OPINION | Can the United States learn from South Africa's TRC?

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Dr. Alec Boraine, TRC deputy chairperson and Archbishop Desmond Tutu (Chairperson) at a TRC hearing. (Gallo Images/Business Day/Lori Waselchuk)
Dr. Alec Boraine, TRC deputy chairperson and Archbishop Desmond Tutu (Chairperson) at a TRC hearing. (Gallo Images/Business Day/Lori Waselchuk)

South African author Jesmane Boggenpoel has written an open letter to US policy makers about whether the country needs to consider a TRC, similar to that held in South Africa, as it deals with its racism issues. 


The recent protests inspired by Breonna Taylor, George Floyd and many more black Americans have highlighted patterns of racism in the United States.

From slavery to Jim Crow, and even now amidst Black Lives Matter protests, the United States has upheld racist structures for hundreds of years.

With such a deep and unique history of racism, many people wonder how the country can ever recover from its past of injustice.

The US, however, is not the only country with a history of discrimination. One country with a similarly complex history of systemic racism is South Africa. 

Many Americans have heard, in some capacity, about the South African apartheid.

The overt discrimination draws many parallels to the discrimination that Black Americans faced, however, South Africa’s segregation - among other unjust practices - persisted up until the 1990s, meaning even South African millennials have been directly impacted by apartheid. I saw the consequences firsthand. 

While growing up in the apartheid structures, I was raised in a historically mixed-race marginalised community that comprised exclusively people with my ancestry.

There were some moments that allowed for interaction with other kinds of people, though not all of them were positive. I remember as a teenager being spat at by a white boy who walked past me with his clique.

As an adult, I realised my low-income upbringing would serve as yet another challenge as I was entering a workforce that was greatly reserved for white people with far more access than I had.

Apartheid left many South African black people feeling similarly about senses of justice, access, and generational oppression to black Americans facing government backed racism.

In order for their country to recover from its dark past, South African leaders had to navigate addressing the emotions from the past, while taking meaningful action to improve the future. They did so through the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 1995.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission was established by the new South African government to help heal the country and bring about a reconciliation between its people by uncovering the truth about human rights violations that had occurred during the period of apartheid. The United States can learn many lessons from the processes that South Africa went through. 

The effects of injustice

South Africans, both black and white, had to deal with immense pain after the end of the apartheid. White people feared with this new integration that their opportunities may be limited. They also feared they would be subject to "reverse racism" from black people, and that they would forever be labeled as racist themselves. Black South Africans still dealt with the trauma of brutality, lack of access, and lingering racist perspectives from white people.

The social culture of South Africa could not be expected to change overnight; however, lack of racial reconciliation led to a hampering of social, economic, and other gains that the country needed in order to begin a prosperous future. Pain of this nature, when left unchecked, often turns to anger and resentment that makes it that much more difficult to look to a new age. 

South Africans had to deal with this rage and resentment on two levels: micro and macro.

On a micro level, individuals found ways to deal with their pain in ways that worked best for them. Some of these healing tactics included talking through lingering emotions with loved ones, writing them down on paper, or other cathartic measures that made them feel heard. 

On the macro level, healing was much more difficult because it required effort from millions of people. Despite the fear that racial tension would tear the country apart, leaders like Nelson Mandela saw the potential for reconciliation in South Africa even during turmoil.

Nelson Mandela’s presidential administration spearheaded the TRC, aimed at addressing the lingering issues in the community.

The TRC provided a process through which citizens, whether they were perpetrators or victims of crimes during periods of apartheid, could openly communicate the emotions they felt about the disturbing past.

The TRC focused on collecting stories, granting amnesty in some cases, and calling for rehabilitation and reparations when appropriate. The commission found people who had suffered significant harm due to apartheid and sought to find the best solutions to promote healing, at times bringing victims into close proximity of their abusers.

Supplementary programmes - such as the Human Rights Violation Committee, Reparation and Rehabilitation Committee, and the Amnesty Committee - were also created to address the emotional wounds that South Africans had and assess the ways in which the government could aid in healing its people.

The goal of programmes such as the Truth and Reconciliation Commission are to provide a healing bridge and focus on creating a new united society. 

Leading Boston-based psychiatrist Bessel van der Kalk, in his book The Body Keeps Score, says: "I observed the force of communal rhythms in action when I watched Archbishop Desmond Tutu conduct public hearings for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa in 1996. These events were framed by collective singing and dancing.

"Witnesses recounted the unspeakable atrocities that had been inflicted on them and their families. When they became overwhelmed, Tutu would interrupt their testimony and lead the entire audience in prayer, song, and dance until the witnesses could contain their sobbing and halt their physical collapse. This enabled participants to pendulate in and out of reliving their horror and eventually to find words to describe what had happened to them."

Healing and reconciliation 

The work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was an excellent starting point for South Africa’s healing. Yet the successes that the programme had were in only a handful of communities in South Africa. Now that we have seen some of the progress that came from the commission, in order to promote even more racial harmony, the programme should be expanded to more communities.

Although there are challenges to a large-scale implementation of the TRC throughout South Africa, there are methods that could make it possible. For instance, companies all over the country can build TRC tactics into the fabrics of their organisations by allocating funds from their human resources or social investment budgets to fund professional counseling for employees.

The counselling would be used for lingering emotions as well as any new pain that arises from negative race relations at work. The impact of allowing a country to digest its history and have an opportunity to collectively hear each other would allow for the creation of a culture of empathy. It is important that we utilise our ability to empathize to not forget the past, but rather to use its lessons to create a more positive future. 

We need government-backed organizations dedicated to promoting racial healing for people to transform their pain into a positive. Leaders help set the tone for citizens, so governments that provide assistance in guiding the emotionally vulnerable conversations that are required in order to heal from the past can set a great example for everyday citizens to take on that responsibility for themselves as well. 

Global replication of the TRC

South Africa has not been the only country that has attempted to deal with its discriminatory past.

Inspired by South Africa, Canada designed its own Truth and Reconciliation Committee to uplift the stories of any indigenous people impacted by issues such as the forcible removal of approximately 150,000 indigenous children from their homes to attend residential Canadian schools.

The Canadian government  held a multi-year Truth and Reconciliation Committee with its indigenous people.  It had "calls to action." An app called Whose Land was one of the actions developed so that Canadians can inform themselves of the traditional lands on which they live, and can identify Indigenous Nations, territories and communities across Canada.

Seeing how other countries have taken active measures to promote unity among vulnerable populations and their previous perpetrators can be a signal for the United States to enact similar programs and policies to deal with its own history. 

The United States is rife with racial tension that seems to only be increasing over time.

With division across lines of race, gender, and political parties, the need to hear and empathize with one’s neighbor is at an all-time high. While the US has been pushing for individuals to create their own unity, we have seen that this challenge is too great.

Structures backed by the government such as the TRC will provide a framework for the difficult conversations that Americans must have.

In order to see a brighter future, our leaders must set the tone by providing us with the proper tools and conducive environment to come to terms with our past.  

- Jesmane Boggenpoel is former Head of Business Engagement of Africa for the World Economic Forum and author of "My Blood Divides and Unites".


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