‘We have to recognize the past more effectively’: South African rights defender Zaid Kimmie

The Foundation for Human Rights director on how Argentina and South Africa can learn from each other and the emergence of a Milei-era ‘counter-narrative’

South Africa's Foundation for Human Rights director Zaid Kimmie. Photo: courtesy of FHR

South African nonprofit the Foundation for Human Rights (FHR) was formed in 1996 to watch over human rights after the end of Apartheid. The organization helps families of those killed in the liberation struggle to seek justice, and supports community projects on social justice issues including gender-based violence and migration.

In 2023, the FHR was awarded Argentina’s Emilio Mignone international prize for human rights, named after the award-winning Argentine writer and human rights campaigner. The Herald spoke to its executive director, Zaid Kimmie.

It has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

What does it mean to face the legacy of apartheid?

In South Africa, a set of liberation movements declared they would violently overthrow the state, and the state was responding. In the 1990s, there was a negotiated settlement. Each side decided to step back from violence and commit to a democratic future. But it was a compromise. This was not Nüremberg, where you had a winner in the loser.

Part of that compromise was that we would have something like the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. If people fully confessed to their crimes, and they were committed for political purposes, there would be a judicial process to assess whether they’d met these conditions. If they did, they would receive amnesty, meaning there would be no further prosecutions. But there were those two components: the full truth, and it had to be a political purpose. 

Rape was always considered beyond the bounds of an acceptable political purpose. But several thousand people received amnesty for acts of murder. If you were refused amnesty or didn’t apply for it, the normal laws of justice would apply. That was the compromise. 

The unfinished business of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) refers to the fact that several hundred cases were refused amnesty and handed over to the prosecuting authority by the TRC, who said, these cases have been refused amnesty. Please prosecute. 

And the state then decided not to prosecute — in the first instance, simply by inaction.

There was an attempt to have a bureaucratic amnesty. Senior civil servants would gather in some room, apply their minds, then say, everyone has amnesty. That was reversed in court. So the end result is that there was an instruction that these cases should not be investigated and that no-one be prosecuted.

The reason for that is something we still need to fully uncover, but that was the decision. So the work that we’re doing has been for a long time to force the state to prosecute. 

What sorts of crimes are we talking about?

For instance, the young activist who joins the ANC [African National Congress, a liberation movement that is now a political party] and acts as a courier. She takes information back and forth between Swaziland and military underground groups. On one such mission, she’s arrested, tortured and disappeared, and her body is never found. She may have been acting in a quasi-military role, but she’s treated as an enemy and simply killed. 

Another example: four community activists organized a local boycott, saying they wouldn’t buy food or use the bus services and would march to demand their rights. The local police get an order that they should be… To use the term of the time, “permanently removed from society.” So they’re stopped on the road and executed, and their bodies are burned.

There are several hundred cases, and the FHR represents about 25 families. We provide legal and technical support, we find lawyers, and we represent the families in their interactions with the state, court, etc. 

How did South African society respond to this process? 

The concept, in part, was that we would have this TRC. People would have the chance to give testimony about what happened to them. Perpetrators would give testimony. It would be resolved in some way, and then we would move forward. In a sense you would say we have now drawn a line under our dark past. So I think the general conception is that now we can move forward.

It was, of course, painful for people reliving their experiences, but I think the general sense was, we’ve dealt with the past.

How do you see the parallels between Argentina’s experiences prosecuting the civic-military dictatorship and South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission? 

I think there are lessons both ways. In Argentina, as many people have made very clear, reconciliation was not an outcome that was wanted. If someone said, “I was responsible for the deaths of 20 or 30 people. I can tell you who they were, I can tell you what I did to them. But I want immunity from prosecution,” the state’s response was: no. To some extent what you did and accepting model culpability is not as important as the fact that you have to pay for the crime.

People who had committed crimes would be punished to the extent it was possible within the law and the evidence, so that was the Argentine sense of how you deal with the past. Of course, you had attempts at immunity and pardons, it wasn’t that clear-cut. But the South African approach was in a sense, if you told the truth, we would take the matter no further. 

What we can learn from Argentines is that the past is very much the present, in the way people deal with human rights issues and the way they’re trying to deal with justice. Prosecutions are ongoing, and its place in the national psyche — recent [electoral] results notwithstanding — is that people know about it, it’s a prominent part of how Argentines think about their history. They have an active civil society that works to contribute to that memorialization.

Zaid Kimmie is presented with the Emilio Mignone International Prize for Human Rights by Santiago Cafiero. Photo: courtesy FHR. Cover image: courtesy FHR.

In our context there is now less focus on the past, because it’s considered to be done. So the memorialization, activities, the extent to which the state has that backward-looking focus on rights violations, is not the same as in Argentina. That’s quite striking. In South Africa it’s compartmentalized. 

On the other hand, we did have, in some sense, the truth — there’s no dispute about what happened. People have even made political-level confessions, accepting political responsibility for the system of apartheid. 

In Argentina, I think the truth is still something of a dispute — that a section of society does not accept that what happened was wrong and has a counter-narrative that these people deserved it, that they were terrorists or saboteurs, and there was a justification. I think your vice president represents that sort of view. People can do that because in some sense there was never an admission that what happened was wrong.

What proportion of Argentine society they represent is a question. But the fear of organizations like the mothers and grandmothers of the disappeared is that this is the start of a counter-narrative, particularly among young people.

How does it feel to receive the Emilio Mignone international prize for human rights?

If you mentioned the name to my colleagues in South Africa, they would not know who you  were talking about — but if you told them about his life, commitment, values, willingness to put himself in harm’s way, they would recognize him immediately, as someone who had the shared bonds of commitment to truth and justice. We can recognize that even though we never knew him as a person. 

It is inspiring that Argentina has such an award, and I hope that’s something South Africa can learn from — that we have to recognize the past in more effective ways, by doing things like having an award named after your human rights champions.


All Right Reserved.  Buenos Aires Herald