Background - "The Road to Reconciliation."

South Africa experienced numerous human rights challenges during the apartheid era. The White-dominated government committed serious atrocities against the Black majority. A number of brutal measures were adopted by the regime to deal with political activists and other "offenders."

Cases in point include the ruthless handling of the Sharpeville protests (1960 and 1984), the Soweto riots (1976) among other resistance activities. Because the police sometimes resorted to the use of live ammunition, a number of people (both children and adults) were either maimed or fatally wounded during the disturbances. Some forms of punishment meted out to opponents of the regime included torture, detention, imprisonment and banishment of their organisations. The proscribing of the African National Congress (ANC), Pan-Africanist Congress (PAC) and the Black Consciousness Movement (BCM), in particular, was ruthlessly carried out and this threatened to silence the Black voice. However, Black communities (together with their Coloured and Indian counterparts) staunchly resisted these actions which informed state response in the pre-independence period.

The lack of racial harmony in the country between 1960 and 1994 prompted the first democratically elected government of Nelson Mandela to institute, in 1995, a commission of inquiry based in Cape Town (known as the Truth and Reconciliation Commission or TRC) into all apartheid-related crimes with the objective of mending hitherto unbridgeable racial disparities. Thus, when South Africa emerged from the nightmare of apartheid, the country launched a new struggle to deal with a history of pervasive human rights violations while at the same time working to unite and rebuild the nation.

Some Black people wanted harsh penalties for the perpetrators of apartheid crimes. Others thought that investigation of past wrongs would jeopardise the fragile new democracy, while others simply wanted to forget the past. In the end, the new government opted to establish a commission to document what happened during South Africa's most troubled times, and offer limited amnesty to those who confessed their complicity. The TRC was based on the Promotion of National Unity and Reconciliation Act, No 34 of 1995. It resembled a legal body that was bestowed with the authority to hear and try cases, resolve disputes, or make certain legal decisions. The policy of reconciliation embodied in the inquiry was predicated on the fundamental principle that "To forgive is not just to be altruistic, [but] it is the best form of self-interest."

Desmond Tutu and the TRC

A year after the attainment of majority rule, Archbishop Desmond Tutu was appointed chairman of the TRC. Its jurisdiction included providing support and reparation to victims and their families, and compiling a full and objective record of the effects of apartheid on South African society. Anybody who was a victim of violence was welcome to give his or her testimony before this newly constituted body. Perpetrators of violence could also give evidence and request amnesty from prosecution.

The Government envisioned the TRC as a mechanism that would help deal with the evils of apartheid. In the words of the former Minister of Justice, Dullah Omar, the commission was "... a necessary exercise to enable South Africans to come to terms with their past on a morally accepted basis and to advance the cause of reconciliation." The application of the system of apartheid had led to the escalation of conflict in the country which resulted in violence and human rights abuses. No section of society escaped these abuses, but, to the South African government's credit, it was recognised that "to err is human but to forgive is divine." 


The primary objective of the inquiry was to preach forgiveness in order to heal the emotions and wounds of hatred or anger that had been created by the apartheid system. There was no place for retaliation in the new society that emerged after independence. It was envisaged that "one who forgives becomes a better person than the one being consumed by anger and hatred." By the same token, it was also argued that "If you can find it in yourself to forgive then you are no longer chained to the perpetrator. You can move on, and you can even help the perpetrator to become a better person too." Nevertheless, the process of forgiveness also required acknowledgement on the part of the perpetrator that they have committed an offence. The Chairman of the Commission noted that he had actually "witnessed so many incredible people who, despite experiencing atrocity and tragedy, have come to a point in their lives where they are able to forgive." Take the Cradock Four, for example. "The police ambushed their car, killed them in the most gruesome manner, set their car alight" in the Eastern Cape in 1984. When, at a TRC hearing, the teenage daughter of one of the victims was asked: "would you be able to forgive the people who did this to you and your family?" She answered, "We would like to forgive, but we would just like to know who to forgive."


The work of the TRC was carried out by three committees. The first was the Human Rights Violations (HRV) Committee, who investigated human rights abuses that took place between 1960 and 1994. A second, the Reparation and Rehabilitation (R&R) Committee was charged with restoring victims' dignity and formulating proposals to assist with rehabilitation. The third, the Amnesty Committee (AC), considered applications for amnesty that were requested in accordance with the provisions of the Act. In essence the commission was empowered to grant amnesty to those charged with atrocities during Apartheid as long as two conditions were met. Firstly, the crimes had to be politically motivated and secondly the persons seeking amnesty were required to tell the Commission the entire and whole truth about their involvement. No one was exempt from being charged. Ordinary citizens, just like members of the police could also be arraigned and, most notably, members of the ANC - the ruling party at the time of the trial - could similarly be charged. It can be noted that out of 7 112 petitioners, 5 392 people were refused amnesty and 849 were granted amnesty. A number of applications were withdrawn.


At the end of the proceedings, the TRC brought forth many witnesses to give testimony about the secret, immoral and violent acts committed by the Apartheid Government and the liberation forces. On 28 October, 1998 the Commission presented its report, which condemned both sides for atrocities committed. The hearings made international news and many sessions were broadcast on national television. Despite some flaws, the TRC was a crucial component of the transition to democracy in South Africa and is generally regarded as very successful.


The Commission's mandate was to preside over the process of healing a traumatised and wounded people in a transparent manner. It was hoped that the completion of the Commission's Report would bring a measure of closure to the process. It is regrettable, however, that at its conclusion the Commission owed so much reparations to the multitude of people who were declared victims. The healing of those who made heart-rending confessions to the TRC hinged on their receiving substantial reparations. The Government, therefore, should meet this solemn obligation and responsibility to the many victims who had the magnanimity and generosity of spirit to reveal their pain in public and it still regards reparation as unfinished business, according the the Minister of Finance.

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