ASSUMPTIONS, RESULTS AND REVERBERATIONS OF THE
TRUTH AND RECONCILIATION COMMISSION IN SOUTH AFRICA
In the southern part of the globe, a government, in which one race
“chosen by God” subdued another, collapsed in the early 90s without any bloodshed.
Modern South African history has been know for its efforts to enforce
thorough racial segregation and for its violent army and police clashes with various
political and civil organisations of black South Africans who endeavoured to achieve
equality with the whites. Political organisations, that had been banned altogether and
that consisted (not only but) mostly of black activists, were involved in underground
activities against that country´s government, military and police structures. Certainly,
some black militant circles had not only fought “to overthrow the rule of the whites”,
but to also “drive them into the sea” (Davenport: 388; Thompson: 211).
In 1994, the first non-racial parliamentary elections took place in the
country and were won by the African National Congress (ANC) headed by Nelson Mandela, a
long-term political prisoner. It was mainly through his doing that the political situation
in the country did not acutely lead to a bloodthirsty retaliation. On the contrary, it was
the idea of cooperation and peaceful coexistence of all races that won the victory, by
thoroughly applying democratic principles and the policies of the Charter of Human Rights.
2. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission
There were endless numbers of traumas of the previous centuries and
particularly the past several decades marked by inequality, oppression and mutual
bloodshed. The new South Africa had decided to come to terms with the cruel past without
violence and therefore created the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC).
As the Commission´s title itself indicates, a “break” with the past
was not to be undertaken. All the wrongdoings, i.e. political murders, long-term
imprisonment and the pursuing of political opponents were to be clarified. Light was also
to be shed on all the bloodthirsty acts aimed against the promoters of apartheid and/or
traitors and informers from the ranks of Africans.
Only after having heard the complete and in the majority truthful
testimonies on the committed crimes could there follow an act of amnesty, rehabilitation
or, at least, a partial indemnification for the victims, and could judgement be delivered
as to whether a crime had been committed by someone independent of one´s political
convictions or upon the instructions of the top politicians.
Thus, the Commission´s main task was to thoroughly unveil the dark side
of the South Africa past and to point to the attempts to obstruct the prevention of even
greater hatred and also a breakout of massive and uncontrollable retaliation.
According to a 1995 ruling that helped create the Commission, it was to
focus on the period starting March 1, 1960, a month marking the bloody events in the
Johannesburg suburb Sharpeville, until May 10, 1994, the day that Nelson Mandela was
elected president of the republic.
Justice Minister Dullah Omar explained the importance of such an act in
the following words: “The Commission is 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” (Background inf. TRC:1)
Appointed to head the Commission was Archbishop Desmond Tutu, an
uncompromising fighter against apartheid and at a man devoted to democracy and
non-violence and to mutual understanding between peoples. For his activities Tutu was
awarded the Nobel Peace Price as early as 1984. Prior to the start of the Commission´s
work, Tutu proclaimed, inter alia: “Only by revisiting the trauma of the past can people
look to a better future — but with the truth comes pain and a reminder that
reconciliation may still be a distant goal in the new South Africa” (Barrow 1989: 3).
In South Africa, there are various views concerning the evaluation of the
TRC´s work with respect to its way of coming to terms with the past. It is up to each
individual to make up his or her own mind on the basis of his or her lifelong experiences
and information. Personally, I think that the establishment and work of the TRC was one of
the best solutions. It should be possible to compare the South African way with adequate
ones in Central end/or East European countries after the collapse of communist rule. But
it is no time to do it here. (See: Skalník (ed.) 1999 and Coetzee, Hulec, Ustinova 1998)
3.What mission and main problems are associated with this
The TRC did not have the right to condemn the various crimes committed in
the apartheid or post-apartheid past but only to cast light on them. It did have the right
to grant an amnesty and provide partial compensation.
The commission´s and subcommission´s members were lawyers, judges,
priests and well known personalities of all colours, both men or women.
By July 31, 1998, when the four-year activities of the TRC have had
officially come to an end, more than twenty five thousand people had come up with their
testimonies, more than seven thousand of whom requested the granting of an amnesty. Of
those claimants, some four and a half thousand were turned down due to their improper
requests and only one hundred and twenty-five of the some remaining three and a half
thousand were granted an amnesty, some of whom just partially. Such an amnesty concerned
political/criminal proceedings and the terminating ongoing procedures.
Since the Commission has not managed to close all the inquiries and
requests, it will continue its unfinished work untill probably the end of this year.
A Register of Reconciliation has been drawn up, whereas everyone who has
expressed the wish to admit his or her personal guilt in public is given the opportunity
to express his or her views in writing to the address of the Commission. The author of the
respective program and TRC member, Mrs. Mary Burton, justified the drawing up the above
list as follows: “The register has been established in response to a deep wish for
reconciliation in the hearts of many South Africans — people who did not perhaps commit
gross violations of human rights but nevertheless wish to indicate their regret for
failures in the past to do all they could have done to prevent such violations, people who
want to demonstrate in some symbolic way their commitment to a new kind of future in which
human rights abuses will not take place” (Register:1). Every single declaration of which
several thousand were received (mostly from whites) have been made publicly accessible,
published in the press and in the media in general and completely compiled in the website
set up by the TRC. It is remarkable to note that less ten of them were anonymous.
Various views have been heard within South African society as to whether
the Commission has or has not been successful and whether it has or has not fulfilled its
goals — or even stirred up conflicts in the country even more.
Before we try to summarize this evaluation, let us describe the
Commission´s work in greater detail with the help of several concrete “cases”,
enabling to draw one´s own conclusions.
In 1997, without any hearing, the TRC gave amnesty to 37 of the highest
representatives of the ANC including their current President Thabo Mbeki and Joe Modise,
the new government´s Minister. This act was justified according to a paragraph of a
respective ruling. In other words, the respective category enabling the possible granting
of an amnesty includes every single crime committed within the political struggle between
the previous political and national organisations of apartheid and their opponents from
the ranks of the liberation movement (a Law on the Proclamation of National Unity and
Reconciliation of the year 1995, § 20, point 2).
Nothing comparable happend for the leaders of former apartheid state.
The proceedings conducted against Mandela’s ex-wife Winnie attracted
great attention (Levy 1988; Russel 1998). She had been accused of maltreating and
murdering Stompie Seipei, a young ANC activist, an apparent traitor and South African
Secret Service collaborator. This murder occured in the 1980´s in her home and in her
presence. This case enden without the granting of an amnesty. The summoned perpetrator had
denied all the accusations the way she had done as early as in 1991 before the court that
had sentenced her to six years imprisonment. Having appealed this case, her verdict was
altered to a fine imposed upon her amounting to 50 thousand Rand (some $ 8300). The TRC
heard a number of witnesses and then proclaimed that Winnie Madikizela-Mandela had lied
again and could not want to cast any light on this serious case. In brief, she had not
fulfilled the basic purpose in whose name she had been called to appear before the
Commission. On the contrary. The pleading guilt both of Winnie and her bodyguards could be
judged as a part of the fight against apartheid and therefore be pardonned.
Many ANC and Pan-African movement activists were pardonned even though in
the 80´s they had punished and murdered (mainly by necklacing) various apparent traitors
from within their own ranks.
These particular cases had occurred prior to the year 1990 and before the
abolishment of apartheid. Soon afterwards, there began a difficult but hopeful cooperation
between the previously banned political opposition parties and the White government. The
preparation of the first general and non-racial elections did not happen without tension
which also affected the black parties themselves, especially the relation between the ANC
and the Zulu Inkatha Freedom Party.
Lately, the TRC has dealt with those cases including the many violent acts
committed particularly during that preparatory period, both by blacks and whites.
“General” Nico Prinsloo, member of the Afrikaner Weerstandsbeweging
(AWB), testified, among others, to the violence aimed at enforcing the creation of a
Volkstaat — an independent Afrikaans state. Twenty people were killed in a bomb attack
and many others were injured. The TRC was particularly interested in who had ordered the
attack and had directed it. Other Afrikaaner participants also testified to this terrorist
act and they even gave the names of those responsible for it. The courts had already
previously condemned several of the offenders guilty of this crime, the perpetrators and
organisers of which were currently not being granted an amnesty by the Commission since it
did not consider these testimonies to be complete and truthful. Therefore, the verdicts
were not abolished (Amnesty Decisions: No. 1004/96).
However, the case of C.J.Lottering was of a differnt nature. This man had
shot a black taxi driver only to prove that he was ready to fulfill every single order
that he was called upon to fulfill by the leaders of the extremist Order of Death, a white
organisation of which he was a member. Mr. Lottering was sentenced on charges of murder,
theft and his subsequent escape from confinement. The TRC amnestied him only for his
escape from prison. The corresponding number of years in detention was thus shortened
Until now, the ratio of the total number of amnestied persons has amounted
to one white person versus three blacks.
In 1993, I must mention the amnesty of three black youngsters who had
stoned to death the American scholarship student Amy Biehl in the black township of
Gugulethu near Cape Town caused a great stir. Amy was on her way to the township by car at
a time when various young people in a highly excited state were on their way home
following a stormy meeting of the Pan-African Student Union whose participants were
chanting what was a very popular slogan: “One settler, one bullet”. Two out of four
killers were university students. Everyone of them had been amnestied because in the
Commission´s view their act had been perpetrated due the “spirit of the times” and
had therefore been “under the direct influence of the corresponding agitation of their
political organisation” (Amnesty hearing — Holger:1-2). Consequently they were
released from prison.
The dead girl´s parents also attended the Commission´s proceedings. They
did not agree with the act committed by the black students but they declared that they
understood the situation in the Republic of South Africa. They even established a
foundation in the USA bearing the girl´s name whose purpose is to help educate young
South Africans so as to prevent other similar cases from occuring (Amnesty Decisions:
No.3734/97). I believe that this case is a nice show-piece of the understanding of whites
(Europeans or Americans) to African main problems of these days.
In 1996, former President de Klerk also stood before the TRC. On his
behalf and on that of his ministers representing the last apartheid government, de Klerk
apologised for the “pain and wrongdoing that certain fellow citizens had suffered under
the previous National Party policies” (Barrow: 1989). The hearings of these top figurews
were aimed at obtaining admissions from those bearing personal responsibility for acts of
violence committed during police raids and for the consequent loss of health and lives of
their political opponents, before 1990 and during the tense pre-election period.
Certain high ranking ANC representatives were also summoned together with
its armed forces Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK). They were to explain, for instance, the deaths of
many of their comrades in the training camps of Zambia or in Angola that were due to rough
handling of their subordinates and to the settling of personal accounts.
The TRC then began dealing with the various acts of horror ordered, among
others, by the white general Johan Van der Merwe and aimed at innocent victims including
women and children — the sole reason being to spread fear among South Africa´s black
society prior to the non-racial election. This general had been previously properly
sentenced whereupon the Commission had refused to give him an amnesty on the grounds that
this “was a politically motivated act but a far too cruel one” (Shilowa 1998:1).
In that same year, three black men received amnesty as members of the
Azanian People´s Liberation Army (APLA), a part of the militant political party Azanian
People´s Organization (AZAPO) even though they caused the deaths of three whites and a
black person in a terrorist attack in December 1993 on the coffee-house Heidelberg Tavern
in the Western Cape, and I do not mention many serious injuries of other people. The
survivors and relatives of those who died did not agree with the Commission´s decision,
but the Commission gave the following explanation: “Even though this attack was
rejectable and although the coffe-house had both white and black guests ... the attackers
were quite clearly acting on behalf of APLA, a publicly known political organisation and
liberation movement which was engaged in political struggle against the State at that
time... We also hold that the applicants did not act for personal gain or out of personal
malice, ill-will or spite directed against the deceased and the victims” (WOZA:July 17,
1998:1-3.). The panel which made the decision included Mr. Justice Hassen Mall, Mr.
Justice Andrew Wilson and Advocate Ntsiki Sandi. The survivors and relatives of those who
died were compensated with reparations by the Committee on Reparations and Rehabilitation.
One of the last cases dealt with by the TRC right before the official
termination of its work was that of P.W. Botha who was duly summoned. Mr. Botha had held
the post of President in the 70´s and 80´s and was made responsible for many of the
wrongdoings committed against various black organisations and their members. Although the
former President had submitted his opinion to the TRC in the form of several hundred
pages, he refused to appear in person. Therefore, the TRC turned him over to the court who
subjected him to a 10 000 Rand ($ 1660) fine in June, 1998 or to a one-year prison term
for his refusal to testify before the Commission. Among others, such a verdict amounts to
half the maximum possible punishment (Gilmore 1998:1).
4.Reverberations on the TRC’s work
With this case, the decision of the court helped split the white and black
parts of South African society into his supporters and critics. Stormy discussions took
place in the press, on TV and the internet as to whether such a punishment was just or
The black part of the population was mostly satisfied that their long-time
enemies had “confessed” to their cruelties. Having consecutively studied the public
repercussions and with regard to my personal experiences with several particular cases in
South Africa, it appears that only a small percentage of black inhabitants with radical
leanings who had suffered losses and cruelties within a large family, consider the
establishment and decisions of the respective Commision to be needless.
Most of the proceedings in the presence of relatives or survivors took
place on a reasonable but psychologically tense level. It is not easy to come to terms
with the traumas brought by life during the authoritarian era although most people
considered such a step to be more profitable as soon as all the truths about the evils are
no longer kept a secret.
In this respect, the case in mind was symptomatic concerning the
proceedings against the torturing to death of Steve Biko in 1977, a well-known South
African student, poet and activist involved in the Black Consciousness Movement. Various
things were known about his death — nevertheless, only the testimonies of the
participating witnesses and even of the offenders helped cast light on all the
Many white South Africans consider the efforts of the TRC to be
manipulated and unseeemly. Most of them point out that this Commission has been unfair to
the whites and that it had patronised the ANC´s exponents as well as other elements of
black political organisations for having “protected black diversionists”. One of the
latest statistics showed that perhaps just 18 % of the whole population had welcomed the
TRC´s effort. Thus, stormy disagreements seemed to appear on the horizon, yet further
statistics showed that the opposite was true. It actually depends on how the questions are
put forward. (Thomasson 1998)
Those who considered the establishing of the TRC to be an aberrant act
mostly point out that the degree of mutual malice had fomented even more in spite of the
proclaimed emotional relaxation.
To this day, some black South African radicals are convinced that an
apology does not suffice and that all of those who were guilty in the past should be
punished, that is, the representatives of the State, army, police and extremist white
The South African Institute of Race Relations published at June 1999 a
book The Truth About the Truth Commission. It criticizes the work of TRC. SAIRR
chief executive John Kane-Berman states in a foreword inter alia: “The Commission was
required to tell the truth in full. Instead it told some of the truth, but far from all of
the truth... The TRC approach was selective rather than comprehensive”.
The Final Report of TRC was finished and handed to President Mandela at
the end of October 1998 (TRC Final Report:1998). It seems, it contains many views opposing
each other. It was published in 5 volumes on more than 3 500 pages and — to remind its
wage — it is 8 kilograms in full.
The main conclusions of that Report are:
1. Both sides of political rivals, apartheid regime and national
movements, are guilty of gross human rights violations.
2. The Report includes a list of some 200 people and organisations that
are axpected to be accused of gross human rights abuses. They are to be contested in
3. The members of the TRC are sure that their work was the best way to
achieve lasting peace in South Africa for the future. In Archbishop Tutu´s words
“...just by telling of the story people have experienced catharsis and healing. You need
something to go beyond the spiral, to break through. You need forgiveness”. (Perella
There were first serious responses of disapproval:
Ad 1: It is interesting that both, representants of former apartheid
governments and heads of national movements, were strongly against this conclusion. They
were also against the publication of the TRC Final Report. Former Presidents P.W. Botha
and F.de Klerk brought the case to the court. ANC and IFP were prepared to do the same. In
this connection, M.G. Buthelezi characterized the whole TRC as “an institution that may
best be described as a circus”. (WOZA: October 30, 1998). Some journalists reported on a
conflict between President N. Mandela and his deputy T. Mbeki. The President accepted the
Final Report it spite of its flaws. Both said, that “...war against apartheid could no
be compared with similar violations by the apartheid state”. (Infossek News: November 1,
1998). But T. Mbeki backed an unsuccesful last minute court challenge to prevent the
publication of the document. Perhaps political analyst David Welsch was rigt to say that
“...while there were differences of opinion between Mandela and Mbeki over the party´s
objections to the Report, it was ´a storm in a tea cup”. (op. cit.).
Some comments ad 2 are very interesting. Archbishop D. Tutu reacted to the
voices asking not to put some people or organisations to court in future:
“We have not removed it permanently. It is going to be contested in court. That is how
strongly we feel”. (Infoseek News: October 28, 1998). There were calls, not only from
some ANC and IFP members but also from the white political parties, for a general amnesty
for all human rights violators. President N. Mandela strictly rejected it: “Only
individual amnesty appeals would be considered”. (The Times and the Sunday Times:
December 7, 1998). We hear in his words the voice of true democracy, so needed not only
for South Africa of these days.
And as to the feelings of TRC members (ad 3) to find the way from so
dishonest past. There were also opposing opinions. Some we have already mentioned. I am
sure we can find the right conclusions in the same sentence which the leader od the
Democratic Party, Peter Leon, wrote: “Commission told no more than the truth”. (WOZA:
November 10, 1998).
The truth was the main target od TRC´s effort. “People, whites in
particular, had expected that TRC would whitewash the ANC”, wrote political analyst D.
Welsh (Russell 1998:2). What more can we ask from such a commission? If Justice Minister
Dullah Omar was mentioned regarding the founding of the TRC, I should like to remind us of
his words when the TRC finished its work: “The TRC´s investigations were done in the
national interest. We must establish accountability ... for the future. We must establish
the rule of law”. (op.cit:1).
On the other side, the TRC´s work and its Final Report didn´t satisfy
strongly the South African Trade Union (SATU). Archie Palane, head of the National Union
of Mineworkers, openly said: “Reconciliation cannot be a paper apology. It must be seen
to be happening”. It was his reaction to the Chamber of Mines, which declined to comment
officially on the Final Report. The Chamber was strongly against recommendations of the
TRC to create a special tax to help black workers who were discriminated in the past.
Willie Breytenbach, a political scientist at Stellenbosh University is against this
effort. “It could open a Pandora´s Box of legal claims and clearly the industry would
be unwilling to issue an apology that could draw lawsuits”. (Schuettler 1998:1) On the
contrary to this recommendation, Archbishop Winston Njongonkulu Ndungane of Cape Town said
at August 1999: “There should be a one-off reparations tax”. (Woza.co.za /reuters/
I hope that the work of TRC had and will help to bring real reconciliation
to South Africa and that recommendation to continue with court cases will not stop on the
eve of 21st century as has happend in the Czech Republic.
Amnesty Decisions (http://www.truth.org.za)
Background information to the TRC (http://www.truth.org.za)
Barrow, Greg. 1998, Africa coming to terms with the past
Coetzee, Jan and Hulec, O. and Ustinova, Mara. The Price of
Resistence. Fragments of the Experiences of Survivors of Longterm Political Imprisonment
in South Africa, the Former Czechoslovakia and Russia. Archív orientální 66(1):55-69
Davenport, T.R.H. 1991, South Africa. A Modern History. London:
Gilmore, Inigo. 1998, Hope and Fear — Reflections of a Democrat.
Holder, Jensen. 1989, South Africa´s thruths are horific, not
healing (http://www.nandotimes.com, 1.9.)
Infoseek News (http://www.infoseek.co.za)
Jeffery, Anthea. 1999, The Truth About Truth Commission. Pretoria:
SAIRR (see also http://woza.co.za/forum2/Jul99/trc28.htm)
Levy, Tony. 1998, Commentary (http://www.woza.co.za, 3.11.)
Perella, Dominic. 1998, The Associated Press, November 5
Register of Reconciliation (http://www.truth.org.za)
Russel, Clyde. 1998, Commentary (http://www.woza.co.za, 9.11.)
Schuettler, Darren. 1998, Infoseek News (http://
Shilowa, Sam. 1998, Van der Merwe lied (http:// www.woza.co.za,
Skalník, Peter (Ed.). 1999, Transition to Democracy. Czech
Republic and South Africa Compared, Prague, Set Out The Times and The Sunday Times,
Thomasson, Emma. 1989, Reuters, Cape Town (http:// www.woza.co.za,
Thompson, Leonard. 1990, A History of South Africa, New Haven and
London: Yale University
TRC Final Report (http://www.truth.org.za/final/index/htm)
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