Promoting the Argentinian candidacy of the ESMA Museum Memory Site to the World Heritage List of UNESCO
On 5 August 2021, the Embassy of Argentina in South Africa and the Foundation for Human Rights held a joint webinar “Argentina and South Africa Dialogue on Memory Sites, Truth and Justice – Addressing Past Human Rights Violations”.
The main purpose of the webinar was to promote the candidacy of Museum Site of Memory ESMA to the World Heritage List of UNESCO and to reflect on the symbolism of memory sites in Argentina and South Africa, and their role in ensuring the right of victims to truth and justice. The webinar was also aimed at raising international awareness about the crimes against humanity perpetrated by the civic-military dictatorship in Argentina and by the apartheid state in South Africa, and share experiences about the path to justice achieved in Argentina thanks to the struggle led by human rights organizations.
The Embassy of Argentina in South Africa has a long-standing relationship with the Foundation for Human Rights and we have worked together for many years on different initiatives to promote human rights in Argentina and South Africa. The two countries share the troubled history of gross human rights violations that were committed during the civil-military dictatorship in Argentina, and the colonial and apartheid-era in South Africa. As part of dealing with the past, the countries have continued to share good practices and experiences in terms of memory, truth and justice. In particular, the FHR hosted the Grand-Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo in a public meeting and other educational visits by members of different Argentinian political parties to share experiences on transitional justice. The FHR also provided seed-funding to the Missing Persons Unit within the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) in South Africa, while the Argentinian investigators and prosecutors designed and delivered excellent trainings on exhumations over the years.
The webinar was joined by prominent guest speakers from Argentina and South Africa:
- Ms Lic. Alejandra Naftal – the Director of the ESMA Museum
- Mrs Silvia Labayru – former detainee at the ESMA clandestine centre of detention
- Ms Mmagauta Molefe, Ms Joyce Seroke and Ms Lorraine Tabane – former detainees at the Women’s Jail and John Vorster Square in South Africa
- Mr Lukhanyo Calata – journalist, a son of the late Fort Calata (one of the Cradock 4)
Ms. Alejandra Naftal, the Director of the ESMA Museum
Ms. Alejandra Naftal, the Director of the ESMA Museum spoke about the painful history of Argentina during the dictatorship, and the long path to justice, which the survivors of gross human rights violations had to navigate under difficult conditions to achieve closure and healing. She referred to the memory of thousands of people who had been detained, brutally tortured, disappeared or murdered by the military and the state agents at the illegal detention centre located at the Higher School of Mechanics of the Navy (ESMA) during the dirty war in Argentina.
Criminal Accountability in Argentina
The initial commitment to criminal accountability for crimes committed during the military dictatorship, which was reflected in the setting up of the National Commission on Disappeared Persons (known by its Spanish acronym, CONADEP) and the famous Juicio a las Juntas Militares trials in 1985, was soon abandoned under the pressure from the military. Two amnesty laws known as ‘full stop’ and ‘due obedience’ laws, were adopted on December 24, 1986, and June 5, 1987, which effectively prevented any investigations and prosecutions of serious crimes committed during the dictatorship until they were struck down by the Argentinian Supreme Court in 2005, which found them unconstitutional. The decision by the Supreme Court has been a victory for civil society organisations that advocated for truth and justice for the survivors and was reflective of the renewed commitment and impressive criminal accountability efforts undertaken by Argentina ever since. The 2020 Report by the Office of the Prosecutor for Crimes against Humanity (PCCH) established to prosecute crimes committed during the dictatorship, shows that 3 316 people have been investigated for crimes against humanity, of which 995 were convicted.
Mr Lukhanyo Calata – journalist and the son of Fort Calata
Lukhanyo Calata, a renowned journalist seeking justice for the murder of his father Fort Calata, was given the floor after Ms Alejandra Naftal. Fort Calata together with three other anti-apartheid activist including Matthew Goniwe, Sicelo Mhlauli, and Sparrow Mkonto (known as ‘Cradock 4’) were abducted and killed by the Security Branch of the South African Police in 1985. Lukhanyo Calata begun his presentation by quoting Marcus Garvey who famously said
“A people without the knowledge of their history, their origin and their culture is like a tree without roots – surely both are destined to die”.
Mr Calata further spoke how since his early age, he had had a natural curiosity for the history of his family, his town and the history of his country, and in particular the history of the struggle against apartheid. Having his roots in the little town of Cradock, Lukhanyo recounted the history of his family which was deeply connected to the history of the liberation movement, in particular the National African Congress (ANC). With its unique history of a struggle against the apartheid state, in 1930’ and 1940’ Cradock was the headquarters of the ANC. In the 1950’ the ANC hosted its national conference in Cradock because Calata’s grand-father who was the Secretary General of the ANC at that time was under the house arrest and could not leave the town. It was during this ANC conference in 1953 that Zachariah Matthews spoke about the idea of the Freedom Charter for the first time, and as a result Cradock has grown to be recognized as the cradle of the Charter. In 1985 the residents of the Cradock led the revolution against the tyranny of apartheid government and for the period of six months they managed to govern themselves – free from the oppression. This was this revolution that led to the brutal assassination of Calata’s father and his comrades. Their funeral on 20 July 1985 proved to be a turning point in the South Africa’s history. Hours after the Cradock 4 activists had been buried then President P.W. Botha declared the state of emergency – the first one since the state emergency announced in 1960 after the Sharpeville massacre.
Lukhanyo Calata emphasised that there can be no meaningful memorialisation unless there is justice for the victims. He asks
“What is the point of the concrete monument if the killers who were denied amnesty by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission continue to live among of us?”
He questioned the need for memorialisation in the circumstances when hundreds of victims’ families are still desperately trying to push the ANC government and the National Prosecuting Authority to prosecute those behind the murders of their loved ones. “The lack of prosecutions by the South African government is betrayal of martyrs, families, communities and everything what they lived and what died for”, Calata said. He also stressed that the lack of prosecution is a failure to affirm in South African and across the globe that the Black lives matter. He ended his presentation with these words
“Memory is hollow without justice”.
Mrs Sivia Labayru – the survivor of the ESMA detention centre
The floor was then given to Mrs. Silvia Labayru who is a survivor of the ESMA detention centre in Argentina. Mrs. Labayru was kidnapped on 29 December 1976 by the special ESMA task force at the age of 20, when she was almost 6 months pregnant. Her daughter born in detention was handed over to family members, who took care of her until Ms Labayru was released one year and a half later. In 1978 she went into exile and came back to Argentina only decades later. Ms Labayru testified before the CODEP and at multiple trials dealing with crimes committed during the dictatorship. She is one of three survivors bringing the case against several perpetrators in the first trial dealing with sexual and gender based violence committed at ESMA. Mrs. Labayru spoke about the importance of the ESMA museum for survivors of gross human rights violations, and “The Never Again” campaign. She echoed the statement by Lukhanyo Calata stressing that meaningful memorialisation is only possible if complemented by justice efforts.
Ms Mmagauta Molefe, Ms Joyce Seroke and Ms Lorraine Tabane – anti-apartheid activists and former detainees
The contributions by Mr Calata and Mrs Labayru were followed by accounts of three South African women, Ms Mmagauta Molefe, Ms Joyce Seroke and Ms Lorraine Tabane, who had been detained at the ‘Number Four’, Women’s Jail and John Vorster Square detention and police facilities during the apartheid era for their political activism. Ms Molefe is a former ant-apartheid activist and documentary filmmaker who is currently working on the documentary “Surviving the John Vorster.” While speaking about the history of the struggle and the need for memorialisation, Ms Molefe made a suggestion that the former John Vorster Police Square should be turned into a memory site to honour those who were tortured and murdered there.
Ms Joyce Seroke, a former Chair of the Commission on Gender Equality in South Africa, sympathised with the survivors of the ESMA and called for solidarity of survivors both in South Africa and in Argentina. She noted that the experiences of torture and detention would also always be embedded in survivors’ hearts and souls. Ms Seroke spoke of her own experience of detention. She was detained at ‘Number Four’ in 1976 after the massive youth unrests that resulted in increased government repressions. Ms Seroke recounted the harrowing experiences of solitary confinement – the loneliness and hopelessness. However, she still called herself ‘fortunate’ as her five-old child was at home with her mother and was not taken away from her as had been the case with female detainees at ESMA. Ms Seroke stressed the gender dimension of the struggle against apartheid. She recounted how women activists were initially told that issues of gender would be only dealt with once the issues of race had been solved. The women agreed that the struggle should take the priority, but to their dismay, when freedom had been eventually attained, the women were left out, she said. She also stressed the importance of memory sites for the education and non-recurrence of violations. She said that in order to better understand and enjoy human rights, one should know what happened in the past. As the former Chair of the Commission for Gender Equality, Ms Seroke was often asked how she could possibly work at the Constitutional Hill, where the Women’s Jail and ‘Number Four’ are located, and she would respond:
“In the true spirit of resilience that had embraced me and my generation of activists, I refused to let the past to pull me down – I took it in my stride and led my commissioners and staff, to the Con Hill to redeem the place which was once the place of pain; …We must redeem it to become a beacon of hope for future generations.”
Ms Tabane spoke about the importance of recounting the stories of detainees. While some stories have been written and, there are still many more that have not seen the light of day. She spoke about the feeling of humiliation and intimidation that accompanied her at Number Four but also other places of detention, where she was interrogated. The story about ‘Number Four’ is not complete, and efforts should be made to have a historical narrative that is based on facts in order to prevent denialism, she said.
Hanif Vally, the Executive Director of the Foundation for Human Rights
Mr Hanif Vally, the Executive Director of the Foundation for Human Rights, delivered the note of thanks. He emphasised the importance of the long fruitful relationship that has been built over the years between the FHR and Embassy of Argentina, and thanked the organisers, in particular, Chargé d’Affairs Counsellor Mrs Florencia Segura, the speakers and participants for their time and commitment to justice.
Mr Hanif Vally reminded everyone that at the time when the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa was established, everyone believed that a common narrative was needed to move society forward. However, it soon became evident that regardless the amount and strength of evidence and testimonies, there would always be people undermining the narrative. Mr Vally emphasized that it is one of the reasons why places such as the ESMA Museum or similar memory sites in South Africa are needed – to once and for all establish what happened in the past. This is particularly true for Argentina and South Africa, where crimes against humanity had been committed. By emphasising the importance of the past for the future, Mr Vally said:
“The memories of the past are our eyes for the future.”
Mr Vally noted that in South Africa there are a number of apartheid-era families engaged in the legal matters in our courts because the South African state has failed to prosecute the perpetrators who were denied amnesty even though it had the obligation to do so. Mr Vally pointed out that as a result of political interference in South Africa an ex-director of public prosecutions who received instructions from the Executive not to proceed with the cases arising from apartheid resigned from his position. Mr Vally also highlighted the case of Lukhnayo Calata, who had to go to court to have the killers of his father prosecuted. Mr Vally raised questions about the motivations by the South African state not to proceed with prosecutions. At the end of his presentation, Mr Vally stressed:
“We will not allow the memory of our sisters and brothers, our fathers and mothers, the so-called victims, to ever be disappeared from either our memories or from those of future generations in our respective countries.”
Chargé d’Affairs Counsellor Mrs Florencia Segura – The Embassy of Argentina
Chargé d’Affairs Counsellor Mrs Florencia Segura, who was closing the webinar, thanked all the speakers for making us reflect on the importance of memory as the key element in the process of truth and justice. She stressed that right to truth is not only an individual right but is also a collective right of the whole society to know the truth about its history. Mrs Segura noted the significance of the ESMA Museum in Argentina, the Freedom Park and Robben Island Museums in South Africa, for future generations, and their role as monuments continuously reminding us about the mass crimes of the past and the obligations of the international community to prevent similar atrocities from ever happening again in the future.
Note from the FHR
The FHR would like to thank the Embassy of Argentina, for the long-standing relationship and mutual assistance in making sure that rights of victims to truth, justice and reparations are guaranteed, and for reminding all of us about the “Never Again” principle that underpins the memorialisation work in both countries. In particular, we would like to thank Chargé d’Affairs Counsellor Mrs Florencia Segura – the diplomat with the activist heart – for her commitment to the protection and promotion of human rights.