Truth Commissions and Reconciliation: The Example of South Africa

By Theresa Bachmann (M.A. Peace and Conflict Studies)


Post-conflict societies face significant challenges. Looking backwards, a difficult past characterised by gross human rights violations and mass atrocities needs to be settled. Forward-looking, becoming a peaceful society requires profound social and political transformation. In view of stark internal fragmentation, the way a society comes to terms with its history deeply affects transition towards democracy (Teitel, 2000; Minow, 1998; Villa-Vicencio and Verwoerd, 2000; Fischer, 2011; Clark, 2013; Bloomfield, Barnes and Huyse, 2008; Reta, 2017).

The concept of transitional justice emerged in response to these challenges. Nowadays, it is widely promoted ‘on the basis that dealing with the past is critical to securing the future’ (Clark, 2013, 215; Lederach, 1997, 27). The UN (2004, 4) define it as ‘the full range of processes and mechanisms associated with a society’s attempt to come to terms with a legacy of large-scale past abuses’. Above all the Nuremberg trials after World War II were retrospectively perceived as an important benchmark (Mamdani, 2015, 61). However, alternatives to criminal prosecution can also be pursued: Since 1973, truth commissions sprung up all over the world. Only recently, Colombia’s truth commission initiated its work (Torrado, 2018).

Heavily influenced by the South African TRC (Teitel, 2014, 56), truth commissions have often been employed with the aim of fostering reconciliation. Nonetheless, it is controversial whether they can meet such far-reaching ambitions. In South Africa, ongoing systematic inequality threatens for example to undermine reconciliation and the creation of the South African ‘rainbow nation’ as envisioned by Mandela and Tutu (1999). Therefore, this essay seeks to discuss the link between truth commissions and reconciliation, theoretically embedded within the wider transitional justice and conflict transformation field. Additionally, it contrasts opposing views of the TRC’s contribution to reconciliation, complemented by a critique of Gibson’s (2004; 2006) studies that attempt to empirically investigate the link between the TRC and reconciliation.

Although specific transitional contexts inform differing choices from country to country, the article takes the stance that both, peace and justice, are indispensable for post-conflict societies. Correspondingly, it is necessary to move beyond the traditional peace vs justice dichotomy in the pursuit of a holistic approach that enables real reconciliation. To advance this argument, the first section introduces transitional justice and especially truth commissions in view of the much-contested peace vs justice debate. Subsequently, reconciliation as a means to overcome this sharp distinction is explored. The third chapter examines more closely the approach of the South African TRC to reconciliation and Gibson’s empirical research on the matter. Finally, the conclusion summarises the main arguments.

Transitional Justice and Truth Commissions

Transitional justice seeks to achieve a variety of goals, including truth, justice, peace, reparation and reconciliation (Bloomfield, Barnes and Huyse, 2008, 11). However, controversy persists over which aim should be prioritised in the transition period since they may not be achieved simultaneously (Clark, 2013, 216). These considerations constitute the foundation of the peace vs justice dichotomy around which the academic discussion on transitional justice has largely evolved (Biggar, 2001; Fischer, 2011). Within the legalist approach, criminal prosecution as a means to achieve justice is prioritised. The increasing though disputed creation of international war tribunals responds to this rationality (Mak, 1995; Meron, 1993; Bloomfield, Barnes and Huyse, 2008). The choice for retribution is assumed to support peacebuilding and to impede future human rights violations, while avoiding impunity (Minow, 1998; Bell, 2000).

Opponents uphold the shortcomings of the legalist approach and question its effectiveness. Especially international war tribunals have been widely criticised as a purely political tool (Ramsbotham, Woodhouse and Miall, 2016, 296; Hayner, 2000; Fischer, 2011, 409). Scholars in this line of debate therefore reject the focus on perpetrators and call for greater attention on the victims. Practical pitfalls, such as the lack of evidence, may further undermine the impact of judicial processes, reinforce political instability and obstruct the shift to democracy in the worst case. Tutu (1999) also points to the possible incompatibility with differing legal cultures across societies. Additionally, the identification of individual guilt does not touch upon underlying structural causes of conflict (Bloomfield, Barnes and Huyse, 2008, 4).

For these reasons, alternatives to trials have been explored. Prior to the 1980s, amnesties were often promoted for instance. In view of the impunity and the danger of enhancing forgetting, they are nonetheless heavily contested (Pankhurst, 1999, 242). Alternatively, truth commissions represent a ‘third way’ between tribunals and national amnesia (Tutu, 1999). Usually, they engage in taking testimonies of perpetrators and victims to produce an account of past human rights violations. The shared memory created in this process is referred to as macro-truth (Chapman and Ball, 2008, 12). Rather than punishing individuals, the overall aim is to find out what has happened and foster healing by providing forums for truth-telling (Shaw, 2005, 2; Mawhinney, 2015, 21). Dialogue, citizen ownership and participation are key in this regard. Moreover, the public acknowledgement of gross human right violations is said to prevent future atrocities and therefore contribute to peace. Promoting a form of accountability that avoids impunity, it still gives victims a sense of justice (Tutu, 1999; Bloomfield, Barnes and Huyse, 2008; Rotberg, 2000; Reta, 2017).

The goal of enabling peace and justice through truth commissions ultimately questions the sharp distinction initially made between them. In line with other authors (Clark, 2013, 3; Boraine, 2006), Ramsbotham, Woodhouse and Miall (2016, 292) argue for instance that justice is an essential prerequisite for conflict transformation towards positive peace. Similarly, the concept of justice is much broader than purely criminal justice. Influenced by conflict transformation theory, recent research also stresses the importance of socio-economic and traditional justice. Altogether, the multidimensionality inherent in peace and justice clearly indicates the need for a holistic approach that tackles different levels and groups (Teitel, 2000; Boraine, 2006; Bloomfield, Barnes and Huyse, 2008). Therefore, a variety of combinations of truth commissions, war tribunals, reparations, etc. can and should be pursued, although the contextual setting ultimately determines country-specific choices.

Reconciliation in post-conflict societies

This call for a holism is closely related to the concept of reconciliation. For numerous scholars (Rigby, 2011; Lederach, 1995; Bar-On, 2007; Kriesberg, 2007; Bloomfield, Barnes and Huyse, 2003; Biggar, 2001; Kymlicka and Bashir, 2008), ‘reconciliation constitutes the heart of deep peace-making and cultural peacebuilding’ (Ramsbotham, Woodhouse and Miall, 2016, 286). Ultimately, reconciliation can be perceived as overall goal of transitional justice and conflict transformation (Ramsbotham, Woodhouse and Miall, 2016, 286).

Through the process of reconciliation, relationships between individuals, groups, and societies are built, broken relationships restored, and violence and polarisation overcome (Pankhurst, 1999, 240; Ramsbotham, Woodhouse and Miall, 2016, 286). Reconciliation entails multiple dimensions and occurs ‘at the individual, interpersonal, socio-political and institutional levels’ (Seils, 2017, 1). Tutu (1999) refers to a final stage of reconciliation as reconciliation of a whole nation. Facing the legacy of decades-long promoted apartheid, such kind of ‘national reconciliation’ is in the South African case usually linked to patterns of interracial relations for example (Krog, 1998; Hamber and van der Merwe, 1998; Gibson, 2004; Gready, 2011).

Reconciliation has often been discussed in terms of acknowledgement, contrition, and forgiveness. The inherent Christian notion has been especially predominant in the approach of South Africa’s TRC, greatly influenced by Archbishop Tutu (Gready, 2011, 159). However, some scholars have rejected the overemphasis on religious aspects and the suggested link between forgiveness and reconciliation (Bar-On, 2007; Minow, 1998). Adopting a conflict transformation perspective, it is argued that reconciliation should rather focus on trust-building and the overcoming of power asymmetries (Kriesberg, 2007, 254). Yet, there exists consensus on the overarching nature of reconciliation, being process and outcome alike (Gready, 2011, 156).

Meanwhile, the link between truth and reconciliation is subject to heated debate. Truth in transitional contexts typically refers to the search of what happened in the past on a macro and micro level, the latter being related to individual destinies (Chapman and Ball, 2008, 144). Perpetrators and victims are defined, as well as the circumstances under which human right abuses occurred. South Africa’s search for macro-truth involved the question of whether apartheid had been a crime against humanity for example (Gibson, 2006, 89). Nevertheless, it is contested whether truth should be conceptualised as an integral part of reconciliation. Proponents argue that the exposure to truth enables the sharing of responsibility and blame, thereby providing the basis for the dialogue that is essential to reconciliation (Kritz, 1995; Mendeloff, 2004; Hayner, 2000; Pankhurst, 1999). Opponents see no evidence or relate truth to irreconciliation, given that the uncovering of mass atrocities can reawaken memories and antagonisms that reinforce conflict (Gibson, 2006; Brouneus, 2008; de Kock, 1998). Empirically complementing these considerations, the subsequent analysis therefore focuses on the link between truth and reconciliation, examining more closely the South African TRC.

South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission

South Africa’s TRC was created in 1995 (Graybill, 2004, 1117), based on the hypothesis that knowledge and understanding of the past would trigger peace and reconciliation (TRC, 1998; Tutu, 1999; Gibson, 2004; Villa-Vicencio and Verwoerd, 2000; van Zyl, 1999; Rotberg, 2000). Because of the paramount importance assigned to truth-finding, the TRC exchanged ‘amnesty for truth about apartheid crimes’ (Clark, 2013, 216). Moreover, the Final Report aimed at creating an official truth and a shared collective memory of the apartheid era.

Supporters of the TRC highlight its great success and point to other truth commissions’ attempts to replicate it elsewhere. The TRC’s proceedings were communicated as widely as possible for instance. Thereby increasing and promoting participation of South African citizens, the openness and transparency of the TRC process attracted huge public attention and strengthened its legitimacy (Gready, 2011, 69). Moreover, it gave people a voice and included 20,000 individual testimonies in its Final Report (TRC, 1998). Several scholars (Graybill, 2004; Gibson, 2004; Villa-Vicencio and Verwoerd, 2000) therefore argue that the TRC process acted as vehicle for peaceful interracial co-existence, fostering healing and reconciliation.

This final argument has been heavily contested (Gibson, 2004; Chapman and van der Merwe, 2008). Two opposite lines of criticism question the utility of the TRC for reconciliation purposes per se. On the one hand, those who argue that the country should not look back, as it faces the risk of exacerbating racial tensions and embittering people, reducing their willingness to peacefully coexist in the future (Gibson, 2006, 84). On the other hand, those who favour legal prosecution to punish human rights violations (Minow, 1998; Gutman and Thompson, 2000). Furthermore, sceptics highlight the limited impact of truth commissions due to political constraints. Since they can only give recommendations, the implementation depends on the will of the respective governments (Teitel, 2000, 53). The controversial reparations programme strengthens the relevance of this argument in the South African context: Criticised for being delayed and insufficient, it is generally perceived as failure of South Africa’s governments (Pradier, Rubin and van der Merwe, 2018, 302).

Additionally, overloading with a wide range of tasks (Chapman and van der Merwe, 2008) and characteristics of the TRC itself have been pointed out to question the TRC’s contribution to reconciliation. Although no blanket amnesty was awarded, the ‘justice deficit’ resulting from the granting of amnesty was seen as major obstruction of reconciliation (Gready, 2011; Minow, 1998; Ramsbotham, Woodhouse and Miall, 2016; Gibson, 2006). Furthermore, sceptics query a stronger emphasis on systematic, massive inequality as outcome of apartheid could have enhanced reconciliation more effectively. This corresponds with the claim that restitution was largely ignored (Pradier, Rubin and van der Merwe, 2018; Bowers du Toit and Nkomo, 2014). Moreover, the TRC got into critique for being elitist and dominated by actors without linkages to grassroots cultures. Only a small proportion of participants could give their testimony in public and no direct encounters between victims and perpetrators took place (Graybill, 2004, 1119). Besides, ‘real healing takes time and hard work, not just the [one-time] expression of painful memories’ (Hayes, 1998, 47).

Despite ongoing heated debate, there has been surprisingly little empirical research on the correlation between reconciliation and the TRC. Focusing on the national level, Gibson’s (2004; 2006) studies are so far the only empirical investigations available. His findings suggest that the link between truth and reconciliation is neutral for black South Africans, whereas it is positive and statistically relevant for all other groups. Hence, the TRC process contributed at least to some degree to reconciliation in South Africa according to Gibson.

Still, methodological and definitional shortcomings in Gibson’s studies seriously limit their validity and call for further complementary research. First, the findings operationalise reconciliation very simplistically, ultimately failing to grasp the wide range of possible meanings of reconciliation. The criteria employed by Gibson (2006, 88) to qualify South Africa as reconciled are the avoidance of racial stereotypes, tolerance towards politics opponents, a belief in the universal application of human rights, and the recognition of the legitimacy of South Africa’s democratised political institutions. Hence, it completely ignores the individual and interpersonal dimensions of reconciliation. While this can be justified with the need to narrow the scope of the empirical investigation, the claim to account for the ‘broader socio-political aspects of reconciliation of all South Africans’ (Ibid., 87) is not fulfilled, since it entirely misses the importance of distributive justice. Because of the systematic reinforcement of inequality through apartheid policies, scholars increasingly consider reconciliation incomplete if no greater attention is paid to social and economic justice (Villa-Vicencio and Verwoerd, 2000; Miller, 2008; de Gruchy, 2002; Bowers du Toit and Nkomo, 2014). However, more than twenty years after the end of apartheid, no socio-economic transformation has occurred on a broad scale. Educational, institutional and systemic advantages for whites are still widespread (Bowers du Toit and Nkomo, 2014) and the poverty gap between rich and poor South Africans is even widening (Pradier, Rubin and van der Merwe, 2018). As such, the explanatory power of Gibson’s research is significantly limited. Furthermore, the reconciliation process is by no means enclosed. Thus, these findings are still subject to change and require more comprehensive analysis.


Dealing with the past is essential to take steps towards a shared future. The path, a country takes, nonetheless varies. Truth commissions have often been described as ‘third way’ between Nuremberg and national amnesia, as means to foster healing and reconciliation. In this sense, few countries have their past as directly confronted as South Africa (Gibson, 2006, 82). However, the TRC also highlights challenges and dilemmas that emerge in the aftermath of violent conflict. Correspondingly, it remains contested whether the TRC contributed to reconciliation. Gibson’s (2004; 2006) findings suggest an overall limited but positive correlation, even though the analysis has identified serious weaknesses of his approach.

Reconciliation is a long-term process. Despite the TRC’s severe limitations, what has been achieved so far, can therefore altogether be considered a great success in view of apartheid’s systematic violence and inequality and the imminent fear of civil war in the 1990s (Graybill, 2004, 1120; Gibson, 2006, 93). It is evident that post-conflict societies need peace and justice, with reconciliation being an overall long-term goal that unifies both. However, success can only be achieved with a truly holistic approach. The specific transitional context is thereby imperative to determine the individual combination of truth commissions, reparations, trials, and other measures a post-conflict society adopts in the end. After all, the powerful argument Desmond Tutu advanced in his Nobel Prize speech remains valid: ‘There is no peace in Southern Africa. There is no peace because there is no justice’ (Nobel Prize, 1984).



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