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South Africa’s experience confronting the legacies of apartheid has played a significant role in the development of the transitional justice field. However, accountability for many issues has yet to be achieved. ICTJ works there to support victims’ rights and challenge impunity for perpetrators.

Apartheid Museum, South Africa (Photo from Flickr by teague_o)

Background: Facing Apartheid’s Legacy

More than forty years of apartheid cast a long shadow of human rights violations, including massacres, torture, lengthy imprisonment of activists, and crippling racial discrimination.

Nelson Mandela’s release in 1990—after 27 years in prison—led to negotiations between South Africa’s apartheid government and the African National Congress, and elections in 1994.

In 1995, the South African Parliament mandated the establishment of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). The TRC’s report, published in 1998, included testimony from over 22,000 victims and witnesses. More than 2,000 testified at public hearings.

But most efforts to achieve accountability for crimes committed during apartheid have failed:

  • The TRC law authorized a controversial offer of "amnesty for truth" to perpetrators of human rights abuses who were willing to confess.
  • Former President Thabo Mbeki’s presidential pardons process—publicly described as a means for resolving “the unfinished business of the TRC”—conducted secret proceedings entirely absent of victim representation.
  • The National Prosecuting Authority’s Prosecution Policy contained “back-door amnesty” amendments that effectively granted impunity for apartheid-era perpetrators who had not applied for the TRC’s amnesty.

On 2008, the Pretoria High Court declared the Prosecution Policy’s amendments unconstitutional. In 2010, the Constitutional Court upheld victims’ rights to be consulted before political pardons were granted.

Despite these victories, not a single case recommended for prosecution is before the courts today. And victims have complained that the consultation process undertaken so far isn’t meaningful.

International Corporate Accountability and Reparations

In 2002, the Khulumani Support Group, a South African victims' organization, sued 23 multinational corporations, including Ford Motor Company, General Motors, and IBM, in a United States court, seeking civil damages for their role in mass human rights violations during apartheid.

In 2007, in a landmark ruling, the U.S. court allowed them to present their claims for compensation. As of March 2011, the court is considering an application by the corporations to dismiss the suit on the claim that customary international law does not provide for corporate liability for violations of international human rights law.

ICTJ's Role:

  • In 2007–2008, we played a central role in the successful legal challenge to the amendments to the National Prosecuting Authority’s Prosecution Policy which provided for a backdoor amnesty.
  • We support victims in their struggle to have their cases seriously considered by the prosecution authorities.
  • During 2008–2009, we joined a coalition of civil society organizations and took legal action for transparency and victim participation in the presidential pardons process. The Constitutional Court upheld the rights of victims.
  • We helped to found the South African Coalition for Transitional Justice (SACTJ), an umbrella body of organizations working to advance the rights of victims of past conflicts and to hold government accountable to its obligations.
  • We supported victims in their successful petition before the Constitutional Court to uphold their rights to express the truth.
  • We support victims' claims in the Khulumani lawsuit against multinational corporations accused of supporting the apartheid regime. We filed an amicus brief supporting the right of victims to have the case heard in the United States.
  • We are working with the SACTJ to develop reparations policy.