Academic journal article British Journal of Community Justice

Fighting for Justice in South Africa: Then and Now

Academic journal article British Journal of Community Justice

Fighting for Justice in South Africa: Then and Now

Article excerpt


During autumn 2005, the author led a feasibility study investigating the experiences of 17 Xhosa men and women from the Eastern Cape who had, in some way, fought in the struggle for liberation from apartheid in its early days. The study showed, firstly, that it was possible to identify people who fell into this category with the help of archive collections and local veterans' associations. Secondly it showed that, with the assistance of final year Theology students at the University of Fort Hare, access could be gained to these 'veterans' and in-depth qualitative interviews conducted, with the students providing translation where necessary. Finally, the interviews themselves highlighted a group of people who had sacrificed much for the freedom of their country, some still optimistic, some disillusioned, but nearly all with outstanding health and social care needs. Transitional community justice aspires to a healing and restoration which still eludes many in the post-democracy years.

Key Words: South Africa; justice; apartheid; struggle; veterans; narrative


Marcus Motaung to an Afrikaner judge who has just found him guilty of treason:

'I took myself to be a soldier, a freedom fighter,' he says. The judge took him to be a criminal. (Lelyveld, 1986: 334)

Much has been written about the long struggle of black South Africans against the apartheid regime - and much has since been written about the attempts of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) to promote transitional restorative justice by eschewing vengeance and seeking reconciliation and unity (Boraine & Levy, 1995). The work of the TRC had its passionate advocates and its equally strong detractors (Tutu, 1999) but, once it ended, the continuation of the healing and restoration process became the function of longer-term community justice at a more informal level. Bypassing the expensive Western culture of turning to the state to resolve problems, bodies such as the township peace committees seek to build peace by addressing generic issues and generating preventive strategies through community consensus (Roche, 2002; Wright, 2004). While they have had some success, they still only operate in around 20 areas and the majority of the country's population does not have access to them. Thus, it remains difficult for many, particularly middle-aged and elderly people, once viewed as criminals, now reconceived as victims, whose generation fought and suffered greatly in the apartheid years, to find a justice 'forum' to resolve their continuing problems and grievances or to have their stories heard.

The ANC Archives at the University of Fort Hare, Eastern Cape, and the Mayibuye Archives at the University of the Western Cape respectively house important historical records and a quantity of taped oral accounts of this 50-year period. However, there appears to be relatively little in the published research domain which examines the post-apartheid trajectory of those who fought the struggle. This is particularly needed in order to bring some understanding to the wider world of what it meant to be labelled a criminal in the apartheid years, and of the extent to which the arrival of democracy in 1994 gave reality to the vision of the freedom for which that sacrifice was made (Bell, 2001).

The piece of pilot research described here originally set out to chronicle the experiences of the so-called 'lost generation' of those who fought the struggle, only to discover that the term means different things to different people in South Africa. Most often it refers to 'the young lions' - the generation of young people who fled into exile or underground following the 1976 Soweto student uprising against Afrikaans-based teaching which was responded to by a Government-led massacre (Morrow, Maaba & Pulumani, 2004). It is also, however, employed to describe the current generation of black youth for many of whom the legacy of apartheid is under-education, unemployment and, in some cases, a life of crime. …

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