What is the Truth and Reconciliation Commission?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) was established in South Africa after the end of Apartheid to help the nation transition to a state of full democracy. It was also intended to uncover the truth about what happened in South Africa during the era, as the name implies, and to begin to heal the breach between black and white South Africans. Several other nations have used it as a model for commissions of their own after periods of war and violence.

The flag of the Republic of South Africa, adopted in 1994.
The flag of the Republic of South Africa, adopted in 1994.

The mandate for the commission was spelled out in the Promotion of National Unity and Reconciliation Act, Number 34, in 1995. The act spelled out a need for a commission to hold hearings for both victims and perpetrators of Apartheid violence in South Africa in the hopes of helping the nation heal from the events of Apartheid. Many prominent South Africans, including Desmond Tutu, were appointed to the commission, which published a final report in 1998.

The nation of South Africa is located at the southern tip of the African continent.
The nation of South Africa is located at the southern tip of the African continent.

There were three committees on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The first concerned itself with human rights violations, hearing testimony from victims of such violations. The second dealt with reparation and rehabilitation, helping both sides rebuild their lives and mandating reparation payments where appropriate. The third committee had the power to grant amnesty to people who testified in full about their actions during Apartheid.

Although the commission was based in Cape Town, it traveled around South Africa for various public hearings, ensuring that everyone who wanted to speak would have a say. The TRC compiled extensive records as it heard testimony, which were incorporated in the eagerly anticipated final report. This report is still publicly available, for those who want to read through it, and a number of commentaries have been published as well.

Some people felt that the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was not an effective way of dealing with the events of Apartheid because it focused on amnesty and reconciliation, rather than punishment for past crimes. Several notorious criminals received amnesty from the TRC through their testimony, and many black Africans felt that this was unfair. Others felt that the commission was a strong model for national rebuilding because of its focus, contrasting it with the Nuremberg trials, which were slanted towards punishment of wrongdoers rather than uncovering the truth of what happened.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments


@KaBoom - I disagree. I think they should have punished the people who committed crimes during Apartheid. Imagine if a murderer could get out their jail sentence by simply telling the truth about their crime? That doesn't sound very reasonable, does it?

I mean, the idea of rebuilding and moving on sounds great and all. Very nice and touchy-feely. But that doesn't change the fact that crimes were committed. Imagine if you were a victim of one of those crimes. I think I would want the criminals punished for sure.


You know, I can definitely understand the need for revenge. I know that a lot of South Africans committed terrible crimes during the Apartheid era. However, I think the Truth and Reconciliation Commission did the right thing when they decided not to take revenge on the wrongdoers.

Revenge is great if all you want is revenge. However, South Africans wanted to rebuild their country. I think they chose correctly when they decided to focus on reconciliation.

Also, I think it's really great they decided to find out the truth about all the events surrounding the Apartheid and then preserve the truth for future generations. Because in my opinion, punishing people only makes it harder for a nation to rebuild itself. At least if you find out the truth, you can learn from it.

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