Truth and Reconciliation Commission (South Africa)

Truth and Reconciliation Commission
Established 1996
Country South Africa
Location South Africa
Authorized by South Africa

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) was a court-like restorative justice[1] body assembled in South Africa after the abolition of apartheid in 1994.[2] 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 1003 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.[3]

The Institute for Justice and Reconciliation was established in 2000 as the successor organisation of the TRC.

Creation and mandate

Inspired by the Chilean Rettig Report,[4] 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 hearings started in 1996. 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, as well as reparation and rehabilitation.

The TRC had a number of high-profile members, including Archbishop Desmond Tutu (chairman), Alex Boraine (deputy chairman), Sisi Khampepe, Wynand Malan, and Emma Mashinini.


The work of the TRC was accomplished through three committees:


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 amnesty applications were refused, granting only 849 out of the 7,112 (which includes the number of additional categories, such as "withdrawn").[5]

Significance and impact

The TRC's emphasis on reconciliation is in sharp contrast to the approach taken by the Nuremberg Trials and other de-Nazification measures. The reconciliatory approach was seen as a successful way of dealing with human-rights violations after political change, either from internal or external factors. Consequently, other countries have instituted similar commissions, though not always with the same scope or the allowance for charging those currently in power.

There are varying opinions as to whether the restorative justice method (as employed by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission) is more or less effective than the retributive justice method (which was used during the Nuremberg Trials). In one survey study,[6] the effectiveness of the TRC Commission was measured on a variety of levels:

In the study by Orlando Lentini, the opinions of three ethnic groups were measured in this study: the British Africans, the Afrikaners, and the Xhosa.[6] According to the researchers, all of the participants perceived the TRC to be effective in bringing out the truth, but to varying degrees, depending on the group in question.

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. (The Commission would grant amnesty to some with consideration given to the weight of the crimes committed.) 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's effectiveness in terms of achieving those very things within its title is still debatable.[6]

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". The program was presented by progressive Afrikaner journalist Max du Preez, former editor of the Vrye Weekblad.[7] The producers of the program included Anneliese Burgess, Jann Turner, Benedict Motau, Gael Reagon, Rene Schiebe and Bronwyn Nicholson, a production assistant.[8]


Various films have been made about the commission:

Documentary film

Feature film


Several plays have been produced about the TRC:




A 1998 study by South Africa's Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation & the Khulumani Support Group,[11][12] 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.[13][14]

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.[15]

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,[16] 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 featured in the film Cry Freedom.[17] Biko's family described the TRC as a "vehicle for political expediency", which "robbed" them of their right to justice.[18] 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.[19]

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.[20]

See also


  1. Suffolk University, College of Arts & Sciences, Center for Restorative Justice, What is Restorative Justice?
  2. Though it is a common claim that the TRC was a restorative justice body, it has been argued that the connection between the TRC and restorative justice is not as straightforward and unproblematic as often assumed. See b C.B.N. Restorative Justice and the South African Truth and Reconciliation Process, South African Journal of Philosophy 32(1), 10-35 (click to read)
  3. "Truth Telling, Identities, and Power in South Africa and Guatemala", International Center for Transitional Justice
  4. The TRC and the Rettig Report
  5. Department of Justice and Constitutional Development of the Republic of South Africa, The Truth and Reconciliation Official Website, Accessed 2 October 2001
  6. 1 2 3 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.
  7. Archived 8 September 2006 at the Wayback Machine.
  8. Archived 26 July 2007 at the Wayback Machine.
  9. "Facing the Truth". 30 March 1999. Retrieved 2009-09-19.
  10. Long Night's Journey into Day
  11. "Survivors' Perceptions of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and Suggestions for the Final Report". Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation. Archived from the original on 25 September 2006. Retrieved 2006-12-26.
  12. "Home | South, Pdf, Litigation, Apartheid, Khulum". Khulumani. Archived from the original on 21 May 2008. Retrieved 2009-09-19.
  13. Storey, Peter (10–17 September 1997). "A Different Kind of Justice: Truth and Reconciliation in South Africa". The Christian Century. Retrieved 2006-12-26.
  14. 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)
  15. Kentridge 2007, p. xiv.
  16. Barrow, Greg (30 October 1998). "South Africans reconciled? Special Report". BBC. Retrieved 2006-12-26.
  17. "Stephen Bantu Biko". South African History Online. Archived from the original on 24 September 2006. Retrieved 2006-12-26.
  18. "Apartheid enforcer sticks to 'farcical' story on Biko killing". Retrieved 2007-10-24.
  19. Boddy-Evans, Alistair. "PW Botha - A Biography". Retrieved 2006-12-26.
  20. Taylor 2007, p. v.
  21. "TRC Final Report - Version 6". Retrieved 2009-09-19.



See also

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