Dealing with the past and facing the future

The text that follows is a brief summary of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. You can read far more detail by going to SAHO's TRC feature

In an interview, Nelson Mandela said:
"With the exception of the atrocities against the Jews during the Second World War, there is no evil that has been as condemned by the entire world as Apartheid."
- Source: Sunday Independent, December 6, 1998.

A scene from a Nuremberg trial. Source: pbs.org

For a great website on the Nuremburg trials that includes guidance for teachers visit www.pbs.org

The apartheid government in South Africa came to an end in 1994, but the new government in South Africa had to work through the question of dealing with the past in order to move forward. The critical question was: Should crimes against the victims of apartheid be punished?

At the end of the Second World War, the Allies who defeated Nazi Germany chose to punish the perpetrators of genocide. Perpetrators were put on trial in the city of Nuremburg and punished (see Nuremberg Trial on www.bbc.co.uk).

South Africa chose not to go the route of the Nuremberg trials. The new democratic government in South Africa after apartheid chose instead to focus on the victims. Therefore, it was decided that the way to heal the apartheid past was to hold a Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

Postamble means ‘attached to the end’.

The TRC planned to give a voice to the victims of apartheid who had suffered gross human rights violations. They were encouraged to come forward and tell their stories. The terms of a commission were spelled out in a postamble to the Constitution:

“”¦ there is a need for understanding but not for vengeance; need for reparation but not for retaliation; a need for ubuntu but not for victimisation.”

Archbishop Desmond Tutu was the Chairperson of the TRC. He explained:

“Forgiveness will follow confession and healing will happen, and so contribute to national unity and reconciliation.”

Amnesty: a warrant granting release from punishment for an offence

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission was not a court as such, but a different kind of forum set up to deal with political crimes committed during apartheid. The Amnesty Committee had the power to grant amnesty for politically motivated crimes that were fully and truthfully confessed, under certain conditions. Amnesty is the act of government by which pardon is granted to a large group of individuals.

The TRC’s approach is widely considered to be one of restorative justice, as opposed to retributive justice. For more detail visit www.iss.co.za

The Human Rights Violation Committee decided on acts that constituted violations of human rights based on statements made to the TRC. Once victims of gross human rights violations were identified, they were referred to the Reparation and Rehabilitation Committee, which decided on how to compensate victims. Those who were not granted amnesty by the TRC for crimes committed during apartheid could be prosecuted.

TRC cartoon by Zapiro

Activity: Questions to answer about this cartoon
1. Who is the iconic figure holding the map and why is he holding the map?
2. What do you think the cartoonist, Zapiro is trying to imply by creating a gulf between truth and reconciliation?

The emphasis of the TRC was on truth telling, forgiveness and reconciliation. The TRC was based on the belief that if the truth were known about the South African past, healing would take place. Perpetrators who committed gross human violations were promised amnesty if they came forward and made a full disclosure of the crimes they had committed.  This meant they would not be punished for their crimes if they told the whole truth.

Victims told horrifying but often-poignant stories, and perpetrators admitted to committing horrendous crimes. There were moving scenes of reconciliation, but at many times anger and hostility erupted. Friends and families of victims and perpetrators alike came to listen to evidence and offer support.

For many victims of apartheid crimes, this process promoted reconciliation and healing; for others it did not.

Last updated : 06-Apr-2017

This article was produced by South African History Online on 22-Mar-2011

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