In 1996, Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu authorized a TRC in South Africa, in which victims and witnesses could publicly testify their experiences under apartheid. Perpetrators could also request amnesty from prosecution in exchange for providing testimony.
Problems and Purpose
Authorized by Nelson Mandela and chaired by Desmond Tutu, the Promotion of National Unity and Reconciliation Act charged the South African TRC with investigating gross human rights violations committed under Apartheid between 1960 - the Sharpville massacre - to 1994 - the inauguration of Nelson Mandela, the first democratically-elected President of the Republic of South Africa. The Report sought to document and reflect the motives and perspectives of the perpetrators and their victims, and, hopefully, achieve justice among the people of South Africa by using a court-like restorative justice body to promote reconciliation and national unity in post-Apartheid South Africa. Its findings consist of information regarding the structural and historical background of the violence, individual cases, regional trends, and the broader institutional and social environment of the apartheid system. Records were systematically destroyed in massive quantities between 1990 and 1994, which was continued by the National Intelligence Agency as late as 1996.
Because of the limited time granted to the Commission, its focus on 1960 to 1994 only covers a fraction of South African history. In a continental context, this period reflects the tail end of the struggle for African decolonization. As such, the Report only tells a small part of a much larger history of human rights violations in South Africa.
Background History and Context
The atrocities committed between 1960 and 1994 must be contextualized within South and southern African history. According to the Report, it is important to consider :
- The importation of slaves to the Cape and the brutal treatment they endured between 1652 and 1834
- The many ways of dispossession and colonial conquest from the first war against the Khoisan in 1659, through several so-called frontier conflicts as white settlers penetrated northwards, to the Bambatha uprising of 1906, the last attempt at armed defense by an indigenous grouping
- The systematic hunting and elimination of indigenous nomadic peoples such as the San and Khoi-Khoi by settler groups, both Boer and British, in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries
- The Difaquane or Mfecane where thousands died and tens of thousands were displaced in a Zulu-inspired process of state formation and dissolution
- The South African War of 1899-1902 during which British forces herded Boer women and children into concentration camps in which some 20,000 died
- The genocidal war in the early years of this century was directed by the German colonial administration in South West Africa at the Herero people, which took them to the brink of extinction
The Commission’s focus was, therefore, narrow, as it was restricted to the post-1960 period, during which millions of South Africans were subjected to racial and ethnic oppression and discrimination . Under apartheid, skin colour determined an individual’s civil and political rights. The government segregated every aspect of political, economic, cultural, sporting, and social life . Apartheid, thus, was an ideology that constructed a totalitarian order that served white supremacy through social change. To do this, the government implemented legalized racial discrimination and “constructed a huge internal security apparatus and armed it with awesome legal powers to crush opposition” .
Organizing, Supporting, and Funding Entities
Section 46(2) of the Promotion of National Unity and Reconciliation Act provided for the appointment of a chief executive officer who would also act as the chief accounting officer. As the Commission was to remain “independent and separate from any party, government, administration or other functionary or body directly or indirectly representing the interest of any such entity,” there were a number of unusual financial ambiguities in the setting up of the Commission .
Many international donor countries expressed an interest in the Commission and offered financial assistance . This includes donations from the Danish Government, the Government of Sweden, the Netherlands Government, the Austrian Government, the Flemish Government, the Human Sciences Research Council, USAID, the Norwegian Embassy, Belgium, and a local donation from Justice in Transition .
Participant Recruitment and Selection
The President appointed the commissioners and their names were released to the public on December 15, 1995. They included Archbishop Desmond Tutu as Chairperson, Dr. Alex Boraine as Vice-Chairperson, Yasmin Sooka as Vice-Chairperson, Mary Burton, Adv. Chris de Jager, Rev. Bongani Finca, Sisi Khampepe, Richard Lyster, Wynand Malan, Rev. Dr. Khoza Mgojo, Hlengiwe Mkhize, Dumisa Ntsebeza, Dr. Wendy Orr, Adv. Denzil Potgieter, Dr. Mapule F. Ramashala, Dr. Fazel Randera, and Glenda Wildschut. The commissioners were divided into Chairpersons, the Amnesty Committee, whose role was to consider applications for amnesty that were made in accordance with the provisions of the Promotion of National Unity and Reconciliation Act, the Reparation and Rehabilitation Committee, the Human Rights Violations Committee, and the Investigation Unit. They were then aided by the Department of Justice.
Methods and Tools Used
The Commission’s research largely stemmed from the statement-taking of 21,000 South African individuals. Some statements were then selected for public hearings.
What Went On: Process, Interaction, and Participation
The Human Rights Violation Committee primarily gathered and processed 21,000 statements. The deponents came to the Commission of their own volition, and only victims who testified to the TRC were eligible to take part in the reparations program, which led to a significant increase in testimonies.
Statements were taken over a two-year period and largely discussed gross violations of human rights . Of the 21,000 statements, there were 38,000 allegations of gross violations of human rights, 10,000 of which were killings . Ninety percent of those who came forward were Black, and most of them were women, approaching the Commission on behalf of late men to whom they were related .
Influence, Outcomes, and Effects
Reparations were granted to the 21,000 victims that provided testimonies. The implementation of a reparations program included financial, symbolic, and community reparations: each victim or family should receive approximately $3,500 USD each year for six years. South Africa’s society and political system were to be reformed to include faith communities, businesses, the judiciary, prisons, the armed forces, the health sector, media, and educational institutions in a reconciliation process.
For perpetrators, amnesty from civil and criminal prosecution was granted to 849 out of 7,111 amnesty applicants to the individual that committed abuses during the apartheid era as long as the crimes were politically motivated, proportionate, and there was full disclosure by the applicant. The Commission’s subcommittee denied amnesty in numerous cases, but few trials were actually held. The Institute for Justice and Reconciliation was established in 2000 as the successor organization of the TRC.
Controversially, the TRC was empowered to grant amnesty to perpetrators who confessed their crimes truthfully and completely to the commission. Only victims who testified to the TRC were eligible to take part in the reparations program, which led to a significant increase in testimonies. After long delays in payment, the reparations paid to 21,000 victims were far lower than the amount recommended as the government refused to release the amount of remaining money reserved for reparations.
Link to the South African TRC: https://hmcwordpress.humanities.mcmaster.ca/Truthcommissions/wp-content/uploads/2019/01/SouthAfrica.TRC_.Report-FULL.pdf
Truth and Reconciliation Commission of South Africa Report. Vol. 1. Cape Town: The Commission, 1999.
 Truth and Reconciliation Commission of South Africa Report, Vol. 1 (Cape Town: The Commission, 1999), 25-26.
 Truth and Reconciliation Commission of South Africa Report, 29.
 Ibid, 30.
 Ibid, 294.
 Ibid, 299.
 Ibid, 317-318.
 Ibid, 170.
 Ibid, 173.
The first version of this case entry was written by Sarah Slasor, M.A., McMaster University.