20 Years After South Africa’s Truth And Reconciliation Commission


After South Africa’s apartheid struggle and the abolition of apartheid in the 1990s, South Africans needed help transiting to a full and free democracy. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) proved to be that transition element. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission was the shoulder for victims to cry on, the big brother that the perpetrator had to ask for mercy from. The commission was in fact a court-like body assembled with the aim of hearing testimonies of victims and subsequently perpetrators of the violence who could then request amnesty from prosecution.

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Anyone who has ever hurriedly pulled off a bandage would confess that even though they are prepared for the sharp pain that is a result of that move, the effect of said pain is still far from reduced. So it was with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission as the disclosures of atrocities committed during the apartheid period began on this day in 1996. The revelations of torture, gruesome executions, even a student thrown from an aircraft were so glaring that the Truth and Reconciliation Commission Chairman at the time, Nobel peace laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu, could take it for only 24 hours before dropping his head in his hands and weeping.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu

The hearings made international news and were broadcast on national television and despite some flaws, it was generally regarded as very successful. Considered as a revolutionary concept that steered a country away from civil war, it has been replicated in several other countries. TRC operated under three committees:

  • The Human Rights Violations (HRV) Committee investigated human rights abuses that took place between 1960 and 1994
  • The Reparation and Rehabilitation (R&R) Committee was charged with restoring victims’ dignity and formulating proposals to assist with rehabilitation.
  • The Amnesty Committee (AC) considered applications for amnesty that were requested in accordance with the provisions of the Act. In theory the commission was empowered to grant amnesty to those charged with atrocities during Apartheid as long as two conditions were met: The crimes were politically motivated and the entire and whole truth was told by the person seeking amnesty.

During the period of 1996 to 1998, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission had received 7,000 amnesty applications. 1000 were granted amnesty while more than 300 cases were recommended for prosecution after amnesty was denied. A lot of those cases recommended for prosecution however remain untouched. It is on this note, looking back after 20 years have passed, that many judge the commission as having unfinished business.

Truth and Reconciliation Commission

The families of the victims still look on in hopes that the post apartheid government will end the delays surrounding the prosecution of these cases as they continue to await justice. The eventual charging of four police officers who appeared before the TRC for the death of a Nokuthula Simelane this year, after she was abducted and tortured in 1983 and her body was never found is a point of fresh hope for some of them. Still it took a high court compelling the national prosecuting authority to make a decision on the matter, so they might have a while to wait yet.

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