Jump to content

Truth and Reconciliation Commission (South Africa)

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Truth and Reconciliation Commission
LocationCape Town, South Africa
Composition methodCourt-like restorative justice
Authorized by
Judge term lengthPromotion of National Unity and Reconciliation Act, No. 34 of 1995
Type of tribunalTRC

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) was a court-like restorative justice[1] body assembled in South Africa in 1996 after the end of apartheid.[a] Authorised by Nelson Mandela and chaired by Desmond Tutu, the commission invited witnesses who were identified as victims of gross human rights violations to give statements about their experiences, and selected some for public hearings. Perpetrators of violence could also give testimony and request amnesty from both civil and criminal prosecution.

The Institute for Justice and Reconciliation was established in 2000 as the successor organisation of the TRC.

Creation and mandate[edit]

The TRC was set up in terms of the Promotion of National Unity and Reconciliation Act,[3] No. 34 of 1995, and was based in Cape Town. The hearings started in 1996. The mandate of the commission was to bear witness to, record, and in some cases grant amnesty to the perpetrators of crimes relating to human rights violations, as well as offering reparation and rehabilitation to the victims. A register of reconciliation was also established so that ordinary South Africans who wished to express regret for past failures could also express their remorse.[4]: 219 

The TRC had a number of high-profile members, including Archbishop Desmond Tutu (chairman), Alex Boraine (deputy chairman), Sisi Khampepe, Wynand Malan, Klaas de Jonge and Emma Mashinini.


The work of the TRC was accomplished through three committees:[5]

  • The Human Rights Violations Committee investigated human rights abuses that occurred between 1960 and 1994.
  • The Reparation and Rehabilitation Committee was charged with restoring victims' dignity and formulating proposals to assist with rehabilitation.
  • The Amnesty Committee considered applications from individuals who applied for amnesty in accordance with the provisions of the Act.


Public hearings of the Human Rights Violations Committee and the Amnesty Committee were held at many venues around South Africa, including Cape Town (at the University of the Western Cape), Johannesburg (at the Central Methodist Mission), and Randburg (at the Rhema Bible Church).

The commission was empowered to grant amnesty to those who committed abuses during the apartheid era, as long as the crimes were politically motivated, proportionate, and there was full disclosure by the person seeking amnesty. To avoid victor's justice, no side was exempt from appearing before the commission. The commission heard reports of human rights violations and considered amnesty applications from all sides, from the apartheid state to the liberation forces, including the African National Congress.


The Commission found that there were 7,000 political deaths under Apartheid between 1948 and 1989.[6][7] More than 19,050 people had been victims of gross human rights violations. An additional 2,975 victims were identified through the applications for amnesty. In reporting these numbers, the Commission voiced its regret that there was very little overlap of victims between those seeking restitution and those seeking amnesty.[8]

A total of 5,392 amnesty applications were refused, granting only 849 out of the 7,111 (which includes the number of additional categories, such as "withdrawn").[9]

Significance and impact[edit]

The TRC's emphasis on reconciliation was in sharp contrast to the approach taken by the Nuremberg trials and other de-Nazification measures. South Africa's first coalition government chose to pursue forgiveness over prosecution, and reparation over retaliation.[10]

Opinions differ about the efficacy of the restorative justice method (as employed by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission) as compared to the retributive justice method, of which the Nuremberg trials are an example. In one survey study,[11] the effectiveness of the TRC was measured on a variety of levels:

  • Its usefulness in terms of confirming what had happened during the apartheid regime ("bringing out the truth")
  • The feelings of reconciliation that could be linked to the Commission
  • The positive effects (both domestically and internationally) that the Commission brought about (i.e. in the political and the economic environment of South Africa).

In the study by Orlando Lentini, the opinions of three ethnic groups were measured in this study: English-speaking White South Africans, the Afrikaners, and the Xhosa.[11] According to the researchers, all of the participants perceived the TRC to be effective in bringing out the truth, but to varying degrees, depending on the group in question.

The differences in opinions about the effectiveness can be attributed to how each group viewed the proceedings. Some viewed them as not entirely accurate, as many people would lie in order to keep themselves out of trouble while receiving amnesty for their crimes. (The commission would grant amnesty to some with consideration given to the weight of the crimes committed.) Some said that the proceedings only helped to remind them of the horrors that had taken place in the past when they had been working to forget such things. Thus, the TRC's effectiveness in terms of achieving those very things within its title is still debatable.[11]

Media coverage[edit]

The hearings were initially set to be heard in camera, but the intervention of 23 non-governmental organisations eventually succeeded in gaining media access to the hearings. On 15 April 1996, the South African National Broadcaster televised the first two hours of the first human rights violation committee hearing live. With funding from the Norwegian government, radio continued to broadcast live throughout. Additional high-profile hearings, such as Winnie Mandela's testimony, were also televised live.

The rest of the hearings were presented on television each Sunday, from April 1996 to June 1998, in hour-long episodes of the Truth Commission Special Report. The programme was presented by progressive Afrikaner journalist Max du Preez, former editor of the Vrye Weekblad.[12] The producers of the programme included Anneliese Burgess, Jann Turner, Benedict Motau, Gael Reagon, Rene Schiebe and Bronwyn Nicholson, a production assistant.[13]

In the arts and popular culture[edit]


Various films have been made about the commission:

Documentary films[edit]

Feature films[edit]


Several plays have been produced about the TRC:


  • Taylor, Jane. Ubu and the Truth Commission. Cape Town: University of Cape Town Press, 2007.
  • Wicomb, Zoe. 2006. Playing in the Light
  • Slovo, Gillian 2000. Red Dust. Virago ISBN 978-0-393-32399-3
  • Flanery, Patrick. Absolution.
  • Krog, Antje. Country of My Skull, 1998.


  • Some of Ingrid de Kok's poetry in Terrestrial Things (2002) deals with the TRC (e.g. "The Archbishop Chairs the First Session", "The Transcriber Speaks", "The Sound Engineer").


A 1998 study by South Africa's Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation & the Khulumani Support Group,[16][17] which surveyed several hundred victims of human rights abuse during the Apartheid era, found that most felt that the TRC had failed to achieve reconciliation between the black and white communities. Most believed that justice was a prerequisite for reconciliation rather than an alternative to it, and that the TRC had been weighted in favour of the perpetrators of abuse.[18][b] As a result of the TRC's shortcomings and the unaddressed injuries of many victims, victims' groups, together with NGOs and lawyers, took various TRC-related matters to South African and US courts in the early 2000s.[20]

Another dilemma facing the TRC was how to do justice to the testimonials of those witnesses for whom translation was necessary. It was believed that, with the great discrepancy between the emotions of the witnesses and those translating them, much of the impact was lost in interlingual rendition. A briefly tried solution was to have the translators mimic the witnesses' emotions, but this proved disastrous and was quickly scrapped.[19]: xiv [21]

While former president F. W. de Klerk appeared before the commission and reiterated his apology for the suffering caused by apartheid, many black South Africans were angered at amnesty being granted for human rights abuses committed by the apartheid government; local reports at the time noted that his failure to accept that the former NP government's policies had given security forces a "licence to kill" - evidenced to him personally in different ways - drove the chairman Archbishop Desmond Tutu almost to tears.[22] The BBC described such criticisms as stemming from a "basic misunderstanding" about the TRC's mandate,[23] which was to uncover the truth about past abuse, using amnesty as a mechanism, rather than to punish past crimes. Critics of the TRC dispute this, saying that their position is not a misunderstanding but a rejection of the TRC's mandate.

Among the highest-profile of these objections were the criticisms levelled by the family of prominent anti-apartheid activist Steve Biko, who was killed by the security police, and whose story was featured in the film Cry Freedom.[24] Biko's family described the TRC as a "vehicle for political expediency", which "robbed" them of their right to justice.[25] The family opposed amnesty for his killers on these grounds and brought a legal action in South Africa's highest court, arguing that the TRC was unconstitutional.

On the other side of the spectrum, former apartheid State President P.W. Botha defied a subpoena to appear before the commission, calling it a "circus". His defiance resulted in a fine and suspended sentence, but these were overturned on appeal.[26] Playwright Jane Taylor, responsible for the acclaimed Ubu and the Truth Commission, found fault with the commission's lopsided influence:

The TRC is unquestionably a monumental process, the consequences of which will take years to unravel. For all its pervasive weight, however, it infiltrates our culture asymmetrically, unevenly across multiple sectors. Its place in small rural communities, for example, when it establishes itself in a local church hall, and absorbs substantial numbers of the population, is very different from its situation in large urban centres, where its presence is marginalised by other social and economic activities.[21]: v 

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Though it is a common claim that the TRC was a restorative justice body, it has been argued that the connection between the TRC and restorative justice is not as straightforward and unproblematic as often assumed. [2]
  2. ^ As William Kentridge, director of Ubu and the Truth Commission, put it: "A full confession can bring amnesty and immunity from prosecution or civil procedures for the crimes committed. Therein lies the central irony of the Commission. As people give more and more evidence of the things they have done they get closer and closer to amnesty and it gets more and more intolerable that these people should be given amnesty."[19]: viii 


  1. ^ "What is Restorative Justice?". Suffolk University: College of Arts & Sciences, Center for Restorative Justice. Retrieved 3 February 2023.
  2. ^ Gade, Christian .B.N. (2013). "Restorative Justice and the South African Truth and Reconciliation Process" (PDF). South African Journal of Philosophy. 32 (1): 10–35. doi:10.1080/02580136.2013.810412. S2CID 2424224. Retrieved 3 February 2023.
  3. ^ "Promotion of National Unity and Reconciliation Act, 1995 [No. 34 of 1995] - G 16579". www.saflii.org. Retrieved 26 July 2021.
  4. ^ Sarkin-Hughes, Jeremy (2004). Carrots and Sticks: The TRC and the South African Amnesty Process. Intersentia nv. p. 219. ISBN 978-90-5095-400-6.
  5. ^ "TRC/Committees". justice.gov.za. Retrieved 29 July 2021.
  7. ^ https://archive.today/20180704005548/http://www.justice.gov.za/trc/media/1997/9705/s970527b.htm
  8. ^ The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of South Africa Report (PDF). Vol. 7. 2002. Retrieved 3 February 2023. {{cite book}}: |website= ignored (help)
  9. ^ "TRC/Amnesty Hearings and Decisions". Justice.gov.za. Retrieved 3 February 2023.
  10. ^ Thompson, Ginger (22 March 2003). "South African Commission Ends Its Work". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 7 November 2022.
  11. ^ a b c Vora, Jay A.; Vora, Erika (2004). "The Effectiveness of South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission: Perceptions of Xhosa, Afrikaner, and English South Africans". Journal of Black Studies. 34 (3): 301–322. doi:10.1177/0021934703258988. JSTOR 3180939. S2CID 144571969.
  12. ^ "Reporting the Horrors of Apartheid". The Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard University. 52 (4). Winter 1998. Archived from the original on 8 September 2006.
  13. ^ "Jann Turner: Official Website". Archived from the original on 26 July 2007.
  14. ^ "Facing the Truth". PBS. 30 March 1999. Retrieved 19 September 2009.
  15. ^ "Long Night's Journey into Day". IMDb.
  16. ^ "Survivors' Perceptions of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and Suggestions for the Final Report". Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation. Archived from the original on 25 September 2006. Retrieved 26 December 2006.
  17. ^ "Home | South, Pdf, Litigation, Apartheid, Khulum". Khulumani. Archived from the original on 21 May 2008. Retrieved 19 September 2009.
  18. ^ Storey, Peter (10–17 September 1997). "A Different Kind of Justice: Truth and Reconciliation in South Africa". The Christian Century. Archived from the original on 17 June 2006. Retrieved 26 December 2006.
  19. ^ a b Kentridge, William (2007). "Director's Note". In Taylor, Jane (ed.). Ubu and the Truth Commission. Cape Town: University of Cape Town Press. pp. viii–xv.
  20. ^ Kesselring, Rita (2017). Bodies of Truth: law, memory and emancipation in post-apartheid South Africa. Stanford University Press.
  21. ^ a b Taylor, Jane (2007). Ubu and the Truth Commission. Cape Town: University of Cape Town Press.
  22. ^ "Tutu nearly in tears over FW's denials". Cape Town. South African Press Association. 15 May 1997. Retrieved 28 November 2021.
  23. ^ Barrow, Greg (30 October 1998). "South Africans reconciled? Special Report". BBC. Retrieved 26 December 2006.
  24. ^ "Stephen Bantu Biko". South African History Online. Archived from the original on 24 September 2006. Retrieved 26 December 2006.
  25. ^ "Apartheid enforcer sticks to 'farcical' story on Biko killing". Findarticles.com. Archived from the original on 10 November 2007. Retrieved 24 October 2007.
  26. ^ Boddy-Evans, Alistair. "PW Botha - A Biography". About.com. Retrieved 26 December 2006.
  27. ^ "TRC Final Report - Version 6". Doj.gov.za. Retrieved 19 September 2009.



  • Terry Bell, Dumisa Buhle Ntsebeza. 2003. "Unfinished Business: South Africa, Apartheid and Truth."
  • Boraine, Alex. 2001. "A Country Unmasked: Inside South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission."
  • Cole, Catherine. 2010. "Performing South Africa's Truth Commission: Stages of Transition."
  • Doxtader, Erik and Philippe-Joseph Salazar, Truth and Reconciliation in South Africa. The Fundamental Documents, Cape Town: New Africa Books/David Philip, 2008.
  • Edelstein, Jillian. 2002. "Truth and Lies: Stories from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa."
  • Gobodo-Madikizela, Pumla. 2006. "A Human Being Died That Night: A South African Story of Forgiveness."
  • Grunebaum, Heidi Peta. Memorializing the Past: Everyday Life in South Africa After the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Piscataway, NJ: Transaction Publishers, 2011.
  • Hayner, Priscilla. 2010. "Unspeakable Truths: Transitional Justice and the Challenge of Truth Commissions"
  • Hendricks, Fred. 2003. "Fault-Lines in South African Democracy: Continuing Crisis of Inequality and Injustice."
  • Kentridge, William. "Director's Note". In Ubu and the Truth Commission, by Jane Taylor, viii–xv. Cape Town: University of Cape Town Press, 2007.
  • Kesselring, Rita. 2017. Bodies of Truth: Law, memory and emancipation in post-apartheid South Africa. Stanford University Press.
  • Krog, Antjie. 2000. "Country of My Skull: Guilt, Sorrow, and the Limits of Forgiveness in the New South Africa."
  • Martin, Arnaud. 2009. La mémoire et le pardon. Les commissions de la vérité et de la réconciliation en Amérique latine. Paris: L'Harmattan.
  • Mack, Katherine. 2014. "From Apartheid to Democracy: Deliberating Truth and Reconciliation in South Africa."
  • Moon, Claire. 2008. "Narrating Political Reconciliation: South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission."
  • Ross, Fiona. 2002. "Bearing Witness: Women and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa."
  • Tutu, Desmond. 2000. "No Future Without Forgiveness."
  • Villa-Vicencio, Charles and Wilhelm Verwoerd. 2005. "Looking Back, Reaching Forward: Reflections on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of South Africa."
  • Wilson, Richard A. 2001. The Politics of Truth and Reconciliation in South Africa: legitimizing the post-apartheid state. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-0521001946

External links[edit]