The Truth and Reconciliation Commission: Moving Past Apartheid?

After the fall of apartheid in South Africa, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was set up so that people could tell their stories of their lives under the regime.

May 16, 2024By Greg Beyer, BA History & Linguistics, Journalism Diploma

past apartheid truth reconciliation commission


The 1990s was a decade of immense change in South Africa. Nelson Mandela was released from prison, and the African National Congress (ANC) was no longer branded a terrorist organization. This led to the dismantling of South Africa’s policy of apartheid, where Black people were not considered citizens of South Africa.


In April 1994, the first fully democratic elections took place, and the ANC and Nelson Mandela took control of the country.


This justice, however, did not complete the story of apartheid. Many still carried the emotional and physical scars of the era, and the road to recovery would be a long and challenging process. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) was set up so that those with burdens could tell their stories to the world.


Both sides of the political divide took part. Victims told of their hurt, and perpetrators admitted their crimes. The full scope of the harm apartheid had done to the “Rainbow Nation” was revealed.


TRC: A Brief Outline

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Vice-Chair Alex Boraine. Source: Boraine family /

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After the fall of apartheid and the coming to power of the first democratically elected government, the country felt it necessary to address the wrongs of the past. The government passed the Promotion of National Unity and Reconciliation Act No. 34 of 1995, and in accordance with this act, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was conceived and set up.


It aimed to heal the divide between perpetrators and victims in a new South Africa built upon understanding, forgiveness, and reconciliation. To do this, both sides of the story would have to be heard, and the TRC was intended to address the stories of the perpetrators seeking forgiveness as well as victims seeking justice and healing.


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Desmond Tutu sheds tears during a TRC hearing. Source: Sunday Times / Raymond Preston


Although the central location of the TRC would be in Cape Town, the commission was designed to address the needs of all South Africans. This meant it would also have to be mobile. The TRC toured South Africa, making sure that people everywhere had the opportunity to share their experiences.


Founded by Nelson Mandela, chaired by Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and vice-chaired by Dr. Alex Boraine, the hearings began in 1996 and ran until 2002.


The National Prosecuting Authority also continues to investigate cases linked to TRC hearings to this day.


Structure of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission

The first hearing of the TRC. Image: Benny Gool, Oryx Media/Desmond Tutu Peace Centre. Source:


To cover a wide range of services, the foundation of the TRC’s legal structure was split into three committees.


The first of these committees was the Human Rights Violations (HRV) Committee, whose purpose was to investigate human rights violations that took place between 1960 and 1994. Through investigative methods, the committee was responsible for identifying victims and ascertaining the extent of the crimes committed against them, as well as their fate or current whereabouts. Once these facts were established, the victims, if still alive, were referred to the Reparation and Rehabilitation (R&R) Committee.


The prime function of the R&R Committee was to restore the victims’ dignity and rehabilitate the survivors and those connected to them. Sometimes, whole communities were victims, and the process of providing justice was not just legal but financial in nature. To this, a “President’s Fund” was created, funded by parliament and individual backers, to provide financial aid to those needing rehabilitation.


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Desmond Tutu in 2000. Source: Jillian Edelstein /


The third committee presided over much contention. The Amnesty Committee was set up to provide amnesty to perpetrators of crimes committed for political reasons from 1960 to 1994. This dynamic allowed perpetrators of crimes to admit their wrongdoings in a way that would help their defense in possible later trials.


Naturally, these testimonies drew widespread attention, but it is worth noting what Nelson Mandela said concerning the treatment of perpetrators:


“The very fact that racism degrades both the perpetrator and the victim commands that, if we are true to our commitment to protect human dignity, we fight on until victory is achieved.”


High Profile Hearings

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Zapiro cartoon on the hearing of Eugene de Kock. Source: South African History Archive


The TRC drew widespread attention from the media, and in much the same way that the Nuremberg Trials exposed the extent of the crimes committed by the Nazis during World War II, so too did the TRC expose the nature of the atrocities committed for political reasons during the apartheid regime.


The testimonies of many high-profile people were sought, and already facing the weight of the law, they applied for amnesty through the TRC, although this amnesty was not always given.


One such case was that of Eugene de Kock, who had been a colonel in the police force. He was the commander of the counterinsurgency unit named C10 and was responsible for kidnapping, torturing, and killing several anti-apartheid activists during the 1980s and early 1990s.


Such was the nature of his crimes that he became known as “Prime Evil.” He was later sentenced to two life sentences plus 212 years. He was the center of media attention again in 2015 after he was granted parole and had spent several years asking for forgiveness from the families of his victims.


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Wouter Basson. Source: Sydney Seshibedi / TimesLive


Another high-profile hearing was that of Dr. Wouter Basson, who had been head of South Africa’s chemical and biological weapons program. Nicknamed “Dr. Death,” he appeared before the TRC and refused to seek amnesty. He had been accused of being connected to the use of chemical weapons against ANC activists, and the TRC recommended he should be put on trial.


The trial that followed, and which began in 1999, saw Basson face 67 charges, including drug trafficking, fraud, and embezzlement, and a total of 229 murders. The case against him, however, was flimsy, and he was acquitted after 30 months of legal proceedings.


Basson currently works as a cardiologist in a Cape Town mediclinic.


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St.James Church, Cape Town. Source: image supplied by the author


The TRC also heard testimonies from the other side of the political divide. The ex-wife of Nelson Mandela, Winnie Mandela, was called to appear before the TRC on 18 charges of human rights abuses, including eight cases of murder. The center of these charges was the murder of a 15-year-old boy, Stompie Seipei, in 1989, whom Winnie Mandela and her team of bodyguards had suspected of being a police informant. She was ultimately found to be negligent and not directly responsible for his death.


Another high-profile case involved the massacre of church worshippers by armed gunmen on the evening of July 25, 1993. Claiming that they believed white people used the church to oppress Black people, Gcinikhaya Makoma, Bassie Mzukisi Mkhumbuzi, Thobela Mlambisa, and Sichumiso Nonxuba opened fire with assault rifles and grenades on church worshippers in St. James Church in Kenilworth, Cape Town. Eleven people were killed, and 58 were wounded. This shocking incident came as a complete surprise, as Kenilworth was a relatively peaceful suburb, and St. James Church had a multi-racial congregation and had always been opposed to apartheid.


The perpetrators applied for amnesty through the TRC, and the victims’ families supported their application, arguing that the spirit of forgiveness was central to the teachings of Christ.


The Statistics & Findings

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TRC poster. Source: South African History Archive


During the course of almost seven years, the TRC listened to the testimonies of approximately 21,000 victims, 2,000 of which were public hearings. It also considered 7,112 amnesty applications. Amnesty was granted to 849 of these applicants and denied to 5,392. The remainder of the applications were withdrawn.


From the thousands of hearings, the TRC concluded that from 1990 to 1994, massive quantities of documents detailing the inner workings of the apartheid regime had been systematically destroyed and that this process continued into 1996, even after the ANC had taken over the reins of government. As such, the complete extent of apartheid crimes will probably never be known.


Nevertheless, a full list of perpetrators of crimes during the apartheid era was constructed, and a foundation of justice for the victims emerged.


Aftereffects & Subsequent Initiatives 

Protest demanding access to reparation funds that were slow to be given out. Source: Foundation for Human Rights


After the TRC procedures had finished, it was clear that work still needed to be done in order to get closer to a sense of closure.


The government had been tasked with paying reparations to the victims. With many thousands of cases, this task was overwhelming, and payments were slow to be released. It took significant pressure from civil society for these reparations to be attended to in an efficient manner. A government body was set up in 2006 to expedite these reparations.


A missing persons task force was also subsequently created to find, exhume, and rebury the victims. Special investigations were carried out to locate the whereabouts of bodies that had been unceremoniously disposed of.


The work of the TRC continues to this day, but despite the importance and huge impact of the TRC in addressing one of the major issues of apartheid, South Africa remains a country with significant problems caused by societal polarization. Apartheid ended more than three decades ago, yet the shift in wealth and power has been a process so slow that it is practically negligible. Violence is still an issue, and much of it is still politically and racially motivated, although the majority of it is motivated by opportunity and desperation.


Despite the failures inherent in South African society, the TRC stands as an important point from which lessons can be learned and remembered. In a time of massive uncertainty, the TRC constructed an atmosphere of forgiveness, cooperation, and a spirit of ubuntu that is still widely promoted as a core belief in the collective South African psyche.


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Quote by Desmond Tutu. Image created by author.


Through the TRC, a full picture of crimes committed as a result of apartheid was constructed, and it helped South Africans understand the nature of what they had experienced. Hearings were broadcast on national television every day, and the public, even those who weren’t perpetrators or victims, were encouraged to participate in the TRC. In this spirit of cooperation, the groundwork was laid for a future whereby people of all races could feel a sense of shared compatriotism.

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By Greg BeyerBA History & Linguistics, Journalism DiplomaGreg specializes in African History. He holds a BA in History & Linguistics and a Journalism Diploma from the University of Cape Town. A former English teacher, he now excels in academic writing and pursues his passion for art through drawing and painting in his free time.