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The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) was a court-like restorative justice 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, as well as 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), Dr. Wendy Orr, Advocate Denzil Potgieter, Mapule Ramashala, Dr. Fazel 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 amnesty applications were refused, granting only 849 out of the 7,112 (which includes the number of additional categories, such as withdrawn).
The TRC’s emphasis on reconciliation is in sharp contrast to the approach taken by 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 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.
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…
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’s effectiveness in terms of achieving those very things within its title is still debatable.
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. The producers of the program included Anneliese Burgess, Jann Turner, Benedict Motau, Gael Reagon, Rene Schiebe and Bronwyn Nicholson, a production assistant.
Various films have been made about the commission:
- Confronting the Truth by Steve York. 2006, documentary, produced in association with the United States Institute of Peace.
- Facing the Truth (1999) by Bill Moyers. 2-part PBS series.
- Forgiveness (2004) directed by Ian Gabriel. A South African feature film starring South African–born actor Arnold Vosloo as a disgraced ex-cop seeking forgiveness from the family of the activist he killed under the Apartheid regime. With Quanita Adams and Zane Meas.
- In My Country (2004), very loosely based on Country of My Skull, an autobiographical text by Antjie Krog which dealt with her coverage of the hearings, starring Samuel L. Jackson and Juliette Binoche
- Long Night’s Journey into Day (2000) by Frances Reid. Documentary.
- Red Dust (2004), based on the novel of the same title by Gillian Slovo, starring Hilary Swank, Jamie Bartlett and Chiwetel Ejiofor
- Zulu Love Letter (2004) directed by Ramadan Suleman and starring Pamela Nomvete.
Several plays have been produced about the TRC:
- “Truth in Translation” (2006), by Paavo Tom Tammi, in collaboration with American director, Michael Lessac and the company of Colonnades Theatre Lab, South Africa.
- Ubu and the Truth Commission (1997), by Jane Taylor and William Kentridge.
- Nothing but the Truth (2002), by John Kani
- The Story I Am About to Tell, created in collaboration with the Khulumani support group
- The Dead Wait, by Paul Herzberg
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).
A 1998 study by South Africa’s Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation & the Khulumani Support Group, 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.
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.
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, 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. Biko’s family described the TRC as a “vehicle for political expediency”, which “robbed” them of their right to justice. 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.
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.
John Pilger, an internationally significant journalist, castigates the Truth and Reconciliation Commission for allowing the easy transition from white exclusive capitalism to multiracial capitalism, and for failing to cause the trial of criminals, particularly murderers.