The Power of Truth in South Africa

Reflecting on the truth and reconciliation process in South Africa, 25 years later

By: Puck Holthuis & Chiara Longmore


In the aftermath of apartheid, South Africa underwent a major political and societal transition. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) was established as a process of healing for the country, with formal hearings commencing on 15 April 1996.


The TRC was established as a court-like body where victims and perpetrators alike could come to give testimony of their experiences during apartheid. As Mandela commented: “South African people must remember their dreadful past in order to be able to deal with it, to forgive when it is necessary, but never to forget”1 and the TRC was a key framework which facilitated this remembering in order to heal the nation.


Peacebuilding through retributive justice

For effective peace to be established it is largely understood that justice must be incorporated into peacebuilding processes.2 Nevertheless, the nexus between peace and justice is not straightforward - there is no ‘one-size fits all’ approach. Deciding what peace and justice mechanisms to use, and for whom, is a question policymakers grapple with across different contexts. In South Africa, the peace process emphasised restorative justice - the search for the truth in order to facilitate reconciliation and healing. South Africa’s TRC had a particular emphasis on truth-telling to heal as “dealing with the past means knowing what happened”.3

Figure I: Contemporary South African flag, Flowcomm, available at: https://www.flickr.com/photos/flowcomm/15318490720  

The use of restorative justice in South Africa, with the emphasis on truth-telling to reconcile, was crucial in the post-apartheid context. At the time the TRC was established, South Africa was undergoing a transitional process, creating a highly politicised and tense environment where political legitimacy was tenuous.4 Therefore, the use of the truth commission was extremely appropriate in the context of South Africa to ensure that effective peace and healing could take place. No one official version of apartheid was established in South Africa’s TRC, and instead the commission facilitated a rich assembly of perspectives from a diverse range of individuals, both the victims and the perpetrators, who lived through apartheid to voice their lived experience of events.5


TRC testimonies

To further our analysis of how the South African TRC functioned, we interviewed a former employee of the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Joop Pinckaers. The South African TRC had a unique and never before seen unit, which was the Investigation Unit. During his employment, Joop helped establish and manage this department of the TRC.



Prior to his work in South Africa, Joop had travelled to West Tanzania where he and his team examined and sophisticated the security and safety in and around the Rwandan refugee camps after the Rwanda genocide. These camps housed Hutus and Tutsis separately. In Burundi, where Joop and his team travelled to as well, the refugee camps housed mixed Hutu and Tutsi married couples. Joop’s close affinity with the African continent and its people made him a good candidate to try and help the TRC achieve stability in South Africa and help this nation move forward from its painful past.



Figure II: Nelson Mandela's release from Victor Verster Prison in Paarl, South Africa. Photograph taken by Puck Holthuis

The goal of the Investigation Unit was multiple: it both investigated and corroborated the testimonies bravely put forth by apartheid’s victims and their families, and the information from amnesty applications. Additionally, the unit facilitated through exhaustive investigation the granting of amnesty to perpetrators and, if determined by the commission, would engage in further independent investigation.


In doing so, the TRC was better able to map out the apartheid regime and its damage. This in turn allowed the Amnesty Commission, the Human Rights Violations Commission and the Reparation and Rehabilitation Commission of the TRC to more accurately judge the cases before them.


As mentioned, making room for healing largely determined the TRC’s course of action. As stated in the final report of the TRC:


“However painful the experience, the wounds of the past must not be allowed to fester. They must be opened. They must be cleansed. And balm must be poured on them so they can heal. This is not to be obsessed with the past. It is to take care that the past is properly dealt with for the sake of the future.” 6


A shared traumatic past

During the interview, Joop recalled the moment when the Investigation Unit did not trust the full admissions by Eugene de Kock, former commander of Vlakplaas. The Chairman of the Commission submitted this case to the State President who decided to send the case to Court, which would then determine the perpetrator’s punishment. The sentence passed were two life sentences plus 212 years in prison for crimes against humanity.



Along with the passed sentence, the above quote is an indication of the difficulties and trauma the TRC faced in order to heal South Africa. This is further illustrated by Joop’s written notes that he took during his employment. He writes:

        Figure III: Flag during the Apartheid regime, available at:                 https://pixabay.com/illustrations/south-africa-flag-apartheid-1184104

“[The members of the Investigation Unit] worked with victims and experienced their trauma, anguish and pain. They worked with perpetrators and saw the brutalised, traumatised people who carried out horrific acts of violence. They worked with those stories, stories of torture, rape and murder, of bodies being blown up repeatedly, being burnt for hours. They were there when the remains of victims were exhumed. They saw the bullet holes in the back of heads and felt the terror of those victims in their last hours. They went home to be with their families, to interact with friends. And they returned to work another day to face the trauma, the stress and the anxiety.” 7


Those who could retell their painful experiences and relive their traumas for the sake of their own healing and that of the country, were met by empathetic members of the TRC, many of whom had lived through apartheid themselves. Nevertheless, their pain and grief had also permeated the skin of those who hadn’t lived through it.


Local collective healing

It is indicative of the South Africa’s use of restorative justice, bringing together individuals through the telling of lived experiences in a process of nation healing. This model of truth-telling to heal in South Africa’s TRC has been adopted by subsequent truth and reconciliation commissions, for example in Sierra Leone, positioning the South African model as one of the most influential templates for peace and justice.8


Whilst South Africa’s TRC is seen as an effective society-driven project of healing, its model of reconciliation may not be as usefully transferred to other contexts, particularly regarding the local level. Indeed, there have been increasing attempts to establish bottom-up peacebuilding approaches which place local communities and individuals at the focus.9


An example of this can be seen in Somalia with the Wajir Women for Peace Group, a group of local Somali women who used familiar customs and sharia law to administer justice and administer reparations between warring sides.10 The Somali case is illustrative of a local peacebuilding process, driven by locals, where the focus was less on reconciliation and more on delivering justice through reparations and indicates the importance of applying the appropriate mechanisms of peace and justice to the relevant contexts.


The power of the truth

Through examining the case of South Africa it is evident that the TRC’s model of reconciliation was effective through the power of truth-telling. In the aftermath of violence and oppression, establishing truth and allowing individuals to tell their experiences is of vital importance to ensure long-term peace. Indeed, individuals who participated in Sierra Leone’s TRC spoke of how being able to express their truth of events helped them to process the violence they experienced, with one victim stating how she went to the TRC:


“[…] to clear my chest. If I just go and sit down and don’t talk, it would burn my heart more and more. But if I go and talk it in public, I will feel better in my heart. That’s what they told me, and it was true.” 11


The power of truth-telling through reconciliation processes is one which should not be underestimated in peacebuilding processes in order to prevent future violence from occurring. This is echoed in the words of the Truth and Reconciliation Committee, when they state that: “Those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it” [these] are the words emblazoned at the entrance to the museum in the former concentration camp of Dachau. They are words we would do well to keep ever in mind.” 12


Moving forward today

Nevertheless, South Africa is still struggling to move forward today. The apartheid aftermath remains painfully visible as the nation battles with the many inconsistencies that are a result of the apartheid regime. Funds that should have been directed at the facilitation of reconciliation and rehabilitation were instead spent elsewhere. According to Joop, that is one of the reasons South Africa is not in the state it should have been in by today.


This article is a publication of the Dyami Early Warning for International Security (DEWIS) Working Group.


For source references, please download the PDF version.


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About the Authors:

Puck Holthuis is a master student Conflict Studies & Human Rights at Utrecht University. She recently relocated back to The Netherlands after living abroad since 2006. During that time, she spent many years in South Africa and China. Puck continues to develop her passion for analysis; studying foreign cultures and using that to strengthen her intercultural communication skills.


Chiara Longmore is originally from Scotland; however, she has moved to the Netherlands to complete a master’s at Leiden University in International Relations and Diplomacy. With an interdisciplinary background, her bachelor’s was in Liberal Arts, she has analysed situations of violence and conflict with a multi-disciplinary framework, in particular with Political Science, Anthropology, and Sociology.

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