South Africa Establishes a Truth and Reconciliation Commission Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission served as an archetypal statutory government body that defined the path of a peaceful transition from the apartheid past to a multiracial and multicultural democratic future. It produced a rare example of nonviolent conflict resolution in its efforts to address human rights violations by both the apartheid regime and those who had engaged in the struggles to end that regime.

Summary of Event

South Africa experienced a seminal year in 1994. Nelson Mandela became the first democratically elected majority president of South Africa, replacing the last president elected under the apartheid system, F. W. de Klerk. The change in leadership formally proclaimed the end of apartheid, the system of structural racism that had deprived black South Africans of their basic human rights since 1948. To pave the way for a new united and democratic South Africa and to prevent possible large-scale and violent race-based retribution, the newly elected Mandela took proactive steps to establish a transitional justice system. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) was created under the provisions of the Promotion of National Unity and Reconciliation Act of 1995. Promotion of National Unity and Reconciliation Act (South Africa, 1995) The purpose of the TRC was to assess the human rights violations committed both by the apartheid regime and by those who engaged in struggles to overthrow that regime from March 1, 1961, to October 8, 1990. Truth and Reconciliation Commission (South Africa) Apartheid;Truth and Reconciliation Commission Human rights abuses;South Africa South Africa;Truth and Reconciliation Commission [kw]South Africa Establishes a Truth and Reconciliation Commission (1995) [kw]Truth and Reconciliation Commission, South Africa Establishes a (1995) [kw]Commission, South Africa Establishes a Truth and Reconciliation (1995) Truth and Reconciliation Commission (South Africa) Apartheid;Truth and Reconciliation Commission Human rights abuses;South Africa South Africa;Truth and Reconciliation Commission [g]Africa;1995: South Africa Establishes a Truth and Reconciliation Commission[09080] [g]South Africa;1995: South Africa Establishes a Truth and Reconciliation Commission[09080] [c]Human rights;1995: South Africa Establishes a Truth and Reconciliation Commission[09080] [c]Government and politics;1995: South Africa Establishes a Truth and Reconciliation Commission[09080] [c]Social issues and reform;1995: South Africa Establishes a Truth and Reconciliation Commission[09080] Mandela, Nelson Tutu, Desmond De Klerk, F. W.

Until 1994, South Africa’s apartheid regime disfranchised nonwhites politically, socially, and economically. Deprived of voting rights, blacks in South Africa had been subjugated by whites since the colonial era, but complete institutional racism was not solidified in South Africa until 1948, when Daniel François Malan Malan, Daniel François of the National Party defeated Jan Christian Smuts Smuts, Jan Christian of the United Party to become South Africa’s president in a whites-only general election. In the ensuing years, apartheid became the chief political apparatus deployed by the administration to disfranchise black South Africans systematically. An array of apartheid legislation was promulgated and enacted to strip black South Africans (as well as Asian Indians and people of mixed race) of their basic rights to share in the wealth and resources of South Africa.

President Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu in October, 1998, after Mandela accepted the latter’s delivery of the report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

(AP/Wide World Photos)

Two landscapes were constructed, one white and one black. Racial segregation was realized in every geographic, social, and political space in South Africa. More than 80 percent of black South Africans were confined to less than 20 percent of the land. “Homelands” were designated for large ethnic groups of black South Africans, and urban black South Africans were relocated involuntarily to “townships” on the outskirts of cities. The Bantu Education Act of 1953 Bantu Education Act (South Africa, 1953) denied black South Africans access to education equal to that available to whites. Miscegenation was banned, and public amenities—including the most basic, such as buses, restrooms, telephone booths, and entrances to public services—were racially segregated. Whites were free to cross any geographic and social spaces, but blacks had to carry passes and were subjected to inspection at any time anywhere. Those without passes were arrested. These and other racist laws completed the structural disfranchisement of black South Africans.

As the apartheid regime accelerated its institutional deprivation and political suppression of black South Africans, black political organizations, although banned by law, grew in strength. Mobilized by two of the most prominent black political organizations, the African National Congress African National Congress, South African (ANC) and the Pan-Africanist Congress, Pan-Africanist Congress[Panafricanist Congress] black liberation struggles escalated from passive resistance to armed struggles after the Sharpeville incident of March 21, 1960, when the police opened fire on a crowd of unarmed blacks during a demonstration against the pass laws, killing more than sixty. Sharpeville Massacre (1960) It was during this time that the most prominent activists of the ANC, including Nelson Mandela, were arrested and sentenced to life imprisonment for treason. Armed resistance continued to spread in the aftermath of the regime’s armed crackdown on the Soweto student rebellion Soweto student rebellion (1976) of June, 1976 (also known as Children’s Uprising), which started as a demonstration against the regime’s mandate that English be the only language of instruction in the segregated black South African schools.

By the 1980’s, mass defiance campaigns and substantial international sanctions began to weaken the foundation of the apartheid regime. In 1989, F. W. de Klerk became the last apartheid state president of South Africa and initiated negotiations with the ANC leaders, Mandela in particular, on power transfer. On February 11, 1990, Mandela was released after twenty-seven years of imprisonment. Because the apartheid regime was not defeated, the transition had to be brokered. Political elites from the old regime made amnesty for the crimes of apartheid administration a nonnegotiable demand during the negotiations, thus amnesty legislation was a necessary precondition for a successful transition to majority rule.

Laid out in the Interim Constitution of 1993, the TRC was enacted by the new parliament in 1995 under the Promotion of National Unity and Reconciliation Act with the power to grant amnesty. Mandela, the first democratically elected president of South Africa in 1994, appointed Archbishop Desmond Tutu as chairman of the TRC; Alex Boraine Boraine, Alex was appointed deputy chairman. The statute called for three separate committees under the TRC: The Human Rights Violations Committee (HRVC) was to hear and investigate accounts by victims and survivors of human rights violations through public hearings, the Reparations and Rehabilitations Committee was to formulate policies to be adopted into the law that would assist victims and facilitate reconciliation, and the Amnesty Committee was to hear amnesty applications.

By December, 1995, seventeen commissioners had been appointed to the TRC from lists of candidates suggested by various religious, civil, and political organizations. The work of the TRC commenced shortly thereafter. Ten more committee members were appointed in 1997. The HRVC held its first public hearing in April, 1996. Throughout the rest of 1996 and early 1997, the committee heard more than twenty thousand cases in about fifty public hearings in town halls, hospitals, and churches around the country. In October, 1998, the TRC published its initial report of findings on most of the cases that had been brought forth. In June, 2001, the TRC was dissolved following the conclusion of the amnesty portion of the process; a final report was published in 2003.


The negotiation of power transfer from the old South African regime to majority rule and the challenging transition from apartheid to a new democracy necessitated an unconventional political process. The TRC, as the archetypal statutory government body during the transition, was legitimated by its mission to address human rights violations committed by both the apartheid regime and those engaged in violent struggles to overthrow that regime; therefore, it was largely effective. Acceptance of the principle of amnesty for politically motivated crimes under apartheid was probably a worthy sacrifice and a necessary path taken by the ANC leadership in pursuit of national unity and peace during the difficult political transformation. Reconciliation in place of social justice certainly did not serve the interests of those South Africans who had endured decades of institutional racism, but reconciliation appeared to provide the best option for a peaceful transition that preempted the potential for explosive retributive bloodshed.

The construction of and the dedicated pursuit of reconciliation by the TRC created a possible channel for the largely nonviolent transition of South Africa from an apartheid state to a new multicultural, multiracial, and democratic state. The TRC took more truth-telling statements than any previous such commission in history. Although the TRC’s process was imperfect and what the commission accomplished was quite limited in addressing social justice, South Africa’s experience set the stage for a test of alternatives to violence in realizing social and political transformation. The TRC proved to the world that nonviolent solutions could be effective in mediating the most violent racial conflicts, even those deeply rooted in long-term and intense oppression legitimated by political institutions. Truth and Reconciliation Commission (South Africa) Apartheid;Truth and Reconciliation Commission Human rights abuses;South Africa South Africa;Truth and Reconciliation Commission

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Edelstein, Jillian. Truth and Lies: Stories from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa. New York: New Press, 2001. Presents many of the heart-wrenching stories recounted at the TRC hearings. Includes photographs.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Gibson, James L. Overcoming Apartheid: Can Truth Reconcile a Divided Nation? New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 2004. Uses survey data to assess the correlation and the limitations between truth and reconciliation. Points out the discrepancies in reconciliation among different racial groups.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. “Truth, Justice, and Reconciliation: Judging the Fairness of Amnesty in South Africa.” American Journal of Political Science 46 (July, 2002): 540-556. Examines the different forms of justice and the ramifications of granting amnesty to those who committed gross human rights violations.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Malan, Rian. My Traitor’s Heart: A South African Exile Returns to Face His Country, His Tribe, and His Conscience. New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 1990. Autobiography of a white South African journalist describes the brutality of apartheid and the author’s feelings about his powerlessness as an individual against the regime.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Mathabane, Mark. Kaffir Boy: The True Story of a Black Youth’s Coming of Age in Apartheid South Africa. New York: Macmillan, 1986. Autobiography recounts the experiences of a black youth growing up in a South African township.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Wilson, Richard A. The Politics of Truth and Reconciliation in South Africa: Legitimizing the Post-apartheid State. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001. Presents an anthropological examination of the limitations of the TRC in affecting popular ideas concerning justice and retribution in the Johannesburg area.

United Nations Sanctions South Africa for Apartheid

U.N. Declaration Condemns Apartheid

Tutu Receives the Nobel Peace Prize

South African Black Workers Strike

Mandela Is Freed

De Klerk Promises to Topple Apartheid Legislation

Categories: History