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The business of the Truth Commission is still not done

Resource type: News

Cape Argus (South Africa) |


by Fanie du Toit and Natalie Jaynes

Precisely 10 years ago to the day, Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu handed over the first five volumes of the final report of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission to President Nelson Mandela.

This week the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation, the Desmond Tutu Peace Centre and the Foundation for Human Rights are convening a national conference in Cape Town to take into review responses to the roughly 45 pages of recommendations made by the TRC. To what extent, the meeting will ask, ought these TRC recommendations to be a national priority, now, 10 years later?

At the same time the discussion will provide an opportunity for officials from the “post-Polokwane” ANC to make their positions clear on outstanding matters related to the TRC process, such as community reparations, apartheid-era prosecutions, and a proper plan for a publicly accessible and well-managed TRC archive, but also on its broader goals. Civil society will be particularly eager to hear if a more proactive stance towards TRC matters will be taken by the Department of Justice and Constitutional Development under Minister Enver Surty.

The day 10 years ago, was marked by high drama. The TRC decided at the very last moment to excise findings against FW de Klerk when it emerged that he was planning an urgent application in the Cape Town High Court to prevent the finding that he knew about the bombing of Khotso House and Cosatu House in the 1980s but had failed to report this to the police, from being published. The ink on the blacked-out page was apparently still wet when the boxes were being loaded on a truck to be taken to Pretoria for the launch.

A bigger shock, however, both for the commission and those who saw the TRC as an ANC-controlled mechanism, was the ANC’s own failed court application to block the release of the report also launched at the last moment: “What we can’t have is a misrepresentation of the ANC and the national liberation struggle,” the party said at the time. It is well-known that then deputy president Mbeki, especially, took offence at what he saw as the TRC’s equation of violations of human rights committed by liberation movement cadres with those of the apartheid regime.

It is a matter of historical record that the court found in favour of the TRC.

When it finally did take place, New National Party leader Marthinus van Schalkwyk did not attend the hand-over ceremony because “it has become quite clear to the NNP … that the TRC process has been a fatally flawed and divisive one, characterised by political prejudice and bias”.

In the meantime, the IFP lodged a complaint with the public protector about the TRC.

And so, what should have been a celebration of this unique achievement, an occasion to renew a collective commitment to the “never again” which formed the core of the TRC mandate, and a moment to acknowledge the women and men who paid the highest price for our freedom, instead turned into a bitter political feud.

In what was a remarkable departure from those in the ANC who rejected the work of the commission Mandela, ever the statesman, used the handing over ceremony to remind South Africans of the real purpose and achievements of the commission: “The commission was not required to muster a definitive and comprehensive history of the past three decades. Nor was it expected to conjure up instant reconciliation. And it does not claim to have delivered these, either. Its success, in any case, depends on how far all of us co-operated with it. Yet we are confident that it has contributed to the work in progress of laying the foundation of the edifice of reconciliation. The further construction of that house of peace needs my hand. It needs your hand.”

These sober words belied the reality that reconciliation in the TRC, as elsewhere, had more to do with pragmatic choices regarding how to work together across political and other divides, and for mutual benefit, than with group hugs and cozy feelings.

Despite the deep political controversy over the TRC and its work, Mandela’s comments reminded South Africans of what they were busy with – building a lasting peace.

At the same time, the TRC also showed that not all political compromise needs to be void of accountability, that not all forms of accountability reside in courts of law and that not all forms of punishment entail the incarceration of perpetrators.

Throughout, the commission underscored the importance of listening to victims and of reparation. It became clear that reconciliation could not be enforced, that it needed to be owned by participants.

But why, apart from an ongoing commitment to reconciliation, are there calls for a return to TRC recommendations, 10 years later?

Reading afresh these recommendations as members of a society that seems to have lost its innocence since those early days, the TRC’s views can sound somewhat incoherent, incomplete and even a little naïve. In parts the recommendations are thorough, but there are obvious omissions in other places. There seems, furthermore, to be a “disconnect” between the report’s findings and its recommendations.

Reading the original report also reminds one forcefully of the legacy that the commission hoped to leave behind. It is striking, for example, to what extent popular post-TRC debates have narrowed the commission’s recommendations – with an almost exclusive focus on reparations and prosecutions – but failed to follow up on the broader injunction to pursue social justice. The sad fact is that few South Africans have read the report, or even sections of it.

Issues such as health, security, the media, education, faith communities, judicial reform and a range of other human rights related issues are all addressed. It is as if the TRC wanted to say: “We have listened to the victims and how the world appears from their perspective – we have listened to perpetrators too.

Based on these testimonies, and our own investigations, we recommend that South Africans consider the following steps to ensure that never again will society produce such suffering.

A careful reading of the recommendations reveals a core message that remains more relevant to our society than ever – one of embedding the aspirations of human rights within the culture and ethos of reconciliation, tolerance and mutual respect. In the run-up to next year’s elections, South Africans would do well to heed this message.

The TRC report opens its chapter on recommendations with a declaration of commitment to reconciliation and unity, and calls on South Africans to accept their need for healing, to reach out to one another, to work actively to build bridges, to be sensitive to the needs of the disadvantaged, to encourage a culture of debate, to initiate reconciliation programmes in each sphere of society, to eradicate racism and implore government to put reconciliation at the top of its agenda.

The conference this week will gather to take stock of our collective response to these recommendations and to ask about the road ahead, not only in order to bring to a dignified, if long over due, end to the specific requirements of the TRC process itself, but also to carry on its ideals.

Fanie du Toit is executive director of the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation. Natalie Jaynes is project leader of the Institute’s Building an Inclusive Society project.