The concept of transnational justice is linked to the establishment of a democratic framework for the future, through a process of accountability and reconciliation in post-conflict peace building. Truth commissions, as a form of restorative justice, serve as investigative entities tasked with uncovering the truth about the history of violence and conflict in a nation. They are considered as a transitional stage between conflict and post-conflict. This article evaluates the lessons learned from South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission to determine the effectiveness of truth commissions in promoting post-conflict peace building.
The task of creating a post-apartheid South Africa was faced with significant challenges and required resolution of the violence, discrimination, and human rights abuses of the past to move forward. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) was seen as a crucial step in this process, as it aimed to promote significant social and political transformation. The TRC garnered widespread attention and has been viewed by many as a successful means of establishing a “rainbow nation” and promoting genuine reconciliation. The TRC was established on the 19th of July 1995, following the end of apartheid, and was authorised by Nelson Mandela and chaired by Desmond Tutu. It consisted of three sub-committees focused on human rights violations, amnesty, and reparation and rehabilitation. These committees were responsible for conducting investigations to uncover truths, offer a therapeutic platform for victims to share their stories and receive recognition and comfort, and providing financial and symbolic compensation.
The TRC is an exceptional example of a transition to a peaceful democracy that is facilitated through a relatively peaceful process of negotiation. This is particularly notable given that apartheid was marked by a minority group’s determination to maintain its power through any means necessary yet during this transition, white South Africa did not make significant demands which would hinder the process.
The African National Congress (ANC) and National Party were initially hesitant to establish a truth commission due to concerns that it would harm reconciliation efforts. They were wary of the possibility that their actions during apartheid would be made public, which would have led to damaging revelations and fuelled further tensions in a fragile situation. In addition to national support, the establishment of the TRC was also strengthened by the involvement of the international community. Western governments provided both financial and legal assistance, acknowledging the significance of the TRC in promoting human rights and fostering reconciliation, not only in South Africa but also on a global level. This support came at a time when the world was grappling with issues of recovery and resolution from various conflicts.
The TRC received over 21,000 victim statements and 7,000 amnesty applications, yet many violations still went unreported. The commission aimed to provide a safe space for victims to share their stories and to help heal collective traumas. The ability to tell their truths in their native language, after being suppressed by the apartheid regime’s promotion of Afrikaans as the medium of instruction, was liberation for many black South Africans who had been dehumanised and oppressed. A notable example is the story of Khabonina Masilela, who travelled from Swaziland to the Human rights Violation hearing at eMkhondo and shared her story of being shot at an ANC protest in 1986 by an army helicopter. She thanked the commission for giving her the opportunity to tell her story and be heard.
The commission wanted to establish a “common memory”, acknowledging past suffering, preventing repetition of historical mistakes, and ensuring that false narratives were not created. The commission wanted to create a uniform history to be taught across South Africa. However, the effort faced criticism as it was challenging to agree on a single history given the complex and disturbing nature of apartheid and the country’s history of interracial relations. The presence of conflicting historical explanations highlights that relying solely on a n official history may not be effective and is a limitation of the TRC.
Some have contended that the foundation of the TRC contributed to its limitations, as it was formed during a negotiated settlement rather than a revolutionary process. As a result, the TRC proceeded with caution to maintain stability and avoid disturbing the status quo. The provision of amnesty to individuals who committed human rights violations during apartheid was a contentious issue. Amnesty was viewed to encourage individuals to provide a full account of events so that the victims could discover the truth about what happened to their loved ones. The TRC argued that amnesty was necessary to enable survivors and victims to truly understand what occurred and who was responsible. However, critics argue that the TRC’s decision to grant amnesty to perpetrators in exchange for full disclosure has placed the burden of compromise on the victims and raised concerns as to whether genuine reconciliation could be achieved.
Winnie Mandela notably stated, “When the TRC treats me like a leper and its chairperson hugs our former oppressors, then I worry about the type of reconciliation we are fostering”. This statement echoes the widespread argument that true forgiveness and reconciliation cannot be achieved when victims are forced to forgive perpetrators for inexcusable crimes and highlights a major challenge faced by truth commissions. Individuals such as Desmond Tutu attempted to incorporate the African philosophy of “Ubuntu” into the TRC. In this context, Ubuntu emphasises restorative justice over retribution and recognises that healing can only be achieved by acknowledging the shared humanity of both victim and perpetrator. It was also argued that the TRC failed to challenge the systemic inequalities and continuities of apartheid policies, which are still evident in South Africa through disparities in education, housing, and employment. As a result, the TRC is seen as more of a symbol than a means of promoting true reconciliation.
James L. Gibson (2005) conducted a study to assess the effectiveness of the TRC and gauge South Africans’ views on the amnesty system for perpetrators. The findings indicated that a majority of South Africans believed the amnesty was unjust and unfair, but there was a perception that it was a necessary sacrifice for a peaceful transition to democracy. The examination of amnesty and the TRC underscores the need for truth commissions to find a delicate balance between promoting reconciliation and achieving retributive justice.
The South African experience demonstrates that offering a space for victims to voice their traumatic experiences has been a healing process for the country as it moves forward towards a new future. However, it is vital to recognise that the bravery of these victims in speaking out must be met with adequate consequences for the perpetrators in order to avoid fostering ongoing hostilities and anger. Without such consequences, the process of reconciliation may be hindered and the journey towards a truly unified “rainbow nation” may be threatened.
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Teloni is a f War Studies student at King's College, London. She researched and wrote this article as part of the BizGees & War Studies Department Internship programme.