Why talking about the TRC is still important 20 years later

Desmond Tutu, who chaired the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) (Picture: AP)
Desmond Tutu, who chaired the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) (Picture: AP)

Twenty years have passed since the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) presented its condemning report of the politically motivated atrocities and gross human rights violations perpetrated between 1960 and 1994.

What was hailed as an international benchmark for restorative justice is now harshly criticised retrospectively by many. The commission has been lambasted for its failings to adequately address the systematic structural violence perpetrated by the apartheid regime. The painfully slow process of monetary reparations for a shocking minority alongside the almost immediate freedom enjoyed by those who were granted amnesty through the process, adds further insult to injury.

An important criticism levelled against the commission is that the process failed in sufficiently raising and addressing the inherent, deeply racist nature of the apartheid system of oppression and neglected to highlight how the effects thereof informed and continue to inform life chances, access to resources and decision-making power of the majority of South Africans. It failed to address the various forms of everyday violence experienced by many South Africans.

During the time of the commission and in the years that followed, national government has through various messaging, unfailingly linked reconciliation with national unity, non-racialism and the negotiated settlement. Even though there have been some pro-poor social policies geared toward addressing certain dimensions of poverty, the ANC government’s economic policies post-1994 have neither been sufficiently oriented towards, nor laid the foundations for, fundamentally addressing inequality. Since the transition direct social and economic change has come to be viewed as merely a component of reconciliation and not a core pillar thereof.

And this is where the feelings between youth and their parent generation about the commission and its processes diverge. Despite the numerous criticisms against the TRC process, the majority of the parent generation and those who lived through the years of the commission, still recognise why such a process was important at that historical point. Many understand why certain compromises, however difficult, needed to be made to facilitate a peaceful transition and the choice to build a new democracy on a foundation of reconciliation rather than retribution.

Many youth, however, have come to regard the TRC as a process that served only to appease those who had benefitted from apartheid and an exercise that served to maintain existing power imbalances with only cosmetic changes.

So why then are we still talking about an imperfect process that clearly has many shortcomings? It is necessary that we do so because it has become an interesting point of generational disjuncture.

Many young people associate the TRC process with the failings of the current government and prevailing notions of reconciliation are often limited and hinged on misguided assumptions which have been informed by the delinking of reconciliation and social justice. This has dire consequences for any efforts of nation building that promotes a shared future.  

It is also important that we reflect on the legacies of the TRC and explore its generational dimensions because despite the criticisms, it signified an important moment in the history of this country, and offered a beginning to a process of healing not only for individuals who had been victims of gross human rights violations, but for the whole of South Africa.

It created a space which did not exist before in this country; a space where diverse and agonising narratives of suffering could emerge, allowing greater understanding between South African society, fractured by the brutalities of apartheid.

The TRC, for all its short-comings and despite the numerous criticisms lodged against it, leaves a model of healing that we as South Africans should try and emulate in our homes. It teaches us that the process of reconciliation is not an easy one. It necessitates an opening up and exposes the awfulness, the abuse, the pain, the degradation and the truth.

False reconciliation can only ever bring false healing and that reconciliation without material change and access is empty. It teaches us that through talking, telling of stories and sharing of memories, we can get closer to healing. But if we want to change the view that reconciliation is merely passive peace or a unity without cost, then this talking must also result in addressing exclusionary economies and disproportionate wealth.

This telling of stories and sharing of truths mirrored to South Africans, gradually, the reality of our collective past. As difficult as this process was, and still is, it is important because a healthy new country cannot be built on a denial of the past. As James Baldwin so poignantly said, “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced,”

Younger people who are understandably disillusioned by failed promises must hold society to account when their generation cannot prosper. At the same time not being there when the TRC was happening means a significant context eludes many. Inter-generational dialogue therefore offers a space where their parent generation can offer insights into the context that informed the decision to go the TRC route and to engage in discussion on what the alternatives would have been.

This is particularly important at this point in our history where fear mongering has become the order of the day and where people are retreating to enclaves of difference because of fear, prejudice and hate.

The purpose of the TRC was to promote reconciliation and not to achieve it. And in this promotion of reconciliation, there are still many stories that need to be told. Stories of our time which that of children who head up households because of the ravishes of HIV and Aids, of women who continue to live in fear of sexual assault, of models of toxic masculinity that continue to inform the life choices of many young men on the Cape Flats and of fellow African brothers and sister who cross our borders only to be met with violence and Xenophobia.

It is up to us, ordinary South Africans, to continue this work of promoting reconciliation in our homes, schools, places of employment and places of worship.

- Eleanor du Plooy runs the Ashley Kriel Youth Desk at the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation.

Disclaimer: News24 encourages freedom of speech and the expression of diverse views. The views of columnists published on News24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of News24.

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