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Jeff Cangialosi Jeff Cangialosi A native of New Jersey, Jeff Cangialosi is a junior in the School of Foreign Service majoring in Science, Technology, and International Affairs with a concentration in Business, Growth, and Development. For the spring semester of 2012, he is...

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Junior Year Abroad Network 2011/2012

Junior Year Abroad Network

The Junior Year Abroad Network (JYAN) connects Georgetown students studying abroad in a variety of cultures. Students share reflections on religion, culture, politics, and society in their host countries, commenting on topics ranging from religious freedom and interfaith dialogue to secularization, globalization, democracy, and economics.



The Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa

May 14, 2012 | 4 COMMENTS

One of the scariest things about having my time in South Africa quickly coming to an end is that there is so much I still need to learn about this place. When I arrived in Cape Town at the end of January, I had very little understanding of what the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) was all about. In the last four months, my knowledge of the TRC has certainly expanded, but I still feel that I will leave South Africa without a full grasp of the enormous importance of the TRC in this country’s history.

With the elections of 1994 ushering in a new democratic South Africa, the administration of President Nelson Mandela recognized that some sort of attempt must be made to deal with the injustices the apartheid system had wrought over so many years. As a result of discussions leading up to 1994, Mandela and the African National Congress decided on the middle road option of a truth commission rather than blanket amnesty or outright prosecution of the perpetrators of apartheid.

The Promotion of National Unity and Reconciliation Act of 1995 set the framework for the TRC, and in 1996, the commission began receiving amnesty applications. Drawing on Latin America’s experience with truth commissions in the 1980s, the TRC was comprised of three committees: the Human Rights Violations Committee, the Reparation and Rehabilitation Committee, and the Amnesty Committee.

The principal idea was to have information flow between the three committees as both the victims and perpetrators of apartheid were permitted to tell their stories. The TRC was grounded in the belief that South Africa could not move forward as a unified nation until it acknowledged its past. Promoting the slogan “Truth: The road to reconciliation,” the TRC was meant to be a platform where blacks, whites, coloureds, and Indians could all give public testimony in the hope that these public statements would initiate the healing process in South Africa.

So did the TRC work? The answer to that question depends on who you ask and how you define “work.” Criticisms of the TRC abound. Many complain that the TRC let many of the worst figures from the apartheid era off the hook while at the same time giving a disproportionate opportunity for white victims to speak at the public hearings rather than black victims.

The commission was also severely underfunded and understaffed; hence, the TRC probably only scratched the surface of the stories of abuse under apartheid that are out there. Even with these criticisms, others, such as Archbishop Desmond Tutu, argue that the commission accomplished what it set out to do: start the reconciliation process. One could not expect the TRC to resolve South Africa’s racial tensions in the span of a few years.

Unfortunately I do not know nearly enough about the TRC to declare it a success or failure. I will take the safe middle road and say it had both its strengths and its weaknesses. In order to give you a bit more of a feeling for the TRC, though, I would like to share the story of Amy Biehl.

Amy Biehl was an American Fulbright Scholar who came to South Africa in 1993 to study at the University of the Western Cape. She became involved in the anti-apartheid movement while she was here and developed a number of close friendships. One day when she was driving a friend home to the township of Gugulethu outside Cape Town her car was attacked by a mob of black protesters. Biehl was dragged from her car and brutally murdered by four men simply because her white skin connected her with the apartheid government. The four men were convicted of Biehl’s murder and sent to prison.

We now fast forward a few years to the TRC when the amnesty application of the four men who murdered Amy Biehl came up. In a tremendous act of forgiveness, the parents of Amy Biehl supported the pardon of the four men who murdered their daughter and actually shook hands with the killers. The Biehl family has gone on to start the Amy Biehl Foundation, which runs after school programs for children around Cape Town. The foundation has even employed two of Biehl’s former killers at one point. This level of forgiveness can be hard to fathom, but it demonstrates the type of reconciliation the TRC could facilitate at its best.

Of course for every extraordinary story of reconciliation the TRC fostered, there is another story about how the TRC failed in some respect. As long as South Africa remains a divided and unequal society, I do not see the controversy that swirls around the TRC abating anytime soon. Who knows how South Africans will view the TRC twenty years from now. For some South Africans I talk to, time will heal all wounds. Others believe a fundamental confrontation with the history of apartheid is necessary now if we want future South African children to grow up not seeing racial distinctions. It is a complicated debate, and one that I must continue to engage in during the time I have left in South Africa.


Though I don't know what it's like to live in a country post-Aparthaid, and seeing the TRC work, some compare the Israeli-Palestinian crisis to an apartheid regime (I am currently abroad in Jerusalem). Though I do not personally agree, it is interseting that in two completley different parts of the world similar situations can arise. Genocide, apartheid, slavery--all due to ethnic tensions, colonialism, etc. What do you think?



I found your article, and the issue of reconciliation in general, very interesting. I have had the chance to observe approaches to reconciliation in a few different contexts, and the only conclusion I can assert with certainty is that it is different for every individual, and certainly different in every situation.

I grew up in a close-knit Jewish community, where my friends’ grandparents would come into school and share their Holocaust experiences with us, sometimes in very graphic detail. Emotions ranged from stubborn, understandable hatred to a mind-boggling sense of calm forgiveness, and everywhere in between. Although I was still in elementary school when these talks began, I remember being in awe of the people that could come in tell us stories of the horrific things they had experienced with a sense of emotional distance. It may have been the time, the distance, the number of times they had recounted their stories, but I think that the simultaneous strength of the memory and ability to move on, the apparent goal of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, is possible through a combination of one’s personality and therapeutic experience.

While time and distance played a huge role in Holocaust survivors’ ability to move on, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict lacks these factors; reconciliation (or attempted reconciliation) is taking place while the conflict is still in process. I grew up spending a lot of time in Israel, which is a huge part of my identity, and in high school I became very active in the coexistence movement. I have friends, both Israeli and Palestinian, who have lost homes, friends, and family members. It can be hard, coming from someplace as stable as the United States, to grasp the intensity of an entire society having experienced such painful traumas, traumas that can invoke a range of reactions from radicalization to compassion and understanding.

One of the most inspirational people I have ever met is Robi Damelin. After finding out her son had been killed by a Palestinian sniper, Robi’s first words were: “do not take revenge in the name of my son.” She joined a group called The Parents’ Circle, a grassroots organization comprised of bereaved Palestinians and Israelis who, based on their shared losses, promote reconciliation as an alternative to revenge. In my mind Robi and her fellow Parents’ Circle members are some of the most impressive people in the world. I cannot honestly say whether I would have had the courage that they, and Amy Biehl’s family, have exhibited in overcoming such monumental loss, and even embracing those responsible for it. Identifying ways to help others come to a place of tolerance and understanding, or at the very least avoid radicalization and vengeful responses, is a hugely important, albeit daunting, aspect of ending conflict and achieving reconciliation.

With all this in mind, I was bewildered by Chinese society’s approach of essentially ignoring the painful parts of its history. The Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) employed public humiliation, torture and killings to revive Maoist orthodoxy and socialism. The most horrifying aspect of this period I read about was the ideological cannibalism that occurred in Southern China; according to records discovered by Nicholas Kristoff, at least 137 people, and probably hundreds more, were eaten by their neighbors, coworkers, and students as a demonstration of passion for the revolution. There was essentially no prosecution for these crimes, and people were forced to continue living alongside those that had killed and eaten their family members.

Aside from the sheer disgust that humans were voluntarily eating their neighbors and acquaintances, it boggled my mind that these people were able to keep on living in the same place, alongside these same people. As a society, China never addressed the atrocities that occurred; there were a few leaders (the ‘Gang of Four’) held responsible and put on trial, but there was never acknowledgment or reconciliation on a society level.

The general sentiment today, which I encountered over and over again, was that everyone went ‘a little crazy’ then. For the most part, people just left it at that. Now, obviously the government’s ability to restrict public discussion plays a role in this, but it is still amazing to me that there exists an almost society-wide avoidance and denial of something so monumentally traumatizing. One professor of mine asserted that the government would only deal with Cultural Revolution once all of the leaders involved were long gone. I’d like to immediately condemn this avoidance and denial, but at the same time I wonder whether there would have been further societal instability and violence if everyone were allowed to rehash the details, like with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. I guess in the end, the only conclusion I have come to is just another set of new questions I would like to explore.


Jeff's letter struck a chord with me after my semester in Poland. The Holocaust and World War II left a huge scar on Poland, one with which it is still trying to come to grips. As far as I know, an institution organized by the government to take into account all perspectives like the TRC was never established in Poland. As I learn about various memorial and documentation efforts, I also wonder--what will have changed in this dialogue in fifty years? How will the dominant Polish memory of these events evolve? And to ask a practically impossible question--will the Polish or South African approach to documenting the traumatic events of their pasts be judged more successful?


Jeff - It is very interesting to read your piece on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa, which some say was the model for Rwanda's post-genocide gacaca courts. It appears as if the commission, similar to gacaca, is a form of restorative, as opposed to retributive, justice. Especially coming from the US model, this seemed so strange to me.

The story that you share about Amy Biehl's family is a story that I have heard several times in the Rwandan context and never ceases to amaze me. When I asked people about their willingness to forgive, I was frequently told that they had "no choice" if they wanted their country to move forward. Similar to apartheid, genocide is a crime that is led by the state and demands the implicit buy-in of the population. In a way, this "nationalizes" crime and makes a traditional, retributive justice system nearly impossible on both logistically pragmatic and ethical levels.

That said, you mention that several of the worst perpetrators from apartheid are left unscathed by this system. I do not see how a society can feel as if justice has been served when this is the case. Similarly, several state organizers from the Rwandan genocide regime remain unpunished or unfairly prosecuted. Top organizers are punished by the UN-led International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, which robs Rwandans of the opportunity of delivering justice on their own terms.

The ICTR is condemned by the Rwandan government and the vast majority of the Rwandan people. Some even mentioned that those who are tried in the local gacaca courts are given harsher sentences than the masterminds who are convicted in the ICTR, which hardly seems just. This makes me question where restorative justice systems have been used for other "nationalized" crimes and how effective they have been in identifying the "true victims" and delivering justice to the whole population, as opposed to just a favored minority.

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