This week marks twenty years since the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) presented its final report. The TRC began formal hearings on the 15th April 1996,  receiving submissions for amnesty from ordinary citizens, members of the police, former members of government, as well as ANC comrades. Out of 7112 petitioners*, 5392 people were refused amnesty, with only 849 people being granted amnesty. The report, which was published on the 28th October 1998, condemned both sides for committing atrocities.

Members of the TRC, including Dr Alex Boraine, Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Rev Bongani Finca at the commission's first hearing, April 1996, East London
Members of the TRC, including Dr Alex Boraine, Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Rev Bongani Finca at the commission’s first hearing, April 1996, East London

The TRC had a number of high profile members, with Archbishop Desmond Tutu chairing the commission and Dr Alex Boraine sitting as the deputy chairperson. Advocate Dumisa Ntsebeza, who was appointed as the head of investigations, recently took part in an SAFM talkshow entitled The TRC Report – 20 years on – has justice been served?

Below is an overview of what Advocate Ntsebeza had to say on the topic (paraphrased), along with fellow guests, Dr Marjorie Jobson and Professor Mcebisi Ndletyan.

* There were a number of other categories in addition to ‘granted’ and ‘refused’, such as ‘withdrawn’

Adv Dumisa Ntsebeza, former Commissioner of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission

We had to investigate 34 years of South Africa’s history, the years 1960 to 1994. It was an important process for the country, but it was too short a period. Some of the things were able to be explained, but obviously not everyone’s questions were answered. Some people tried to sanitise their versions, and it was the duty of the investigative unit to provide evidence that would say, “yes you are seeking amnesty, but you are not disclosing all of the crimes in relation to the application for which you are seeking amnesty”.

Pik Botha, former South African foreign minister, listens to questions from members of the TRC
Pik Botha, former South African foreign minister, listens to questions from members of the TRC

The legislation provided that if you wanted to receive amnesty you had to make a full disclosure. There were other requirements too, but the main one was full disclosure, so that there could be some reconciliation between the victims and the people who perpetrated the crimes.

The flip side of amnesty is holding those people who weren’t granted amnesty accountable, but no one’s been prosecuted. This is down to a lack of political will. We have affidavits from members of the NPA where they state that they were explicitly told not to pursue cases coming from the TRC.

What I always say is – the question is being asked, “Did it achieve anything?” – I can only say one thing, and that is we now know more facts than we would have known but for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.”

Dr Marjorie Jobson, Executive Director of Khulumani Support Group

The TRC was an incredibly important start to a journey that we have not yet finished. There were many people wounded by the struggle, and many of these wounds have not yet healed. There need to be follow on processes from the TRC in order to transform communities.

Why didn’t the ANC push harder for reparations to be made? There were severe suspicions about a black government, and in order to prove themselves the ANC paid off the debt of the apartheid government, with money that should ideally have been used for reparations. But things are looking more positive: we are in regular meetings with the Department of Justice – there are still government funds set aside for restitution – and the experience that we’ve gained in the past twenty years can now be used to show what really works in terms of restoring people’s dignity. We’re encouraged by the shift we’re seeing in government, and the discussions that took place at the recently held Restitution Conference. 

Audience members at the TRC hearing in Port Elizabeth
Audience members at the TRC hearing in Port Elizabeth

There exists a desperate need for restitution – not charity, but help to shape a shared future. The role that community activists played has not been properly acknowledged – the Mass Democratic Movement was probably the largest non-violent movement globally. We’re on the right road, but our journey is far from over.

Professor Mcebisi Ndletyana, Professor of Politics at the University of Johannesburg

Whether the TRC was necessary at the time, and what has happened in the subsequent 20 years in terms of the TRC’s recommendations, are two separate questions.

Yes, it was very necessary to have that national conversation. We needed to lift the veil of secrecy, to know what happened, and to hold people accountable. But people didn’t want to account for their actions, so the fact that it took place was a victory. The TRC allowed for a moment of closure; to reset the conversation. It was a great opportunity for a new beginning.

Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu breaks down during hearings of the TRC in 1997
Archbishop Desmond Tutu breaks down during hearings of the TRC, 1997

The black community had to forgive – a lot of pain was inflicted, entire communities were relocated. The TRC meant that black people would not seek vengeance. They had to forgive, and in exchange for that forgiveness they would have a working country, with the idea that there would be some reparation to follow. This expectation of justice that never happened has created a sense of grievance.

What went wrong?  The ANC was of the view that everyone was a victim of apartheid, and that more substantive reparation would be social justice implemented at a much higher level. The Constitution was able to infer some of the mechanisms that would be used to implement processes of redress, but nothing was implemented – 20 years down the line we’re now talking about land redistribution.

But if restitution had been pushed in a more radical way, what would the implications have been for reconciliation? Even now it remains a delicate subject. Some people believed that Mandela was focussing too much on reconciliation, making it difficult for Thabo Mbeki to push  for reconstruction in a more substantive way. On the other side of things Tony Leon, the leader of the Democratic Party, the vanguard of white interests, believed that the TRC was a way of seeking vengeance against the white community. So on the one hand you have resistance from the white minority, and on the other hand ambivalence from the ruling party who were uncertain of the implications of pushing for more radical restitution – a stalemate.

The Truth and Reconciliation hearings were broadcast on SABC, and are available for viewing via YouTube.

Images courtesy of and

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