The assassination of outspoken Tunisian opposition politician Chokri Belaid, leader of Unified Democratic Nationalist party last week by as yet unknown gunmen, shocked the fragile post-revolution Tunisian society to its core. Belaid was a familiar face to Tunisians. A local student that I had the opportunity to meet in Tunis explained that he was an increasingly popular leader. The general feeling among most Tunisians, she said, was as if someone had been gunned down in their own living rooms.
By the end of the same day, Prime Minister Jebali had announced the dissolution of the government of national unity. During the intervening week, the National Constitutional Assembly was locked in emergency meetings. At times as few as 97 of its 217 members were in attendance. By the end of the week, after failing to pull together a new cabinet from across the fragmented political landscape that is post-revolution Tunisia, the Prime Minister resigned.
Belaid’s assassination, which a South African diplomat referred to as Tunisia’s “Chris Hani Moment”, has brought the country where the so-called ‘Arab spring’ began, once again to the brink.
While these political developments were unfolding, I attended a meeting of victims and victim groups of gross human rights violations in Tunis.
Victims, human rights activists, transitional justice experts and others discussed a series of pressing questions, interspersed with testimonies of horrific suffering at the hands of two former presidents who presided over brutally repressive regimes. These regimes did not hesitate to target political opponents, mainly Salafi Muslims who dared to speak out.
Mental and physical torture, rape, murder, discrimination and social exclusion all formed part of a pattern of human rights abuse that is only just now beginning to emerge. No one was spared.
The sinister venues for most of these stories, many of which will sound familiar to those who lived through the brutality of apartheid South Africa, are police stations, the Ministry of the Interior, and a range of the country’s 27 crumbling, rotting prisons where human rights violations continue.
Hela Ammar explains how dire the situation remains. As member of Tunisia’s national fact-finding commission, she recently met a young man who was sent to prison for seven years. He was caught smuggling drugs. Inside, the young drug dealer’s life is a living hell. He is regularly tortured and lives in desperate conditions. On his ankle he has a makeshift tattoo that reads: Vengeance. “Prison has taught me a lot” he says. “Now I can even kill. I am not really angry with my prison guards. I keep my revenge for the Tunisian society.”
The conference conversation often erupted into shouting and angry finger-pointing, with victims accusing the agencies that claim to represent them of self-interest. At other times, Islamist and secular victims were at each other’s throats with competing versions of the past. But above all, it was the opportunity for many to speak out after decades of enforced silence, which provoked uncontrollable emotions. This was, finally, their time to speak!
Throughout the conference this urgent, almost desperate need to speak out was tangible. At times the distinction between this conference – which was intended to help plan the country’s proposed Truth and Dignity Commission – and the commission itself, fell away.
For the South Africans present, this was a vivid reminder of our transitional times when ordinary folk, for a historic first time, realised they could participate in public dialogue without being victimised.
With the usual provisos of “each case is unique” and “there is no one-size-fits all solution” firmly recognised, the question nonetheless emerged time and again: Can South Africans, drawing on their own experience, say anything useful to their Tunisian counterparts?
After all, we too came from a period where a discredited regime with a sheen of respectability but who perpetrated horrific human rights violations behind the scenes, presided over the state. Like Tunisia, our police stations were places of torture and our Ministry of Home Affairs a place of death. For us too, detention without trial, sexual harassment and murder were commonplace. We cannot forget the case of Phila Nwandwe, for example, the brave ANC cadre whose story was uncovered by the TRC. She was kept naked, tortured and finally executed when the police realised they would not crack her resolve not to betray her comrades. She had been breastfeeding at the time of her abduction.
Our politicians also “knew nothing” of these abuses and left the policemen and women who followed their orders to face the consequences of their policies alone. Today we must admit that apartheid leaders got away virtually scot free. So do we have much to contribute?
Well, actually, it appears we do. For all our many shortcomings, South Africa’s transition was, compared to most subsequent processes, extraordinarily well-managed. The carefully planned, but challenging negotiation process, the Constitution, and the TRC process that followed in the wake of largely peaceful and fair elections, remain all close to international best practice.
Granted, we made mistakes, but we forget the sheer messiness of the transition from where our process emerged. It may not have been perfect, but it got us to a point where most South Africans could at least begin to hope for a better life. That we have not made the most of this opportunity is now common cause, but this failure can hardly be pinned on our transition.
Ironically it seems our negotiated transition had a more radical impact on the way South Africa changed than Tunisia’s revolution seem to have had. The same applies to Egypt’s post-revolution and Libya’s post-conflict situations. Tunisia would give anything to be at the point today where we were in 1994.
For all this, Tunisia remains a country of hope. This may be the first Muslim country to run a fully-fledged transitional justice process and if the draft law produced by a world-first Ministry of Transitional Justice is anything to go by, the process, at least technically, will be positive for the country.
The big challenge however is not in the nuts and bolts of the process, but in the political context within which it will be embedded. The profound and unresolved political tensions between Islamists, some moderate and some less so, the secularists and then the two million or so followers of the previous regime remain un-reconciled.
South Africa’s most important achievement was to cast our engagement with a terrible past within a commitment to national reconciliation. This opened a window for us to recognise our interdependence, which led us towards the future and not back to the past. Tunisia, says Emna Sammari, member of the Technical Committee overseeing the national debate on Transitional Justice, is not ready for reconciliation. “We organised five workshops, on accountability, reparations, truth-telling, institutional reform and reconciliation. No one turned up for the one on reconciliation. We are not ready for it”.
Yet this is Tunisia’s biggest challenge, to develop a credible and legitimate, and above all, inclusive political process which will genuinely begin to deal with the past. This process will have to seek redress for the victims, while at the same time encouraging perpetrators and beneficiaries to acknowledge the harm which they did or allowed to be done to their fellow citizens. This is a complex process for which there are no easy answers.
Timing and careful sequencing will be critical. Rushed attempts to interrogate the past may very well set the country’s transition backwards. If postponed for too long, it may lead to further resistance. There is no single recipe for a successful transitional justice process – least of all one that is imposed from outside. The timing of the Tunisian process will have to be determined by the Tunisians. Otherwise the attempt to face the past may became a turn back towards it.
Dr du Toit is Executive Director of the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation. A version of this article appeared in the Cape Times on 26 February 2013.