success, but by a combined international and national mass mobilsation effort based mainly on economic, sports, cultural, weapons and diplomatic sanctions campaign which was the most succesful in history. The sporadic guerrilla actions within and on the borders of SA drained the limited resources of the SA regime forcing them to come to the negotiating table with the ANC. There were not victors or any vanquished. The ANC and its allies held the moral high ground and wanted its rightful power to govern SA and played poker with the guerrilla options. The Afrikaner was desperate to save face and sought to escape with the least form of punishment and accountability for crimes against humanity. Both won and lost.The “win win” was what mattered and the world celebrated. Only the TRC was neede to cement the compromise. The SA style TRC worked with many flaws and achieved a broadly moral solution but never disturbed the status quo and provided very limited redress. The Sri Lankan oppression of a Tamil Minority over decades culminated in a brutal war, virtually full scale with heavy air, land and sea bombardments aimed at a total annihilation of the military resistance of the Tamil Tigers and its civilian support, bordering on genocide. The only survivors of the war crimes committed are those on the side of the oppressors. The LTTE guerrilla leadership was wiped out. Can the the Rajapaksha regime of the Sri Lankan Govt ever engage in truth and reconciliation? There are possibilities, even if they are remote. They can come from the brave voices for truth and justice from the broad Sinhalese community who will have to face the fascist violence of the Rajapaksha military and police iron fist. With the Transnational Govt of Tamil Eelam and the Global Tamil Forum and the TNA together striving for justice for the crushed and crippled Tamil minority in Sri Lanka and coming together at some international forum with a joint decalaration, justice for all in Sri Lanka may just emerge as a glimmer of hope on the horizon. TRC processes cannot deal with war crimes, mass rape, murder and allegations of genocide/racism against the Tamil Minority. TRC processes may expose individuals who may have to face war crimes tribunals at the International Criminal Court or they may result in “dropping” of charges. The Rajapaksha bothers have no leverage to bargain with. If they had prisoners of war or had they captured LTTE leaders instead of shooting them when they surrendered there would have been options to bargain with. If Madiba and all the ANC leaders were killed, the Afrikaner leaders would have had no one to negotiate with in respect of their own surrender. Ambassador Doige cannot straddle that divide with diplomacy and diplomatics speak whilst seeing SA engage in massive bilateral economic and military cooperation with the present Sri Lankan Government. The SA Govt may claim to be pursuing a “carrot and stick” approach with the Sr Lankan Govt. however, they know that that is never going to work, as the Rajapaksha Brothers are no donkeys! They are the mythical fire “dragons” that you see on their flag.

  3. N K Ratnam

    Although there are people within SA who are critical of TRC it was successful in drawing a line, putting the past behind. This was possible because the victors who were the victims were magnanimous.

    In Sri Lanka there are no signs of this magnanimity by the victors. All we see is totally the opposite. The Sri Lankan regime still believes it can rule over the Tamil people through its military. It continues to destroy Tamil peoples identity. Only two weeks ago it destroyed a Tamil school in the north “Vigneswara College” which has been standing for 112 years.

    Where there is no will to reconcile there will be no reconciliation.

  4. South Africa Helps Sri Lanka…Reconciliation? Pl. visit for more cartoons

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