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Last modified on: 12.02.2016

Truth and Reconciliation Commission of South Africa


The system of apartheid in South Africa became official state policy in 1948 and lasted until 1992. During this period, non-white South Africans found themselves deprived of basic political rights such as freedom of movement and assembly as well as access to education and to decent medical care. Any opposition was rigorously put down. Human Rights NGO’s estimate that, in addition to the countless summary executions, 200,000 South-Africans were arrested between 1960 and 1992 and that the majority of them were subjected to torture during their detention. International sanctions and systematic opposition to the injustices of apartheid slowly but surely took its toll on the South African government.

In 1990, Nelson Mandela, head of the African National Congress (ANC), the most powerful of the anti-apartheid groups, was set free after 27 years in prison. Following his release, negotiations between the ANC and the party in power, the National Party (NP-in power from 1948 to 1994), could seriously begin. The NP argued forcibly for a general amnesty, whilst many of the members of Mandela’s ANC insisted on bringing white officers to trial, based on rules similar to those of Nuremberg.

The first democratic election organised in April 1994, resulted in victory for the ANC and Nelson Mandela with 61% of the overall vote.



New intense negotiations conducted with both the government and the Parliament, led to the adoption by Parliament in May 1995 of the Promotion of National Unity and Reconciliation Act 1995 which established the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of South Africa.

The inquiries led by the Commission covered the period from the events of March 1960, being from the month when 59 blacks were murdered in Sharpeville by the police forces, and December 1993, the date when the provisional government was established.

The Commission was entrusted with preparing a report on serious human rights violations, notably on “murder, abduction, torture or serious ill treatment inflicted on any individual” during the “conflicts of the past”, with issuing recommendations, in particular concerning reparations to be granted to the victims and with granting amnesties subject to certain conditions ( an act committed by a member or supporter of the parties involved in the conflict, act related to the past political conflict)

The Commission was composed of three committees:

° An amnesty committee
° A human rights committee before which the victims could present themselves and tell
   their story
° a committee for rehabilitation and reparations

However, the mandate of the Commission did not foresee any inquiry into violations resulting from the application of apartheid policies, notably those related to the forced displacement of populations, to restrictions on freedom of movement and residence imposed via the mechanism of the laws on residence permits, or the deprivation of voting rights for the vast majority of the South African population.



Seventeen Commission members were appointed to oversee the three committees. These members were chosen within the context of a deliberate political decision aimed at representing the totality of the South African society, and consisted of seven Blacks, six Whites, two Coloureds and two Indians. The Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu was appointed to be President of the Commission. At the height of its activity, the South African Commission consisted of almost 400 employees, which amounted to considerably more than truth commissions set up in other countries. However, the committee for rehabilitation and reparations was by far the committee with the least number of personnel and financial resources.



The task of producing the report of the Commission lasted almost three years (1996-1998). The human rights committee gathered depositions from 20,000 people. Its personnel criss-crossed the country to hear evidence from all those who were ready to testify. Public hearings were organised in 80 communities within the country.

Any perpetrators of human rights violations committed during the period under consideration, who presented themselves before the Commission and confessed to all of their crimes were to be granted amnesty. Although there were 7115 persons who presented themselves before the Commission it is generally agreed that those perpetrators who abstained from doing so were in far greater numbers than those who did and that the majority of those individuals who did give testimony omitted to confess to all of their crimes. Of these 7115 persons, 5392 were refused amnesty.


A preliminary report was handed to President Mandela in October 1998. The final report, published in 2002, contained 250 recommendations. Amongst these a substantive policy of reparations foresaw financial indemnities for each of the victims, as well as the erection of public monuments to commemorate the sufferance of the victims.

The complete report in five volumes (around 4000 pages) is accessible on line and can be found in most libraries, but is still unavailable to the majority of South Africans. As of today’s date, no more accessible, shorter version has been published. Furthermore, the report has only been published in English. Given that there are 11 official languages in South Africa, this is a serious omission.



The work of the Commission came to an end officially on 31 December 2001 pursuant to a presidential proclamation dated May 2001 and legal responsibility for its remaining activities was transferred to the Justice Ministry. However, some former members and employees of the Commission carried on with the editing of the last two volumes in order to complete the action plan-related mainly to the work of the amnesty committee-and to draft the list of those victims who might be eligible for reparations. This task was completed by March 2003, at which time the Commission was dissolved completing six and a half years of activity.

In general terms, it is surprising to find that the final report and its recommendations did not meet with much political support. As of today’s date none of its recommendations have been adopted legally. Even more troubling is the fact that parliament spent only half a day to debate the report and did not even begin to discuss any of the difficult questions which it raised.

The work of the Commission opened up a debate on the concepts of truth and reconciliation. It comes as no surprise to ascertain that , in a society which has been divided for so long that there exist different perceptions of past events .It is true that everyone recognises that the country’s past was dreadful because the State itself killed and tortured, and because it got rid of those people whom it said were a menace to its “peace” and stability. However there are some who deny that all of this was based on a systematic policy.

In July 1998, the Presidential Fund created by President Mandela to manage the payment of reparations, amongst other tasks, paid out its first “urgent provision of reparations”
in conformity with the recommendations issued by the Commission of Reparations. Despite the fact that 300 million Rands-around 65 million Euros- had been set aside for this programme, only 48 millions had been paid out by November 2001 to 17,100 applicants (from a total of 20,563) who, in the majority of cases, received a sum totalling between 2000 and 3000 Rands.

In February 2001, the government announced that it would allocate 800 million Rands (around 105 million Euros at the time) for final reparations or 500 million Rands in addition to the 300 million Rands already allocated to the programme, but an amount of about one third less than that recommended by the Commission.

Of more than 90,000 persons who lodged a complaint with the TRC, only some 22,000 were recognised as victims having a right to reparations. Today, many of them have formed a support group known by the name of Khulumani. Under the leadership of former activists, this group has questioned the procedure followed by the TRC. It has joined forces with other victims in filing complaints against several multinational companies for complicity with the apartheid regime. Khulumani asserts that the fixed indemnity of 30,000 Rands to be paid to officially recognised victims, is too little, that the procedures and criteria for identifying victims are too restrictive, that the time limit is too rigid and that those who contributed to or benefited from the apartheid regime should be forced to pay up. This group, at variance with the position of the South African government, instituted proceedings in the USA, claiming 6.1 billion dollars from a certain number of companies. This complaint, known as the “case against apartheid”, was rejected on 29 November 2004 by the New York court. Khulumani has submitted the case to the appeals court.

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