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«What was the TRC? The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) was a national commission assembled after the end of Apartheid in South Africa to ...»

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What was the TRC?

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) was a national commission

assembled after the end of Apartheid in South Africa to “promote national unity and

reconciliation” and to identify the “causes, nature and extent” of apartheid-era


It provided a space in which those who had been victims of gross human rights

violations under apartheid could come forward and make their stories heard for the first time. They could apply to the commission for investigations to be done and for reparations to be given. Perpetrators of violence could request amnesty from prosecution and by giving testimony and by being found to have provided true and full accounts, could have amnesty granted.

The TRC was a crucial turning point in the history of South Africa. It was a product of the negotiation process which aimed to bring an end to over 300 years of colonialism and apartheid and which led to the establishment of an interim constitution, which provided for democracy, human rights and the rule of law. Since there had been no “outright winner” in the conflicts leading to the end of apartheid, compromises needed to be made on both sides. One of the agreed-upon compromises in this settlement was that amnesty would be provided for those who had violated human rights. Thus restorative justice rather than retributive justice was chosen as a way to bring about reconciliation in the future.

The TRC was set up by means of the Promotion of National Unity and Reconciliation Act of 1995. The mandate of the commission was to bear witness to, record and in some cases grant amnesty to the perpetrators of crimes relating to human rights violations, reparation and rehabilitation.

Dullah Omar, the Minister of Justice in 1994, said: “If the wounds of the past are to be healed, if a multiplicity of legal actions are to be avoided, if future human rights violations are to be avoided and indeed if we are to successfully initiate the building of a human rights culture, then disclosure of the truth and its acknowledgement are essential…. The fundamental issue for all South Africans is therefore to come to terms with our past on the only moral basis possible, namely that the truth be told, and that the truth be acknowledged.” Archbishop Desmond Tutu listening at the TRC.

“The notion of healing for me is mysterious. The act of performance is almost religious. This project has been a marriage of the two.” – Lionel Newton (Marcel in Truth in Translation) How did the TRC work?

The work of the TRC was accomplished through three committees:

The Human Rights Violations Committee investigated human rights abuses that occurred between 1960 (the Sharpeville massacres) and 1994 (the first democratic elections). This committee heard the victims tell their stories: As journalist, Max du Preez described, “mothers, fathers, daughters, sons, husbands sitting in front of cameras and microphones to tell of their suffering at the hands of policemen or soldiers – or sometimes guerillas in the armies of the ANC or PAC. Most of it was intensely emotional: even grown, hardened and proud black men who had never cried before in their lives broke down in tears…Many of those who had testified at these hearings told us that the act of sitting down at the witness table before the commissioners and members of their community – and the television cameras and radio microphones – made them feel that their society, their nation, was at last recognizing their pain and honouring them for their suffering. That brought them a form of closure.” Only a proportion of the victims could in fact appear in public hearings. Their participation was to an extent, symbolic. While 2000 people told their stories in the public hearings, more than 21 000 applications were processed by the commission.

The Amnesty Committee considered applications from individuals who applied for amnesty for gross human rights violations. This committee had a quasi-legal framework and was presided over by a judge. Proceedings were characterized by grueling questioning of applicants by lawyers, reports by investigators and statements from victims. The Amnesty process meant that the silence was broken on what had occurred in the past and denial of these violations was no longer possible.

It also contributed to uncovering the causes, motives and perspectives of past atrocities.

The Reparation and Rehabilitation Committee was charged with restoring victims' dignity and formulating proposals to assist with rehabilitation. The TRC made recommendations on what reparations could be made to individuals and to communities, including financial aid, pensions, housing, education, land restitution, monuments and symbolic reparations. It also oversaw the exhumations of bodies and the reburials.

There was also an investigation unit and a number of other sub-committees. The commission worked independently of Government.

What made the South African TRC different?

There had been other similar processes before the South African TRC, notably in Argentina and Chile. However, this process was different in both its transparency and the level to which the nation participated in the process.

Public hearings of the Human Rights Violations Committee and the Amnesty Committee were held at venues across South Africa, from major towns and cities to small rural villages. These hearings were televised and a special hour-long weekly programme captured the main events.

Called "Truth Commission Special Report" it was presented by progressive Afrikaner journalist, Max du Preez, former editor of the Vrye Weekblad. Radio and television news broadcasts provided coverage in all official languages of South Africa.

Newspapers carried stories on a daily basis. No-one had the excuse any longer of being able to say “I did not know”.

–  –  –

Max du Preez, Journalist The commission was empowered to grant amnesty to those who committed abuses during the apartheid era, as long as the crimes were politically motivated, proportionate, and there was full disclosure by the person seeking amnesty. There was, however, no blanket or general amnesty, as there had been in other countries which had held TRCs. The law required individual application in writing with full disclosure of the facts. This meant that a great deal more of the truth was uncovered than might otherwise have been the case.

No side was exempt from appearing before the commission. The commission heard reports of human rights violations and considered amnesty applications from all sides, from the apartheid state to the liberation forces, including the African National Congress and the African Peoples’ Liberation Association.

While this was controversial, since many people did not agree that the liberation movement should be treated equally with the apartheid government, it meant that a more complete and balanced picture of the South African past was presented.

More than 21000 victim statements were processed, relating to some 38 000 incidents and the killing of some 14 000 people. In the Amnesty process, after 1888 days of hearings, 1167 amnesties were granted out of a total 7116 applications.

On October 28, 1998 the Commission presented its Final Report, which condemned both sides for committing atrocities and in 2003, a final two volumes of the Report were tabled in parliament.

Why was a TRC necessary?

South Africa’s history has been one characterised by oppression, abuse, division and the denial of human rights to those indigenous to the country. First the Dutch, and then the British, colonised South Africa, before the declaration of the Union of South Africa in 1910, independent from Britain. The “Union” however, was constructed from the start as a country that ignored the rights and interests of the black majority of its inhabitants. And from its very beginnings the politically conscious educated class of Africans, began to mobilise itself into political organisations to voice their dissent, along with Mahatma Gandhi and other iconic political leaders. Two years after the declaration of the Union, the organisation which would become the African National Congress was launched. Even before apartheid, the trend towards racial divisiveness could be clearly seen.

Apartheid (or “separateness”) was a government policy enforced in South Africa when the National Party took power in 1948. It was characterised by legislation, which divided and demeaned people, taking away their basic human rights. The effect of apartheid legislation was invariably favourable to the Whites and detrimental to the other race groups. The impact of these laws was felt in every aspect of life in South Africa.

The Population Registration Act ensured that every South African was classified into a race group, either Black, White, Asian or Coloured (mixed race). This classification then brought with it certain privileges or restrictions. The Separate Amenities Act meant that segregation between the races was carried out in every aspect of life, including transport, education, health care, access to buildings etc. In every respect, the separate amenities set aside for “Non-Europeans” were less wellresourced, convenient or plentiful than those for “Europeans” or Whites. Education of black people was controlled by the Bantu Education Act, which advocated a curriculum which would equip Blacks only for low-level jobs, such as manual labour.

Black and White people were prohibited from marrying or having sexual relations under the Mixed Marriages and Immorality Amendment Acts, and people were forced to live in separate residential areas, under the Group Areas Act. This Act resulted in forced removals of people who happened to be living in what were considered to be white areas. The Bantu Homelands Citizens Act made all black people citizens not of South Africa, but of one of several homelands, designated to these according to their ethnic grouping. The Pass laws then regulated the movements of black people, who had to carry an identification document (or pass) with them at all times. No black person could seek work in an urban area (outside of their Homeland) without having a permit to do so.

Anti-Apartheid activity was curtailed through the Suppression of Communism Act, which banned any political organisation calling for radical change in the status quo, and the Terrorism Act, which allowed for measures such as detention without trial.

Through these laws, a police state was created in South Africa, which allowed for the abuse of human rights on every level. Resistance against these measures began with strikes, acts of public disobedience and protest marches. But when these were met with violence (for example, in the Sharpeville massacre of 1960, where 69 people were killed for protesting against the pass laws), so armed resistance became the only alternative.

In turn, the Apartheid government hit back at the liberation movements (the African National Congress, the Pan-African Congress, the South African Communist Party) by declaring states of emergency and banning these organizations. Many thousands of their members were harassed, imprisoned, detained without trial, tortured or killed.

The capture of Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu and others of the ANC leadership in Rivonia in 1963, resulting in sentences of life imprisonment, meant that many others left the country to go into exile. Some trained as soldiers within the armed wing of the ANC (Umkhonto we’Sizwe) in camps in neighbouring African countries, or in the Soviet block countries. Others worked to sustain the struggle abroad and gain support for the notion of a free and democratic South Africa. Exiled ANC leaders were targeted for assassination and The Bureau of State Security (Boss) took over military intelligence and reported directly to the prime minister.

Within the country there was extensive censorship and repression, with conscription becoming compulsory for all while males in 1967. South Africa became more and more isolated as sport, cultural and trade boycotts built up. Events such as the Soweto Protests where students protested about being taught in Afrikaans, and many were killed in the process, spread a spirit of revolt like wildfire across the country.

The 1980s were characterized by massive repression and state-orchestrated violence to contain the threat of so-called “radical” elements and in response, an intensification of the armed struggle. Political divisions between the ANC and the Inkhatha Freedom Party led to protracted violence in Kwazulu Natal, which divided black communities. Suspicion of police informers within the ranks led to communities turning on one another, often using the petrol-filled tyre or “necklace” as a weapon.

South African secret agents infiltrated ANC ranks and this in turn led to ANC training camps being used as places where suspected spies were tortured and executed. In the late 1980s the Mass Democratic Movement was launched to campaign vigorously against apartheid. South Africa was on the brink of civil war.

–  –  –

In the years leading up to the first democratic elections of 1994, as the new constitution was debated in the Convention for a Democratic South Africa (Codesa), it became apparent that a negotiated settlement between the parties would require compromises on all sides. Violence was still very much a reality of the political landscape; parties such as the PAC had not yet suspended the armed struggle, and attacks on civilians continued. Violence between the ANC and Inkhatha also flared up continuously, fueled by what many referred to as “the third force”, the participation of the security forces in arming and supporting Inkhatha units.

Nelson Mandela was elected as President of South Africa in 1994 and made reconciliation the hallmark of his leadership. In the following year the new Constitution of South Africa was adopted, and its provisions made possible the establishment of the TRC.

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