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Obituary to my friend and colleague, Hlengiwe Mkhize

Hlengiwe Mkhize. Picture: Oupa Mokoena/ANA

Hlengiwe Mkhize. Picture: Oupa Mokoena/ANA

Published Sep 17, 2021


OPINION: Hlengiwe Mkhize was tough but warm, loyal and principled, serious minded but fun, passionate yet measured in tone, had bags of gravitas without being distant and proud, writes Yasmin Sooka.

My first encounter with Hlengiwe Mkhize was at the Balalaika Hotel as we both waited to be interviewed by the selection committee established by former president Nelson Mandela to interview suitable candidates for appointment as Truth Commissioners, following his acceptance of the recommendation made by civil society and the religious community that the process of selection of Truth Commissioners should be transparent and independent in order to limit political interference.

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The Selection Committee was made up of civil society stalwarts including Hlophe Bam, Reverend Peter Storey, Judge Jody Kollapan, as well as representatives from all of the political parties, and was chaired by the president’s legal adviser Fink Haysom. Candidates shortlisted were interviewed publicly – the interviews were also televised.

Hlengiwe was really impressive in her interview - she was charming, winning over the hardliners from the right wing as she displayed enormous compassion and empathy which the committee viewed as an important asset for those who would be on the Truth Commission.

Hlengiwe was a unanimous choice, unlike Alex Boraine, Dumisa Ntsebeza, Richard Lyster and myself who angered the right wing, the Inkatha Freedom Party and some committee members argued that we were unsuitable as we were only interested in accountability and not reconciliation, Fink Haysom tells a brilliant story of how he persuaded the committee to accept some of us, but that’s for another time.

At our first meeting at the archbishop’s home in Bishopscourt in October 1995, the Arch and Alex Boraine informed us that they had decided to appoint Hlengiwe as the Chair of the Reparations and Rehabilitation Committee and I was appointed as the Arch’s deputy on the Human Rights Violations Committee.

Hlengiwe definitely had the right temperament to lead the Reparations and Rehabilitation Committee, coming out of the conflict in KwaZulu-Natal with a deep understanding of the political violence there.

The apartheid state portrayed it as “black on black” violence, but which the TRC revealed to be state sponsored violence engineered by the apartheid state. Her background in psychology gave her an appreciation of the humanistic issues which we as lawyers missed completely.

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Hlengiwe had a difficult job managing her committee, and victim’s expectations of reparations. She engaged with the state on the reparations proposals put together by the team of experts she had convened - their contribution resulted in a comprehensive holistic package of reparations.

She also engaged with victims and survivors’ groups to obtain their input on what would make a difference to their quality of life. She addressed the issue of how reparations should deal with the complexity of multiple families and compensation.

At one point, some crooked entrepreneur in KZN was selling reparations application forms and extorted R1 000 apiece from victims to complete such forms. Hlengiwe and I travelled to KZN to meet with victims to defuse the volatile situation advising them that these letters were illegal.

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The victims were angry at this abuse of the process and also with the Truth Commission. They felt that we had dashed their hopes to reparations. The situation threatened to spiral out of control, but Hlengiwe managed to calm people down and convinced them that it was not the Truth Commission’s fault but a few crooked individuals exploiting victims.

Hlengiwe and I together with Advocate Denzil Potgieter were the three commissioners appointed by former president Thabo Mbeki to remain working with the Amnesty Committee in 1999, while the rest of the Commission went into suspension. We had to ensure that the Amnesty Committee paid attention to the rights of victims in the absence of a full commission.

In this difficult period, we also dealt with the fallout of FW de Klerk and the ANC having taken the Truth Commission to court. Hlengiwe and I also participated in two critical meetings with the Captains of Industry to discuss reparations.

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Business indicated in the first meeting that they were investing in a Business Trust to create jobs in the tourism sector. The second meeting organised by the Department of Justice was even more tricky, as business claimed that they too had been victims of the apartheid state and that it was the legal obligation of the ANC-led government to pay reparations.

I became involved in a heated argument with one of the captains of industry (who will remain unnamed) when he denied that he had been a beneficiary under apartheid.

Hlengiwe was much more charming and astute in her handling of them, she had a good understanding of people wherever they came from or whatever their views and with her wry sense of humour, would tell me beneath her breath to “cool it” and be more charming.

Hlengiwe came from a diehard ANC family and at no time did she ever forget this. She was also passionately committed to women’s equality in our country. Tough but warm, loyal and principled, serious minded but fun, passionate yet measured in tone, had bags of gravitas without being distant and proud. She was able to make the connection to people, especially the vulnerable.

Hamba kahle, my friend we will miss you.

*Yasmin Sooka is a human rights lawyer. She is a former commissioner at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.