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From victims to victors

khulumani01 Survivors and families of victims of South Africa´s apartheid past found the Khulumani Support Group in 1995. Khulumani lobbies and advocates for the unresolved and unfinished issues of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC).

In the city centre of Johannesburg, Khotso House with its 12 floors stands tall amongst mundane business buildings. It has been home to the South African Council of Churches (SACC), since the original ‘Khotso House’ was bombed in August 1988. The building was targeted because it housed many anti-apartheid groups. Today, the building continues to harbour progressive environmental and human rights organisations, amongst them the Khulumani Support Group. Zwelikude Mkhize is one of Khulumani´s activists and has worked with the group from its outset.

Khulumani was set up in 1995 in response to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). What does your name and group stand for?
Zwelikude Mkhize: Khulumani simply means “speak out” in isiZulu. Families of victims who had disappeared, families of political activists who were killed and survivors of arbitrary detention during which they were tortured, called the group into being when Parliament was debating the Promotion of National Unity and Reconciliation Act in 1995, whereby past atrocities would be addressed particularly from the victim´s perspective. We favoured the name Khulumani to let victims and survivors speak out and let the atrocities be known and be acknowledged as crimes against humanity as apartheid had been so declared by the United Nations and the international community. The main focus at that time was to enable victims and survivors to access the Truth and Reconciliation Commission processes, to help them deal with their hurt, trauma and depression through counselling and through community support. Most of the victims had and still have medical needs related to their injuries from being shot with live ammunition. Victims at the time had to avoid state hospitals because this was where security police would arrest them. Most victims and survivors still struggle to survive economically as a result of their injuries and the loss of their properties.

What do you consider as your main task?
To address victim´s needs. Those needs differ in a number of ways – some are medical, some are psychosocial, some are socio-economic. These are big challenges for Khulumani, which tries to assist every person who was harmed by apartheid violations. And the TRC process failed to meaningfully address most of the urgent needs of victims. On the question of reparations, there was no formulated informed decision to say how much victims are supposed to be reparated with, as some kind of a meaningful recourse and as apartheid being declared a crime. The TRC recommended individual reparations but the state chose not to implement these recommendations. Victims and survivors have submitted recommendations to government on the shape and scope of reparations that would provide a foundation for overcoming the impacts of the violations they suffered. The question as to what victims and survivors need to reconcile with, remains open. Is this with what really happened when most of the country simply wishes to sweep this awareness under the carpet?

13 years after the first report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was handed to then President Mandela, Khulumani continues to demand reparations for victims of gross human rights violations. At the end of October 2011 Khulumani launched a second phase of the Red Card Campaign. What is that campaign about?
The campaign red cards President Zuma who ignores survivors who suffered in the struggle for freedom and democracy. It red cards him for his failure to direct money from the President´s Fund to community reparations. And it red cards members of parliament who take special pensions while their comrades are destitute.

The “Red Card Campaign” is also at the heart of your Apartheid Litigation case, in which you took twenty-three multinational corporations1 to court in the U.S. in 2002 for gross human right violations.
The major purpose of the campaign is to name and shame the multinationals that aided and abetted apartheid. When a number of those companies became sponsors of soccer teams taking part in the FIFA Soccer World Cup, we initiated the campaign in 2010. These multinationals benefited greatly from entering business dealings with the apartheid government – at the expense of people´s lives being oppressed and repressed. Multinationals have got away scot-free to date for enabling state-sponsored violence in violation of the arms embargo imposed by the United Nations. Colluding with corrupt, oppressive and tyrannical governments is never a fair game. Multinationals continue to corrupt the lives of innocent people. They shatter communities severely.

That sounds like the TRC did not fully address the role of multinational corporations during apartheid. But did the TRC fulfil the purpose for which it was originally set up?
It did not even come near to fulfilling its mandated purpose. The biggest shortcoming was to let the South African TRC process become victim-unfriendly and perpetrator-friendly. The TRC failed to give victims the right to meaningful recourse or to reconciliation based on justice. It did not require of perpetrators to meet with victims or to make plans to redress the harm done to victims. There were some shady deals and negotiations done at the expense of victims and victims’ rights were violated again. The South African TRC process was in these respects a dismal failure.

How does Khulumani redefine the politics of remembrance in contrast to state-defined politics of remembrance?
Our mission statement says: Building an inclusive and just society, in which the dignity of people harmed by apartheid, is restored, through the process of transforming victims into victors. There could not be any answers meaningful to victims, if victims do not derive answers to these questions. The political spectrum needs to be redefined to give genuine acknowledgement and recognition to what happened in the past so that this heinous past becomes part of the awareness of present generations. Never and in no way can victims and survivors be classified or defined as misfits of society, as is presently the situation. Victims today are the remnants of this society and continue to feel shackled. The chain has not been broken because the historical political agency of survivors has not been honoured or recognised. Khulumani wishes to redefine this history of South Africa through championing this cause. This is the process of facilitating the transformation of victims into victors and preventing victims becoming a new generation of victimisers.

Could you give a current example, where Khulumani challenged government politics on remembrance here in South Africa?
We successfully challenged the amendment to the Criminal Procedures Act that provided a special mechanism for perpetrators who failed to come forward to the TRC, to secure immunity from prosecution. We successfully challenged the discretionary right of the President to provide political offenders special pardons without consulting the victims of these crimes. These successes mean that perpetrators can be prosecuted if sufficient evidence is available and victims have to be consulted before political offenders are released from prison. This has affirmed the right of victims to be consulted and to be heard. For us, these have been major victories.

You also questioned the government recently on another proposal…
On the 8th of June 2011, the government issued a statement that the funds remaining in the President’s Fund would now be allocated only to the individuals on the TRC’s list of victims. This is a closed list and fails to address the fact that the TRC was not accessible to many South African victims. If the President wants to make this process inclusive of those that were left out or that fell through the cracks of the TRC, all victims who suffered the identified violations need to be considered. There is no better victim and no worse victim. There should be no unfair discrimination against victims of apartheid gross human rights violations.

The TRC identified 22 000 victims…
We say there are even more victims than that. Out of the population of South Africa today, 49 million people, only 22 000 victims can be identified, what does that tell you? When the rights of humans were grossly violated across decades and decades, when apartheid was endorsed by the Nationalist Party, the former apartheid ruling party – out of the nationwide massacres that happened here in South Africa over many years, have how many victims been identified? And now they only mention 22 000 which is an absolute disgrace and an expression of the government´s insensitivity.

The concept of transitional justice is a key element in your work. What does it entail?
Transitional justice wants to make justice effective. Justice and legal rights need to be accorded to the most marginalised communities and to people who are not economically viable. If a legal right should only be declared as a privilege for the haves and not for the have-nots, the transition cannot be meaningful. As long as victims remain unrecognised and effectively disenfranchised because of their extreme impoverishment, there can be no meaningfully inclusive society.

What is the most important prerequisite to ensure a transition to a more just society here in South Africa?
Firstly, to never allow these past atrocities to recur through doing away with the impunity that exists. Then with that, there could be a just society. A just society cannot privilege the haves over the have-nots. If society is further diversified and is never seen as a collective, then a certain class of people, of communities, the have-nots, will continue to get poorer. This will lead to another type of political conflict and that conflict can be endless. And when that conflict is allowed to be perpetuated against the have-nots, and when the haves are the perpetrators of that conflict, there can never be a just society. It would only be a utopian just society to the haves and it would be meaningless to the have-nots.


Survivors and families of victims of South Africa´s apartheid past found the Khulumani Support Group in 1995. Khulumani lobbies and advocates for the unresolved and unfinished issues of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) such as community reparation programmes, the prosecution of perpetrators who did not apply for amnesty, and the search for people who became victims of enforced disappearances. In the midst of it, Khulumani constantly challenges governmental politics of remembrance. Other key elements of the group´s work are programmes in healing and memorialisation, in the documentation of success stories and in capacity building for active citizenship to move from a representative democracy to a participatory democracy in which the voices of all the people count. To this date, Khulumani has 65.000 members.


1Five companies have been admitted for the case: IBM; Daimler AG; General Motors; Ford; Rheinmetall AG.

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Interview From Victims to Victors, analyse&kritik, 20.01.2012, p.19