Justice or a spit on the victims? The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of South Africa. The perpetrators went free. The dead remained dead


South Africa suffered Apartheid from 1948 until 1991. Apartheid was an institutionalised racial segregation based on white supremacy. The Afrikaners, who were the minority, refused to grant the non-whites their basic human rights.

South Africa was colonised by the Portuguese, the Dutch and the British (who took from the African native people almost all the goods of the land –let’s not forget the discovery of diamonds and gold in 1867 and 1884). Racism and discrimination against the native African people always existed. In 1948 Apartheid became official under the National Party (let’s notice that this was only three years after the end of WWII: after Auschwitz, after Treblinka, and after Majdanek, and after the death of all moral and religious values: “We live in the time of the ‘death of God’ (Richard Rubenstein, After Auschwitz); “Nach Auschwitz ein Gedicht zu schreiben, ist barbarisch” (Theodor Adorno, Kulturkritik und Gesellschaft, 1949).

With the Population Registration Act of 1950, the people of South Africa were classified by three races: White, Native, and Coloured. The Whites (less than 20% of the population) enjoyed all the rights; the Native (more than 68%) were the black African and were terribly oppressed; the Coloured were the people whose parents were white and black (Indians and their children were later added –they were called Asians).

Non-whites could not vote, had restricted areas, were humiliated and denigrated, and lived under total discrimination in their own country.

Thanks to the outrageous Prohibition of Mixed Marriages Act (1949) –the first Apartheid law– and the Immorality Amendment Act (1950), the races in South Africa remained completely separated. From 1960 to 1983, 3.5 million non-white South Africans were moved into segregated areas. Even if Apartheid was condemned by the UN, official segregation lasted for 46 years, until 1991. The National Party and the African National Congress (Mandela’s political party) negotiated ending Apartheid from 1987.

What did the religious leaders say about Apartheid in its 46 years of existence? Well, until 1985, they said almost nothing. As the Truth and Reconciliation Commission Final Report argues, “some of the major Christian churches gave their blessing to the system of apartheid (…) The system of apartheid was regarded as stemming from the mission of the church” (Volume 4, Chapter 3)[1]. Other Christian churches said nothing. Muslim, Hindu and Jewish communities did not condemn Apartheid until the 1980s.[2] In 1985, the Catholic Church finally condemned Apartheid[3]. It took it 35 years.

Under Apartheid, thousands of crimes and a brutal repression against the non-Whites took place in the hands of White officials and White population. For the National Party, it didn’t suffice that their laws against the non-Whites were degrading and immoral. Unjustified prison sentences (Mandela’s 27 years in prison says it all), unjustified fines, torture, mutilation and murder were committed too by the Whites. Mandela said in 1994 that “the jailings and death of apartheid constituted tragedy”[4].

What happened to all those white racists and murderers? Well, thanks to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of South Africa (1996), hardly nothing. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) was a (Christian) Commission of restorative justice. Archbishop Desmond Tutu was the chairman. Under the pretext of no more confrontation, thousands of murderers walked free. In my opinion, the blame on “both” sides is atrocious. The official website of the TRC states: “The conflict during this period resulted in violence and human rights abuses from all sides”. Although there were some crimes perpetrated by the anti-Apartheid militants (who, desperately, fought for their freedom and basic human rights), to equal the violence of both sides is a big insult to the non-Whites who suffered and died under Apartheid. This inequality can be appreciated in the quantity of hearings and submissions of the Human Rights Violations: the African National Congress submissions sum a total of 522 pages; the National Party submissions sum a total of 60 pages[5].

There were three committees in the TRC: The Human Rights Violations Committee, the Reparation and Rehabilitation Committee, and the Amnesty Committee.

The TRC heard 7,112 confessions from perpetrators and 20,000 statements from victims. From the 7,112 applications for amnesty from perpetrators, 849 were granted and 5,392 were refused. But the majority of those who were declined amnesty were not prosecuted. Mandela thought that the TRC did a good job, but had some reservations. Many victims felt cheated as they saw the vast majority of the perpetrators and murderers walk free. The TRC focused of forgiveness, but: is it possible to forgive the murderer of your son, your daughter, your father, your mother, your husband or your wife? The case of Limpho Hani (who refused to forgive her husband’s murder) is one in a thousand.

So, we ought to ask ourselves: the TRC honored justice or spat on the victims? Reconciliation was the main purpose of the Commission. But, what about justice? What about the dignity of the victims? The vast majority of the Apartheid perpetrators walked free. And the dead remained dead.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA Antonia Tejeda Barros, Madrid, April 2018

I wrote these thoughts as part of an assignment for completing the excellent online Future Learn course Religion and Conflict (University of Groningen, The Netherlands)


[1] South Africa. Overcoming Apartheid. Building Democracy: Religious Faith and Anti-Apartheid Activism: http://overcomingapartheid.msu.edu/sidebar.php?id=65-258-6

[2] South Africa. Overcoming Apartheid. Building Democracy: Religious Faith and Anti-Apartheid Activism: http://overcomingapartheid.msu.edu/sidebar.php?id=65-258-6

[3] “Pope tells Word Court Apartheid is Unacceptable; Protests go on”, The New York Times, J. Dionne Jr., 1985: https://www.nytimes.com/1985/05/14/world/pope-tells-world-court-apartheid-is-unacceptable-protests-go-on.html

[4] “The South African Vote: The Overview; After 300 Years, Blacks Vote in South Africa”, The New York Times, Francis X. Clines, 1994: https://www.nytimes.com/1994/04/27/world/the-south-african-vote-the-overview-after-300-years-blacks-vote-in-south-africa.html

[5] Official Truth and Reconciliation Commission Website: http://www.justice.gov.za/trc/

About Antonia Tejeda Barros

Madre de tres, doctoranda en Filosofía, flautista y violinista, profesora, alumna y súper fan de Woody Allen / Mother of three, daughter, sister, wife, PhD candidate (Philosophy), musician (recorder & baroque violin), teacher, student, and Woody Allen fan
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