South Africa: Overcoming Apartheid


Unit 7. Exploring the Truth and Reconciliation Commission

Evaluating the TRC

The TRC achieved some notable successes. In an open and transparent process, it compiled a forensic record of apartheid-era human rights abuses that can no longer be denied. Testimonies revealed many cases of rape, torture, deaths in detention, political assassinations, and even human burnings. The TRC granted amnesty to qualified perpetrators in a gesture of peace and reconciliation. In some cases, relatives of victims forgave individuals who admitted killing their loved ones. The combined effects of ordinary people telling stories of human rights abuses and the commission's call for reconciliation and forgiveness began a process of healing for many people who experienced the brutality of apartheid oppression. While the TRC may not have united the nation, its public engagement with South Africa's painful past helped to prevent a return to the political violence of a few years earlier and laid the foundation for a brighter future for all South Africans.

The TRC has been internationally recognized as a key component of the country's democratic transition, but it did have problematic aspects. Some critics argued that the emphasis on reconciliation sought to encourage South Africans to "forget the past" even though many injustices lay in this past—a fact that had implications for the country's future. Others noted how the strong emphasis on amnesty focused on the actions of individuals rather than the effects of the apartheid system as a whole. In addition, the importance of confession by amnesty applicants and forgiveness exposed the central role of religious figures (four TRC commissioners were clergymen), which lent the Commission considerable social respect but drew criticism from more secular elements in society.

Another problem was that the TRC's limitation to gross human rights violations meant that the "structural violence" of apartheid, including racial classification, residential segregation, influx control, pass laws, forced removals, was not investigated. Moreover, rape against women went largely unexamined, and relatively few women testified on their own behalf. Similarly, young people were largely absent from the proceedings. The limitation of investigations to post-1960 crimes effectively removed from focus the suffering caused by colonialism, the 1913 Land Act, and other injustices of the segregation period and the first decade of apartheid as well. Atrocities committed by the apartheid regime in "frontline states" (e.g. Namibia) were basically overlooked.

Significantly, major political and military leaders were left off the hook. For instance P. W. Botha and others refused to take part, with no real sanctions taken against them, thereby diluting the TRC's impact. Finally, South African and international businesses, foreign governments, religious institutions, the media, and other beneficiaries of apartheid were dealt with only in separate and brief "institutional hearings" toward the end of the proceedings.

In retrospect, the TRC was no panacea for all of South Africa's problems, and reconciliation may not be as deep-seated as some have suggested. The reparations process was neither particularly generous to victims nor efficiently administered. The family of Steve Biko famously criticized the TRC for failing to bring his killers to justice. Yet the TRC's emphasis on amnesty and "restorative" justice (rather than "retributive" justice) was a product of the political compromise between the ANC and the National Party and of South Africa's need for political stability and due legal process. Despite its shortcomings, the TRC helped reveal the worst excesses of apartheid and achieved a good measure of social reconciliation; its lessons to the world for conflict resolution were profound. The entire process had a cathartic, healing effect that enabled the country to transcend the violence and acrimony of the apartheid years.
 
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