Summary of "Truth and Reconciliation Commission; South Africa"

Summary of

Truth and Reconciliation Commission; South Africa

By the Truth and Reconciliation Commission

This Article Summary written by: Tanya Glaser, Conflict Research Consortium

Citation: "Truth and Reconciliation Commission; South Africa." Truth and Reconciliation Commission

South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission is charged with granting amnesty for political crimes, investigating past human rights violations, and offering reparations to the victims. With the negotiated end to apartheid in 1993 the new majority government faced the daunting task of addressing the political crimes of the previous era. The Truth Commission has played a key role in facilitating transitional justice, and building a more peaceful community. The Commission has also benefited from the credibility and clear moral vision of its leader, Nobel Peace Prize recipient Bishop Desmond Tutu.

Through the Amnesty Committee, the Commission offers criminal and civil amnesty to individuals in exchange for full confessions. All political crimes committed after the banning of the African National Congress are eligible for amnesty. Individuals who do not confess their crimes may still be subject to prosecution, and information from other confessions may be used in such prosecutions. The "carrot" of amnesty, combined with the "stick" of possible prosecution, has brought many political criminals forward to confess and claim amnesty.

There are practical political reasons for such broad grants of amnesty. The white minority is still economically and militarily powerful. It is very possible that the old regime would begin a new uprising rather than face prosecution for their crimes. Also, without confessions, there would not be enough evidence to effectively prosecute apartheid-era crimes. Amnesty also suits the Commission's philosophical approach to justice. Justice is achieved not by retribution, but by the restoration of community. Healing communities requires truth-telling, forgiveness, acceptance and trust.

The Human Rights Violations Committee investigates cases of amnesty-era political violence and violations of human rights. This branch of the Commission has held public meetings all across the nation, where victims of violence or human rights violations can tell their stories. The meetings have been widely televised, and covered by the other media. This public telling is intended to bring recognition to the victims, and to give the victims a sense of closure on their ordeals. This Committee's approach also reflects a sense of restorative justice.

The third branch of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission is the Reparation and Rehabilitation Committee. This Committee helps victims find needed medical or psychological treatment. It also aids victims in such matters as securing pensions, and providing an education for their children. The Committee can also recommend symbolic recognition for victims of extraordinary suffering. This could involve naming a clinic for the victim, or creating a scholarship in their name. Here again the emphasis is on truth-telling, on healing the victims' wounds and restoring their trust in the community, and on helping the victims to achieve forgiveness.