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Apartheid in South Africa
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The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) was a court-like body assembled in South Africa after the abolition of apartheid. Witnesses who were identified as victims of gross human rights violations were invited to give statements about their experiences, and some were selected for public hearings. Perpetrators of violence could also give testimony and request amnesty from both civil and criminal prosecution.

The TRC, the first of the nineteen held internationally to stage public hearings, was seen by many as a crucial component of the transition to full and free democracy in South Africa. Despite some flaws, it is generally (although not universally) thought to have been successful.


Creation and mandate

The TRC was set up in terms of the Promotion of National Unity and Reconciliation Act, No. 34 of 1995, and was based in Cape Town. The mandate of the commission was to bear witness to, record and in some cases grant amnesty to the perpetrators of crimes relating to human rights violations, reparation and rehabilitation. The TRC had a number of high profile members: Archbishop Desmond Tutu (chairman), Dr. Alex Boraine (Deputy Chairman), Mary Burton, Advocate Chris de Jager, Bongani Finca, Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela, Sisi Khampepe, Richard Lyster, Wynand Malan, Reverend Khoza Mgojo, Hlengiwe Mkhize, Dumisa Ntsebeza (head of the Investigative Unit), Wendy Orr, Advocate Denzil Potgieter, Mapule Ramashala, Dr. Faizel Randera, Yasmin Sooka and Glenda Wildschut.


The work of the TRC was accomplished through three committees:

  • The Human Rights Violations Committee investigated human rights abuses that occurred between 1960 and 1994.
  • The Reparation and Rehabilitation Committee was charged with restoring victims' dignity and formulating proposals to assist with rehabilitation.
  • The Amnesty Committee considered applications from individuals who applied for amnesty in accordance with the provisions of the Act.

Public hearings of the Human Rights Violations Committee and the Amnesty Committee were held at many venues around South Africa, including Cape Town (at the University of the Western Cape), Johannesburg (at the Central Methodist Mission), and Randburg (at the Rhema Bible Church).

The commission was empowered to grant amnesty to those who committed abuses during the apartheid era, as long as the crimes were politically motivated, proportionate, and there was full disclosure by the person seeking amnesty.

To avoid victor's justice, no side was exempt from appearing before the commission. The commission heard reports of human rights violations and considered amnesty applications from all sides, from the apartheid state to the liberation forces, including the African National Congress.

A total of 5 392 people were refused amnesty and 849 were granted amnesty, out of 7 112 petitioners (there were a number of additional categories, such as withdrawn).


The commission brought forth many witnesses giving testimony about the secret and immoral acts committed by the Apartheid Government, the liberation forces including the ANC, and other forces for violence that many say would not have come out into the open otherwise.

On October 28, 1998 the Commission presented its report, which condemned both sides for committing atrocities.


The TRC sharply contrasted the Nuremberg Trials after World War II and other de-Nazification measures. Because of the perceived success of the reconciliatory approach in dealing with human-rights violations after political change either from internal or external factors, other countries have instituted similar commissions, though not always with the same scope or the allowance for charging those currently in power. The success of the "TRC method" versus the "Nuremberg method" of prosecution (as seen used in Iraq) is open for debate.

In a survey study by Jay and Erika Vora, the effectiveness of the TRC Commission was measured on a variety of levels, namely its usefulness in terms of bringing out the truth of what had happened during the apartheid regime, the feelings of reconciliation that could be linked to the Commission, and the positive effects both domestically and internationally that the Commission brought about in a variety of ways from the political environment of South Africa to the economic one. The opinions of three ethnic groups were measured in this study: the English, the Afrikaners, and the Xhosa.[1]

The effectiveness of the Commission in bringing out truth can be viewed in the following statement from an article by Jay and Erika Vora:

All participants perceived the TRC to be effective in bringing out the truth, however, in varying degrees. The Afrikaners perceived the TRC to be less effective in bringing out the truth than the English participants and much less effective than did the Xhosa...[1]

The differences in opinions about the effectiveness can be attributed to how each group viewed the proceedings. Some viewed them as not entirely accurate as many people would lie in order to keep themselves out of trouble while receiving amnesty for their crimes, given that the Commission would grant amnesty to some with consideration given to the weight of the crimes committed.

The TRC was viewed as much less effective in bringing about reconciliation by each group, with the two white groups about par and the Xhosa viewing the TRC as less effective than the other two ethnic groups. Some said that the proceedings only helped to remind them of the horrors that had taken place in the past when they had been working to forget such things. Thus, the TRC Commission's effectiveness in terms of achieving those very things within its title is still debatable.[1]

Media coverage

The hearings were initially set to be heard in camera, but the intervention of 23 non-governmental organisations eventually succeeded in gaining media access to the hearings. On 15 April 1996 the South African National Broadcaster televised the first two hours of the first human rights violation committee hearing live. With funding from the Norwegian government, radio continued to broadcast live throughout. Additional high-profile hearings, such as Winnie Mandela's testimony, were also televised live. The rest of the hearings were presented on television each Sunday from April 1996 to June 1998 in hour-long episodes of the "Truth Commission Special Report" by progressive Afrikaner journalist Max du Preez, former editor of the Vrye Weekblad.[2] The producers of the program included Anneliese Burgess, Jann Turner, Benedict Motau, Gael Reagon, Rene Schiebe and Bronwyn Nicholson, a production assistant.[3]

Various films have been made about the commission:

Several plays have been produced about the TRC:

Some of Ingrid de Kok's poetry in Terrestrial Things (2002) deals with the TRC (e.g. The Archbishop Chairs the First Session, The Transcriber Speaks, The Sound Engineer).

Intentions and Effects

In order to prevent disaster in a country divided by turmoil and years of conflict there must be a resolution. Under the circumstances South Africa was facing post the apartheid, a truth and reconciliation commission was formed in order to stabilize justice within the country. The TRC was created for the intent of obtaining truths of human right violations, granting amnesty to those who proved to be guilty of politically motivated crimes, allowing victims the opportunity to recount the violations they endured, providing reparations for and rehabilitating human and civil dignity of victims of the human rights violations, and preventing future acts or events of the same nature. The TRC was largely created for the healing and pacification of victims. In exchange for revealing their stories victims would presumably obtain liberation and closure from their grief. Many of the stories told by offended persons showed relief of their pain and in some cases even brought conciliation between them and their perpetrator. In the case of the “Motherwell Bombing” incident, De Kock, the chief commander, admitted to sending three black policemen on a false mission in which their car was disposed with explosives that led to their murder. As the widows of the men murdered met with De Kock, they not only exchanged stories and uncovered the truth but bestowed forgiveness upon the man who had killed their husbands and found reconciliation with him. In many ways such as this the TRC promoted healing for the victims and encouraged forgiveness. In countless instances, however, after the victims conveyed their stories to the commission, it appeared that their wounds grew deeper. In cases such as Mrs. Plaatjie, whose son was killed by the police, she was only left to see the memories of his body swathed in blood when telling her story. She was not alleviating the pain she had experienced but instead reliving it. And even by telling her story she never received any recourse from her perpetrator. For many victims it was impossible to forgive if they did not know who had harmed them. In numerous events the TRC’s objective of mending past wounds for victims failed more than succeeded. Possibly the most productive objective for the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission was exposing some of the deepest secrets and truth to the apartheid. The third truth commission commandment states “the truth will set us free- free to reconcile with each other, free to imbibe the wisdom of experience so that never again will others have to endure what we went through.” (Cose, 183) It was believed that by acknowledging the immoral actions of the past a soul or even a nation could be healed. Many of the victims of apartheid also revealed their opinion that reconciliation must evolve from the truth. The hearings of the TRC uncovered some of the most exclusive plots and human rights violations. The truth commission not only exposed the schemes behind its country’s government and military but the country’s equivocation. The majority of the oppressed citizens remained silent through the entire apartheid regime. The TRC finally allowed the truth of debauched events to come to surface and for the entire country to recognize the human rights violations that had occurred. By knowing the wrongs that have occurred in history, many believed, including Archbishop Desmond Tutu, that these events would never be relived. In this circumstance, the TRC was an immense success. Although the truth was transpired through many of the victims’ stories, in numerous instances the truth was partial and inadequate. Since there was not a requirement to apply for amnesty from TRC, many people observed there was only a one sided story from the victim. When there was more than one perspective, the facts stated by the oppressed were not always supported by the perpetrator’s account. For many victims they expected specific and accurate answers to their traumatic experiences and oftentimes did not receive everything they were hoping for. In many instances the perpetrators were dishonest and the TRC did not have the resources to disprove more than a small percentage of their testimony. For women such as Thandi Shezi who was raped and beaten by white police officers, she did not receive any recourse from her perpetrator. During her perpetrator’s statement he denied even knowing Shezi, leaving her with no closure and no compensation for the pain she had endured. For this reason the TRC was not as successful in bringing the full truth to every case. Amongst the objectives of the TRC one of the most significant goals to many who suffered was to ensure and restore human civil dignity of the victims of human rights violations. One intention that the TRC truly succeeded at was acknowledging that human rights violations occurred from both sides. The TRC recognized every person that conversed with the council as a human being and gave individuals the right to free speech in their hearing. The freedom to speak for yourself was an extensive privilege and necessity to obtaining the truth in many cases but it was also a downfall for the commission in many instances as well. Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela describes in her novel “A Human Being Died That Night” when she speaks out against a callous statement made by a general who commanded massacres against the ANC. When Pumla thought she was rescuing the human dignity for the offenders, she actually had to apologize for her actions. The same time the TRC made efforts to be inoffensive to anyone testifying, it was also lacking support for the victims who felt their dignity was being obliterated. In many cases, such as the one above, victims felt betrayed of respect when the perpetrators were allowed to lie and show no remorse for their actions before the TRC. Many of the citizens in the white community also felt defrauded by the system as well. Many of them felt as though it was a witch hunt for white people, which made the process a bit of fiasco on both ends of the spectrum. An immense portion of the TRC was contributed to the amnesty process. The success in this factor of the commission was the truth behind many stories that it uncovered. Instead of the country focusing on forgetting their past or seeking revenge the TRC made it possible and even encouraged forgiveness of past wrongs in order to achieve unity. It also allowed many offenders the chance to apologize or show remorse for their actions, which was a huge triumph on the level of reconciliation. The failures that arose from the amnesty committee were quite momentous however. While the victims were still locked in their memories of pain and suffering, many of the perpetrators that were given amnesty were back in the streets free from serving jail time and giving any sort of compensation to those they had hurt. Even the offenders who had committed some of the most brutal human rights violations were granted amnesty because their crimes were politically motivated. They did not have to show any remorse or feel guilt; they were simply pardoned from their heinous actions due to their association with political incentives. As the TRC revealed, even though granting amnesty was a success in bringing forth truth, it was disconcerting in allowing some of the most atrocious acts to be pardoned and the victims to only feel victimized once more. One feature the TRC addressed was compensation in some form to those who were wounded from the apartheid. The reparations that the victims did receive came at a very small level. About 22,000 who suffered and retold their stories in front of the TRC were given 30,000 rands or about $4000 apiece from President Mbeki. The reparations were not just money though; they were a symbol for an acknowledgement of past immoral actions by a government and a step to move forward. They were also a symbol of relief and liberation from the terrible events that occurred. Conversely, many of the victims never felt freedom from this small payment for their pain. It was much less than the victims expected and that the TRC had suggested. There was also no punishment for the perpetrators. While the offended received just a very small portion of money for their suffering, many of the white offenders who were granted amnesty were free to walk back to their wealthy family and houses without any penalty. In Thandi Shezi’s case she was promised some form of monetary reparations for telling her story and received nothing while her perpetrators, along with many others, who had performed so many human rights abuses were free. Archbishop Desmond Tutu even expressed the inequality that was granted in reparations. The perpetrator was instantly given amnesty while victims were forced to wait to receive their compensation. In numerous cases the victims criticized that the TRC was designed and more rewarding to the perpetrators than for them. Shezi explained that she believes there is no reconciliation without some form of compensation. Some even posed the idea that the TRC could have been more successful, and the victims would have found more gratification in seeking revenge.

TRC on Restorative Justice

This process resembled many ideals of restorative justice but also lacked many important qualities of achieving true reconciliation. The TRC was blatantly not designed for revenge but rather to move past the wrongs committed in history and restore a sense of unity in the nation. The creators of the TRC found much more hope in designing a system based on restorative justice rather than retributive. The ideals of restorative justice revolve around acknowledging who the victim is, what their needs are, whose obligation is it to meet those needs, who has a state in the situation, and the appropriate process necessary to fulfill those needs. The creators of the TRC felt this process could address some of the most obvious needs of the victims and provide healing of their wounds. The TRC established in its hearings the victim(s) or secondary victim(s) in each case, which was sometimes both the offender and the offended. In almost every case the victims’ needs were transparent through their story. The TRC was designed for them to be able to achieve some form of healing through telling their story. A need apparent through all victims is that these atrocities will never reoccur. As Desmond Tutu lectured “they say that those who suffer from amnesia, those who forget the past, are doomed to repeat it.” (Cose, 182) One of the greatest successes from the TRC in terms of restorative justice rests on this intention. The TRC has made it known in South Africa and throughout the entire global community that these gross human rights violations have taken place and by the will of the community, will never happen again. Although the TRC made clear who the victims were and addressed many of their needs, the process was inferior in many aspects of being a model of restorative justice. Many white South Africans and other perpetrators never took any responsibility for the apartheid or even admit that they supported it, and if no one was held accountable then there was no one who was obligated to fulfill the needs of the victims. In Ellis Cose’s novel “Bone To Pick” he mentions that acknowledgement of past wrongs by the victims, the perpetrators, and the global community is definitely a beginning but with the lack of responsibility from the offenders and their attempt to repair the injustice that has occurred, reconciliation is only a vision; not something that is obtainable. Although the TRC gave some form of relief to many of the victims from apartheid those that are still hurting still desire tangible remedies for their suffering. Some suggest that a series of trials might have been more effective than a reconciliation commission. In criminal justice the focus relies on what laws have been broken, who broke them, and what they deserve for their actions. With a retributive system those that were convicted are then put on the level of the ones they offended. Perhaps one of the principle flaws of the TRC was that the process did not necessitate equality between the victims and perpetrators. The process encouraged an apology and forgiveness but never required modesty or compassion on the perpetrators part. One of the most prominent features of the retributive system is that it levels the status between the two parties. In the hearings of the TRC some cases were publicized more than others which made many victims feel their hearing was not as important as others. In the retributive justice system, everyone abides by the same laws and the truth is not up to the victim and offender but to the evidence provided.


A 1998 study by South Africa's Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation & the Khulumani Support Group,[6][7] which surveyed several hundred victims of human-rights abuse during the Apartheid era, found that most felt that the TRC had failed to achieve reconciliation between the black and white communities. Most believed that justice was a prerequisite for reconciliation rather than an alternative to it, and that the TRC had been weighted in favour of the perpetrators of abuse.[8][9]

Another dilemma facing the TRC was how to do justice to the testimonials of those witnesses for whom translation was necessary. It was believed that, with the great discrepancy between the emotions of the witnesses and those translating them, much of the impact was lost in interlingual rendition. A briefly tried solution was to have the translators mimic the witnesses' emotions, but this proved disastrous and was quickly scrapped.[10]

While former president F.W. de Klerk appeared before the commission and reiterated his apology for the suffering caused by apartheid, many black South Africans were angered at amnesty being granted for human rights abuses committed by the apartheid government. The BBC described such criticisms as stemming from a "basic misunderstanding" about the TRC's mandate,[11] which was to uncover the truth about past abuse, using amnesty as a mechanism, rather than to punish past crimes.

Among the highest-profile of these objections were the criticisms levelled by the family of prominent anti-apartheid activist Steve Biko, who was killed by the security police, and whose story was later featured in the film Cry Freedom.[12] Biko's family described the TRC as a "vehicle for political expediency", which "robbed" them of their right to justice.[13] The family opposed amnesty for his killers on these grounds and brought a legal action in South Africa's highest court, arguing that the TRC was unconstitutional.

On the other side of the spectrum, former apartheid State President P.W. Botha defied a subpoena to appear before the commission, calling it a "circus". His defiance resulted in a fine and suspended sentence, but these were overturned on appeal.[14]

Playwright Jane Taylor, responsible for the acclaimed Ubu and the Truth Commission, found fault with the Commission's lopsided influence:

The TRC is unquestionably a monumental process, the consequences of which will take years to unravel. For all its pervasive weight, however, it infiltrates our culture asymmetrically, unevenly across multiple sectors. Its place in small rural communities, for example, when it establishes itself in a local church hall, and absorbs substantial numbers of the population, is very different from its situation in large urban centres, where its presence is marginalised by other social and economic activities.[15]

See also


  1. ^ a b c Vora, Jay A. and Erika Vora. 2004. "The Effectiveness of South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission: Perceptions of Xhosa, Afrikaner, and English South Africans." Journal of Black Studies 34.3: 301-322.
  2. ^ [1]
  3. ^ [2]
  4. ^ "Facing the Truth". 1999-03-30. Retrieved 2009-09-19. 
  5. ^ Long Night's Journey into Day
  6. ^ "Survivors' Perceptions of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and Suggestions for the Final Report". Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation. Retrieved 2006-12-26. 
  7. ^ "Home | South, Pdf, Litigation, Apartheid, Khulum". Khulumani. Retrieved 2009-09-19. 
  8. ^ Storey, Peter (September 10–17, 1997). "A Different Kind of Justice: Truth and Reconciliation in South Africa". The Christian Century. Retrieved 2006-12-26. 
  9. ^ As William Kentridge, director of Ubu and the Truth Commission, put it, "A full confession can bring amnesty and immunity from prosecution or civil procedures for the crimes committed. Therein lies the central irony of the Commission. As people give more and more evidence of the things they have done they get closer and closer to amnesty and it gets more and more intolerable that these people should be given amnesty." (Kentridge 2007, p. viii)
  10. ^ Kentridge 2007, p. xiv.
  11. ^ Barrow, Greg (30 October 1998). "South Africans reconciled? Special Report". BBC. Retrieved 2006-12-26. 
  12. ^ "Stephen Bantu Biko". South African History Online.,s.htm. Retrieved 2006-12-26. 
  13. ^ "Apartheid enforcer sticks to 'farcical' story on Biko killing". Retrieved 2007-10-24. 
  14. ^ Boddy-Evans, Alistair. "PW Botha - A Biography". Retrieved 2006-12-26. 
  15. ^ Taylor 2007, p. v.
  16. ^ "TRC Final Report - Version 6". Retrieved 2009-09-19. 




  • Bell,Terry, Dumisa Buhle Ntsebeza, and Dumisa Buhle Ntzebeza. 2003. "Unfinished Business: South Africa, Apartheid and Truth."
  • Boraine, Alex. 2001. "A Country Unmasked: Inside South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission."
  • Edelstein, Jillian. 2002. "Truth and Lies: Stories from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa."
  • Gobodo-Madikizela, Pumla. 2006. "A Human Being Died That Night: A South African Story of Forgiveness."
  • Hendricks, Fred. 2003. "Fault-Lines in South African Democracy: Continuing Crisis of Inequality and Injustice."
  • Kentridge, William. "Director's Note". In Ubu and the Truth Commission, by Jane Taylor, viii-xv. Cape Town: University of Cape Town Press, 2007.
  • Khoisan, Zenzile. 2001. Jakaranda Time: An Investigator's View of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission
  • Krog, Antjie. 2000. "Country of My Skull: Guilt, Sorrow, and the Limits of Forgiveness in the New South Africa."
  • Moon, Claire. 2008. "Narrating Political Reconciliation: South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission."
  • Ross, Fiona. 2002. "Bearing Witness: Women and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa."
  • Tutu, Desmond. 2000. "No Future Without Forgiveness."
  • Villa-Vicencio, Charles and Wilhelm Verwoerd. 2005. "Looking Back, Reaching Forward: Reflections on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of South Africa."
  • Wilson, Richard A. 2001. "The Politics of Truth and Reconciliation in South Africa."


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