In dozens of stories about Nelson Mandela after his death few mentioned his greatest achievement – the creation of a South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission which was part of the new country’s Constitution.
Its negotiators were former enemies. The African National Congress (ANC), which took power in 1994, wanted “justice.” That would probably have taken the form of prosecutions, prison and reparations. The former apartheid government wanted collective amnesty for its crimes. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) became the innovative means to respond to both needs.
There was more strife and killing from 1990 when Mandela was released from prison – and 1994 when he was elected president – than in three decades of apartheid. The great fear was that racial tensions could explode into a civil war resulting in tens of thousands of deaths. Thus, TRC’s mission was of supreme importance.
Here is how the Constitution described the need for the Commission: “The Constitution provides a historic bridge between the past of a deeply divided society characterized by strife, conflict, untold suffering and injustice, and a future founded on the recognition of human rights, democracy and peaceful co-existence and development opportunities for all South Africans, irrespective of colour, race, class belief or sex…There is a need for understanding but not for vengeance, a need for reparation but not for retaliation.”
Significantly, the TRC was chaired by Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who led the Anglican Church at the time – and was a widely respected black leader. The vice chair was Dr. Alex Boraine, a former opposition member of Parliament.
At the heart of the TRC was the unique willingness by the government to grant amnesty to those in or hired by the apartheid government to kill opponents, in exchange for their telling the truth of what happened. Its sessions were open to the public and widely covered by the media, the results of which were published in five volumes.
The years of negotiation between the ANC and the apartheid government resulted in a compromise that amnesty would be granted only to individuals, and only after they applied for it. The longing for justice that fueled the liberation movement resulted in victims’ hearings, in which individuals could testify about their pain and suffering, or that of relatives and friends.
Their testimony was so moving that Archbishop Tutu wept openly, laying his head down on his arms. At one hearing in Port Elizabeth, the widows of political organizers or their bereaved mothers simply wanted to know why their Movement had given up on their right to justice. I heard three women testify in a video archive that can be seen online. Some 22,000 people testified or submitted statements.
One failure of the process was that top political leaders, such as F.W. deKlerk, the last white prime minister, did not apply for amnesty. Only the small fry came forward, those who got caught, and feared they would be made to answer for their actions. But 7,500 applied, and 1,500 were granted amnesty for thousands of crimes.
Did the Truth and Reconciliation Commission spark much truth and reconciliation? Here are some answers by Gillian Slovo, whose mother was assassinated by a parcel bomb sent to her in Mozambique by the South African Security Forces. Her father, Joe Slovo, helped to create the Commission “which would permit her assassin to go free.”
The victims’ hearings “did undoubtedly bring a sense of relief, at least to some of its participants. People were given the chance to be heard in public. They spoke of the years they had borne their pain and their grief in isolation and in silence, and of their need to let their country know what it was that they, and their loved ones, had endured.”
Some told Ms. Slovo that in hearing the testimony on radio while they were driving, they “were so affected by what they heard that they had to stop their cars and vomit.” Others simply turned off their radios or TVs. “I do not doubt that the drip, drip, drip of the TRC was powerful, the fact that apartheid’s thin veneer of civilization was gradually being peeled away.”
A vivid history of South Africa was recorded “so that future generations could never say, as some have managed to do so about the Holocaust: oh no – it didn’t really happen.”
The most important result is that Truth and Reconciliation Commissions have emerged as an international norm in 20+ countries as Kenya, Sri Lanka, Canada and even in Maine where a TRC is looking into how Indian children were taken from their homes and given to white parents.
Mandala’s legacy lives on.