Therese Marie Sacco




A large number of South Africans are socially excluded. Many of apartheid’s victims of gross human rights violations live with added challenges, and experience profound marginalization. This paper briefly explores aspects of South Africa’s socio-economic context as they affect people living in poverty, the South African social welfare context, experiences of victims of gross human rights violations, their evaluation of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the implications for social workers.


The major cause of social exclusion in South Africa is a lack of access to sources of income. In South Africa the ‘poverty line’, which separates the ‘poor’ from the ‘non-poor’, can be defined by considering the poorest 40% of households as ‘poor’ (about 19 million people or just under 50% of the population), giving a monthly household expenditure level of R353 per adult equivalent (May, 1998).
In July 1999 South Africa had a population of almost 43,5 million. Twenty six million households have had no source of income, 10 million households had inadequate income to provide for food and 10 million households had an income below the poverty line (South African Human Rights Commission, 2001). The government’s anti-poverty programs have reached only 3 million of the country’s poor (Mamaila, 2001).
In addition, from the South African Human Rights Commission (2001) report, it is evident that there are serious gaps within the social security and assistance system, both structurally and in terms of delivery are evident. At present, social security includes old age pensions, social assistance (subsidies to non-governmental welfare organizations), disability grants, poverty alleviation programs, child support grants and foster child grants. Today, unemployment insurance covers less that 40% of the labor force and offers less than 6% benefits to those unemployed. Disability provisions are not comprehensive and of those who are eligible for a disability grant, only 23% are receiving them. Of the people eligible for old age pension, 75% are accessing those pensions. There are no child benefits for children older than 7 years. In addition, it was noted that corruption, fraud and theft are serious issues that have compromised the realization of access to the social security system that is presently available.
South Africa has a Constitution that protects socio-economic rights. However, a basic social security infrastructure is lacking, despite the fact that South Africa has the financial capacity to lift people from poverty (van den Heever, 2002).
In the research for the Poverty and Inequality Report (May, 1998) those living with poverty identified their poverty in the following ways:

• Alienation from the community. People see themselves as isolated from institutions of kinship and community.
• Food insecurity. Families are unable to provide sufficient or healthy food for their families.
• Crowded homes.
• Lack of access to safe and efficient sources of energy. In rural areas, many people walk long distances to gather firewood and water.
• Lack of adequately paid, secure jobs. There is a lack of job opportunities, wages are low and there is a lack of job security.
• Fragmentation of family. Many households living with poverty are distinguished by absent fathers and children living apart from their parents. The need for survival often splits families over a number of locations.

It is clear that large numbers of South Africans remain vulnerable to the harsh reality of poverty with very limited means to break out of it. Many victims of apartheid’s gross human rights violations live with the outcomes of poverty and feel that their gross human rights violation experiences have tipped them from the fringes of poverty into destitution and pervasive forms of social exclusion.


Two years after South Africa experienced her first democratic election, the White Paper for Social Welfare (1997) was adopted as the policy framework for developmental social welfare. Social welfare was seen as an integrated and comprehensive, participatory, egalitarian system of social services, facilities and programs, and social security to promote social development, social justice and social functioning (Midgley, 1998; Potgieter, 1998). This challenged social workers and social work educators to reposition themselves for effective education and service delivery, with social development as the central approach to education and intervention (Letsebe, 1998; Lombard, 1999). Social workers are the major players within developmental social welfare (Mazibuko, 1998).
Post apartheid funding available to social workers saw a shift from subsidizing social work posts and unit costs of facilities and services to financing social work programs that uphold the principles as outlined in the White Paper for Social Welfare (1997). These include: securing basic welfare rights; equity; non-discrimination; democracy; improved quality of life; human rights; people centered policies; investment in human capital; sustainability; partnership; intersectorial partnerships; decentralization of service delivery; quality service; transparency and accountability; accessibility; appropriateness; and Ubuntu .
South African social workers are located mainly within, and associated with the social welfare sector. They work within international organizations (e.g. United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund [UNICEF]), national government departments (e.g. Social Development, Housing, Health, Justice and Education), provincial welfare departments, non-government organizations (dealing with poverty and unemployment, child and family welfare, disability, elderly people, HIV/AIDS, illness and death, offenders, violence and trauma,) as well as church-affiliated service initiatives (assisting refugees and victims of abuse, poverty and life crises).
The ANC government declared itself an ally to those professions and organizations that are committed to the just redistribution of services and resources. Thus, social workers are challenged to see themselves as partners in the pursuit of best alternatives for service delivery with a basis of social justice and human rights (Ntusi, 1998). This includes having an impact on developing national social policy as well as service delivery.
The extracts that follow are from a research project into the ways in which victims/survivors of gross human rights violations are living with the consequences of human rights violations.


Insight for this qualitative inquiry emanates from 13 in-depth interviews with victims/survivors of gross human rights violations from the Gauteng and the North Western Province regions. These two of the nine South African provinces provided opportunities to gather diverse views and experiences. Particularly, these two regions offered opportunities to explore both rural and urban experiences.
Survivors were those who were assessed as ‘victims’ of gross human rights violations by South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) defined inclusion. These violations are defined in the Promotion of National Unity and Reconciliation Act (No. 34 of 1995) as torture, murder, abduction and severe ill treatment perpetrated by any person acting with a political motive. The TRC’s Human Rights Violation Committee was mandated to hear accounts of violations occurring between 1 March 1960 and 5 December 1993.
Purposive and availability sampling was used to gather information for this inquiry. Participants were accessed through Khulumani, an organization set up in 1995 by and for victims of gross human rights violations countrywide.
Further information in support of this paper was gleaned from observers of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

Summary of Preliminary Findings

This section of the paper covers some biographic information of the participants and the gross human rights violations they suffered.

Biographic Information of Participants

Ten women and three men participated in this study. At the time of the inquiry, one participant was 84 years, two were in their 70’s, five were in their 60’s, three were in their 40’s and two were in their 30’s.
Four participants defined themselves as belonging to the Sotho-speaking people, two to the Zulu-speaking people, two to the Xhoza-speaking people and two to the Tswana-speaking people. Two participants defined themselves as belonging to both the Zulu- and Sotho-speaking people and one to the Sotho- and Shangaan-speaking people.
One participant had no dependents, one had one dependent, four had two dependents, one had three dependents, three had five dependents, two had seven dependents, and one had ten dependents.
One participant had no schooling, one had completed 4th grade, one 6th grade, one 7th grade, three 8th grade, two 10th grade, one 11th grade, and two 12th grade.
Eleven participants said that they were Christians. Five of them belonged to mainstream denominations, three to Evangelical movements and two to African-Christian traditions. One participant said she was a Christian, though, she had not participated in a church community since the disappearance of her husband, after which the church community treated her like a widow. She did not accept that status foisted on her. One participant believed in the traditional respect of ancestors only and one participant said he was attracted to Islam, although, there are no Muslim communities where he lived. He attended Rastafarian rub-a-dubs in his community.
One participant was employed as a Senator in Regional Government and received an income. Three participants had no source of income. One participant was a sales representative with an unstable income. One participant received a disability grant, while seven received state old-age pensions, including one who tried to supplement her grant by selling funeral policies.

Gross Human Rights Violations Experienced by Participants

All participants’ experiences of gross human rights violations occurred in the context of apartheid’s formal repression and informal repression tactics (Coleman, 1989). Formal repression included repressive forms with which the apartheid regime empowered itself through legislation (for example, detentions without trial). Informal repression were those forms which fell outside the direct controls of formal security legislation, but which were operated by state structures as well as ‘unknown’ persons. These included vigilante groups that developed around apartheid-created homelands and local black authorities, as well as the hit squads of apartheid’s security structures. Vigilante and hit squad activities as well as riot police were responsible for the massacres and disappearances of victims in this inquiry.
The following accounts outline the contexts of the specific incidences in which participants were brutalized.

Sharpville Massacre: March 1960
In 1960, the National Party, authors of the Apartheid system, extended pass laws to include women. The pass laws regulated the movement of African people in South Africa and required that Africans carry identification known as a “dompas” with them at all times. There was widespread dissatisfaction and people were galvanized into taking mass action. This culminated in the killing of 69 demonstrators on Monday, 21 March 1960 in Sharpville. Police had opened fire on about 300 protesters and most of the victims were shot in the back.

Disappearances: Missing in 1986
The two incidences of disappearances included in this study related to ten youths who were executed at Nieverdiend and nine others in KwaNedebele.
The early 1980s ushered in the era of covert, extra-legal government actions against anti-apartheid activists in South Africa. An undercover security policeman, Joe Mamasela, pretending to be a top member of the African National Congress’ (ANC) military wing, infiltrated groups of youths in Mamelodi, Pretoria. These youths were lured to their deaths by being told that they were going to Botswana to join the ANC for military training. A combined security police and military hit squad orchestrated their executions. The youths were made to drink beer and were given injections so that they lost consciousness. In the Nieverdiend incident, they were then placed in a Volkswagen Kombi, which was packed with explosives and then blown up. In the Kwandebele incident, 9 youths were taken to a house in Kwandebele and were set alight.

Massacres during 1990 – 1993
These massacres included the Boipatong massacre (June 1992); Chris Hani Vigil massacre (April 1993); and Sebokeng massacre (July 1993). The violence of this period took the form of internecine conflict rather than direct conflict with security forces, as was seen in previous periods. This conflict was concentrated in the Pretoria-Witwatersrand-Vereeniging area, from where some participants of this inquiry come. Rivalries between hostel-dwellers, who had an allegiance to Inkatha, and residents of adjacent townships, loyal to the ANC, were a major source of conflict. Ethnicity emerged as a decisive dynamic in these conflicts (Truth and Reconciliation Commission, 1998).
Participants were also involved in the extended and ongoing low intensity civil war, as experienced by participants in Jouberton, North West Province.
Participants described different forms of gross human rights violations they experienced. Some participants experienced more than one kind of violation: sons and husbands disappeared; homes were bombed and razed to the ground; family members were shot during night vigils, at political marches and on the streets, some of whom died; family members were assaulted and stabbed in their homes, some of whom died; many were detained on a series of occasions for prolonged periods and brutally assaulted by the police while in detention.

Impact of Gross Human Rights Violations

Impact on participants

Participants spoke of the different areas of their lives that were affected by their gross human rights experiences. The impact was on their physical and mental health, their education, their work, their sense of themselves, and their relationships within the family and their communities. Other family members were affected as well. Some families have had difficulty surviving.

Physical and mental health
Through the brutality, participants continue to live with the outcomes of physical torture and assault: loss of hearing; loss of sexual potency; damage to vocal cords and eye-sight; bad headaches; chest problems; and physical tension.
Participants reported continuous trauma responses: loss of memory and concentration; nightmares; unexpressed anger towards perpetrators; sadness and depression; expressions of anger towards family members; and feelings of isolation within the family.
One participant felt guilty that the police brutalized his father who lost an eye when the police came looking for him, and that his mother died of a heart attack. He blames himself because he cannot raise his children and cannot take care of his father. He feels abandoned by the leadership of “the organization we loved so much, they are destroying rather than building us.”
Many families whose loved ones were abducted, tortured and murdered did not know what had happened to their loved ones for nearly 10 years. During that period they lived without knowing: experiencing sleepless nights; unable to eat; and spending time and money searching for their loved ones. One woman cannot accept the circumstances of her husband’s death: “He is a human being, not a chicken or a goat. Just imagine, sitting for nine years without knowing his whereabouts.”
A number of participants said that they developed high blood pressure and diabetes after the gross human rights violation experience. One woman had had a stroke. Another participant said that he became very angry: he abused alcohol and became a criminal-perpetrating violence against his own community. This made him feel inhuman, “like an empty tin”. His inability to find employment led him to steal from his family and members of his community and surrounding communities. Another participant also spoke of alcohol abuse which he explained was because, “because I’m doing nothing … and getting rid of the pain.”

Detentions interrupted schooling and some participants lost opportunities for furthering education, “I wanted to be a lawyer, those things changed everything, I could not make it in school”. One participant, who is a correspondence student, has not yet finished his studies, as he was not able to study full time, and continues to have difficulty concentrating.

Family relationships were affected
A participant felt that his family did not understand what had happened to him and therefore he could not respect his family nor could he listen to their counsel.

Impact on family members
Families who experienced disappearances of their loved ones suffer terribly. Two women spoke of the difficulty of surviving and providing for their families since the disappearance of their husbands. The education of their children has also been compromised.
The mothers of the Nieverdient 10 and KwaNedbele 9 lost young teenagers of 16 and 17 years. A woman said that the family has no peace at home: there is no joy, only sadness and depression. Other women echoed this: their families are depressed, suffering emotionally, worried about what happened, tormented when thinking about their children and feel nervous.
There are profound feelings of loss, loss of the presence of their loved ones: “He was the candle in the house”; loss of hope for the future, “he could be a teacher, a social worker, he could be something big by this time”.
Those who receive old age pensions experience economic hardship, as their pensions do not cover their rent: “They are eating us there in Mamelodi, the government gives us the money, but we give it back … My rent is R800, and I’m getting R540.”
One woman said that her disappeared grandson’s mother died of a heart attack soon after she heard of his disappearance and when her husband saw the charred bones of their grandson he too collapsed and died, as their grandson, “was his heart”.
After the brutal murder of his son in front of their house, a father developed a severe mental illness and never recovered. He has since died.
A participant said that his mother was severely affected by his harassment by police. She could not visit him out of fear for her own life. He felt that the stress of worrying about him was too great for her and had led to her death.
After a participant had been detained, his mother died of a heart attack.

Impact on community relationships
A woman spoke of her isolation in her community. The community was scared of her since the murder of her son and the bombing of her home. She felt the community hated her and called her a witch. On the anniversary of the bombing of her house, her daughter became ill.

Evaluation of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission
Participants is in this study those who had testified at the TRC felt that testifying was a positive experience. It was a public platform from which to tell their stories of torture and suffering. They were happy to put the record straight and tell the world what happened to them. It assisted in reducing their stress and allowed people to come forward and seek pardon. It was at the amnesty hearings that some of those whose loved ones disappeared heard for the first time what had happened to them. The TRC was successful in revealing many facts for the families of victims who had disappeared and had shed light on the perpetrators. The TRC exposed many aspects of life under apartheid and educated communities about gross human rights violations.
These insights from participants are supported by observations that the truth-telling process, official acknowledgment, exhumations and reburials, and exoneration from blame were healing (Biko, 2000; Henry, 2000; Meiring, 2000; Mgxashe, 2000; Ntsebeza, 2000).
However, post the TRC, one of the most difficult challenges is the neglect of victims. Participants pointed to various issues that are problematic for them. Perpetrators who did not come forward have not been dealt with. Some perpetrators were not remorseful and should not have received amnesty. Perpetrators were not expected to apologize to the families. Some felt that the TRC could have consulted the families when deciding on amnesty. The amnesty hearings made the resolution of trauma very difficult: they did not help with coming to terms with loss.
The TRC closed down before some of the issues were resolved. Some families do not know where the remains of their loved ones are buried, but they want the remains found and exhumed for burials, to honor the dignity of the dead.
In addition, the TRC raised victims’ expectations about the help that would be forthcoming. The victims felt that the TRC promised reparations and financial assistance for:

• Funeral costs of buried loved ones
• Medical intervention relating to gross human rights violations
• Education of children of those who lost their lives
• Rebuilding of bombed homes

It is clear that many victims feel that they have been ignored and abandoned. The TRC was not empowered to implement reparations, only to propose a policy for reparations (Borraine, 2000). One of the most distressing issues for victims as well as for human rights organizations has been the disparity in response to victims and perpetrators (Orr, 2000). Perpetrators experienced immediate delivery of amnesty, while reparations to victims have not yet been delivered. This was underscored by Ntsebeza (2000), who said that victims might have reconciled with perpetrators’ amnesty had the TRC been more proactive regarding reparatory measures. Thus the response to the victims’ psychological needs of reparation and support have lacked sensitivity (Biko, 2000).
Challenges Post the Truth and Reconciliation Commission
Subsequent to the TRC, the South African government seemed to move away from the idea of money as compensation in favor of an emphasis on community restitution and symbolic reparation (Rassool, Witz & Minkley, 2000). While symbolic reparation is crucial, it should not minimize the need for concrete reparation measures (Orr, 2000).
In addition, there is concern that the government is hostile to the spirit and intent of the law that set up the TRC in 1995 (Daniel, 2002). The South African President, Mbeki, took court action to block the publication of the TRC’s final report in 1999. No member of government has commented on the report’s recommendations, let alone attempted to implement them, and no final reparations have been paid out. Most recently, the government has begun moves to pardon failed amnesty applicants. In May 2002, 33 offenders were pardoned. These steps to grant blanket amnesty to those who the Minister of Justice argued had “participated in the struggle” are overturning the value of the TRC and contributing to a culture of impunity. The fear is that the next step will be collective amnesty.
Perpetrators remain in community and government structures. Many perpetrators who should have applied for amnesty have not come forward to own up for their actions and given reasons for their actions. Some of the perpetrators who applied for amnesty did not reveal all the facts and some families need to know where the remains of their loved ones are buried. Perpetrators who did not come forward during the TRC era have not been charged. This is despite the fact that legislation is in place for doing so: “The hostility of this government to the TRC, has in effect, further victimized casualties of apartheid” (Daniel, 2002:19).


Calls are being made that investment in people should become the basis for sustainable development in South Africa. Legum (2002) identifies investment to mean putting in resources now, so that wealth can be created in the future. As she notes, an educated and healthy nation is a nation of creative, enterprising and self-motivating people. Thus, healthy and educated people do not result from development, they drive it. This idea of investing in people is a fundamental dimension of social work’s understanding of social justice. Saleebey (1990) points out that policies and agendas favoring human development and enriching human experiences must take precedence over all others. The committee of inquiry into a comprehensive system of social security also proposed that the state adopt a broad concept of social protection that includes preventive social strategies, in the form of minimum-income support (van den Heever, 2002).
One of the most vulnerable groups emerging in South Africa comprises those who suffered brutal inhumanity - torture, repeated assaults and degrading treatment, abduction, bombings and detention. These crimes against humanity are “inhumane acts of a very serious nature” Mertus (2000:175), and continue to define all aspects of most victims’ lives.
The social exclusion that victim/survivors suffer is pervasive and requires that social workers hear their cries and respond through humanity as well as activism. Social workers need to join them in the call for reparations (education, health care, housing and social assistance); in the call for justice in relation to perpetrators who did not come forward; and lastly, insist that the state uncover facts as yet unknown of those who disappeared: “where are the bones of my son?”



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