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The Truth and Reconcilition Commission

The Truth and Reconcilition Commission

Hello friends.

My time in South Africa is coming to a close (I leave a June 13), so I want to use this entry as a chance to talk about a topic that I find interesting and I’d like to touch on, as it’s an important part of South African history.

I want to talk about the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the Commission post-apartheid that was employed rather than a trial to deal with both the perpetrators and victims of apartheid. We were lucky enough to speak with Mary Burton, one of the seventeen people elected to be a commissioner, meaning she heard peoples’ stories and decided whether or not to grant amnesty to perpetrators and listen to victims’ stories. The Commission was unique in that it operated under the idea of restorative justice rather than retributive justice, meaning that it had no focus on punishment of perpetrators, but rather forgiveness and truth. The Commission was structured so that survivors and perpetrators alike were eligible to apply to tell their stories. Perpetrators could receive political amnesty and survivors could finally tell their suppressed truths and stories. Some intended for the TRC to help victims cope. The basic premise of the TRC thus was that in exchange for truth, reconciliation and healing would be granted to the families of the victims of apartheid. Indeed, that reconciliation would be granted not only to the victims of apartheid, but to the perpetrators as well. The TRC is often criticized for not being focused enough on punishment and not achieving true justice for victims; however, there is much to be looked at and considered.

I admire the way that Mary Burton spoke about the TRC because she seemed to give a very honest and holistic view. She acknowledged both its successes and failures; gave it the credit it deserved and admitted its failures. My understanding of the TRC in the South African context is one of a committee that had a very difficult job and did it to the best of their ability. I think that they could have done more and I think that people’s’ critiques of the TRC as not being fair enough to the victims and giving them the justice they deserve are valid, but I think that it is almost impossible to judge how they went about this extremely difficult task. Mary highlighted the successes of the TRC in that it did bring some families closure and justice, like a story she told about a family who located their child because of the investigation of the TRC. However, the TRC also had many failures in that it failed to punish all the perpetrators of apartheid and therefore fully acknowledge the harm done to the people. I think that the biggest thing I have learned about the TRC through talking to Mary Burton, reading Desmond Tutu’s No Future Without Forgiveness is that the TRC had an incredibly difficult job and carried it out to the best of their ability based on the circumstances. Yes, they did not bring justice to all families and that is not okay considering the heinous crimes committed during apartheid, and therefore the TRC deserves to be criticized. However, it given the circumstances, it may have been impossible to create a system that was conducive to “perfect” reconciliation.

There is also the question of if the TRC occurred too quickly, if there should have been more of reducing poverty and unemployment rates, and perhaps if there had been more of a focus on this, South Africa would be in a better position today. However, I understand and respect why they wanted to reconcile immediately. Once apartheid ended, Mandela, Tutu, and other leaders had one concentration: moving forward together. This did not involve promoting a country where black South Africans were angry at all white South Africans and refused to live in harmony. This involved focusing on strengthening the country as a whole and forgiving its past, while remembering it so as to not let it happen again in the future. I think that this is a strength of the TRC, because by nature of it being a committee based in reconciliation, it is inherently focused on forgiveness and restoring amicable feelings between two groups. The immediate period after apartheid ended was a very delicate time – is what I get from Tutu and Mary Burton – all of the leaders had to be careful to not focus on revenge but rather a better future. If they concentrated on revenge, the country would fall apart. So, I know that the TRC has many faults and it did not fully properly do its job in restoring justice to all, but at the time, it was perhaps their only and best option.

This question of a how a country moves forward after a period so awful and inhumane has come up before, like in Germany post-Holocaust. In both situations, there is the delicate question of how do we punish those who have committed horrible acts while focusing on keeping our country in tact? It’s a question that no government has mastered. But, considering the time, I think that it is admirable that the leaders did not focus at all on revenge and this is a strength for South Africa in the post-apartheid era. It’s constantly interesting to see how South Africa has been able to move on after apartheid, and forgiveness is a huge part of the country’s aims. It’s very impressive and perhaps something that individuals can apply to their own lives as well.

In other news – about a month ago, the entire country of South Africa’s bus drivers went on strike demanding higher wages. The effect was enormous with thousands of people across the country unable to get to work/school/anywhere because the lack of transport. The social worker at my service site had to leave at 5:45am to arrive at work at 9:30am – that’s how bad the traffic was. Mr. P, our program driver, had to wait much longer for taxis/other form of transport that are typically less efficient to be able to get to where our bus is and pick us up. The bus drivers held firm and refused to cave, ultimately giving their wages a 9% increase. The strike was definitely necessary but I was thrilled to see so many golden arrow buses back on the highway last week and bringing people to work.

As for me, I am leaving for a five-day trip to Namibia tomorrow where I will be camping, seeing sand dunes, and driving through the desert (we’re driving there and flying back)! I’m extremely excited but very stressed as we are in the midst of finals season at school. Not much else is new other than trying to fit in a lot before we leave in just a few weeks. The feature photo for this entry is me in Kirstenbosch Gardens, some lovely gardens behind Table Mountain with fantastic views, after me and my friends had a lovely picnic last Friday. I’ll be back soon with more updates about my time here. x

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