South Africa: Overcoming Apartheid

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Truth Commissions and Interpretations of Violence

There were several aspects to the TRC's work:

  • A Human Rights Violation Committee coordinated collecting statements from over 20,000 victims in both urban and rural settings. Some 10 percent of these victims testified in one of the scores of public hearings held in cities and small towns across South Africa. This committee also called in political parties to explain publicly their policies and possible involvement in human rights abuses. The leadership of the apartheid government's security and armed forces as well as that of the liberation movement's armies were also called in to testify. The impact of powerful people, including two deputy presidents, a range of former and current cabinet ministers, and generals, being required to account for their policies and being subjected to lengthy cross-examination revealed a new spirit of accountability.[3] This was accompanied by an array of activities that pertained to the different aspects of the Committee's mandate, including identifying and perusing surviving state documentation; investigating and corroborating each individual statement; and conducting numerous special investigations. All of these activities culminated in the five volume report released in October 1998.
  • An Amnesty Committee received and processed several thousand applications for amnesty and prepared those that were required to be held in public. A number of the cases solved by the TRC were on the basis of amnesty applications. As noted elsewhere, the amnesty hearings associated with these applications "acted as symbolic reference points for the definitive confirmation of violent concealed practices. Often highly dramatic, involving shockingly gruesome and callous details -- such as the description of perpetrators drinking and barbecuing while the victims were incinerated on a neighbouring fire -- these perpetrator accounts extinguished the possibility of ongoing denials" (Fullard and Rousseau, 2003b: 82). Although initially intended to be completed within 18 months, the work of the Amnesty Committee required ongoing extensions and ended in 2001, several years after its target date.
  • The third TRC committee, the Reparation and Rehabilitation Committee, was charged with defining a policy on reparations for the government. This was possibly the least successful component of the TRC's work, in part owing to the fact that while the Amnesty Committee had the power to grant or refuse amnesty, the committee on reparations only had the power to make recommendations. This imbalance, together with government's refusal to decide on reparations until the Amnesty Committee completed its work, did much to undo the notion of the TRC as a victim-centered organ. Indeed it was only until after the submission of the TRC's final two volumes in April 2003 that the government finally released its reparation policy. Reparation payments to those declared to be victims was considerably less than that proposed by the TRC.
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