South Africa: Overcoming Apartheid

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Truth Commissions and Interpretations of Violence


[1] For an account that emphasises truth commissions as 'a site of struggle', see Amy Ross (2003).

[2] Professor Kader Asmal, ANC National Executive Committee member and legal academic, publicly called for the establishment of a truth commission in May 1992. See TRC (1998a: 49).

[3] This was somewhat countermanded by the TRC's failure to summons the head of Inkatha/ Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) to account for the group's role in violence, for fear of generating bloodshed in the volatile KwaZulu Natal region. The IFP, an ethnic and largely regional movement, was viewed as an ally of the former apartheid government until at least 1992. During the mid-1980s, the South African Defence Force trained and armed an offensive paramilitary unit of Inkatha, known as the Caprivi squad. The TRC later found the IFP to be the second largest violator of human rights in the mandate period and described its failure to issue this summons as 'In retrospect ... probably an incorrect decision' (TRC, 1998d: 207)

[4] Legislators initially envisaged that the amnesty process would be behind closed doors. Key NGOs made successful demands for a public process. The final legislation limited the Amnesty Committee's capacity to grant amnesty without a public hearing for those violations not considered to be gross (such as damage to property or dealing in illegal weapons) or for security considerations. In practice, this distinction proved difficult and significantly limited truth disclosure. For example, an application regarding distribution of weapons or the collection of intelligence could be decided without a public hearing. Yet these activities frequently resulted in gross violations and in some instances went to the heart of activities and decisions regarding political violence. See Fullard and Rousseau(2003c: 202-207).

[5] While the media played an important and critical role, it was not unreservedly positive. It powerfully shaped public perceptions of the TRC, often favoring narratives of reconciliation over accountability (Fullard and Rousseau, 2003a: 5). For a more detailed examination of media responses, see McEachern who suggests there were two TRCs: the institutional TRC and the "media TRC" (McEachern, 2002: 19-65).

[6] In defining severe ill-treatment, the TRC acknowledged that there could be a broad definition but chose instead to focus on "violations committed as specific acts, resulting in severe physical and/or mental injury" (TRC, 1998a: 64). Severe ill-treatment included violations such as rape or sexual assault, physical beating, solitary confinement or prolonged detention without trial, shootings during demonstrations, and the destruction of a person's house through arson or other attacks. The last-mentioned expressly applied to conflicts directly associated with political struggle and excluded those whose homes were destroyed during the application of the apartheid government's forced removal programme, which was designed to ensure residential segregation based on race and ethnicity. See TRC (1998a: 79-82).
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