Eye witness

November 13, 1998

Controversy and politicking accompanied the release of South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission report. The African National Congress unwisely attempted to gag the commission.

Accusations of brutality were levelled against many leaders, past and present. There have been valid criticisms of the report: among others that it lacked teeth, failed to deliver justice, alienated people and, crucially, ignored moral distinctions between actions taken for a just or unjust cause.

But such coverage has obscured profound issues regarding the role and importance of the commission to a new democracy with a diabolical past. One involves the "truth" part of the TRC and the impact of its work.

Sarah Henkeman of the Institute of Criminology at the University of Cape Town says: "The TRC received astonishingly comprehensive media coverage. Now nobody can say they don't know what happened, and that it does not affect them in some way.

"An unexpected spin-off has been those who stopped and did self-examination, made choices and now put heart and soul into rebuilding society. Within the communal values embraced by the TRC, there is a strong message of individual and collective responsibility."

Reconciliation is, of course, a far longer term project than the TRC and cannot be achieved by "external means", says Mari Fitzduff, director of INCORE, the Initiative on Conflict Resolution and Ethnicity at the University of Ulster. "Victims must themselves come to terms with what happened."

This is only possible once truth is "on the table". The political hijacking of the TRC's good work provided people who struggled for peace but have since been sidelined the chance to challenge the disengagement of political leaders from grassroots party support and civil society, she said.

Such alienation is dangerous in South Africa, whose new democracy depends on civil society and where reconciliation has become associated with continuing socio-economic and political injustice.

The justice department relies heavily on community participation to establish the rule of law and a respect for human rights, said Ms Henkeman. The report recommendations are conducive to a stable, just society and preventing human rights violations. This is important for restoring belief in justice. Despite the TRC's flaws "the public acknowledgement given (to victims) was a powerful and symbolic corrective which can only be bolstered but never replaced by the reparations to follow."


Head of the TRC Archbishop Desmond Tutu: His personal account of the TRC will be published by Random House.

Former president FW de Klerk: An accessory to gross human rights violations.

Inkatha Freedom Party leader Mangosuthu Buthelezi: Responsible for gross human rights violations and thousands of killings in KwaZulu-Natal.

Winnie Mandikizela-Mandela: Accused of assault and complicity in at least 18 murders.

South Africa's most populous province, KwaZulu-Natal, has been racked by political violence perpetrated by the security forces and supporters of the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) and African National Congress (ANC) since the mid 1980s. The TRC investigated violence in the province over 34 years and found:

* The IFP was responsible for more than 4,500 killings.

* The South African Police killed about 2,700 people.

* Around 1,300 killings can be attributed to the ANC.

The TRC also found the IFP to be responsible, among other things, for;

* Nearly half of all violations committed during the height of the civil war between 1990 to 1994.

* More than a third of all violations committed during the 34 years.

* Killings and violations associated with a paramilitary unit trained during 1986, a hit squad created in 1990, and 5,000 to 8,000 IFP self-protection unit members trained in 1993 and 1994.

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