Truth and Reconciliation: Lessons from the South African context

Truth and Reconciliation: Lessons from the South African context

I have been asked to address you today on South Africa's experiences with its Truth and Reconciliation Commission and to share, from the perspective of South African civil society, some of the lessons learned which may be of relevance as Liberia embarks on its own TRC process. The South African TRC was launched well over a decade ago, and since then, there have been a number of truth commissions embarked upon in countries as diverse as East Timor, Sierra Leone, Ghana and Peru. Yet the South African commission continues to hold a myriad of relevant lessons for new commissions, a few of which will be detailed here. All of these lessons have been covered in a more general way by previous panelists, however by placing these lessons in the context of a single commission and giving lived examples, I hope that it will provide further information on how some of these factors can play out.

The specific lessons I'll speak to are about the nature of reconciliation, the difficulty of heightened expectations, the changing and complex nature of survivors needs and the need for truth commissions to be both institutions for evaluating the past as well as future looking mechanisms.

Much like Liberia's commission, the South African truth commission consciously chose to include the term reconciliation in its title, placing it as a central objective of the institution's work. The experience in South Africa demonstrates however that the word reconciliation is itself a contested one. For some, it has been equated with theological notions of forgiveness, for others it is no more than the amount of political tolerance required to build a common national project and consolidate a democratic transition.

There are also the various levels at which reconciliation must take place – individual, community, national and political. Each of these levels needs to be addressed for true reconciliation to occur, but not all are possible to address fully solely through the work of a truth commission.

In South Africa, a debate continues to take place more than a decade since the inauguration of the TRC over the question of whether reconciliation has been reached, and within this debate, the equally important question of what reconciliation should look like in a South African context.

Embarking on a national discussion early on in the Liberian TRC's work in order to inform what the definition of reconciliation might mean in a Liberian context would no doubt further the sensitization and outreach work of the Commission, establish clear criteria against which to access the work of the Commission, as well as perhaps guard against unrealistic expectations of what the Commission can achieve.

The issue of inflated expectations and the negative impact that these expectations can have is perhaps one of the most important lessons learned from the South African experience.

The South Africa TRC was an important instrument in nation-building and a facilitator of the transition from a racist dictatorship to a multiracial democracy. It was not however, and was never intended to be, the sole instrument for furthering reconciliation or addressing the full range of social consequences arising out of the conflict of the past. New democratic institutions in SA such as the Land Commission, the South African Human Rights Commission and Commission for Gender Equality amongst others have all played a role in furthering justice and redress.

A truth commission cannot achieve its goals in the absence of democratic institutional infrastructure or by functioning in a vacuum, divorced from the broader realities of social injustice which are often the direct cause and consequence of the conflict being addressed.

But for many in South Africa, reconciliation was understood to be the mandate solely of the TRC. This has led to a somewhat blunted debate since the close of the Commission in 1998. The expectation that the TRC was the sole vehicle for reconciliation has led some to conclude that the end of the truth commission process spelled the end of the end of the reconciliation process and thus an end to the need to discuss substantive issues of redress.

At an individual level, unrealistic and unaddressed expectations of the TRC sometimes resulted in an adverse impact on victims themselves. The assumption that healing would be the natural outcome of survivors public recounting their stories proved not to be uniformly true. Trauma centres in both Johannesburg and Cape Town reported that some survivors who sought counseling in the wake of giving public testimony had been left traumatized by the event. This is not to say that public testimony and acknowledgement cannot play a beneficial role in the healing process for many survivors, but rather to note that the expectations for healing should be informed by the reality of the different ways in which giving testimony may be experienced.

Many survivors also came to the South African commission in hopes of finding new truth about the fate or whereabouts of loved ones, vesting hopes in particular in the amnesty process which promised the possibility of amnesty for full disclosure of the details of the crimes committed by perpetrators. Studies conducted by CSVR in the post TRC period have found that many of those interviewed believed that the amnesty process had aggravated their suffering as it was unable to meet their expectations – that of revealing substantial new truth and holding all perpetrators to account.

In reality, limited new information was gained through the amnesty process. Of the more than 7000 applications for amnesty, the majority came from individuals already in prison for criminal offences. With nothing to lose and freedom to gain, these individuals attempted to retell their crimes through a political lens and therefore match the criteria for amnesty. Those that did apply for amnesty for political crimes were careful to ensure that the truth they disclosed matched the criteria required for amnesty and revealed almost no information on the organization of state violence and those who authorized it.

Given that there has been some discussion in Liberia about embarking on similar though more limited exchange, of amnesty for disclosure and remorse, it may be of value to bear in mind the difficulties encountered in urging perpetrators to come forward in SA – even when encouraged by both the reward of amnesty and the threat of prosecution.

Related to the amnesty process was that of apology and remorse. In South Africa, the TRC's use of a definition of reconciliation closely aligned to that of confession and forgiveness prompted expectations of remorse from those perpetrators who came forward. Again, in reality little genuine remorse was offered by amnesty applicants.

Although apology and remorse were not prerequisites for amnesty – as I understand it is proposed that they will be in the Liberian context – some applicants felt that a display of the desired emotions would increase their chances of a successful amnesty application and as a result offered what was later revealed to be an insincere apology.

This insincerity increased the already existing strain on victims and their families. Should Liberia use demonstrated remorse as a precondition for amnesty it should be noted that issues of apology and remorse, particularly where incentivized by the promise of amnesty, can be fraught with psychological complexities for survivors. A lesson learned from South Africa and other truth commissions is the possibility of tying amnesty – with or without an apology – to a practical act of reconciliation. The ability to contribute to individual reparations in a context of mass poverty may be improbable, however countries such as Rwanda have tied their incentives for remorse and confession to the obligation to perform community service as part of the sentence – a practical act of sacrifice and symbolic reparations for victims.

The sharing of lessons learned from South Africa's TRC is not intended to detract from the successes of that Commission or the integral role it played in South Africa's historic transformation. Nor is it intended to prescribe limitations on what it is a truth commission can achieve. But rather to identify some of the inherent pitfalls for both healing and reconciliation that can result from unrealistically burdening a single institution with the mammoth and ongoing goal of reconciliation – a goal that may, from the experiences of either countries, take a generation or more to fully consolidate.

At the official launch of the TRC yesterday, the most moving address was perhaps the one offered by the representative of Liberia's youth and children. The vision offered for this country in those remarks went beyond seeing national reconciliation as an end goal in itself and instead expressed the need for reconciliation to be achieved so as to lay the foundation for the end goal of a society where the lived realities of all are improved and where the youth in particular are provided an environment in which they are not victims of ongoing cycles of violence but rather are given the tools to fulfill their own potential. This vision speaks to the need not just for an absence of political conflict but rather one where human security is prioritized. In South Africa, as in many countries transitioning from a violent past, the gains of the new democracy have been tempered by new and continued forms of social violence which have persisted during the transition period.

Violence and insecurity in any form stand as obstacles to sustainable reconciliation. The Liberian truth commission will be in a unique position to not only address the specific violations of the past but through its work to contribute to the establishment of a shared condemnation of the use of violence in all forms – and by doing so, hopefully pave the road not just to an end goal of reconciliation but to an end goal of a shared development and human security premised on this new reconciliation.

Nahla Valji is a Project Manager in the Transitional Justice Programme at the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation.

Presentation made to the Public Conference on the Liberian Truth and Reconciliation Commission co-hosted by the International Center for Transitional Justice (ICTJ) and the Transitional Justice Working Group, 23 June 2006, Monrovia City Hall, Liberia.

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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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