Evaluating the Role and Function of Civil Society in a Changing South Africa: The Truth and Reconciliation Commission as a Case Study

Evaluating the Role and Function of Civil Society in a Changing South Africa: The Truth and Reconciliation Commission as a Case Study

Hamber, B., Mofokeng, T. & Simpson, G. (1997). Evaluating the Role and Function of Civil Society in a Changing South Africa: The Truth and Reconciliation Commission as a Case Study. Paper presented at The Role of Southern Civil Organisations in the Promotion of Peace Seminar, DHR Seminar. Hosted by the Catholic Institute for International Relations London, 10 November.


Brandon Hamber, Tlhoki Mofokeng & Graeme Simpson

Paper presented at The Role of Southern Civil Organisations in the Promotion of Peace Seminar, DHR Seminar. Hosted by the Catholic Institute for International Relations London, 10 November 1997.

Brandon Hamber is an independent consultant.

Tlhoki Mofokeng is a former Manager of the Transition and Reconciliation Programme at the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation.

Graeme Simpson is a founder and former Executive Director of the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation.

Acknowledgement to Hugo van der Merwe, David Bruce and Amanda Dissel for editorial assistance and comments.

This paper analyses the role of civil society and how its relationship to the emerging democracy has developed, and not developed, in South Africa. It uses the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) as an example to examine how the nature and impact of civil society, and specifically non-government organisations (NGOs), has changed as the work of the TRC has matured. It traces these shifts prior to the establishment of the TRC, during its life and provides some suggestions and issues to consider after the formal demise of the TRC.

The paper is in essence a reflection on three years of work that has focused on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The core deliberations of the paper are drawn from over 100 workshops that have focused on the TRC run by the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation with communities, non-government organisations, community-based organisations (CBOs), other agencies (e.g. South Africa police, business, journalists, etc.) and victim-support groups.

The Build up to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission

For a large sector of civil society1 the 1980s and early 1990s was characterised by resistance to the apartheid government and harsh state repression. During this period civil society (specifically, human rights activists, NGOs, churches, trade unions, academics, students, woman's groups and traditional leaders) played a critical role in channelling and supporting public opposition to apartheid, as well as documenting and publicising the atrocities of the government. A high degree of agreement on the state's identity as an "enemy", as well as the unambiguous need for opposition facilitated the development of a critical and unified oppositional voice. Despite state attempts to curb this resistance and activity, civil society flourished and was generously supported by foreign donors.

However, after the April 1994 election civil society and particularly NGOs faced a host of new challenges and difficulties.

Firstly, NGOs, and other sectors of civil society that were politically active, faced a crisis in terms of their social utility and ideological position. Their social utility was undermined because their role as service providers to the underprivileged was now perceived as a state responsibility. The political and social vision of NGOs was also shared, at least in principle, by the ANC government. In effect the existence of a new democratically elected government, which had high levels of legitimacy, served to discourage the need for active and unified action by NGOs. Diescho (1997), therefore, concludes that after the change of government in South Africa in 1994 one could no longer simplistically speak of a state which stood in contradistinction to society in South Africa, but rather a state which competed for function and space with society.

Secondly, NGOs and some organs of civil society found themselves with a fragile funding base in the so-called new South Africa. The demise of apartheid meant that much of the money that was donated to effectively "end the apartheid system" summarily stopped after a new government was elected. In addition, if money did come into the country, this tended to be given directly to the government for state initiated programmes. These factors undercut the funding base of civil society and this increased competition between NGOs and some sectors of civil society. The result was that the sector's ability to act cohesively, as it had done in the past, was undermined by competition for shrinking resources.

Thirdly, civil society and many NGOs found themselves facing these challenges without strong leadership. Government recruited extensively from civil society and many skilled personnel from the NGO sector were employed directly in government structures and related government bodies.2 For example, almost all of the NGO staff that worked on TRC related matters prior to its establishment were employed by the TRC when it began.

Finally, the situation was further complicated by the unclear relationship between NGOs and the new government that they themselves had contributed to setting-up and intrinsically supported. Organs of civil society and NGOs had to move from merely being opposed to the government to simultaneously playing the dual role of both partner and critical evaluator. A role which has been difficult to achieve, particularly where any criticisms, even when constructive and made in the spirit of supporting the work of the new government, could be readily used by the National Party and other opposition to attempt to fundamentally undermine the new government. In addition, at least in the first years of the new government, there was an unspoken reluctance among many NGOs to be too hard on the government because they saw a need to stand back and give the new government a chance (NGO Week, 1997).

Paradoxically, the reconciliation process itself, which the TRC came to embody, also created additional difficulties. Not only had the transition process forced an ailing civil society to re-orientate its primary task away from opposition politics, but the fairly hegemonic concept and philosophy of reconciliation in South Africa further muddied the waters. Reconciliation, and perhaps more accurately, a transition process that had left most structural systems of the past in tact, demanded a co-existence of the old and new. Civil society was forced to seek a new identity, as with most South Africans, within a context where national identity itself was in a state of flux and the role of former enemies was being rapidly re-shaped.

As a result of these factors civil society was forced, perhaps inevitably, to radically reorientate and change the scope and nature of their operations and work – a process that is largely still underway. It is within this context that we need to understand the role of civil society and NGOs in the TRC process.

In fact, when the TRC began, civil society and NGOs were arguably at their weakest. The TRC began almost two years after the formal change to democracy a period when NGO and civil society instability and ideological flux was at its peak. The initial "honeymoon" period of the new government was declining and many NGOs were down scaling their activities and others were closing due to lack of funds. Possibly as a result of this situation, and also because a Truth Commission was not a familiar concept, NGOs and civil organs were not initially enthused by the idea of a Truth Commission in South Africa. It is, however, safe to assume that most probably did feel that dealing with the past was necessary in some form or another.

The establishment of the TRC was, therefore, largely a process driven by a limited number of concerned political parties, non-government organisations and individuals. It was not a process which was instituted through grass-roots and collective civil society ground swell or pressure. On the contrary, there was little grass-roots consultation as to whether an investigation into the past was desired by most people in the country3 or what form such an investigation should take.

A limited process of consultation with NGOs (which is only one sector of civil society) did begin in the second half of 1994 to probe the question of how South Africa could deal with its past. This was steered by the Department of Justice. Several consultative forums were also called throughout 1995 by the Department of Justice and primarily by Justice in Transition, an NGO headed by Dr Boraine who subsequently became the Deputy Vice-Chairperson of the TRC. In many respects despite initial reservations, some NGOs played a critical role in the formation stages of the TRC.

Several NGOs lobbied vigorously to have the initial "secrecy clause"4 removed from the Act that established the TRC. NGOs also influenced the public selection process of Commissioners5 and several submissions around specific issues concerning the ambit of the TRC were made.6 Broad NGO coalitions existed in Kwazulu-Natal, the Western Cape and Gauteng. In addition, a coalition of NGOs working in the human rights field7 compiled an extensive database of cases of human rights abuse based on research and statements taken from victims during the turbulent years of apartheid. This database was later handed over to the TRC.

However, despite this initial NGO involvement, once the TRC was established the TRC's relationship to NGOs was to turn out to be a difficult one. This was in part because – as with civil society's general relationship to the new government of the inherent tensions involved in NGOs' multiple roles as critic, supporter, watchdog and partner. In terms of civil society more broadly and the general public, the TRC was also to embark on a process of attempting to draw them into the process but only in relation to specific aspects of its work. This was not particularly successful and this estranged civil society and NGOs somewhat from the process.

During the Life of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission

Immediately after the TRC began operating it fell under the purview of the civil society and NGO gaze that was primarily concerned as to whether the TRC would be able to deliver on its ambitious mandate. Furthermore, because extensive consultation with grass-roots organisations, individuals and civil society as a whole had not taken place prior to establishing the TRC – and because the TRC was highly contentious politically – its inception was greeted with suspicion and reticence in many quarters.

For these reasons, it is arguable that a key element in allaying initial fears about the TRC and building a strong relationship between civil society and the TRC would have been an extensive civic education programme. Such a programme could not only have included imparting education about the TRC but could have also incorporated ways of generating active involvement in the process by civil society. This type of strategy would have made the processes, structures and objectives of the TRC known and accessible to the public at large. In addition, this could have served to publicise its work and terms of reference and to educate the public about what the TRC was able to do, as well as what it could not realistically be expected to achieve during its limited life-span. Such a programme may also have galvanised civil society around the issue of reconciliation and the TRC.

However, it is our evaluation that perhaps the biggest failure of the TRC to date has been its inability to build a strong working relationship with civil society as a whole. This was in no small measure due to the virtual absence of a TRC civic education programme and a limited communications strategy. Unfortunately the Commission only appointed its Communications Officer about six months into its operations, and the result of this was that the TRC suffered significantly from public misconceptions of its role and limitations. This, at least in the short-term, undermined public confidence and participation in the TRC.

A direct result of the failure or the lack of an extensive communications strategy and civic education programme,8 was the considerable uncertainty that existed amongst victims about how to access the Commission during the first months of its existence despite the TRC reaching out and having hearings across the country. It is also arguable that the Commission did not adequately respond to popular reservations and controversy about the role of the TRC in granting amnesty to perpetrators, an issue that was to become increasingly contentious and misconstrued as the months passed. The ambit and frame of reference of the TRC was also not adequately communicated through grass-roots civic education programmes, with the result that there still exists substantial uncertainly about the exact operations of the TRC. For example, most victims probably still do not know that the TRC only makes recommendations about reparations and does not implement. It could also be argued that the limited TRC education programme resulted in most civil organs not adopting a TRC programme. For example, despite the ANC having a Truth Commission Desk and making a submission to the TRC, no youth structure within the ANC adopted a comprehensive TRC focus.

The efficient establishment of TRC sub-structures and the maximum utilisation of existing civil society structures (such as NGOs, church groupings and Community-Based Organisations) would also have greatly assisted in building a more substantive relationship with the public, allowing them to work and interact with the TRC. However, for various reasons, including the existence of political constraints and dynamics internal to the TRC, as well as (according to the TRC) funding shortages, this did not effectively take place. In the isolated instances where the TRC did publicly sub-contract NGOs9 this was met with substantial public outcry by other interest groups who objected to this. However, it is arguable that it was in fact the internal politics within the TRC that was most debilitating in respect of such initiatives.

It could also be critically argued that the "politicking" internal to the TRC – which occasionally revolved around racial tensions and which frequently spilled over into the public domain – contributed to creating fragile TRC structures, undermined public confidence in the reconciliation enterprises of the TRC at times and generated public criticism. This in turn, caused the TRC to further distance itself from some civil society organisations. It is ironic that the most notable of these organs of civil society were the human rights NGOs. These NGOs had, at one and the same time, the most to offer the TRC (due to their historical role as monitors and service providers dealing with human rights abuse), and were also best able to organise a powerful critical lobby. These organisations have also continued to enjoy widespread public support. Unfortunately, these very organisations which might have best represented and educated civil society, were somewhat marginalised early on in the life of the TRC.

The unfortunate irony is that these NGOs were probably marginalised because of their past track records of commitment to human rights – a disposition which under apartheid had led to a natural sympathy and affiliation with liberation and resistance movements. This allowed elements within the TRC to easily construe these NGOs as being politically biased, which in turn threatened the already delicate internal political balance within the Commission. This also fed concerns over accusations that the TRC may be biased against former governmental operatives who may have been involved in gross human rights abuses. This inhibited the TRC from interacting with various organs of civil society and particularly with NGOs freely for fear of being accused of bias.

As a result the TRC did not always maximise and utilise the skills and commitment of church groupings, NGOs and human rights organisations in generating a civic education. Instead, the Commission relied rather too much on the extensive media coverage that its activities attracted, thereby substituting media profile for fully informative civic education and mobilisation. The TRC also greatly underestimated the potential for cost effective assistance. If NGOs and church structures had been drawn into the process more substantially they may have more rigorously and readily assisted with accessing victims and survivors and the taking of statements from the thousands of people who would not be appearing before the public hearings of the TRC.

Eighteen months into the process the TRC did raise money to pay NGOs and church structures to take statements. Albeit late in the day, this was very well received and was viewed as a creative method of supporting increasingly cash-strapped NGOs, whilst clearly bolstering the work of the TRC. The delay in this process was in part financial, but within the TRC political differences also hampered the establishment of a civil society or NGO driven statement-taking programme. Some Commissioners were reticent to have NGOs who were traditionally politically aligned (or at least sympathetic to the liberation struggle in South Africa) taking statements, as they felt the TRC may be accused of bias and some Commissioners probably even felt these organisations may take partial statements. Nonetheless, the programme when it did start operating seemed successful.

On the negative side, because the statement-taking initiative by so-called Designated Statement-Takers (i.e. those in communities and NGOs not formally employed by the TRC) was not placed within the frame of a national civic involvement programme, often statement-takers operated as individuals. In a few instances their work was used for financial gain, (albeit limited in most cases) and not to increase civil involvement in the TRC process by entire organisations or sectors.

The problems of communication and civic education also reflect some deeper rooted misconceptions which have plagued the operation of the TRC. It is our view that the TRC made some dangerous assumptions, whether conscious or not, with regard to its relationships with the public. The first was the presumption that civil society would voluntarily become involved in the process and that the TRC would automatically be viewed as a widely accepted and legitimate organ of transformation. Although the latter is probably more true for the majority of the South African population, civil society has not on the whole placed resources into TRC related programmes. Perhaps this is largely due to the difficulties of funding and vision that presently face NGOs that were outlined earlier. Political positions with regard to the TRC may also have been varied (e.g. the PAC wanting a Reparations Commission without any amnesty process whatsoever) which may have also undermined the involvement of some sectors.

The second set of assumptions was that survivors wanted to tell their stories, appreciated the benefits of telling these stories and that these stories had never been told before. These assumptions may have contributed to the TRC not focusing its attentions sufficiently on drawing civil society into the process. Nonetheless, many survivors have come forward (over 20 000 statements to date) and this is commendable in terms of the work of the TRC. However, others remained reluctant and did not approach the TRC. Specifically, for example, militarised youth and woman activists have been under-represented in the hearings and statement-taking process. Perhaps if civil organs that represented these groups were engaged more substantially these groups may have participated more extensively in the TRC.

Despite these criticisms it must be recognised that in the almost two years of its existence, the TRC attracted unique and extensive media coverage in both the print and electronic media. In particular, images and voices of victims and survivors, who testified about their experiences under Apartheid's repression, were viewed and heard in the homes of most South Africans. The Special Report on the TRC had about 1.2 million television viewers weekly (cited in Theissen, 1997) and coverage in the press and on the radio has been extensive. Over the past years, this must have had a dramatic impact on the psyche of all South Africans. This has gone a long way towards achieving one of the TRCs major aims: the public acknowledgement of the trauma experienced by victims on all sides of the South African conflict. Whatever criticisms there may be of the TRC, this enduring achievement cannot be underestimated.

This media profile has been effective in that it served to remind South Africans, from all spheres of life, of a past that might otherwise have been denied or too easily forgotten. It also helped build an understanding, especially within the privileged classes, of the difficult path ahead as all South Africans TRC to forge a common future from a divided past. However, it is also likely that in the last few months of the TRC's operation, the general public has become saturated with images of horror of the TRC. This was probably once again due to the fact that the major part of the TRCs information was imparted through the media which was increasingly inclined to seek to grab headlines through reporting on the sensational and the gruesome.

Thus, whilst the pre-TRC period included substantial NGO participation (although not wide consultation or active involvement by civil society as a whole as was noted earlier), once the TRC was up and running, the productive relationships declined significantly. Of course this was complicated by the fact that in months prior to the TRC those NGOs that were involved were working with the Ministry of Justice and once the TRC began relationships had to be re-established with the TRC itself and its 17 Commissioners. However, taking into account the relatively short life span of the Commission, and considering the vital role which NGOs will undoubtedly have to play in translating the work of the TRC into a sustainable human rights culture once the TRC has served its two year mission, the failure to bring NGOs on board adequately is likely to create problems for further reconciliation initiatives beyond the life of the TRC.

However, it must be noted that over the latter months of the TRC the relationship and involvement particularly by NGOs has improved. This has been aided by the hosting of hearings targeted at specific sectors of civil society, where youth and children's organisations, women's groups, the medical fraternity and other civil society structures were asked to make submissions to the TRC. There is an indication that these so-called contextual submissions have been particularly useful in creating a broader picture of the operations of the apartheid system. The submissions received (e.g. from the medical representative bodies, gender lobby groups, etc.) have undoubtedly helped shape the TRC final report.10 In addition, these hearings have mobilised those within the sectors focused on to engage with the TRC process. This must have had some impact on these sectors and their identities and operations within a future South Africa.

Beyond the Truth and Reconciliation Commission

The road to reconciliation in South Africa remains a thorny one. Undoubtedly, the TRC has helped smooth the path and the TRC has, on the whole, been a useful endeavour. The value of publicly revisiting the sad and brutal days of apartheid has opened the eyes of many, and has partially developed a collective history for South Africans and allowed victims to evolve a new meaning for their suffering. However, individual processes of forgiveness and reconciliation have not always intersected with the collective process offered by the TRC. At the same time civil society has not always engaged with the process, and been drawn into the process, as extensively as would have been the case.

Importantly, the TRC process will not end when the final report is submitted by the TRC to Parliament. Dealing with past injustices and their impact will take a long-time. The process will reverberate through South African society for years to come and its lessons will need to be integrated into the work of a range of agencies, communities and civil society. We need to guard against the attitude that once the TRC is over, the chapter on the past will be closed. For the victims of past abuses, the chapter only closes when they are personally ready (Hamber, 1998).

Contrary to this perspective, and perhaps over-optimistically, even the ANC has asserted that:

It is important that, within its [the TRC's] lifetime, the Commission should complete the amnesty process, to ensure that the democratic state is not left with the responsibility of instituting criminal investigations and the possible prosecution of people for actions that took place during the period covered by the mandate of the TRC We believe that the TRC should conclude its work as quickly as possible so that we indeed let bygones be bygones and allow the nation to forgive a past it nevertheless dare not forget. (ANC Submission, 1997, p.20)

Although, as the statement implies, there is value in being forward-looking when dealing with an abusive past, it is also naïve to believe the past will be put to rest after the TRC. Furthermore, the above statement points to the likelihood that it will not only be the National Party that will with time want to only focus on future endeavours at the expense of acknowledging that lasting reconciliation can take generations to be achieved. At the risk of becoming trapped in the past we need to accept that particularly for victims true reconciliation is probably a life long quest. Furthermore, it is still likely that criminal proceedings may occur in the future, particularly of those who did not apply for amnesty.

It is a mistake to assume that story telling equates with healing and that truth alone will lead to reconciliation. Truth does not ensure transformation. Much work remains to be done to actively engage with the offending institutions like the security forces, with a range of civil society structures who represent specific constituencies (e.g. rural woman, farmworkers, etc.) and with victims themselves to secure lasting change. This will be a difficult task due to limited mobilisation of civil society around the TRC, an ever-shrinking number of NGOs in South Africa and the failure to draw them entirely into the processes of the TRC at an early stage.

To overcome these limitations the TRC needs to recognise that after the TRC, the process will move largely from the macro to micro reconciliation processes. The TRC has laid a foundation for this, although its primary focus has been on macro-political or collective reconciliation. Conflict resolution work remains to be done, because many communities remain split and antagonistic, despite the truth about past atrocities being revealed. In some communities the so-called truth has exacerbated earlier divisions rather than ameliorated them. Similarly, amnesty has left many individuals severely frustrated and confused about the TRC process. This has been heightened by a failure to communicate the intricacies of the process to the grass-roots. Along with dealing with amnesty, the repercussions of the potential reparations policy (e.g. envy in communities between those who received and those who did not) will need to be addressed through re-engaging NGOs and CBOs at the community level with the TRC issue. Other areas of work for NGOs and CBOs will need to include victim-offender mediation processes11 and a broad range of conflict resolution initiatives.

To achieve these goals, the TRC will have to move beyond the rhetoric of simply saying that NGOs and CBOs are critical to future reconciliation and that it is them that will need to take the work of the TRC forward. In addition, the TRC will need to accept that it is not enough to assume that because the general public is aware of past abuses due to the TRCs work future abuses will not occur.

To address these issues the TRC will need to grapple with the fact that many NGOs and CBOs are reluctant to take up their work given their limited involvement in the TRC process to date. Furthermore, the TRC needs to recognise and understand the context within which these organisations are operating and assist them in taking the work of the TRC forward but at the same time ensuring their basic survival needs can be met. The TRC recommendations will need to be specific and include methods for ensuring that resources and capacity are bolstered in NGOs and CBOs. It will be wholly insufficient for the TRC to simply recommend that, for example, "there is a need for conflict resolution" or "curriculum development". Recommendations will need to include the specifics of achieving these goals and at the same time ensure that NGOs, CBOs and a civil society benefit from the process of implementing the TRC recommendations.

This should not be seen as merely a way of ensuring that these organisations survive, but rather, the TRC needs to understand that the survival of NGOs and a vibrant civil society are the greatest safeguards against future violations.

Furthermore, it needs to be accepted broadly that knowing the truth is no guarantee that a human rights culture will permeate all aspects of the society. Human rights remain a contested political terrain. In the months April-September 1997 it was reported by the Independent Complaints Directorate (ICD) that 370 people died in police custody or due to police action in South Africa. It is unclear how many of these deaths were due to unlawful actions by the police, but nonetheless these figures are of grave concern and may point to ongoing levels of impunity. In addition, it is estimated that in South Africa today 1-2% of people taken into police custody are tortured (Atkins, 1997). Vigilantism is also on the increase, the majority of South Africans support capital punishment, and frequently you will hear the police and other groups blame the new human rights era for crime in the country. In essence, human rights education and knowledge remains appallingly low in South Africa. Knowing about past violations is necessary but not sufficient to prevent ongoing violations which to the general public, and even the government and civil society, seem fundamentally to belong to the past.

The TRC to its credit has won the battle for common acceptance of the fact that torturing political dissidents was morally indefensible. However, South Africa has a long way to go in winning public acceptance for the right of criminals to receive humane treatment. The strongest challenge facing the TRC in its final report, and in its actions, is to demonstrate and ensure that past political violations are equated and generalised – at least on a moral and human rights level with all types of present violations even if these are more hidden, not politically motivated and less pervasive in the new South Africa. Human Rights NGOs remain critical vehicles to ensuring this lasting change.

Strong NGOs and an informed civil society that is sensitive to a human rights agenda is critical to stamping out ongoing violations. At present, there are very few organisations that actually monitor ongoing abuses from an independent viewpoint. Although South Africa has a Human Rights Commission (which of course is useful), it is a government sponsored body. Lessons from perhaps every country in the world suggest that independent monitoring needs to continue.

In saying this, it is recognised that monitoring abuses and publicising the names and identities of the perpetrating parties who commit them, is not always sufficient to end abuses or prevent large scale escalations of the abuses of human rights in many countries. Monitoring needs to be coupled with political action and lobbying at the highest political, as well as protest actions internationally and domestically if necessary. The way countries deal with the past, the impact of amnesties and how cycles of impunity can be reinforced also requires exploration. This will remain critical in South Africa12 for many years to come, and the debates of whether amnesties should have been granted or not and their impact on impunity in South Africa remains far from closed with the end of the TRC.


In conclusion, it is not being suggested here that the TRC has in any way wilfully undermined civil society during its process. However, it has certainly not realised its potential – as part of a forward looking enterprise – to strengthen and consolidate this sector which remains fundamental to the ultimate realisation of the goal of building a sustainable human rights culture in South Africa. It may be argued that by omission, the TRC has not taken the opportunity to contribute to this aspect of rebuilding a powerful civil society which is so critical to a healthy democracy. The further irony therefore resides in the fact that one of the strongest safeguards against future violations of human rights is an active and thriving human rights movement and civil society.

In addition, despite these criticisms, it would also be incorrect not to acknowledge that civil society itself has also not always made an optimum contribution to the process of the TRC. Civil organs have not always vigorously lobbied the TRC or participated in the process when opportunities have been presented to them. This has been to a large degree due to the factors that have undermined civil society that were outlined earlier. However, having said this it is fair criticism that many NGOs have failed to re-orientate themselves rapidly enough within the changing South African context. The result is that at times, many NGOs see themselves as "victims of the transition" and fail to rise up and meet the challenges of the new environment constructively.

Nevertheless the TRC, and government as a whole in South Africa, needs to work with and foster civil society and NGO activity to a greater degree. This means, not merely consulting with civil society and NGOs but involving them in processes in a substantial way as equal partners.


1 The term civil society is used broadly in this paper to mean those groups and organisations that operate between the state and the individual. It is, however, acknowledged that there is little clarity on a precise definition of civil society. There are many differing perspectives and views of the parameters of the term (cf. IMPD, 1997). This paper also only focuses on civil society activity of organisations that traditionally opposed apartheid. There are a range of other groupings that have operated as civil society organs in South Africa (e.g. Afrikaans Nationalist organisations, etc.), but the nature of these and their future role is not explored.

2 Diamond (1997) notes that this is not an unusual occurrence in countries after the instatement of a new democratic order. He points out that this is particularly true of countries in Africa.

3 A majority of black South Africans (with the possible exception of supporters of the Pan-African Congress, the Inkatha Freedom Party and probably others) would probably have favoured some type of an investigation into the past. Surveys undertaken before the TRC started showed widespread support for the idea of a Truth Commission by black South Africans (Institute for Democracy in SA (IDASA) 1994; Human Sciences Research Council, 1995). However, whether public consensus would have been possible on the exact nature of the TRC is debatable. It is unlikely that agreement, especially among black South Africans, would have been reached as to whether the TRC should have embodied compromising, albeit pragmatic, solutions to issues such as amnesty and reparation. In contradistinction to this it has been shown that most white South Africans were ambivalent or had negative perceptions of the TRC in its early stages (Theissen, 1997; Theissen & Hamber).

4 This clause would have meant all of the TRC hearings would have been held behind closed doors, as was the case in Chile. See Business Day (1995); The Star (1995a) and van Zyl (1995a; 1995b).

5 See Business Day (1995); The Citizen (1995); The Star (1995a; 1995b).

6 See, for example: Centre for the Study of Violence (1995); Boraine, A., Levy, J. & Scheffer, R. (1994); Coalition of Kwazulu-Natal Mental Health and Human Rights Organisations (1995); Simpson, G. (1994); Mental Health Response (1996).

7 Organisations included Lawyers for Human Rights, the Black Sash, the Human Rights Committee, the IDASA, the Mayibuye Centre, the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation, and several others. Approximately 14 000 records of apartheid-era human rights abuses, including incidents of torture and political assassinations, as well as the names of alleged perpetrators was presented to the TRC. See Levin, Dewhirst & Hamber (1997) for a discussion of this project and the following press articles: The Argus (1996), the Daily Despatch (1996) and Press Statement (1996).

8 To the TRC's credit it must be acknowledged that they did run a limited number of Briefing workshops and often called community meetings prior to the hearings. In some cases follow-up meetings were also held with communities. The TRC also distributed pamphlets and posters about its work.

9 A case in point is when the Freedom of Expression Institute was requested to assist with research in evaluating the role and degree of complicity of the commercial media under apartheid.

10 Over a 100 submissions have been made to the TRC from NGOs, civil organs and individuals to date.

11 See Stauffer and Hamber (1996) and also Stauffer, Koffman & Hamber (1997).

12 See Hamber (1998) and also Simpson (1997).


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Levin, L., Dewhirst, P. & Hamber, B. (1997). The use of EVSYS for Preparing a Human Rights Database for Presentation to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa. Paper presented at the HURIDOCS Conference, Mexico City, 11-13 November.

Mental Health Response (1996). Preliminary Perspectives from the Western Cape. Submission to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

NGO Week (1997). A Resounding Success: NGO Week 1997 – An Overview. NGO Matters, Vol 2., No. 9, September, pp. 4-7. South African National NGO Coalition: Braamfontein.

Press Statement (1996).Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation – Truth and Reconciliation Commission – South Africa NGO Coalition Press Statement to the TRC on the Human Rights Documentation Project, 27 March.

Press Statement (1997). Who Should Apologise to Whom? Press Statement on the NP Court Case against the Truth and Reconciliation Commission endorsed by 17 Organisations, 4 September.

Simpson, G. (1994). Proposed legislation on: Amnesty/Indemnity and the Establishment of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Submission to the Minister of Justice, Mr Dullah Omar. Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation. Johannesburg: South Africa and Reconciliation Commission from the Mental Health Response in the Western Cape.

Simpson, G. (1997). A Culture of Impunity. The Star, 24 January 1997.

Sowetan (1995). Selection criteria for commission soon. 20 July 1995.

Stauffer, C. & Hamber, B. (1996). Putting a Face on the Past: Survivor-Offender Mediation and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Paper presented at The Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation, Seminar No. 1, 20 February.

Stauffer, C., Koffman, C. & Hamber, B. (1997). Reconciliation and Survivor-Offender Mediation Skills Training. Training Package of the Survivor-Offender Mediation Network. Johannesburg: South Africa.

The Argus (1996). Human rights database given to Truth Commission. 28 March 1996.

The Citizen (1995). Rights group warn on make-up of truth body. 20 July 1995.

The Star (1995a). Secret Truth Hearings Opposed. 3 February 1995.

The Star (1995b). Strong lobby ahead of Truth Commission. 27 July 1995.

Theissen, G. (1997) with Hamber, B.; Garson, C.; Segal, L & Terre Blanche, M. (Eds). Between Acknowledgement and Ignorance: How white South Africans have dealt with the apartheid past. A research report based on a Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation public opinion survey conducted in March 1996. Centre for the Study of Violence & Reconciliation, Johannesburg, South Africa.

Theissen, G. and Hamber, B. (1998). Conformity and Denial: White South African's Attitudes to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Indicator South Africa, Vol. 15, No. 1, Autumn.

van Zyl, P. (1995a). Hiding behind the Truth. Weekly Mail, 27 January to 2 February.

van Zyl, P. (1995b). NGOs are now the New Opposition. Mail & Guardian, August 4 to 10.

van Zyl, P. & Kelly, P. (1995). Truth commission selection process was not soft. Business Day, 28 November.

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CSVR is a multi-disciplinary institute that seeks to understand and prevent violence, heal its effects and build sustainable peace at the community, national and regional levels.

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