The Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa

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 20 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.

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