The Truth and Reconciliation Commission

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) was closely linked to the negotiated settlement which saw South Africa move from apartheid to democracy. It was founded on the Promotion of National Unity and Reconciliation Act of 1995, which held that, in the pursuit of peace and unity, amnesty should be granted for crimes committed under apartheid.

The TRC was mandated with the investigation of gross violations of human rights, torture or extreme ill treatment, murder or its attempt and kidnapping or "disappearance" between March 1 1960 and May 11 1994.(1)

It sought to grant amnesty to perpetrators who had acted with a political objective on condition that they made full disclosure of the truth, and aimed to restore the dignity of victims by providing them with a platform to recount their sufferings.

It would recommend reparations and present a report in order to avoid the repetition of such human rights violations. The basic premise was that amnesty would lead to truth, which would then result in reconciliation and subsequently democratisation.(3) The TRC was established in December 1995 with the appointment of 17 commissioners by then-President Mandela in consultation with his Cabinet.(1) Archbishop Desmond Tutu was appointed as its chairman.(4) Significantly, this process also involved public input. The TRC was to be composed of two committees - the Amnesty Committee and the Human Rights Violations Committee.

The assessment of its achievement and the success of its work is no easy task. A large body of both criticism and praise was generated during the TRC's existence and after it closed its doors in 2002. In pure numerical terms, its achievement seems gargantuan. It received 7 700 amnesty applications - thousands more than it expected. Of these, it dealt with 7 115, granted 1 146 and rejected 5 504.(5) The Human Rights Violations Committee took more than 20 000 victims' statements.(1) It worked for six years when only two years of functioning had been expected.(6) It also succeeded in unearthing the truth of what transpired in a great number of cases.

On a qualitative level, perhaps assessment is best served by looking at the basic building blocks of amnesty, truth, reconciliation and democratisation. In terms of amnesty, while the work of the commission was profound, in some ways the process was marred by the lack of transparency, which plagued the amnesty committee.(7) It was also charged with bias on countless occasions, though perhaps the fact that such charges were levelled from all sides suggests a relative impartiality. On a logistical level, amnesty hearings descended into quasi-trials, becoming slow and expensive.(6)

In terms of truth, many have pointed to the tensions between psycho-social and legal truth. Psycho-social truth encompasses the subjective story of the victim whereas legal truth is dedicated to 'fact-finding' that has little place for the "experience" of abuse.(8) In this way, factual truth in some ways triumphed at the TRC at the expense of the more cathartic psycho-social truth. The TRC report's intended role as the document of truth also failed. It was riddled with bias and factual errors.

Factual truth in some ways triumphed at the TRC at the expense of the more cathartic psycho-social truth.

Many have argued that the focus on the stories of individual perpetrators and victims ignored the collective and systemic basis of apartheid and therefore the collective perpetration and victimisation. The truth that emerged from the TRC was therefore limited. Others argue that the definition "of gross human rights violations" was far too narrow, ignoring a range of abuses, particularly against women. Its truth was therefore a narrow one. Also, some felt the TRC failed to address central instances of human rights violations.(1)
While some startling examples of reconciliation between victims and perpetrators occurred, many have criticised the TRC for its failure to bridge the gap between truth and reconciliation. The assumption that the catharsis and reconciliation of a few would inspire a parallel process for the collective national consciousness was unrealistic. South Africa remained divided, and in some cases these divisions were intensified through the TRC's insistence on peering into the murky past of racial tensions.

While the TRC achieved much given the logistical constraints encumbering it, it was also unsuccessful in these and other areas.

Skeletons in the closet

A May 1995 cartoon by Zapiro depicts Minister of Justice Dullah Omar preparing to enter the haunted house of South Africa's murky and violent past. It shows in a very real way the central goal of the TRC - to face head on and without the denial that could so easily have taken root the skeletons of South Africa's closet so that by confronting them, the country could move forward onto a healthier democratic road.

See Zapiro's "Dullah Omar and the haunted house"

- Zapiro, Dullah Omar and the haunted house cartoon, May 23, 1995

A bridge too far

Two years later, in May 1997, another Zapiro cartoon reveals one of the failures of the TRC. It had hoped that the catharsis resulting from the revelation of truth would enable the nation to leave its old divisions behind. However, as the cartoon reveals, Tutu and his commissioners came to the end of their work only to realise that the map leading them to their destination of reconciliation was suffering from a glaring gap, and that reconciliation was still out of its reach.

See Zapiro's "Tutu and the map to reconciliation"

- Zapiro, Tutu and the map to reconciliation cartoon, May 1997



1. Hamber, B. "How should we remember? Issues to consider when establishing commissions and structures for dealing with the past". Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation, December 1998.
3. Simpson, G. "A Brief Evalution of South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission: Some lessons for societies in transition". Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation, December 1998.
4. Gobodo-Madikizela, P. A Human Being Died that Night: A South African Story of Forgiveness. New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2003. p. 79
5. Krog, A. Country of my Skull. Johannesburg: Random House, 2002 (second edition). p. 291
6. Allen, J. Rabble-Rouser for Peace: The Authorised Biography of Desmond Tutu. London: Rider Books (an imprint of Ebury Publishing, Random House), 2006. p. 369
7. Sarkin, J. Carrots and Sticks. Antwerp and Oxford: Inter Sentia, 2004. p. 17
8. Simpson, G. "A Brief Evalution of South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission: Some lessons for societies in transition". Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation, December 1998. p. 22- 24


back to the Archbishop Desmond Tutu memorial page

"It has been an incredible privilege to preside over the process of healing a traumatised and wounded people."
Archbishop Desmond Tutu
Archbishop Desmond Tutu, 1993
Picture: © The Sunday Times


In this lesson plan, learners will be offered the opportunity to think about the impact of personal testimony about apartheid-related events. They will also be asked to interpret a cartoon, and to think about the long-term effects of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC).

Lesson plan
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The truths that hurt
Contains extract from the SABC’s coverage of the TRC showing the testimony of Singqokwana Ernest Malgas and Archbishop Tutu’s emotional reaction to it.