The Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa: Did It Achieve Its Aim?

For approximately half a century, segregation, racism, violence and death characterized daily life in South Africa. Apartheid, “the complete separation of black and white races in South Africa,” or simply “apartness” in Afrikaans, allowed a minority of white citizens to inflict tragedy and terror on the rest of the nation (Price 13). So as to maintain social and economic control, white members of the National Party prevented “[t]he genetic mixing and cultural diffusion” that would threaten their dominion through means such as intimidation, abductions, assault, arson, bombings, torture, body mutilation and destruction and killings (“The History,” Price 14, “Truth and Reconciliation Commission”). Blacks, Asians and “Coloureds” suffered these atrocities from the mid-1940s until 1994, when South Africa had its first democratic election. The poison of Apartheid seeped into all aspects of life: race dictated where people lived (blacks were made to live in “homelands,” rural areas dependent on the “white economy”), where they worked (many jobs were available exclusively to whites), and where they went (blacks required “pass books” of identifying information to enter “non-black areas”) (“The Black Homelands,” “The History”). Friendships were made and maintained on the basis of skin color, and inter-racial marriages were prohibited. At best, longing for a life free from racism and oppression meant the denial of a dream; at worst, it meant torture or death in the name of resistance. Shards of a broken nation, of broken people, pierced the hope of a rainbow nation where colors freely stream together: Apartheid had shattered any semblance of cohesion and unity.

Or had it?  Had South Africa been ravaged beyond restoration?  Political, religious and community leaders did not think so; they believed that South Africa had reason to hope. They maintained that with time and the right tools, South Africa could forge its way from segregation to social harmony. It could bridge the mayhem and injustice that the past painfully bore with the peace and concord that the future hopefully promised. A country rich with faith and desperate for healing, South Africa deemed reconciliation to be the answer: “[r]econciliation is about building bridges, about allowing conflicting stories to interact in ways that evoke respect, build relationships and help restructure power relations” (de Gruchy 184). This bridge of reconciliation, the path by which South Africans would begin their “journey from the past into the future, a journey from estrangement to communion,” would largely consist of stories, true stories, that needed to be told—and heard (de Gruchy 28). Truth needed to reveal itself in the questions that haunted so many. Communities needed to be rebuilt, one reconciled relationship at a time. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission, in providing a public forum to disclose tales of offenses committed and suffering endured, laid many of the first bricks required to build a bridge to a restored South Africa. It was not without its faults, and though a number of legitimate criticisms about it have been made, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission overwhelmingly achieved what it set out to do: “work urgently towards national reconciliation” (Boraine 32).

Reconciliation, a process that “is about the restoration of justice, whether that has to do with our justification by God, the renewal of interpersonal relations, or the transformation of society” was not to come easily to a devastated nation like South Africa (de Gruchy 1-2). The years of Apartheid had severed South Africa in nearly every way imaginable—racially, culturally, economically, politically and religiously, among others. To reconcile the nation would entail bringing together people whose differences had revealed to them some of the worst sides of humanity, which either derived out of themselves or were wreaked against them. Perpetrators and victims were to overcome the vicious divisiveness that had for so long classified their relationship, a course of action that would require holistic healing. To achieve reconciliation, or “restoration of justice,” meant utilizing cultural, economic, political and religious aspects of life as tools in constructing the bridge that would ultimately unify South Africa.

The TRC employed these cultural, economic, political and religious elements in its formation, structure, legal proceedings and findings. A comprehensive mechanism including the entire nation on many levels, the TRC sought to make national reconciliation as all-encompassing as possible. It provided a safe forum for perpetrators and victims to tell their stories—no matter how graphic—and sometimes even to meet one another. These honest accounts of damage inflicted and endured revealed the truth of South Africa’s precarious condition and indicated the severity of what the nation faced. The years of Apartheid had done much harm to South Africa, so the TRC—though it officially initiated the nation-wide reconciliation process—could not, “with a limited time-span and resources, on its own to achieve reconciliation against the background of decades on oppression, conflict and deep divisions” (Boraine 341). Although it should not be viewed as the only option for achieving national reconciliation, it was arguably one of the best. Pursuing the option of granting blanket amnesty in the aftermath would mean pardoning people who perhaps should have faced criminal charges for their actions—crystallizing a culture of impunity and further undermining the faith in the legal system to provide justice, or at least retribution. On the other hand, conducting criminal trials would have also presented obstacles. A primary concern was safety and the preservation of the newly-formed democracy: security during the presidential elections would have been unreliable, and potentially mutinous, had prosecutions awaited them immediately following the elections (Boraine 7). For the sake of peace and progress, then, criminal trials could not be conducted.

Although conditional amnesty through a truth commission seemed the best way to move on from a turbulent past to a secure future, this task was largely unprecedented in its structure and even purpose. South Africa had no model or guide to follow; the bridge it wanted to build would be entirely of the nation’s own design and resources. Taking into account its notable diversity and the necessity to represent its citizens as fairly as possible, the seventeen South Africans selected to be on the Commission included “seven women, ten men, seven Africans, two ‘coloureds,’ two Indians and six whites” (Boraine 75). In this way, virtually all the perpetrators and victims to testify in the TRC would have at least a couple Commissioners to relate to on the basis of gender and/or ethnicity, and vice versa. The ability to empathize plays an important role in reconciliation, and if the Commission had been uniform in its demographics, it would have risked not understanding the motives or reactions of a number of its participants. The diversity of the Commission ensured, for instance, that a black woman would not have to speak to seventeen white men about being beaten and raped. Also increasing the likelihood of national reconciliation was the nation’s democratic participation in the establishment of the TRC: although (democratically-elected) President Mandela appointed the Chair and deputy chair—Archbishop Desmond Tutu and theologian Alex Boraine, respectively—the nation as a whole had a say in who was to serve on the Commission (Boraine 71-73). Anyone was free to nominate someone for consideration, and later a committee of members of Parliament and NGOs tapered the nominations into a shorter list for the President and his Cabinet to make final selections (Boraine 75). “[H]uman rights activists, human rights lawyers and church persons” comprised the Commission; obviously its members shared the passion of serving others (Boraine 75). This overall philanthropic attitude fostered an atmosphere of reconciliation rather than reproach. The religiosity of the Commission’s hand-selected leadership signifies the religious overtones present in the TRC, a valuable feature considering reconciliation is thought to be “a human and social process that requires theological explanation, and a theological concept seeking human and social embodiment” (de Gruchy 20). The TRC, then, overt in its mission to reveal truth and to reconcile South Africa, inherently relied on God in its attempt to bring people together. In a country where over 80% of its citizens consider themselves religious, to invite and depend on God’s reassuring presence is to be expected (“Religion”).

This diverse, representative and inherently religious Commission was divided into three committees: the Committee on Human Rights Violations (designed to gather as much information as possible about the motivations for and types of gross violations of human rights committed between the designated time period), the Committee on Amnesty (designed to discern eligible applicants for amnesty of the aforementioned gross violations of human rights and to grant amnesty accordingly) and the Committee on Reparation and Rehabilitation (designed to recommend appropriate reparative and rehabilitative resources for victims) (“Truth and Reconciliation Commission”). The amnesty application process began with completing an application and submitting it—under oath—prior to the designated closing date. The application described the incident(s) to be considered, which had to have been committed with a “political objective” to be considered for amnesty and had to have occurred between March 1, 1960 (just before the Sharpeville Massacre, during which police opened fire on protesters) and May 10, 1994 (the date of the inauguration of the first democratically-elected president). To determine if the incident in question was in fact politically motivated, Commissioners assessed the perpetrator’s motive for and context in committing the incident, as well as the gravity of the incident, whether the victim was a member of an enemy or innocent party and if the perpetrator had been following orders. Clearly, the TRC recognized the significance of powerful political influence during Apartheid and did not want to punish people either for committing an action they believed was right or that they had been commanded to do. Again, this cultivates reconciliation because it acknowledges, though does not justify, why certain atrocities occurred.  Investigations into disclosed incidents rarely took place, but a number of organizations were available to conduct them if necessary, such as “South Africa Police Services, Department of Correctional Services, National Prosecution Authority, [and] courts of law” (“Truth and Reconciliation Commission”).

People voluntarily applied for amnesty so as to avoid criminal persecution later, which at least gave perpetrators the chance to be pardoned. If amnesty was denied, however, the information they disclosed in their amnesty applications would not be held against them later. The guarantee of not being penalized for telling the truth speaks to the TRC’s high regard of honesty; it recognized that true reconciliation is contingent on sincerity, and did not want to jeopardize the possibility of truth being told. Inevitably, though, not everyone was completely honest, as some perpetrators did not disclose about incidents they thought no one would find out about. For the most part, however, it is believed that applicants were quite frank in their testimonies. This policy denotes the utmost priority the TRC placed on truth-telling (and subsequently, reconciliation) instead of persecution. In some cases, this truth-telling revealed that the applicant had not actually committed a violation, so amnesty would be granted without a hearing. Otherwise, the Committee gave priority to the already-incarcerated by hearing their testimonies first; immediate release and an expunged criminal record followed for successful applicants. For other successful applicants, the applicant and victim(s) were informed of the decision, and the details were published in the Government Gazette. Unsuccessful applicants would continue with legal proceedings (“Truth and Reconciliation Commission”).

Much of the criticism about the TRC arises from the work, or lack thereof, done by its Committee of Reparation and Rehabilitation. Here, the TRC’s priority of reconciliation over persecution, or at least some form of justice for victims, becomes a condemnation. After telling their stories, victims were meant to receive “redress, restitution, rehabilitation, restoration of dignity and reassurance of non-repetition” (“Truth and Reconciliation Commission”). However, the Foreword of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of South Africa Report admits that “we owe so much by way of reparations”: a failure which suggests that precedence was given to perpetrators over victims. Because the Amnesty Committee had more power than the Reparation and Rehabilitation Committee, amnesty was granted immediately whereas a government delay prevented the timely provision of reparations for victims. The promptness and seeming priority awarded to perpetrators and not victims have made people wonder if “justice was sacrificed on the altar of forgiveness and reconciliation” (de Gruchy 147). Arguably, in trying to cleanse the perpetrator of their past crimes and move onward with a clear conscience and clean record, the TRC neglected the rights of the victims. The horrors that victims held in their hearts, the trauma that the perpetrators of Apartheid had lacerated through their lives, lay exposed to, but not appropriately acknowledged by, the nation. In this regard, it seems as though the victims of Apartheid—who had already endured the intense cruelty and aggressiveness of others—were not only expected to forgive their perpetrators, but also to accept little or no compensation for what they had suffered. The responsibility to reconcile appears to belong to the victims more so than the perpetrators: an imbalance that the TRC should, and possibly even could, have remedied. Instead, the failure to tend to the rights of the victims rather than the perpetrators of Apartheid has begged the question, “[W]hose justice are we talking about?” (de Gruchy 200).

Because amnesty for perpetrators meant lack of justice for victims, Piet Meiting, Dutch Reformed Church minister, deems restitution a necessity, though admits that “it does not look as if that is going to happen” (Graybill). Even worse, a number of victims missed out entirely on the opportunity to tell their story and receive (albeit potential) reparation because they could not be located. Again, those who suffered missed a chance to somehow regain a fraction, no matter how inconsequential, of what they had lost. Nonetheless, although it is understandable how the TRC could be considered “perpetrator-friendly,” to accuse it of not caring about the victims is unfair and inaccurate. For instance, significant time and money were allocated to transportation and lodging arrangements for the victims (“Truth and Reconciliation Commission”). Even though the TRC neglected numerous victims, it did attempt to accommodate as many as possible, ensuring that people who did not have the funds or the means to make it to a hearing could do so. Despite its (notable) shortcomings, the TRC aimed to include as many people as possible to participate in reconciliation, regardless of how seemingly inconvenient the preparations would be. National reconciliation applies to people of all socio-economic classes; inability to make it to a TRC hearing should not equate inability to take part in reconciliation. The TRC, then, arguably acted in good faith on the fundamental principle of non-discrimination and did not cater only to those who could afford to participate, but went out of its way in a number of cases to include those who otherwise would have been excluded—a strategic way to construct a truly sturdy bridge.

In fact, many of the TRC’s blueprints for South Africa’s bridge of reconciliation were quite effective. Regardless of its flaws, the TRC managed to achieve “[t]he most important reason for the establishment of such a commission, [which] is to get to the truth” (Boraine 12). Indeed, many victims commented on the value of at least now knowing the truth; Judge Ismail Maohmed declared that it made them “more empowered” (Boraine 376). A typical courtroom setting would not have yielded such genuine results. Instead of complete and honest narratives from the perpetrators, accounts of gross violations of human rights would have been dissected and skewed by the lawyers in their attempts to win the case. Similarly, the TRC allowed the victims to tell their own stories, “in their own languages, in their own styles, at their own pace,” without disturbance or interruption (Boraine 286). In a criminal trial, their testimonies would have been subject to cross-examination and instead of being an account of terror and tragedy endured, their words would instead become pieces of evidence to manipulate and maybe even be used against them (Boraine 288). The nature of the TRC hearings fostered truth-telling that would not be manipulated for anyone else’s purpose; the point of the stories was to share experiences, not formulate a convincing case. For victims especially, the truth of the TRC hearings “dealt a body blow to denial and gave [them] deep encouragement [ . . . ] to put the past behind them and reclaim their lives without the constant shadow of uncertainty, and loss of dignity and recognition” (Boraine 376). Victim participation undoubtedly plays an important psychosocial role in the process of reconciliation.  The innovative structure and nature of the TRC aimed to embrace any and all who would define themselves as victims, and therefore was not burdened by the legal hurdles which plague the establishment of victim status in a traditional court setting. With no such barrier to participation, the TRC fostered an inclusive climate that brought the possibility of assuaging the hurt and anger of vast numbers of people, allowing them to publicly tell their story and be listened to. Ordinarily these victims would have had little or no chance of securing a presence through a typical legal framework. Clearly, the words spoken in these hearings were highly powerful—powerful enough, in fact, to change lives.

Actually, stories often change lives, as communication of emotions and reactions improves ability to cope (a conclusion supported by psychologists and rhetoricians alike). A person who has coped with trauma is better able to move on from it, is more prepared to cross the bridge of reconciliation. This applies to both perpetrators and victims, as “talking about a trauma is a natural human response” (“Opening” 27). Because “there is something positive about confronting upsetting experiences,” the TRC consequently created “something positive” for the thousands of people who disclosed their stories about Apartheid (“Opening” 27). However, a study conducted by members of the Department of Psychiatry at South Africa’s University of Stellenbosch on the TRC hearings contradicts ample research that has found “disclosure [to be] unequivocally at the core of therapy” (“Forming” 1243). This particular study found, on the contrary, no statistically significant difference in the states of mental health between victims who testified in the TRC and those who did not (Kaminer). Despite several limitations to the study (such as its non-random sample and retrospective design), its authors still contend that “it may be overly ambitious for truth commissions to have a ‘therapeutic’ goal, except at the broader national level” (Kaminer). They suggest that the lack of therapeutic intervention and the “perceived absence of justice [. . .] about which many survivors have protested” prevented further psychological coping in the aftermath of Apartheid (Kaminer). These findings speak to the validity of the TRC as a resource in achieving national reconciliation, but also point to the ways in which it did not have a larger impact individually. On the one hand, the TRC could have done more for the Apartheid’s victims, but conversely, the TRC cannot be expected to undertake the overwhelming task of reconciliation alone. It took decades and thousands of people to damage South Africa in this way; it is unrealistic, therefore, to assume that a couple of years and seventeen people could undo this damage. Likewise, a single disclosure of unspeakable trauma cannot considerably improve an individual’s thoughts and feelings about it. Numerous conversations—at the very least—are required for that kind of healing, and although the TRC could not provide that through its hearings (and did not through its lack of reparations), it did at least commence such conversations. These conversations were not limited to the hearings, either; the TRC served as model to church and student communities for story-telling and story-hearing to take place all over the country (Boraine 356). Soon, conversations about the Apartheid echoed throughout the nation as brick after brick in the bridge of reconciliation were laid down—proof that cooperation between social structures had commenced

Of course, the religiosity of South Africans meant that many did not expect the TRC to absolve all of the nation’s problems; they relied on God for deliverance instead. A variety of faiths (largely Protestant, but also tribal religions) exist in South African culture, a force which actually contributed to the demise of Apartheid. The inspiration and solace of having faith gave many the strength to endure the oppression bearing down on them. More strategically, as well, religious leaders like Desmond Tutu took on an active role in leading peaceful protests against Apartheid (“Religion in South Africa”). The same benevolent force that carried South Africans through the Apartheid also championed their reconciliation efforts: one victim declared that “what’s made it possible is our faith, our belief that God has created everyone equal, so there is no reason not to be in a relationship with one another” (“Religion in South Africa,” “South Africa”).

Clearly, the TRC did not grant South Africa salvation; it did not transform the broken nation into some sort of utopia. Like virtually all other countries, “[e]normous disparity remains in almost everything measurable—income, education, housing, health care” (Gobodo-Madikizela). South Africa obviously still needs to contend with issues of social, economic and political justice as inequality continues to plague the nation. However, advancement also strides alongside these concerns because “there is measurable progress, too. Perhaps most important, the country has not dissolved in hatred and revolution” (Gobodo-Madikizela). The potential dangers that loomed before South Africa, precarious in its new democracy, have remained only possibilities. In the decade following the TRC, South Africa has not succumbed to the social disarray that threatened assault. Although South Africa must remain vigilant in democracy and peace-keeping if it aims to achieve social justice, it has successfully become a nation drastically unlike the one it was even twenty years ago. Once a country where people had no reason to hope for a life of liberty, South Africans now describe themselves as “empowered” and “able to contribute to their community” (“South Africa”). Even more strikingly, the brutality that previously characterized race relations has transformed into acceptance and even eagerness: there now exists a “great enthusiasm to reach across the color line,” to unite the bands of the spectrum that comprise this rainbow nation (Gobodo-Madikizela). The TRC alone did not cultivate this “urgency to discover who the other group is,” but by allowing perpetrators and victims to peacefully confront one another during the hearings, it created a safe place, a means to transition from gross violations of human rights to the foundations of cordiality or even friendship (Gobodo-Madikizela).

The TRC, then, provided South Africa not with closure (because “there can never be closure; the healing process is really a process”), but with commencement (Gobodo-Madikizela). South Africa has progressed from withering as a nation divided and tormented to burgeoning as one diverse and united. The TRC, in instigating the national reconciliation process, helped make history: it created and supported the initial stages of bringing together people who, for so long, had opposed one another. It joined the lives of fellow South Africans, inviting and encouraging them to cross the bridge of reconciliation side-by-side. In the words of a perpetrator:

“. . . because of a thousand stories

I was scorched

a new skin.

I am changed for ever. I want to say:

forgive me

forgive me

forgive me

You whom I have wronged, please

take me

with you” (“Truth and Reconciliation”)

May these stories, begun by the TRC but continued by the efforts of a nation, continue to echo in South Africa as once-broken people jointly cross reconciliation’s bridge.


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de Gruchy, John W. Reconciliation: Restoring Justice. Minneapolis: Fortress Press,


Gobodo-Madikizela, Pumla. Interview with Neal Conan. NPR. 21 Apr. 2004. 14 Apr. 2007


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Commission.” H-Net. May 2004. Center for the Study of Mind and Human Interaction. 0     3 May 2007 <;.

Kaminer, Debra. “The Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa: Relation to

Psychiatric Status and Forgiveness Among Survivors of Human Rights Abuses.” The British Journal of Psychiatry. 2001. University of Stellenbosch. 3 May 2007 <;.

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Guilford Press, 1997.

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Narrative.”  Journal of Clinical Psychology 55.10 (1999): 1243-1255.

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1990. London: UCL Press, 1999.

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Information. 19 Jan. 2006. 5 Mar. 207 <;.

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