Tutu: ‘Unfinished business’ of the TRC’s healing

At the first gathering of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, on Reconciliation Day in 1995, I spoke at some length of the importance of the political impartiality of the process if it was to succeed.

This was not the pious pleading of a priest; it was the truth commission’s legal mandate.

Ours was not to judge the morality of people’s actions, but to act as an incubation chamber for national healing, reconciliation and forgiveness. We were a wounded people, all of us, because of the conflict of the past. No matter on which side we stood, we all were in need of healing. As members of the commission we were, ourselves, wounded healers.

The commission had three tangible tasks: to establish as complete a picture as possible of the causes, nature and extent of gross violations of human rights perpetrated between 1960 and 1994 by conducting investigations and creating dignified platforms for victims and perpetrators of human rights violations to tell their stories; to grant amnesty to qualifying perpetrators of human rights violations; and to make recommendations to government on reparations. It also had a broader and less tangible responsibility to contribute to the development of a fundamentally new, compassionate, fair, just and moral society.

“The objectives of the commission shall be to promote national unity and reconciliation in a spirit of understanding which transcends the conflicts and divisions of the past,” the Promotion of National Unity and Reconciliation Act 34 of 1995 stated.

“We are privileged to be on this commission,” I told my new team of commissioners, “to assist our land and our people to come to terms with our dark past once and for all.” 

The structure of South Africa’s truth commission, and the principles that underpinned its work, were fêted and copied in many other countries around the world. Indeed, the commission was regarded by many as among the most glittering jewels in the irenic crown of our founding father, Nelson Mandela.

But, today, as we reflect on the commission’s contribution to re-weaving the fabric of our society, we do so against a backdrop of appalling violence being perpetrated, especially against women and children across our country. We do so against a backdrop of a hopelessly inequitable country in which most of the rich have hung on to their wealth, while the “freedom dividend” for most of the poor has been to continue surviving on scraps. We do so against the backdrop of an education system that is failing to prepare our youth adequately to contribute to their own and our nation’s development. We do so against the backdrop of the Marikana massacre and of the public protector’s report into the obscene spending on our president’s property in Nkandla. We do so against the backdrop of a dearth of magnanimity and accountability and ethical incorruptibility.

Many have lamented the fact that President Mandela served only a single five-year term. From the perspective of the truth commission, his departure from office was a mortal blow. I do not believe that Mandela would have left the commission’s business so scandalously unfinished, as his successors have.

By “unfinished business” I refer specifically to the fact that the level of reparation recommended by the commission was not enacted; the proposal on a once-off wealth tax as a mechanism to effect the transfer of resources was ignored, and those who were declined amnesty were not prosecuted.


The commission played a magnificent role in facilitating the telling of the story of the true horrors of apartheid. I believe truth is central to any healing process because in order to forgive, one needs to know whom one is forgiving, and why.

But healing is a process. How we deal with the truth after its telling defines the success of the process. And this is where we have fallen tragically short. By choosing not to follow through on the commission’s recommendations, government not only compromised the commission’s contribution to the process, but the very process itself.

Why? Well, largely because by the time the commission was ready to report back to the nation on its findings, the ruling party appeared to have forgotten the commission’s legal mandate to be politically impartial.

Literally on the eve of the hand-over of the commission’s report to President Mandela, the ANC took the commission to court in an attempt to force it to excise from the report findings in respect of human rights violations committed by ANC members and supporters. The commission opposed the application, and was vindicated by the finding of the court.

To his eternal credit, President Mandela defied the wishes of his party and attended the ceremonial handover of the report before the world’s cameras in Pretoria. Years later, the former president said that although he remained a loyal member of the ANC, he had disobeyed his party’s instructions because of the integrity of the commission.

But the damage was done. Mr Mandela was soon to retire, and with him, the magnanimity that characterised government during his term of office. The relationship between the commission and ruling party was never to recover.

The commission was a beginning, not an end. It united South Africans around a common fire for the first time in history to hear the stories of our past, so that we could begin to understand each other – and ourselves – and take forward the job of developing the compassionate and just society for which so many had suffered and laid down their lives.

The tardy and limited payments of reparations to victims of human rights violations eroded the very dignity that the commission sought to build. The fact that the government did not prosecute those who failed to apply for amnesty undermined those who did. The proposal of a once-off wealth tax as a vehicle for those who had benefited from the past to contribute to the future was stillborn.

To use a medical analogy, the soul of apartheid South Africa was on its deathbed, fundamentally crippled, shot through with the cancers of immorality and inequity, and financially bankrupt.

In the 1990s a new superintendent took over the hospital. South Africans dared to dream of a miraculous recovery. The superintendent appointed a matron, on a contract basis, to blow some momentum into the recovery process.

The commission succeeded in its mandate to stabilise the patient sufficiently to move it out of intensive care into a general ward. But then the government decided further treatment was unnecessary.

Our soul remains profoundly troubled. The symptoms are all around us.

Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu chaired South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission

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