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The Road to Healing: South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission

"There can be no healing without truth"
--Most Reverend Desmond M Tutu

South Africa held its first-ever democratic national elections in 1994 and the country joyously celebrated the official end of apartheid, the system of racial segregation that unjustly separated whites, blacks, and coloureds (people of mixed descent) at every level of society. Apartheid was institutionalized in 1948 but in fact, the indigenous black population of South Africa had been oppressed since the 1600s. Because of these hundreds of years of slavery and oppression that are weighing down the hearts of South Africans, the healing process will be very long and very difficult and there are some wounds that will never heal. But the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which existed in South Africa from 1995 to 1998, took on the challenge of officially beginning this process of healing.

"... a commission is a necessary exercise to enable South Africans to come to terms with their past on a morally accepted basis and to advance the cause of reconciliation."
-- Mr Dullah Omar, South African Minister of Justice, 1995

This 17-person commission was led by Nobel Peace Prize Laureate and former Archbishop of Cape Town, Desmond Tutu. It was comprised of other South Africans from all walks of life, including Mary Burton who was interviewed by the Odyssey Team. The goal of the Truth and Reconciliation (TRC) was to paint "as complete a picture as possible" of the apartheid-related activities from the Sharpeville Massacre in 1960 to the election of President Nelson Mandela in 1994. And most importantly, the commission was asked to do this in a way that promoted national unity and reconciliation. Quite a mission for a country that been through so much death, violence, and injustice.

"We pray that wounds that may have been re-opened in this process have been cleansed so that they will not fester; that some balm has been poured on them and that they will now heal."
--Archbishop Tutu

South African leaders believed they had three paths to choose from when trying to pick up the pieces of their country and move forward as a unified nation. One choice would include persecution and trials for all those who committed human rights violations (similar to what happened during the Nuremburg trials following WWII). Another option was "forgive and forget" -- look to the future and forget about the past. Wisely, South African leaders recognized that neither of these philosophies would work effectively for their nation. They chose the middle ground. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission set up the groundwork for a process of healing that would focus on discovering the truth, providing reparations for victims, and establishing a moral order that the country could use to continue on its new path of democracy and unification. Unlike other similar commissions, it sought the truth from both victims and oppressors.

"There is a long walk to reconciliation. The TRC marked the beginning of a process which must go on throughout the structures of our nation in the next 10 or even 20 years. Like a signpost, we have shown the way which will lead our nation to genuine reconciliation. It is not the easy or popular road to traverse -- look at us now and see the scars in our souls -- but it is the only way."
--Bongani Finca - TRC Commissioner

For two and a half years sought to record a truth about thirty-four years under apartheid, breaking the terrible silence that surrounded so many gross violations of human rights. The commission gathered stories from over 20,000 South Africans, held over 2000 trials, and granted amnesty to about 150 offenders who were considered to have told the truth about their crimes. When the commission's report was finally presented to Nelson Mandela in 1998, the TRC had begun to tell the story that every South African needed to hear before Those who had been oppressed and violated needed to know what to forgive, before they could forgive it. There is much more work to be done and the members of the TRC expressed time and again that their work represented just one small cog in the wheel towards peace.

The country survived a long period of darkness because of the strength and determination of many individuals and communities. South Africa has been admired by the whole world. Now the people of South Africa must dig deep into their resources once again: having faced the past, they will have to work together to confront the difficulties of the present in order to achieve reconciliation, peace and prosperity in the future.
-- Mary Burton, TRC Commissioner




The Truth and Reconciliation Commission
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