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Apartheid South Africa: Truth and Reconciliation Commission

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Human Rights
Wordcount: 1940 words Published: 6th Aug 2019

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Most new democratic countries have struggled with how best to respond to the gross human rights violations committed by previous regimes. The first democratic government for South Africa was elected in 1994, and in response to the atrocities of apartheid, the National Unity and Reconciliation Act established a Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). The TRC implemented the possibility of amends for victims that were not given human rights which resulted in amnesty for perpetrators rather than prosecution. This made restorative justice as the core aspect rather than retributive justice; this however compromised on the negotiations between representatives of old and new regimes, causing there to be non-successful prosecutions of the perpetrators.

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In addition, while the TRC was being executed, the importance of truth-telling and forgiveness was seen as a possibility of national reconciliation, making the objectives of the TRC to promote national unity and reconciliation in a spirit which transcended the conflicts and divisions of the past. This was acted upon by giving victims an opportunity to retell the abuses inflicted on them and authorize amnesty to perpetrators who gives a full disclosure, bringing forward the debate about the psychological value of the TRC.

 On one hand, the emphasis on bearing witness and on forgiveness became a psychological discussion on the importance of the victim’s process in healing and the value of the reports of “testimony therapy” (Agger & Jensen, 1990), while on the other hand, TRC did not necessarily provide the victims with true human rights which may have caused re-traumatization. Even if the TRC was helpful for national reconciliation, the question regarding its value for particular individuals was still contentious. With the South African model frequently being cited as an example of the successful use of a non-prosecutorial alternative, the books under review is of great interest given its in-depth examination of the workings of the TRC.

Richard Wilson’s book: The Politics of Truth and Reconciliation in South Africa: Legitimizing the Post-Apartheid State, offers the critical voice of an outsider, as Wilson is a Professor of Anthropology at the University of Sussex. In his book, Wilson expresses his belief that any nation should not be based on race, ethnicity, language or religion, but it should rather be a community of equal rights-bearing citizens; the creation of citizenship that is not based on creed or colour, but loyalty to the state. Wilson begins with a principal argument that the TRC was created to promote a culture of human rights in South Africa. This was a key process to uphold the new political order and the reformation of justice in human rights talk as restorative justice. TRC was solely focused on bringing South Africans together to share the traumas of apartheid and to become more united as a subsequent process of ‘healing the nation.’ He argues that individuals that are going through this collective cleansing may cause the truth of the commission to substitute prosecution with amnesty, which may lead to the rule of law being undermined.

Furthermore, Wilson spends considerable time analysing the daily operations of the TRC and reviews how the commissioners disputed among themselves about whether or not their sole purpose was legal or a way of providing psychological relief and as a result, what the actual truth is in which they were trying to reconstruct. Wilson notes a change in the TRC’s operation while the notion of truth was still being sought. Infocomm, the commission’s database for the collection of the truth was shaping the questions asked in a manner that affected how the narrators responded. The system used narratives to divide people into three categories: victims, perpetrators or witnesses. In order to keep the nation unified, it required the crimes committed by the government and the violent resistance to both be morally equivalent. By analysing this tension, Wilson focused on how the TRC dealt with the accusations related to the government sponsoring the violence that occurred during the transition period of 1990-1994. This theory was called the ‘Third Force,’ where Wilson argues that the violence may have been considered as state terrorism. However, the TRC rejects the idea that the Third Force exists due to the line is drawn in human rights, which did not exist during this time.

The TRC had the authority to grant amnesty only if perpetrators confess fully and admit that their actions were carried out purely based on political motive, but according to Wilson, this led the TRC to take up inconsistent approaches to race crimes as they assumed if the party or organization denied being racist, then racism was not a political motive for an individual’s behaviour. For instance, if amnesty applications had appealed to the ideals of nation-building and national reconciliation, they would have stood a better chance at success compared to those which failed to articulate the new language of human rights. In stark contrast, Alex Boraine (2000), a member of the parliament that served right under Desmond Tutu, writes in his book how the TRC was a successful enterprise due to different aspects of their practices, one being about amnesty. Boraine believes that the TRC offers amnesty to individuals for a return of a full disclosure and with such proceedings the public gives, what he calls, ‘maximum transparency’ (Boraine, 2000, 270). Moreover, Simpson and Van Zyl (1996, 9), also mention that with an arbitrated use of power and control, the law fails to punish those who have committed a crime, then the very notion of the rule of law is undermined. Wilson argued that their identity is ambiguous, not legal, political or religious. The TRC power is not that of a legal court but rather symbolic:

“They cannot prosecute & the evidence found or disclosed to them cannot be used in later prosecutions, so they can make only a weak claim to justice” Wilson, 2001)

Yet, they already label the perpetrators, giving amnesty before they are convicted, bypassing the legal process. For the family & relatives of the victims, hearings were opportunities to find out more about the cases, reinvestigation attempts, and restoring the ‘truth’ of the cases, but they certainly created tensions between the TRC and the criminal court. For instance, in the case of the police officers who were easily able to avoid being charged for 27 murders due to guaranteed amnesty. This raises the debates of the effectiveness of restorative justice.

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By part II, Wilson forms a theoretical development which is systematic and focused, synthesizing the TRC with its local forms of justice and the political pressures of a post-apartheid nation to an envisioned “rainbow nation”. Wilson produces three main reconciliation within the TRC: the legal-procedural, the mandarin-intellectual, and the religious redemptive. However, the domination of the religious redemptive narratives resulted in illiberal acts such as the tenacious pressure on the victims to forgive their perpetrators. Wilson extends his analysis by examining two conflict-riddled communities in South Africa, contrasting their approaches to dealing with the local problems of order and justice related to the TRC’s rhetoric on human rights.  One of the communities was called Sharpeville, which he describes as a chaotic space of urban violence and terror, driven by a cycle of revenge. The second community, Boipatong, was said to have developed a much more stable and widely accepted mode of local justice, in a form of a “traditional court”, which was able to channel individual emotions of vengeance into more community-mediated forms of “retribution.” This community’s perspective was starkly different to the discourse of human rights and reconciliation advocated by the TRC, however, at the heart of it was Archbishop Desmond Tutu, a prominent religious figure in South Africa who chaired the TRC. Graybill (2002) states that the religious notions did affect the making of the TRC and in his opinion, Desmond Tutu had a lot to do with the theological aspects of the reconciliations and the religious traditions during hearings such as prayers or hymns. Tutu believed that reconciliation identifies with forgiveness. In his book, No Future without Forgiveness, he writes forgiveness is the only way South Africa has a chance at a future, making it an important value for the TRC, despite the immoral implications of forcing victims to forgive.

Wilson culminates his final thoughts to create an argument based on legal pluralism. He uses early theories which represented the opinions of how the state or colonial law and social or indigenous norms should be separated by power and their influences. Wilson argues that state and local forms of justice will always interact, and transform based on each other. With this, he mandates that there should be a revision on legal pluralism, one that can understand the existence of multiple forms of social order and justice with the interplay from both the state and local forms of power. This can be seen in the example of ‘Ubuntu’, the African jurisprudence identity. The saying ‘Ubuntu’ was created by Tutu (1999) as an expression of a community rather than individuality. In contrast to Descartes’ ‘I think therefore I am’, Ubuntu sees it as ‘I am because we are’ (Levin, 2006). Wilson describes it as a ‘romanticized vision of the rural African community’ (2001, 9). For the South Africans, Ubuntu can be seen as the local form of justice.

In conclusion, Richard Wilson explains how the goal of promoting a culture of human rights was contradicted by the TRC. The reasons he gives are focused on the TRC’s ability to grant amnesty, and how Infocomm, the idea of forgiveness, and the definition of legal pluralism played significant roles in the nation-building of the “New South Africa.” Wilson uses a vast amount of materials by other authors and researchers, as well as two of his own ethnographies. However, this may have caused a bias owing to the chosen works’ attitudes towards the TRC. Most of Wilson’s book was well structured to aid his theoretical development about synthesizing the TRC and the political pressures leading to state-building.


  • Agger I, Jensen JB. 1990. Testimony as ritual and evidence in psychotherapy for political refugees. J Traumatic Stress, 3, pp.115–130.
  • Boraine, A., 2000. A country unmasked, Cape Town: Oxford University Press.
  • Graybill, L.S., 2002. Truth and reconciliation in South Africa: miracle or model?, Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner Publishers.
  • Levin, K., 2006. ‘I am what I am because of who we all are’: International perspectives on rehabilitation: South Africa. Pediatric Rehabilitation, 9(3), pp.285–292.
  • Simpson, G. & van Zyl, P. (1996). South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation CommissionIn Temps Modernes, No. 585.
  • Tutu, Desmond. 1999. No Future Without Forgiveness. New York: Doubleday.
  • Wilson, R., 2001. The politics of truth and reconciliation in South Africa: legitimizing the post-apartheid state, Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press.


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