Summary of "Truth and Reconciliation in South Africa: Miracle or Model?"

Summary of

Truth and Reconciliation in South Africa: Miracle or Model?

by Lyn Graybill

Summary written by Eric Brahm, Conflict Research Consortium

Citation: Graybill, Lyn S. 2002. Truth and Reconciliation in South Africa: Miracle or Model? Boulder, Colorado: Lynne Rienner Publishers.

Graybill provides a concise primer of South Africa's truth and reconciliation process. As she puts it in the preface, she wanted to produce a volume that was both more critical than many other accounts which are mainly by 'insiders' and less abstract than much of the discussion by philosophers and international lawyers regarding the South African experience. The reader can get a sense of both the complexities of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) and the South African history uncovered. We are introduced to a range of political, philosophical, and moral debates connected to the TRC. She brings these abstract controversies alive with a number of stories that were told before the TRC. Finally, she provides profiles on the two largest figures in the transition process: Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu.

Graybill begins by providing an overview of the politics of the creation of the TRC. We learn that there was much deliberation that went into the choice of establishing a truth commission. In the midst of negotiating the end of apartheid, there were also compromises needed to keep the process on track, perhaps most significantly the National Party's desire for amnesty. An understanding of the open process of selecting commissioners also emerges. Once the TRC got started, it also operated unique from any truth commission in the past. It actually consisted of three committees running in tandem: one cataloguing human rights violations; one making decisions on the granting of amnesty; and one making decisions on reparation recommendations.

Forgiveness in these circumstances is difficult. Questions are raised as to whether remorse, something relatively rare in South Africa, is necessary for forgiveness. The TRC was permitted to grant amnesty in exchange for full disclosure of acts, not expressions of remorse. The top leadership, P.W. Botha and F.W. de Klerk in particular, refused to admit they had done anything wrong. The TRC put tremendous pressure on those coming before it to express remorse or forgiveness, but compelling such feelings is, in fact, impossible.

The amnesty provision proved to be another controversial aspect of the reconciliation process. Graybill reviews arguments made with respect to amnesty provisions. The National Party demanded it as a condition of going forward with the transition to all-race democracy. Putting amnesty in the hands of the TRC, however, did remove an element of control. Rather than a blanket amnesty, it required a full disclosure of the actions for which amnesty was being sought. Yet, many victims were dissatisfied with it and pursued ultimately unsuccessful court challenges. Equally controversial was the TRC's decision to make no distinction between actions in defense of the system and those seeking its end. In the end, few in the senior leadership of the apartheid regime came forward to seek amnesty.

Another motivation for truth commissions is that they give voice to victims. Graybill addresses this contention. Anecdotal evidence and some psychological research suggest allowing victims to tell their stories can be cathartic and empowering. Other evidence, however, points to the prospects of retraumatization and the onset of post-traumatic stress of having to relive the experience. Many contend that the TRC devoted insufficient resources to help make the outcome more likely to be the former than the latter.

Women, Graybill describes, uniquely experienced both apartheid and the TRC. Aside from being directly brutalized in different ways from men under apartheid, more black women felt the indirect economic consequences of having lost male family members. On the whole, the TRC did a poor job of drawing out the apartheid experience for women. It left underexplored more systematic abuses, which women felt more than direct brutality. When given testimony, women often did not talk about their own suffering, but of abuses perpetrated against male relatives. Cultural stigmas also inhibited women openly discussing their suffering, rape and sexual exploitation in particular.

Another important dimension is the position of bystanders. Most of white society was not directly responsible for acts of brutality, but indirectly benefited from the apartheid system. It is a unique challenge to have them confront their complicity. The TRC conducted a number of hearings that explored how different sectors (medical field, religious denominations, business, and the media) supported and benefited from the apartheid system.

The volume provides a summary of the TRC's findings and the largely negative reaction political parties had to it. This is not surprising, as many were found guilty of human rights violations. The TRC faced political pressure to alter its findings, but did not. For the general public, the black community in particular, the TRC seems likely to be judged on the reparations that follow. The paltry sums put forward by the ANC government are not a positive sign. Many victims felt used by the TRC in that they provided their stories, but did not have their needs met.

After this broad overview, Graybill considers the question of how suitable the TRC model is for other countries facing a legacy of human rights abuses. She does so largely by comparing the South African experience with that of Rwanda, which has taken a largely retributive approach to dealing with the 1993 genocide. She suggests the overtly Christian nature of the TRC would likely be problematic for multireligious societies. At the very least, religious organizations must be independent of the state so as not to be compromised by human rights abuses, as occurred in Rwanda. There are also quite brief discussions of the relative benefits to victims of retributive and restorative approaches and whether some crimes are too heinous to forgive She also weighs claims as to whether trials or truth commissions can produce 'justice' or 'reconciliation.' Finally, Graybill raises the question of whether the International Criminal Court will frown upon amnesties, which often accompany truth commissions thus jeopardizing the use of this transitional justice tool. In sum, the goal is to raise issues and arguments prevalent in transitional justice discussions rather than provide definitive answers.