South Africa: Overcoming Apartheid


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Truth Commissions and Interpretations of Violence

The TRC legislation was adopted in 1995 and at the time was the longest debated legislation ever to pass through parliament. Key functions of the TRC included:

  • To compile "as complete a picture as possible" of gross violations of human rights between 1960 and 1994, including whether such abuses were part of a systematic pattern, and to identify the victims as well as the persons or institutions responsible. Gross Violations were defined as politically motivated killing, torture, abduction, and severe ill-treatment.
  • To facilitate the granting of amnesty for politically motivated offences committed during the same period. This was a controversial and unique aspect of South Africa's TRC and was not associated with prior truth commissions. It is important to stress that this was not a blanket amnesty on offer: each individual perpetrator had to apply and give full disclosure of the incident for which amnesty was being sought. Amnesty would only be granted if it could be shown that such disclosure had been given, that the act was politically-motivated, and that it was proportional to the political objective.
  • To make recommendations regarding reparation for victims of gross human rights abuse and to make recommendations to ensure an end to the abuse of human rights.
Tensions were evident in the legislation: was the TRC to be a largely symbolic process of nation-building or was it an endeavor to investigate gross human rights abuses and determine accountability? Whose interests were paramount -- those of the perpetrators who could receive amnesty or those of the victims who were being offered an opportunity to "tell their own stories" and possibly (at a later stage) receive reparations? Was the task of the TRC to provide a new and official history for the new nation, or simply to detail the history of gross violations of human rights?

There are three issues of note that further influenced the trajectory of the TRC. First, the four year period of negotiations was accompanied by unprecedented levels of political violence in which some 14,000 South Africans lost their lives. (In contrast, 10,000 people died between 1960 and 1990, the 30 years that constituted most of the TRC's mandate period). This violence continued past the democratic elections in 1994; political violence continued to simmer in KwaZulu Natal, South Africa's most densely populated province. This only served to underscore a degree of caution on the part of the legislators and the TRC itself. It is thus unsurprising that issues of national unity and reconciliation loomed large in the framing of the legislation and that a particular sensitivity surrounded the legislation's injunction to act even-handed toward all parties to the political conflict. This concern with ensuring "even-handedness" was reflected within the very institution of the TRC: two of the appointed commissioners (an erstwhile National Party parliamentarian and a member of the right-wing Conservative Party) represented voices of the old order, while the Amnesty Committee was to be run independently from the rest of the Commission by seemingly more impartial judges.
 
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