Global Perspectives on Human Language:
The South African Context


Making Truth Fit: The Truth and Reconciliation Comission, its Misunderstood Gift and its Underanalyzed Legacy


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Manon Nicole Terrell
Updated 9-19-2004

Bishop Desmond Tutu, advocate of the Truth and Reconciliation process, is shown below in a contemplative pose that reminds us of his characteristically thoughtful and deliberate demeanor.

Truth commissions can only 'reduce the number of lies that can be circulated unchallenged in public discourse.' It is for this reason that to simply conclude that South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission was incomplete, inconclusive, and therefore, unsatisfying would reflect naïve and inexperienced arrogance on my part.   Indeed, South Africa is both exceptional and typical, depending on how and what one chooses to compare, as is every other country.   And so, it is with unconditional respect that I attempt to tackle the validity of criticism offered to those involved in the creation, duration and formal closure to the Commission, abstractly established in the Promotion of National Unity and Reconciliation Act in 1995 and officially embarked upon in April 1996.   Whether out of humble adulation, or in seeking to convince readers of my necessarily-objective intentions at this time, I report that the TRC and its affiliates had no intention of healing the nation for its people; its commissioners declare it a mere process and an evolved contribution to a new state, and in so doing -- providing a definitive foundation, that is, on which South Africans should heal themselves no longer as a fragmented community -- South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission formally closed its hearings on 31 July 1998 (although its amnesty hearings continued for another two years).   In an intensive effort to expose as many sides of an 'entire truth,' a most precious commodity South Africans as a whole were denied during the reign of apartheid -- and undoubtedly, though rarely acknowledged, even before then -- the Commission presided over 21,000 testimonies from those considered 'victims' (during the period between 1 March 1960 and 10 May 1994); it also examined over 7,000 applications for amnesty, nearly 4,500 of which were rejected.

But, in the end, who feels comfortable and is ready to take responsibility for ruining the projected image of a political miracle or historic fairy tale?   It is at this point that I begin to present to readers all that has made my own understanding so difficult to solidify, and it is the duty of any such reader to recognize his/her own flawed assumptions.

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For the purposes of its final report, the Commission attempted to provide a clearer, better-developed definition for one of its [ironically] most significant -- and yet, most contentious -- aims:

  • factual or forensic truth :   established as a legal and scientific notion of presenting corroborated evidence obtained through impartial and objective procedures
  • personal or narrative truth : based on a culmination of individuals' subjective stories to provide a multilayered set of experiences
  • social or dialogue truth : constructed through the debate and discussion of facts on a collective level
  • healing and restorative truth : places established facts 'in context' in an attempt to acknowledge individual experiences

Apartheid and the State

In the application of the policy of apartheid, the state in the period 1960-1990 sought to protect the power and privilege of a racial minority. Racism therefore constituted the motivating core of the South African political order, an attitude largely endorsed by the investment and other policies of South Africa's major trading partners in this period. A consequence of this racism was that white citizens in general adopted a dehumanising position towards black citizens, to the point where the ruling order and the state ceased to regard them as fellow citizens and largely labeled them as the enemy. This created a climate in which gross atrocities committed against them were seen as legitimate.

Liberation Movement[s]

Although it was widely maintained throughout ANC official policy that civilian life should not be targeted in the movement to undermine the institutionalized oppressive policies and activities of an apartheid government -- and certainly against those who actively sought to benefit from such a cleverly-calculated, and consequently, impactfully detrimental system -- certain [armed] wings of the African National Congress disregarded the peaceful tactics undertaken by their leaders in order to sooner reap the benefits of their work; they were neither naïve nor was their logic unreasonable in seeking to accelerate the struggle to a point at which their grievances would be seriously considered.   Nevertheless, in a questionable attempt to promote impartiality -- and purportedly intending to present a credible contribution to holistic healing and long-overdue/proper nation-building -- the Truth and Reconciliation Commission insisted that the African National Congress, among other organized liberation movements, would be held liable for gross violations of human rights.   Apla, the armed wing of the Pan-African Congress, for example, would not be excused, as it targeted white civilians and black leaders who were loyal to the government: although both groups, in some form whether or not intentional, were beneficiaries of an apartheid state, a more politically-sound one cannot develop on the basis of vengeful inconsistencies as standard.   However, as was appropriate, the Commission did recognize the legitimate role of the collective liberation movement struggle in bringing about the formal decline of apartheid.

Big Business

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission Report responsibly steps outside of the confines of abstract notions -- such as truth, justice, reconciliation and healing: concepts often found unsatisfying when presumptuously assigned to inappropriate contexts, or similarly problematic, to none at all -- to propose a series of taxes on business corporations; the TRC report also advocates for the implementation of a wealth tax and a one-off levy on personal and corporate income.   (For those readers who appreciate further detail, it is also suggested that each company on the Johannesburg Stock Exchange provide a once-off donation of one percent of its market capitalization and a retrospective surcharge on its corporate profits extending back to a suggested date .)   In doing so, the Commission seeks to offset apartheid's legacy of poverty, and subsequently, steps up to initiate as a recognizable institution some form of responsibility for ongoing issues on the part of the state.


In its assessment of the roles played by the mainstream English-language media and Afrikaans media during the reign of apartheid (as an explicitly and shamelessly official governing force), the Final Report distinguishes between the acquiescent nature of the former and the latter's more direct participation in perpetuating hate ideology, and naturally, supporting the activities that follow.   The Afrikaans media model may have sustained a worse reputation, as it is believed to have provided a clearer, more directly-influential role in promoting that which would be regarded as 'gross human rights violations'; however, according to the Commission, which theoretically pursues the entire truth for the purposes of cementing a shared, common understanding of what really occurred during the brute age of apartheid and how it affected the nation's entire population, both media models are considered culpable of "racism that pervaded most of white society."

P.W. Botha

In all honesty, one must -- by whom I mean any of my readers -- find it quite surprising, or rather, disorienting, to encounter a former President among such a telling list of [national] guilty parties: just as the history that led South Africa to the guilt under which many of its citizens find themselves today is not ordinary, the great extent to which each element of South African society needs to be thoroughly cared for, each for different reasons, is too overwhelming for some. [Many of those who find the path to progress too exactly that -- too arduous or abstract -- tend not to be South Africans themselves.   The Truth and Reconciliation is one simply one contribution to the ongoing movement.]   And again, South Africa's story is not an easy one to gloss over: ten years later, there are, understandably, still many truths that need to be revealed about its people before colonialism prepared them for apartheid and even after the institution of apartheid was invalidated as an appropriate model.   But in the case of South Africa (or in any other context, for that matter), it is not helpful to be left feeling powerless and disabled by disbelief upon discovery of the atrocities committed by and within all levels of one's [assigned] society, or upon admission of that which one was already cognizant has been substantiated.   President Botha was, in fact, charged with having committed gross human rights violations: in his participation and/or management in the intentional and unlawful killing (and attempted killing) of those opposed to government policies within and outside South Africa; the widespread use of torture and other severe ill treatments under his administration; and involvement in common kidnapping of those who resided outside the nation's boundaries, among other activities that could have gone unaccounted for.

Mangosuthu Buthelezi

In what will undoubtedly be considered presumptuous by some readers, I will step briefly outside of my self-assigned boundaries and contend that it is difficult to deny any form of empathy for those black liberation movement leaders whose efforts to bring an end to a firmly unjust state have been smeared with culpability since the onslaught of the Commission's work first began.   Although I am certain that I have not acquired sufficient expertise to comment on the reality of criminal and punitive standards to which each sector are held, I can, naively [though more confidently], speak of the great lengths taken to subject such leaders to the same truth-telling treatment, and thus, hold them to the same moral standard, as are white leaders of the former apartheid regime.   Irregardless of the sincerity, or lack thereof, of his motives in leading the Inkatha Freedom Party, Buthelezi has been held accountable for the extensive violence committed by IFP members.   Not only was Buthelezi involved in the systematic pattern of murder and attacks against the party's opponents, but his organization collaborated with the South African state security forces; this particular group is particularly notorious, however, because its supporters caused the deaths of nearly 3,800 people in KwaZulu-Natal province alone, as compared to about 1,100 deaths caused by ANC supporters.

Winnie Madikizela-Mandela

The once-beloved former wife of Nelson Mandela, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela found herself among the TRC's list of liable individuals and parties because of her association with the controversial Mandela United Football Club (MUFC): she is held 'politically and morally accountable' for human rights violations, as she is believed to have been aware of the Club's evolution into a vigilante unit and its subsequent criminal activities -- which included killing, torture, assaults and arson -- and yet, did not address such issues as a leader, in addition, to having committed some violations herself.

Persecuting Offenders

In the event that sufficient evidence has been presented and validated in proving that an individual has committed a human rights violation -- and amnesty has not been sought or has been denied -- prosecution will be pursued.   Fortunately, in the spirit of thorough investigation and establishing credibility for one of the earliest influential post-apartheid institutions, or at least, highly-publicized processes initiated by new government, the Commission sought to address less conspicuous, though impactful details: it was decided early on that any evidence gathered by the Commission during its hearings would be made available to prosecutors; commissioners recognized the need to pay particular attention to the cases of any civil servant accused of human rights violation ; blanket amnesty was dismissed as an option for members of either side of the liberation struggle   who were accused of gross human rights violations, as the Commission believed it important to avoid a culture of impunity and reckless, partial and unreliable rule of law.   Rather than repeat fundamental mistakes of past truth commissions by allowing for blanket amnesty, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission maintained that a 'perpetrator' could only be granted amnesty if that individual provided a full disclosure of the relevant story or event and that involvement was politically-oriented; contrary to popular belief, an accused individual was not compelled to show remorse in order to receive a grant of amnesty.  

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It is after she has returned to her Kalk Bay home to watch the televised funeral of Afrikaans anti-apartheid activist, Beyers Naude, that I am finally able to informally interview Kay McCormick over the phone.   She has given me permission to pick her brain, not on her renowned expertise in socio-linguistics, but on her unrehearsed insights on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.   I cannot claim to have fully understood myself, at the point at which I called her, why such a seemingly-noble project has undergone such extensive criticism from clever analysts: at first glance, it seems that the TRC had not yet secured for itself a definitive respect in the minds of domestic and foreign intellectuals, but as I came to remember by the end of our conversation, the plot is much thicker than that.

Partial Criticism

As such, the roots of violent criminality cannot be dissociated   from either the dehumanization of groups in the apartheid era, or from 'the impact which politically-motivated amnesties may have on the credibility' of the South African criminal justice  system.

 No serious examination was made of the system that gave rise to some of the most horrific, racist social engineering of modern times.   Instead, there was a concentration on a proportion of the individual victims who came forward and on their immediatetorturers, killers and persecutors.


Michael Ignatieff

"Toward a Class Compromise in South Africa's 'Double Transition': Bargained Liberalization and the Consolidation of Democracy," Politics and Society . September 1999

Elizabeth Stanley, "Evaluating the Truth and Reconciliation Commission." Journal of Modern African Studies (September 2001)

BBC news article

BBC news article

BBC news article

BBC news article

Elizabeth Stanley, "Evaluating the Truth and Reconciliation Commission." Journal of Modern African Studies (September 2001)

Terry Bell [and Dumisa Buhle Ntsebeza], Unfinished Business: South Africa, Apartheid and Truth . RedWorks: Cape Town, South Africa, 2001. p.3