Paying For Years Of Pain

Sun Journal

Apartheid: The Latest Suggestion For Compensation To South African Families Of Victims Of Murder, Torture And Disappearance Is $666 Million. A Fund Hasn't Been Created, But Controversy Has Been.

April 22, 1997|By Gilbert A. Lewthwaite | Gilbert A. Lewthwaite,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa -- John Rakhetsi, 24, has a body full of birdshot. Some wounds still bleed 13 years after he was hit, back and front, by two blasts from a police shotgun.

Sylvia Dlomo-Jele, 57, lost her 17-year-old son, a political activist, when police put a bullet in his head, she says.

How much in reparations should they and other victims of South Africa's apartheid years now be paid? Of all the rending questions left in the aftermath of the white minority's ruthless and violent subjugation of the black majority here, this is one of the most sensitive.

How much should a widowed mother of six -- left destitute by the police murder of her husband -- receive? How can you compensate a young man tortured by electric shock or suffocation? What is "enough" for a family still wondering about the fate of a loved one who disappeared?

They are issues that the government of President Nelson Mandela, which has a lot of sympathy but little money, is now tackling.

The latest suggestion, from Archbishop Desmond Tutu's Truth and Reconciliation Commission, is that the families of an estimated 30,000 victims of murder, disappearance and torture should share about $666 million, or roughly $22,000 each. The money would come from a president's fund that is yet to be created and through donations.

"It would be wonderful to say `Let's give a million rand [$220,000] to every victim,' but we have to balance against that the country's need for health care, housing, education and social welfare," says Dr. Wendy Orr, a member of the panel proposing the compensation, which still needs approval from Parliament and Mandela.

After interviewing victims, the panel decided that the compensation should make "a meaningful and substantial impact on their lives."

"The most difficult issue is that South Africa is a country which has huge resource demands being made on it at the moment," Orr says. "Because of the inequity of apartheid, all of our social systems are in need of large injections of resources."

The amount and the method of compensation for the victims of human rights violations are bound to be controversial. The panel recommends that victims be allowed to choose between receiving a lump sum or monthly payments, between housing for those whose homes were burned and education for the sons and daughters of the dead, between medical assistance for the still suffering and a tombstone for the already buried.

But all victims -- whatever the severity of their suffering -- would receive the same amount of money. "It's incredibly difficult to quantify suffering and pain," says Orr. "The amount of money, time and resources spent on that, we don't believe is worth the kind of finely nuanced differences that might come out in the end."

Orr, who has worked in prison hospitals and township clinics, adds: "All my life I have seen tremendous pain and suffering, but probably what I have seen on the commission is far worse."

John Rakhetsi, still in pain 13 years after being shot, says he needs medical assistance, housing and a job. He takes off his shirt to show his pock-marked back, chest and stomach. Some of the birdshot is still lodged in his flesh. Some of the wounds are not fully healed. Twice a day, he says, he must change his bloodied shirt.

He was shot in 1984 while attending a youth rally at a church, which the police broke up with tear gas before firing on the youngsters.

"I just ran," he recalls. "The policeman just followed me, firing. He hit me once, then just shot me again." Rakhetsi was 11 years old.

Too frightened to go to hospital for fear that the police would trace him there, he went to a private doctor. But having no money, he received only minimal treatment. He has not worked since and has been unable to afford proper medical care.

Sylvia Dlomo-Jele remembers the day in 1988 when the police called at her house with her son's pocketbook. It had been taken from a body found in a field outside the township of Soweto, where her son had attended a meeting of anti-apartheid activists. She went to the scene and identified the corpse of her son, Sicelo.

"It was very painful. I thought I would die. But I didn't because I said, `If I die, I will die not knowing what happened, who did it and what was the cause,' " Dlomo-Jele says.

"I used to picture him almost every day. He was very young, very tiny and innocent, but he was killed. He was killed by the police. I am quite sure it was the police. Definitely. I don't hesitate."

Dlomo-Jele, who has testified before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, says her son had already been harassed and arrested by the police. The police advised her to keep him out of politics. At one point, she says, an officer warned the young activist: "You think you are clever, but I'm going to shoot your brains out."

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