South Africa: Overcoming Apartheid

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Truth Commissions and Interpretations of Violence

The South African Truth Commission: Genesis and Mandate

The genesis of the TRC in the early 1990s has been well-documented (Truth and Reconciliation Commission of South Africa, 1998a: 49-53; De Lange, 2000: 14-22; Boraine, 2001: 11-75). Born in the crucible of debates regarding South Africa's transition to democratic rule, the commission represented the coming together of several different initiatives:

  • In 1993, following allegations that torture and abuse had occurred in ANC training camps in Angola, the ANC reiterated an earlier call to establish a truth commission to investigate and report on human rights abuses committed by all parties during the apartheid era.[2]
  • Via two NGO-organized conferences in 1992 and 1993, the Latin American truth commissions were brought into the local context and debate was generated around the question of how to deal with the contested and conflicted past that continued to drive the perspectives and actions of key protagonists.
  • Perhaps the main factor leading to the establishment of the TRC was a concession brought by the former apartheid government in the closing days of negotiations. The concession was that some form of amnesty would be established for politically motivated offences. This allowance, largely made to satisfy the security and right-wing forces, was then linked by the ANC to its earlier call for a truth commission. As Graeme Simpson (2002a: 223) points out, not only was the linking of amnesty to the broader concerns of truth recovery and reparation unique in the history of truth commissions, but "(by) foregrounding the interests of victims, the TRC would attempt to restore the moral balance to an amnesty agreement born of political compromise."
These processes were not necessarily compatible and the TRC that eventually emerged from the unification of these separate but related impulses was thus a hybrid creature: it was in part marred by the compromises which had attended its birth, in part a drive for greater accountability and an end to impunity, in part a way of "visioning" a new society committed to fundamental human rights, in part an attempt to acknowledge victims whose experience had been denied, and in part a project to forge a new and reconciled nation.
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