Truth and Reconciliation Commission

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Group.png Truth and Reconciliation Commission  
(Truth commission, Restorative justiceWebsiteRdf-entity.pngRdf-icon.png
Intereststruth, reconciliation
A Truth Commission established in South Africa after the abolition of apartheid intended to pursue restorative justice. One thing it did not do, was to follow up on foreign operation and covert help from allied countries.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) was a court-like group assembled in South Africa after the abolition of apartheid intended to pursue restorative justice. Witnesses who were identified as victims of gross human rights violations were invited to give statements about their experiences, and some were selected for public hearings. Perpetrators of violence could also give testimony and request amnesty from both civil and criminal prosecution.

The TRC, the first of nineteen Commissions held in different countries to stage public hearings, was seen by many as a crucial component of the transition to full and free democracy in South Africa. Despite some flaws, it is generally (although not universally) thought to have been successful.[1]

One thing the Commission did not do, was to follow up on help from allied countries such as the UK and United States in terrorism and assassinations abroad, and help in atomic and biological weapons development.

Creation and mandate

Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Chairman of the TRC

The TRC was set up in terms of the Promotion of National Unity and Reconciliation Act, No. 34 of 1995, and was based in Cape Town. 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, as well as reparation and rehabilitation. The TRC had a number of high profile members: Archbishop Desmond Tutu (Chairman), Dr Alex Boraine (Deputy Chairman), Mary Burton, Chris de Jager, Bongani Finca, Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela, Sisi Khampepe, Richard Lyster, Wynand Malan, Khoza Mgojo, Hlengiwe Mkhize, Dumisa Ntsebeza (head of the Investigative Unit), Dr Wendy Orr, Denzil Potgieter, Mapule Ramashala, Dr Fazel Randera, Yasmin Sooka and Glenda Wildschut.


The work of the TRC was accomplished through three committees:

  • The Human Rights Violations Committee investigated human rights abuses that occurred between 1960 and 1994.
  • The Reparation and Rehabilitation Committee was charged with restoring victims' dignity and formulating proposals to assist with rehabilitation.
  • The Amnesty Committee considered applications from individuals who applied for amnesty in accordance with the provisions of the Act.

Public hearings of the Human Rights Violations Committee and the Amnesty Committee were held at many venues around South Africa, including Cape Town (at the University of the Western Cape), Johannesburg (at the Central Methodist Mission), and Randburg (at the Rhema Bible Church).

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.

To avoid victor's justice, 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.

A total of 5,392 amnesty applications were refused, granting only 849 out of the 7,112 (which includes the number of additional categories, such as withdrawn).[2]


The TRC's emphasis on reconciliation is in sharp contrast to the approach taken by the Nuremberg Trials after World War II and other de-Nazification measures. Because of the perceived success of the reconciliatory approach in dealing with human-rights violations after political change either from internal or external factors, other countries have instituted similar commissions, though not always with the same scope or the allowance for charging those currently in power. The success of the "TRC method" versus the "Nuremberg method" of prosecution is open for debate.

In a survey study by Jay and Erika Vora, the effectiveness of the TRC Commission was measured on a variety of levels, namely its usefulness in terms of bringing out the truth of what had happened during the apartheid era, the feelings of reconciliation that could be linked to the Commission, and the positive effects both domestically and internationally that the Commission brought about in a variety of ways from the political environment of South Africa to the economic one. The opinions of three ethnic groups were measured in this study: the English, the Afrikaners and the Xhosa people.[3]

The effectiveness of the Commission in bringing out truth can be viewed in the following statement from an article by Jay and Erika Vora:

All participants perceived the TRC to be effective in bringing out the truth, however, in varying degrees. The Afrikaners perceived the TRC to be less effective in bringing out the truth than the English participants and much less effective than did the Xhosa...[3]

The difference in opinions about the effectiveness can be attributed to how each group viewed the proceedings. Some viewed them as not entirely accurate as many people would lie in order to keep themselves out of trouble while receiving amnesty for their crimes, given that the Commission would grant amnesty to some without considering the weight of the crimes committed.

The TRC was viewed as much less effective in bringing about reconciliation by each group, with the two white groups about par and the Xhosa viewing the TRC as less effective than the other two ethnic groups. Some said that the proceedings only helped to remind them of the horrors that had taken place in the past when they had been working to forget such things. Thus, the TRC's effectiveness in terms of achieving those very things within its title is still debatable.[3]

Media coverage

The hearings were initially set to be heard in camera, but the intervention of 23 non-governmental organisations eventually succeeded in gaining media access to the hearings. On 15 April 1996 the South African National Broadcaster televised the first two hours of the first human rights violation committee hearing live. With funding from the Norwegian government, radio continued to broadcast live throughout. Additional high-profile hearings, such as Winnie Mandela's testimony, were also televised live. The rest of the hearings were presented on television each Sunday from April 1996 to June 1998 in hour-long episodes of the "Truth Commission Special Report" by progressive Afrikaner journalist Max du Preez, former editor of the Vrye Weekblad.[4] The programme's producers included Anneliese Burgess, Jann Turner, Benedict Motau, Gael Reagon, Rene Schiebe and Bronwyn Nicholson, a production assistant.[5]

Various films have been made about the Commission:

  • Confronting the Truth by Steve York. 2006, documentary, produced in association with the United States Institute of Peace.
  • Facing the Truth (1999) by Bill Moyers. 2-part PBS series.[6]
  • Forgiveness (2004) directed by Ian Gabriel. A South African feature film starring South African–born actor Arnold Vosloo as a disgraced ex-cop seeking forgiveness from the family of the activist he killed under the Apartheid regime. With Quanita Adams and Zane Meas.
  • In My Country (2004), very loosely based on Country of My Skull, an autobiographical text by Antjie Krog which dealt with her coverage of the hearings, starring Samuel L Jackson and Juliette Binoche
  • Long Night's Journey into Day (2000) by Frances Reid. Documentary.[7]
  • Red Dust (2004), based on the novel of the same title by Gillian Slovo, starring Hilary Swank, Jamie Bartlett and Chiwetel Ejiofor
  • Zulu Love Letter (2004) directed by Ramadan Suleman and starring Pamela Nomvete.

Several plays have been produced about the TRC:

  • "Truth in Translation" (2006), by Paavo Tom Tammi, in collaboration with American director, Michael Lessac and the company of Colonnades Theatre Lab, South Africa.
  • Ubu and the Truth Commission (1997), by Jane Taylor and William Kentridge.
  • Nothing but the Truth (2002), by John Kani
  • The Story I Am About to Tell, created in collaboration with the Khulumani support group
  • The Dead Wait, by Paul Herzberg

Some of Ingrid de Kok's poetry in Terrestrial Things (2002) deals with the TRC (e.g. The Archbishop Chairs the First Session, The Transcriber Speaks, The Sound Engineer).


A 1998 study by South Africa's Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation & the Khulumani Support Group,[8][9] which surveyed several hundred victims of human rights abuse during the Apartheid era, found that most felt that the TRC had failed to achieve reconciliation between the black and white communities. Most believed that justice was a prerequisite for reconciliation rather than an alternative to it, and that the TRC had been weighted in favour of the perpetrators of abuse.[10][11]

Another dilemma facing the TRC was how to do justice to the testimonials of those witnesses for whom translation was necessary. It was believed that, with the great discrepancy between the emotions of the witnesses and those translating them, much of the impact was lost in interlingual rendition. A briefly tried solution was to have the translators mimic the witnesses' emotions, but this proved disastrous and was quickly scrapped.[12]

While former president F.W. de Klerk appeared before the Commission and reiterated his apology for the suffering caused by apartheid, many black South Africans were angered at amnesty being granted for human rights abuses committed by the apartheid government. The BBC described such criticisms as stemming from a "basic misunderstanding" about the TRC's mandate,[13] which was to uncover the truth about past abuse, using amnesty as a mechanism, rather than to punish past crimes.

Among the highest-profile of these objections were the criticisms levelled by the family of prominent anti-apartheid activist Steve Biko, who was killed by the security police, and whose story was later featured in the film Cry Freedom.[14] Biko's family described the TRC as a "vehicle for political expediency", which "robbed" them of their right to justice.[15] The family opposed amnesty for his killers on these grounds and brought a legal action in South Africa's highest court, arguing that the TRC was unconstitutional.

On the other side of the spectrum, former apartheid State President P. W. Botha defied a subpoena to appear before the Commission, calling it a "circus". His defiance resulted in a fine and suspended sentence, but these were overturned on appeal.[16]

Playwright Jane Taylor, responsible for the acclaimed Ubu and the Truth Commission, found fault with the Commission's lopsided influence:

The TRC is unquestionably a monumental process, the consequences of which will take years to unravel. For all its pervasive weight, however, it infiltrates our culture asymmetrically, unevenly across multiple sectors. Its place in small rural communities, for example, when it establishes itself in a local church hall, and absorbs substantial numbers of the population, is very different from its situation in large urban centres, where its presence is marginalised by other social and economic activities.[17]

John Pilger, an internationally significant journalist, castigates the Truth and Reconciliation Commission for allowing the easy transition from white exclusive capitalism to multiracial capitalism, and for failing to cause the trial of criminals, particularly murderers.[18]

TRC report into Samora Machel aircrash

Twelve years after the 1986 aircrash which killed Samora Machel, a special investigation into Machel's death was carried out by the TRC.

The TRC investigation was criticised for taking place in camera and without any aviation specialist being present. The testimony was further led by a prominent radio journalist rather than a judge. The TRC's investigation did not find conclusive evidence to support or refute either of the earlier reports. Nonetheless, some pieces of circumstantial evidence collected by the TRC lead to questions being raised about a number of the Margo Commission's findings:

  • A former Military Intelligence (MI) officer "Ben" alleged that Pik Botha and a number of high-ranking security officials held a meeting on 18 October 1986 at Skwamans, a secret security police base shared with MI operatives halfway between Mbuzini and Komatipoort, on the day before the crash. They left late that night in a small plane and some, including Pik Botha, returned there after the crash.
  • The presidential aircraft, C9-CAA, entered a military and operational zone in South Africa (a restricted airspace, which was presumed to be under radar surveillance.) However, no warning that the plane was off course or in South African airspace was given to the aircraft.
  • South Africa's State Security Council (SSC) minutes from January 1984 indicate that the Mozambican working group, including General Jac Buchner and Major Craig Williamson, discussed how to help RENAMO overthrow the FRELIMO government of Mozambique.

The TRC report concluded that the questions of a false beacon and the absence of a warning from the South African authorities require "further investigation by an appropriate structure". It also had a lot to say about the Civil Cooperation Bureau, an apartheid hit squad.[19]

A police video in the TRC's possession shows South African foreign minister Pik Botha telling journalists at the crash site that President Samora Machel and others killed in the crash were his and President P. W. Botha's "very good friends", and that their deaths were therefore a tragedy for South Africa.

Confession by Hans Louw

In January 2003, the Sowetan Sunday World reported that an apartheid era killer and former CCB member, Hans Louw, serving a 28-year term at Baviaanspoort Prison near Pretoria, had confessed to participating in a plot to kill Machel. A false radio navigational beacon would have been used to lure the aircraft off course, with Louw forming part of an alleged backup team to shoot the aircraft down if it didn't crash. The newspaper also alleged that another of the plotters, former Rhodesian Selous Scout, Edwin Mudingi, supported Louw's claim. However, after an investigation by the Scorpions, a South African special police unit, it was reported in July 2003 and in October 2008 that they could find no evidence for South African complicity.

10th Anniversary

A Mbuzini wreath laying ceremony on 17 October 1996 was attended by Graça Machel and addressed by Nelson Mandela. Mandela declared the initial simple memorial a South African national monument and hailed Machel as a universal hero whose life exemplified the highest ideals of internationalism and universality. Mandela cautiously claimed that the precise chain of events leading to Machel's death were uncertain and elusive, and repeated an earlier promise that no stone would be left unturned to establish the full truth.[20][21]

Mandela Accusations

At the Mandela-Machel wedding ceremony on 18 July 1998, Nelson Mandela announced that Samora Machel had been murdered, without referring to the South African board of enquiry's findings. Graça Mandela continues to insist that the aircrash was not an accident, and has dedicated her life to tracking down her late husband's killers. In May 1999, Graça Mandela said in an interview on South African Broadcasting Corporation TV's News Maker programme that she remained convinced the apartheid regime was responsible, and challenged former foreign minister Pik Botha to come clean about Samora Machel's death.

In reply, Pik Botha told SABC TV on 16 May 1999 that although he had been one of the first people on the scene and was called on to identify Machel's body, the only facts he knew about the crash were the findings of the Margo Commission:

"I totally reject any suggestion that I could have been a party to a decision of that nature. It is an extremely sad moment for me."


In 1999, a Samora Machel Monument was erected at the crash site. Designed by Mozambican architect, Jose Forjaz, at a cost to the South African government of 1.5 million Rand (US$ 300,000), the monument comprises 35 whistling wind pipes to symbolise each of the lives lost in the air crash. It was inaugurated on 19 January 1999 by Nelson Mandela, his wife Graça, and by President Joaquim Chissano of Mozambique.

20th Anniversary

At the 20th anniversary of the crash on 19 October 2006, South African president, Thabo Mbeki declared the memorial a national heritage site.[22] Leading up to the event the Mozambican president Armando Guebuza, who chaired the Mozambican inquiry in 1986, repeated a commitment to discover the truth about the incident,[23] while President Mbeki, in his state of the nation address of 3 February 2006, mentioned that a satisfactory explanation was still lacking.[24]

2006 inquiry

South African minister of Safety and Security, Charles Nqakula announced on 2 February 2006 that the Machel death crash inquiry would be reopened. He told reporters in parliament that all of South Africa's law enforcement agencies were expected to be involved in the probe, in co-operation with their Mozambican counterparts.[25][26]

New inquiry

In December 2012, it was reported that South Africa's police had launched a new investigation into the 1986 plane crash that killed Mozambican leader Samora Machel. It came after a tip-off that South Africa's apartheid-era officials engineered the crash, reports said. Mr Machel's death plunged the region into crisis, as African governments accused South Africa's then-white rulers of assassinating him.

South Africa's privately-owned Times newspaper reported that President Jacob Zuma had sanctioned the inquiry launched by the elite police unit, the "Hawks", following a tip-off in January. Zuma's approval came on the strength of evidence obtained by investigators, including documents, photographs and voice recordings, it reported. Captain Paul Ramaloko of the South African Police Service confirmed to the Associated Press news agency that an investigation had been launched, but gave no further details.

In 1987, South Africa's Judge Cecil Margo - assisted by US and UK experts - blamed negligence on the part of the plane's crew for the crash. However, Soviet experts working with the Mozambican authorities ruled that the crash was caused by the crew being misled by signals from a decoy navigation beacon that transmitted more strongly than the beacon at the airport in Mozambique's capital, Maputo.

South Africa's then-Foreign Minister Pik Botha, who was one of the first people to arrive at the scene of the crash which killed Samora Machel, said he welcomed the new inquiry, provided it included international experts. Pik Botha reiterated that his government was not involved in the crash.[27]

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  1. "Truth Telling, Identities, and Power in South Africa and Guatemala", International Center for Transitional Justice
  2. Department of Justice and Constitutional Development of the Republic of South Africa, The Truth and Reconciliation Official Website, available at
  3. a b c Vora, Jay A. and Erika Vora. 2004. "The Effectiveness of South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission: Perceptions of Xhosa, Afrikaner, and English South Africans." Journal of Black Studies 34.3: 301-322.
  4. [1]
  5. [2]
  7. "Long Night's Journey into Day"
  11. As William Kentridge, director of Ubu and the Truth Commission, put it, "A full confession can bring amnesty and immunity from prosecution or civil procedures for the crimes committed. Therein lies the central irony of the Commission. As people give more and more evidence of the things they have done they get closer and closer to amnesty and it gets more and more intolerable that these people should be given amnesty." (Kentridge 2007, p. viii)
  12. Kentridge 2007, p. xiv.
  17. Taylor 2007, p. v.
  18. John Pilger 1998, Apartheid did not die (television programme), [3], footage prior to 18:00.
  20. #GRB|Beeld, 7 September 1993
  21. #96speech|Press Release, 17 October 1996
  22. #06PR|Press Release, 19 October 2006
  23. #SADC|SADC Today, October 2006
  24. #SAI|, 18 October 2011
  25. #BBC090206|BBC, 9 February 2006
  26. #MaG|Mail & Guardian, 20 October 2006
  27. "South Africa orders new probe into Samora Machel crash"



  • Bell,Terry, Dumisa Buhle Ntsebeza, and Dumisa Buhle Ntzebeza. 2003. "Unfinished Business: South Africa, Apartheid and Truth."
  • Boraine, Alex. 2001. "A Country Unmasked: Inside South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission."
  • Cole, Catherine. 2010. "Performing South Africa's Truth Commission: Stages of Transition."
  • Doxtader, Erik and Philippe-Joseph Salazar, Truth and Reconciliation in South Africa. The Fundamental Documents, Cape Town, New Africa Books/David Philip, 2008.
  • Edelstein, Jillian. 2002. "Truth and Lies: Stories from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa."
  • Gobodo-Madikizela, Pumla. 2006. "A Human Being Died That Night: A South African Story of Forgiveness."
  • Hayner, Priscilla. 2010. "Unspeakable Truths: Transitional Justice and the Challenge of Truth Commissions"
  • Hendricks, Fred. 2003. "Fault-Lines in South African Democracy: Continuing Crisis of Inequality and Injustice."
  • William Kentridge. "Director's Note". In Ubu and the Truth Commission, by Jane Taylor, viii-xv. Cape Town: University of Cape Town Press, 2007.
  • Khoisan, Zenzile. 2001. Jakaranda Time: An Investigator's View of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission
  • Antjie Krog. 2000. "Country of My Skull: Guilt, Sorrow, and the Limits of Forgiveness in the New South Africa."
  • Martin, Arnaud. 2009. La mémoire et le pardon. Les commissions de la vérité et de la réconciliation en Amérique latine. Paris: L'Harmattan.
  • Moon, Claire. 2008. "Narrating Political Reconciliation: South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission."
  • Ross, Fiona. 2002. "Bearing Witness: Women and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa."
  • Tutu, Desmond. 2000. "No Future Without Forgiveness."
  • Villa-Vicencio, Charles and Wilhelm Verwoerd. 2005. "Looking Back, Reaching Forward: Reflections on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of South Africa."
  • Wilson, Richard A. 2001. "The Politics of Truth and Reconciliation in South Africa."


  • Taylor, Jane. Ubu and the Truth Commission. Cape Town: University of Cape Town Press, 2007.
  • Wicomb, Zoe. 2006. Playing in the Light

External links

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