The Truth and Reconciliation Commission

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) was established in 1995 to investigate human rights violations since 1960. It was authorised to grant amnesty to those perpet rators who made a full disclosure. The commission also had to foster reconciliation and unity among South Africans.

The TRC’s mandate charged it with the responsibility to be even-handed, but its composition was hardly balanced. The chairman, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, was a patron of the United Democratic Front, the ANC internal front since the early 1980s. Deputy Chairman Alex Boraine had been an NP opponent in Parliament in the 1970s and 1980s and was considered by De Klerk as a ‘hothead and inquisitor’. None of the seventeen members had been a member of either the NP or the IFP. Almost all members were considered to be tacit or overt ANC supporters.

It was not so much the body’s composition, the way in which it performed its task or the reports of a largely sycophantic press that inspired confidence, but the fact that both Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu, two leaders of great moral stature, gave the proceedings authority. Blacks felt free to approach the commission to tell painful stories of injury to themselves or the death of their beloved. The saturation media coverage of the hearings made it impossible for anyone thereafter to deny the atrocities of the previous regime. The TRC was not afraid to criticise human rights violations by the liberation movements.

The commission received some 21 300 victim statements that recorded some 38 000 gross violations of human rights. More than 1 000 perpetrators received amnesty after full disclosure. An analysis published by the South African Institute of Race Relations argued that the commission’s staff was overwhelmingly sympathetic to the ANC and that it tended to seek out victims of human rights abuses the government or IFP forces had perpetrated. The study also found that in many cases the level of corroboration of the victims’ evidence was not high. Instead of concentrating on the context of a deed the commission focused on the perpetrator or victim, with the result that the context was in most cases only scantily sketched. Cross-examination of victims was not normally allowed in the victim hearings, but hearsay evidence was.

The result was decidedly mixed. Where there were inconsistencies in the evidence the result was, as Pierre du Toit remarked in his South Africa’s Brittle Peace (2001), ‘an amic able interchange between commissioners and deponents, which may have furthered the process of healing, but was not necessarily conducive to establishing factual truth’. The TRC did not investigate 60% of the killings and based key findings on untested and uncorroborated statements. It may have overreached itself in taking on the task of perpetrator findings.

On the positive side the TRC performed an important therapeutic role, giving victims the opportunity to tell their story and have their suffering acknowledged. It revealed the truth in some notorious cases. Vlakplaas operatives or local security policemen asked for amnesty for the murders of Matthew Goniwe and three friends outside Port Elizabeth, the ‘Pebco Three’, the ‘Guguletu Seven’, and several other ‘targeted killings’. ANC  operatives asked for amnesty for the Church Street bomb in Pretoria in 1983 where eighteen people were killed.

There was intense interest in the controversial question of whether the cabinet or State Security Council gave orders for assassinating opponents of the state. Although no evidence was found of explicit instructions, the truth was complex. General Johann van der Merwe, head of the police, pointed out that the politicians deliberately used ambivalent instructions to members of the security forces, telling them to ‘make a plan’, or to ‘eliminate’ or ‘neutralise’ key activists. Senior policemen rightly felt that politicians who denied any role in abuses left them in the lurch.

Ex-President De Klerk made an apology on behalf of the NP and the previous government, (See De Klerk’s apology for Apartheid). The apology failed to satisfy the TRC. What it also wanted to hear was if the State Security Council (SSC), of which De Klerk had been a member, had authorised or condoned the murder and torture of ‘state enemies’. De Klerk denied that the SSC had ever given such instructions and insisted that the terms recorded in the minutes (‘eliminate’ or ‘exterminate’ opponents) did not mean that the security forces were given permission to murder or torture.

At a press conference Desmond Tutu rejected De Klerk’s claim that he did not know about the atrocities and other crimes, and maintained that the NP government’s policy gave the security forces ‘a licence’ to commit murder. Accusing the TRC of bias, the NP sought a court injunction against Tutu, who retracted his claim.

The TRC did not find evidence of a centrally directed Third Force but found that security force operatives, with the connivance of senior officers, had engaged in violence and killings. It also found the ANC accountable for some human rights violations as some of its members had at times blurred the distinction between soft and hard targets. The UDF too was guilty of widespread excesses, including necklace executions and attacks on black councillors. The PAC targeted primarily civilians for killing. Finally it found that the white right wing – and specifically the Volksfront – committed random attacks on black people and tried to instigate a revolution to replace the black government with a white one.

The TRC’s attempt to get the major interest groups and professions, such as the business sector, the press and the judiciary, to state whether they promoted or opposed apartheid encountered resistance. It tended to underestimate the opposition in civil society to the effort to put them on trial.

On 18 February 1998 TRC Chairman Desmond Tutu called on ‘all whites, especially the Afrikaners’, to acknowledge that ‘dastardly things’ had happened in the past. ‘You white people – if you reject the TRC you will carry the burden of guilt to your graves,’ he said. After an outcry Tutu qualified his statement to exempt those Afrikaners who had opposed apartheid or who had confessed to the TRC.

In its report the TRC singled out the NP government, assisted by the IFP, as the main perpetrators. The report satisfied none of the main parties, including the ANC, which tried to stop publication of the interim report since it criticised some of the methods the ANC had used.

Yet the TRC was a cathartic event. South Africa, whites in particular, was suddenly forced to confront a past that in many ways was dark and tragic. The commission reduced the number of official or semi-official lies about white rule to a minimum. The truths that were revealed probably destroyed the NP and severely damaged the Dutch Reformed Church, both intimately associated with apartheid.

The ANC benefited most but it too could no longer sustain its claim that its violent acts could be justified because it fought a just war. When some of its leaders hesitated to ask amnesty for the bomb blast in 1983 in Church Street, Pretoria, where some eighteen people died, Tutu threatened to resign. The point was made that even people who saw themselves as liberators had to admit guilt if they had used excessive methods.

One of the best-known accounts of the TRC is to be found in Country of My Skull by Antjie Krog, a renowned Afrikaans poet who reported on the commission’s hearings on the radio.

An elusive search for the truth

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