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The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of South Africa

An evaluation of Hugo Van der Merwe, fromThe Center for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation (CSVR)


05 / 2000

HVDM : My work entails managing research projects which evaluate the work of the TRC and community reconciliation initiatives that operate alongside the TRC.

DG : Can you tell us about the purposes and objectives of the TRC and how these were achieved ?

HVDM : That is a big question. The TRC was an ambitious project established with the mandate to try to promote reconciliation in South Africa, which primarily focused on gross human rights violations in South Africa during Apartheid. Essentially, it tried to do that by firstly uncovering the truth about abuses and establishing exactly who was responsible and the extent of the abuses. It attempted to establish who should be held responsible at a political level, but also pinpoint individual perpetrators who are responsible for specific abuses. The purpose was on one hand to establish an official record and on the other hand to inform victims’ relatives about what had happened to their loved ones, and what circumstances were around the abuses.

In addition to that it addressed the whole issue of amnesty. In South Africa we got saddled with the burden of amnesty through the negotiated solution/settlement so we had to give effect to the amnesty agreement in our Constitution. This meant people had to apply individually for amnesty for the abuses rather than receive a blanket amnesty. The TRC had to listen to each of those cases were the people were forced to provide full disclosure, to judge whether they were politically motivated abuses, and to uncover in public the truth about these cases. And through this whole process to try and achieve some form of reconciliation - at least to promote dialogue between people and to really look at the truth of South Africa’s past.

DG : The TRC has been criticized as having sacrificed justice for reconciliation. Another criticism is that the TRC is built on the Christian sense of forgiveness. What is your view of these criticisms and what is your evaluation of the TRC achievements?

HVDM : Fundamentally, TRC is based on a compromise of justice because we had an amnesty. Amnesty is a fundamental form of injustice. And in South Africa we had to make the best of that situation. Not many South Africans wanted a situation of a Nuremberg style trials. Essentially we wanted to move to reconciliation so we tried to find a middle ground between impunity and completely forgetting about the past. It has been a very difficult compromise; and at times difficult for many South Africans to live with. So essentially, yes, we have sacrificed justice to a large extent, and we have tried to develop other forms of justice. The TRC often talks about restorative justice, where instead of punishment we look at reparations, truth and apologies from perpetrators. That has been a partial success. In some cases it has been very significant, very deep and very meaningfull to victims, and has produced new truth which we would not have accessed if we had followed a legal process of punishment.

But on the other hand, most perpetrators have not come forward and most perpetrators have not shown enough remorse or true regret for what they have done. Most fundamentally, reparations to victims have not been forthcoming from perpetrators and also not from the state. By granting amnesty, the state essentially took over that responsibility. So we have compromised justice in the first place through amnesty, and we have compromised restorative justice through not implementing it sufficiently.

So there has been a lot of understandable anger at the TRC as a whole and particularly from sections of society who want perpetrators punished. Especially when you see people not showing any remorse for what they had done in the past. There is an understandable public sentiment that people should be punished, that they cannot get away with it. So there is, I think, serious problems with the way the TRC was conceptualized and implemented.

In terms of the Christian aspect of the TRC, it is difficult to evaluate. Most South Africans are committed Christians and support the TRC in terms of its philosophy. The symbolic and public support for the TRC was largely gained through that Christian message that was portrayed. It did ring true with people that you did need to talk about apology, confession and forgiveness. As long as it stays at the level of symbolism, however, it ultimately feels quite empty - when you do not really see confession; remorse and forgiveness taking more practical form through some form of individual reparation and commitment from perpetrators to make good for their past. There have been criticisms from other religious communities that this message was not inclusive enough and therefore that the prayers around the TRC hearings and general language used by the TRC, to some extent, did exclude other people.

DG : The TRC has achieved some success despite the criticism ; what are these successes ? What are the lessons that we can draw from the TRC, in the process of rebuilding a divided society?

HVDM : I think the successes is firstly in terms of truth. The truth commission has established a fairly comprehensive official record of the past. It’s very difficult for people to say "no, Apartheid wasn’t like that, Apartheid wasn’t about gross human rights violations". White South Africans particularly who have been trying to deny what Apartheid meant, through exposures, through the television, through the newspapers coverage have now seen what apartheid meant to most of South Africans. So I think we have some common basis at least from which to look at the past. We can’t say that those were the good old days as some whites would want to say. We have to see it in the stark reality that it was. This agreement about the past is an important and fundamental basis for reconciliation. While there are so many issues that people disagree about, and not to underestimate these, but also to say that the TRC has moved us to some extent towards the truth, at least towards reducing the number of lies about the past.

The TRC has also created more public debate about the victims, about the concept of reconciliation, and while we may not agree with what reconciliation means in South Africa, people now have opinions and there is more public debate about it. It is something everyone engages in and victims particularly have been mobilized. While previously victims were scattered and not involved in debates, there are now victim voices that engage in public debate about justice, about reconciliation and that is an important step forward. It is difficult because in some communities it has been a sustained voice, while in other communities it has been a voice that came out and has died down. The challenge is to make that a much more sustained process - making people stand up and talk out for themselves.


réconciliation nationale, paix et justice

, Afrique du Sud


In terms of exporting some of the these lessons to other societies, it is very difficult because people have made superficial judgments, heaping praise on the TRC and jumping to the conclusion that other countries need a similar process. As South Africans we are proud of what we have achieved, we need to say that we have set a certain benchmark and other societies need to do better. We have achieved something and we have also failed in many ways. It is a challenge for other societies to learn from this experience. There are a number of areas one could look at. Issues of how do you uncover the truth about the past, how do you give victims a voice about the past and come to mobilize victims and give them a public voice - how to give them space to tell their stories in public. That is very meaningful for a lot of these victims because their voice was suppressed in the past. It still remains very difficult for them to come out, but the silence has been broken both on local community level and at national level. Some of them spoke at community hearings and some of them in front of the national media. That needs to happen in any society where there has been civil conflict.

There is also the issue of how do you promote reconciliation between victim and perpetrator. There have been some cases where this has happened through the assistance of the TRC. While only a small proportion of cases, still significantly. We need to understand more about how that happens and what the dynamics and difficulties are. At a community level as well, we need to find out more about what constitutes reconciliation - how a community can engage in a process of recovering its own history. At every level, the TRC experienced a mixture of failures and successes, and we need to evaluate both the failures and successes. There has still not been enough critical reflection yet. Part of the problem is that the TRC has been very effective in promoting itself internationally and had very good media relations. It success stories are what gets broadcast rather than its failures. There needs to be a balanced view if we are to learn from this experience.


Text translated into French in this data base.

Interview with VAN DER MERWE, Hugo



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