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The South African Experiment

When one sets out to examine the relatively modern field of restorative justice, particularly Truth and Reconciliation Commissions, one must acknowledge the general intention and courage of those attempting to establish peace and ensure justice in a wholly new way. In the case of the South African TRC, the subject of Graeme Simpson’s work, “Tell No Lies, Claim No Easy Victories,” rather than simply punishing the perpetrators, the focus was on the healing aspects that could provide a solution to unite a country that was divided by apartheid for decades. However, despite the significant accomplishments of the TRC, legitimate criticism remains after the work of the commission in South Africa was completed.


The first critique that sprang to our minds is the duration of the TRC. It was intentionally established to exist for two years in order to investigate and uncover the truth during apartheid, and to give the South African society a chance to heal. It  appears naively short sighted, perhaps even ignorant, to expect a commission to effectively and thoroughly investigate more than forty years of institutionalized racism and oppression, perpetrated against the majority of the inhabitants of a nation, within a mere 730 days. A reasonable timeframe might be hard to determine at the outset of such a venture, so maybe a society should evaluate and decide for itself when the open wounds of conflicts have been healed and the work of a TRC is no longer necessary, rather than relying on an arbitrary, and no doubt politically motivated, period of time.


While TRC’s, regardless of the length of time for which they are established, have been proven to provide at least some manner of therapeutic benefits for victims, it is important to note that the frequent assumption that “healing is revealing” is far from universal, and the implication that a TRC is a panacea could potentially lead to great disappointment. It has been found that a number of victims testifying for the South African TRC walked away feeling devastated by the failure of the TRC to deliver on their expectations, namely, that of justice. The main failure of the TRC’s, and in this specific case the South African TRC, seems to be a generalization of the victims needs (the assumption that they all want an outlet to “tell their story” and be heard), and a blindness towards other alternative needs. A need for one definitive truth being discovered and settled on, a need for financial assistance or compensation, or even a need for symbolic reparation for their lost ones are just some of the unaddressed needs that left many unsatisfied. Even more importantly, for some victims “storytelling” may be healing, but for others, its disappointing results and the “unresolved trauma” brought out by the process can lead to destructive and damaging effects. After reading what Simpson had to say about the South African TRC, we feel that a future TRC should put greater research into the needs and wants of the survivors in order to structure the process of justice to better meet their expectations in a more precise and individual manner.


Compounding many victims unresolved feelings and expectations were the attitudes of many of the so-called “bystanders;” those white South Africans who had no direct hand in the application of the apartheid system, yet neither had they supported the ANC or others struggling for equality. These bystanders were found to hold some startling views of the victims and their needs. In a survey that was taken shortly after the TRC was formed and began its work, fully forty percent of the white population felt that not only was the former governmental system not unjust, but apartheid itself was a perfectly reasonable societal model (although, in their defense, they did feel that it had been “badly carried out”). A staggering 86% of white South Africans also absolved those who had voted for the National Party (the white political party of apartheid) of any blame for the aforementioned way apartheid had been carried out, instead placing the responsibility for the atrocities committed only upon those who had been directly involved in their administration. Even more insidious, nearly two-thirds of white South Africans did not believe the allegations brought before the commission to even be true, and a majority also felt the there should not be any sort of reparations made, as any stories that happened to be true were still exaggerated.

It is not completely unreasonable to expect that a group of people might have a hard time facing the consequences of their actions. After all, in the decade following World War II many Germans felt that Hitler was one of their greatest statesmen, and their country had not even been responsible for the outbreak of the war. In a more recent example, a disturbing number of white Americans claim that racial tension and injustice is solely the fault of President Barack Obama and the Black Lives Matter movement, and firmly believe that there is “no such thing” as systemic, rather than overt, racism. Unfortunately, as common as it might be, this kind of extremely myopic view does not bode well for the efforts of such an institution as a TRC. If a truth and reconciliation commission is established to heal the rift between two groups of people, yet a majority of one of those groups of people feels there is no rift, how can the commission possibly discharge its responsibilities? With such a fundamental dichotomy between the stated purpose of a justice system and the political and social views of many of the people beholden to that system, it comes as no surprise that there were many desires left unfilled, and so many were left embittered all around. Consequently, victims were denied their chance at restorative justice, and perpetrators were themselves cast as victims of a witch hunt.


Moreover, the South African TRC´s approach in dealing with human right violations became a compromise between punitive action and amnesty for the “wrongdoers,” where the focus on “truth recovery” acted as restorative form of justice. The goal of the TRC was reconciliation through conditionally amnesty, thus accommodating both the victim’s need for recovering the truth, and giving the chance of amnesty for perpetrators guilty of gross human rights violations. However, it is interesting to note the challenges which the TRC faced from perpetrators, particularly the National Party´s aim to undermine the work of the commission. This right wing opposition created a subtle reluctance in the TRC to fully extend their power in order to uncover the truth, thereby inhibiting the successful delivery of justice by vindicating victims and survivors. The TRC was even accused of being biased during their investigation and the National Party demanded an apology from the TRC, because they felt that the investigations were focused on the former government and right-wing organizations. Assuredly, crimes were committed by both sides during the conflict that ended apartheid, but it should be the the TRC’s own responsibility to set the focus of their work. If it is constantly trying to appease outside parties with their investigations and results, then it certainly can be accused of being biased, dependent, perhaps even corrupt, and completely unable to fulfill its task of finding the truth. This reluctance to truly pursue the truth could be seen as a problem since, according to Simpson, “[…] many frustrated victims of apartheid have argued simply that there can be no reconciliation without full justice.” The unwillingness of the perpetrators and right-wing political parties thus poses a problem when full justice is needed in order to alleviate the tensions caused by the racial segregation during apartheid. Although there has been an apparent reconciliation and a democratization of government due to the TRC’s work, racism still exists in South Africa to this day. Based on these considerations, one could make the argument that the political turbulence surrounding the TRC caused the committee to fail to employ other, additional, options for justice which might have been necessary for the country’s reconciliation and democratic aspiration to have been even more successful.


For all the good it has done, the South African TRC had some obvious shortcomings. With its unsatisfactory duration, unmet and unrealistic expectations, conflicting perceptions and social mores, and undue outside influences and pressures, the TRC clearly left a great deal to be desired. With all that said, of course, the TRC had a nearly impossible task to accomplish, and it served remarkably well, despite lingering racial issues and resentments. Due to its success in the face of nearly insurmountable odds, we agree that the concept of a TRC is a viable option for restorative justice, but we reserve the caveat that the South African model should merely serve as a template, and not a paragon to be copied exactly, in the future pursuit of a more just world.


Julie Ringgaard Kauffmann

Marie Jensen

Bastian Lindner

Fadrique Avalle-Arce

3 comments to The South African Experiment

  • jacobra

    Nice summary of some of the main pints of critique by Simpson, and good reflections.
    I agree that covering more than 40 years of oppression is quite an ambitious task to cover in 2 years. Yet, the TRC covered more than 20.000 individual victims’ cases. That is impressive. But if we are to go with your critique: for how long can a commission go on woriking before delivering its final and summarised findings? If the ambition is laying the ground for future reconciliation, there is a ned to get through the cases. The ICC intervention in the former Yougoslavia has been critiqued for dragging the court cases out for too long and thereby keeping the victims and the countries in a limbo.
    Furthermore, I would argue that the restorative approach provides the possibility of collaborators and ‘wrongdoers’ to confront the dominant logics and meanings under which they acted, although as you demonstrate this might be a difficult exercise. But a punitive approach risks creating further ressentments against the judicial and political system, which surely doesn’t provide very well for future reconciliation.

  • mejdi

    Well, it is interesting to the criticism concerning the period. But maybe we have to think from a political point of view. The question is: the South African TRC was created with the purpose of doing justice and discover the cruel facts of apartheid, or it was just a political strategy to to calm and satisfy the public opinion?I do not deny the good will. But after apartheid, people were angry and wanted revenge. They asked to the state to do something. This leads me to think about the reason of which the ambition of the commission (two years) are so superficial. like “Ok just let them be happy with something”.

    It is like after the second world war. The nazis killed 6 million Jews, the public opinion asked that the responsable must pay for it. The result was that the allies created a process in Nuremberg, to condemn Nazi leaders. Just you know to do something and make happy the public opinion. As if we were the only ones to comment genocide. Excluding the Americans and Soviets who committed crimes as the Nazis. Besides, the winners write the history not the vanquished

  • jacobra

    On the last comment on winners writing history: isn’t that what the TRC in South Africa try to challenge by focusing on truth and victims (of both Apartheid institutions and of ANC and IFP violationce). I realise you could argue that the African majority took over through the ANC and that they have won in that respect, but the rewriting of history is not a total erasure of what came before, and it is not uncritical of the process leading to the transition.

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