South Africa: Overcoming Apartheid

Media for this essay

Multimedia Resources

Truth Commissions and Interpretations of Violence

Second, as with negotiations, the TRC emerged largely from the top, although key NGOs and professional bodies such as Lawyers for Human Rights played an important role in ensuring a more public process. This is in contrast to Latin America where truth commissions were formed in response to the demands of the citizen-based Right to Truth movement. Indeed, the TRC did not enjoy widespread support among anti-apartheid activists. In particular, the amnesty process was regarded as doubly repugnant: not only would security force perpetrators escape punitive justice, but liberation movement combatants would have to apply for amnesty in a process that drew no distinction between their actions and those of the hated apartheid security forces. For similar reasons, an important strand of the NGO sector that held historic links to anti-apartheid forces also responded with ambivalence, both for the reasons listed above and because of concerns regarding impunity. Critics pointed to the fact that those convicted of petty poverty-related crime fell outside of the TRC's provisions and thus would continue to be incarcerated, while those guilty of the most heinous and brutal killings and tortures would be granted amnesty, escaping both criminal and civil justice (Simpson, 2002b).

On the other hand, while activists and progressive NGOs eschewed the idea of moral equivalence, the National Party, and indeed the broad white community, continued to resist the idea of a truth commission, fearing that the even-handedness spoken of in its framing legislation was a mere veneer and that it would be little more than a witch-hunt. What this translated into was a situation in which representatives of the old order, as suggested above, constantly and actively tried to restrict the scope of the TRC, while organized activists played a limited role in framing the legislation.

Third, the issues leading to the establishment of the TRC, most especially the allegations of abuse in ANC camps and the demand for amnesty by apartheid's security forces, were focused on a relatively narrow range of human rights abuse -- torture, abductions, killings, and associated violations. In terms of conceptualizing the scope of the TRC, this limited the TRC to political violence and political actors, rather than opening it to the wider panorama of apartheid and apartheid functionaries.
AODL African Studies Center MSU Matrix NEH