Truth and Reconciliation: The South African Model

Post apartheid South Africans, through the adaptation of reconciliation processes to meet African norms, found an approach which emphasized forgiveness for the sake of peace.

In 1992, white South Africans went to the polls to vote on whether they supported continuing reform toward an end to apartheid. The racist ideology of apartheid legally separated white South Africans from South Africans of color, resulting in forced evictions, land dispossession, imprisonment, and state-sanctioned assassinations. This 1992 referendum was not just about ending legal separation of people based on race, it was about establishing a multiracial democracy as a tool for healing the wounds of centuries of oppression. The results: over 68 percent of the voting population voted yes . This moment was a testament to the collective South African spirit and was seen around the world as a revolutionary act.

Some initial questions asked in the wake of the referendum outcome were focused on past reconciliation efforts that had been made across the globe in order to inform the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission. In addition, concern was expressed over what state-led mechanisms were needed to address and heal the wounds caused by more than 300 years of institutionalized racism. The key question at the time was whether state-led reconciliation, through transitional justice, could be enough to address the significant pain and suffering caused by apartheid.

Transitional Justice

One of the goals of transitional justice is to figure out how to bring conflicted parties back together once major conflict ends. In his contribution to the new edited volume African Actors in International Security: Shaping Contemporary Norms, Tim Murithi suggests that one of the central dilemmas of transitional justice is the tension between peace and justice. How do people forgive each other enough to reach a point where they can live together without the reoccurrence of violence or war?

Murithi delves into African contributions to norms and practices of transitional justice. Transitional justice is a concept introduced by American academics in the 1990s and based in the recognition of human rights principals. Murithi explains that while transitional justice did not start in Africa  , African actors have refined the process to look beyond legal mechanisms to consider social, emotional, and cultural elements illustrated through the final report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. According to Murithi, “Africa has played a leading role in the transformation, innovation, and diffusion of global transitional justice norms.” One of these innovations involved shifting the focus from retributive to restorative justice approaches.

Taking a step back to look at the evolution of truth and reconciliation in post-conflict areas, the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission is often contrasted with the Nuremburg Trials held in the aftermath of World War II. The purpose of these trials was to both document the history of atrocities so that future generations cannot deny them and to hold perpetrators accountable for their crimes. The recordings of both of these histories of reconciliation have shown that although atrocity has been defined in similar ways around the world, the context and ways that justice has been carried out have been very different.

In the Nuremburg Trials, it became clear that using the justification that a soldier was “just following orders” as a defense for their actions would not necessarily prevent their prosecution. South Africans, through the adaptation of reconciliation processes to meet African norms, took a different approach which emphasized forgiveness for the sake of peace. South African soldiers and police were in some instances granted immunity for their part in committing crimes against humanity if they could prove that they were following orders through an established chain of command. For good and for ill, South Africans decided to place emphasis on seeking the truth and reconciliation over accountability.

Regardless of one’s position on the merits of retributive justice, which is justice based in punishment, versus restorative justice, which is based in reconciliation, the truth and reconciliation process in South Africa has proven to be a powerful vehicle for South African people to acknowledge the level of suffering within the country. This process deviated from the norm of keeping the narratives of the oppressed and the oppressor separated throughout the process, and instead explored both narratives in tandem to arrive at reconciliation for all. In this way, no one could claim ignorance. As Archbishop Desmond Tutu shared, “We needed to acknowledge that we had a horrendous past. We needed to look the beast in the eye, so that the past wouldn’t hold us hostage anymore.”

As a part of the commission’s report, about 2,000 people—perpetrators and victims—told their stories. These emotional testimonies were broadcasted live throughout the country. Sometimes victims wanted to look their abuser in the eye and request an apology. In other cases, the families of missing and murdered people simply asked, “May we have the bones back?” In all, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission collected the testimonies of more than 21,000 people; and, lest we forget, there are thousands more whose voices and suffering will never be heard.

The work of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission is considered the gold standard for acknowledging violent pasts and listening to both perpetrators’ and victims’ stories. It has inspired other countries that have started to confront their bloody histories as well. Just last year, the Canadian Truth and Reconciliation Report came to fruition with thousands of indigenous Canadians telling their stories about the impacts of aboriginal residential schools that separated children from their families, exposing them to mental, emotional, and psychological harm at the hands of federal agents and the church that ran the associated institutions. Many spoke of the intergenerational trauma these institutions caused in their families and communities. As noted, a tension still exists between peace and justice, signaling that in the ideological battle between retributive and restorative justice, a fine line will always exist between the two. Some will want to see the pain and suffering that was inflicted on them be inflicted on their abusers also. Others only want an apology. In Canada, many advocated for the names of the priests who raped them in their youth to be published; for various reasons, this did not happen.

The evolution of reconciliation through these examples is indicative of a larger shift in ideologies of justice from a retributive past towards a more restorative future. Although there are certainly differences between the three cases, including the degree to which both victims and perpetrators have been included in the process, there is still an overarching goal of harnessing reconciliation as a tool to overcome great societal barriers to form inclusive, representative societies. 

In South Africa, reconciliation has yet to be fully achieved. This will be further affected by the government’s recent decision to pass an act concerning “land expropriation without compensation” that will review and amend section 25 of the Constitution, opening the possibility of the state expropriating land in the public interest without compensation. This act will continue to explore the demand to redress economic inequality through land expropriation between white South Africans and South Africans of color. There is no doubt that the outcome of this process will be seen as both retributive and restorative, and the actions of the steering committee will be instrumental in guiding this process one way or the other. Either way, South Africa provides an example of how state-led reconciliation efforts can be adapted to Africa-specific norms and offers an innovative model that demonstrates ways that conflict-torn societies can heal, rebuild, and transition for a more peaceful future.