After the TRC: Reflections on Truth and Reconciliation in South Africa

Summary of

After the TRC: Reflections on Truth and Reconciliation in South Africa

By Wilmot James and Linda van de Vijer

Summary written by Conflict Research Consortium Staff

Citation: James, Wilmot, and Linda van de Vijver, eds. 2001. After the TRC: Reflections on Truth and Reconciliation in South Africa. Athens: Ohio University Press.This Book Summary written by: Conflict Research Consortium Staff

The book is based on a conference held in Cape Town in August 1999. Looking back at South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), this collection has two primary goals. First, it aims to provide an assessment of the TRC experience. Second, it asks the prospective question of where does South Africa go from here.

The first section of the book considers the TRC in historical and comparative perspective. Colin Bundy put the evolution of the TRC idea in the context of South Africa's apartheid history and explores the role the TRC has had in (re)writing that history. He finds that the TRC's final report contains a fragmented history, which is a reflection of the contradictions in its mandate. What is more, it serves to separate the apartheid era from the prior history of conquest and colonization. Charles Villa-Vicencio looks more directly at the nature of the history produced. He takes issue with many who have criticized the quality of the history produced by the TRC and fleshes out the constraints it faced. Heribert Adam and Kanya Adam compare South Africa's experience of dealing with a legacy of human rights abuses with that of a number of other countries. They explore the relative merits of different mechanisms such as trials, reparations, and lustration in addition to truth commissions.

Part two provides preliminary judgement as to whether the TRC fulfilled the objectives of uncovering truth and fostering reconciliation. Kaizer Nyatsumba believes the TRC helped in uncovering the truth, which can be therapeutic, but society remains very divided. Frederik Van Zyl Slabbert favors trials as a means to uncover truth. In his view, the TRC could not realize the important step of forcing perpetrators to admit their guilt. Mahmood Mamdani argues that the TRC has effectively releaved whites of responsibility for the harm inflicted by apartheid. In fact, the TRC focused on a small minority of South Africans: perpetrators and political activists. Alex Boraine cautions that those who criticize the TRC for not producing reconciliation are harboring unrealistic expectations. At best, the TRC laid the foundation for future reconciliation.

Others in the collection consider the 'unfinished business' of the TRC. Mary Burton provides an overview of outstanding issues. At the time of writing, the TRC's Amnesty Committee was still hearing applications. What is more, the government was passing up opportunities to act upon recommendations related to reparations and constructing an archive of the TRC's work. Linda van de Vijver explores the moral and legal aspects of the TRC's provisional amnesty. Rasool, Witz, and Minkley focus on symbolic reparations and chronicle how civil society has sought to fill the gap left by government inaction.

The fourth section reflects on the tasks remaining to build a new national moral character. Njabulo Ndebele explores the values of responsibility, accountability and fairness. The TRC contributed to keeping the country together, but it remains to be seen what is in the long-term. Richard Goldstone emphasizes the importance of the rule of law and the TRC has helped South Africans to realize what society is like where it is absent. Willem Heath argues for the importance of fighting the continued problem of corruption. While the TRC has begun the effort of building a moral culture, John de Gruchy suggests what must be done in the future. Society needs to grapple with the question of whether supporting apartheid and the fight against it were morally equivalent. Mamphela Ramphele reminds of the need for continued vigilance by both government and civil society to ensure the gains of the TRC are sustained and built upon in the face of rising crime.

Finally, a number of participants consider the challenges facing South Africa. Francis Wilson describes the dramatic economic inequality still present in South Africa. Grace Naledi Pandor examines the educational system, outlining the legacy of apartheid and the policy changes necessary. Jeffrey Lever and Wilmot James disentangle the relationship between race, inequality, and democracy in South Africa.